I am SO grateful today that I found something important which I thought I had lost. It was inconceivable to me that I’d have thrown it out, but… anything can happen. I had done some work for a friend who moved away rather hastily, and I was left with a precious family heirloom and a stack of scanned images, foreign currency, and historical documents. I kept thinking I’d hear from her when she got settled, but that didn’t happen. Time marched on, the precious packet got moved from one place to another and another, I tried to track her down a couple of times, I let it go (the dark side of letting go: its illusory facsimile ‘letting slip’)…. When she finally surfaced six years later (my, how time flies!) looking for these things, I was horrified that I couldn’t find them.
My friend is descended from Ukrainian nobility. One of the worst things I’ve ever had to do, right up there near telling a friend his mother had been killed in a car wreck, was to tell this dear woman that I had lost her treasures.
So imagine the thrill that coursed through me today when I was looking for something else, and stumbled upon this large envelope–I knew instantly by the feel of it what I had found. I called and left her a message right away, and await receipt of her mailing address to get them home to her asap. Whew! A psychic load off, a good deed done, a loose end tied up. I am beyond grateful for finding what I lost.
I know there are whole books about how to do it. I’m just doing it my own way, as I have been for a few years. After a sputtering start which may have lasted a whole year, who knows, I’ve lost track of time, I find that each day I’m able to wake with gratitude, and dwell largely in gratitude all day, and climb into bed at night with gratitude for soft cotton sheets and a firm latex mattress, a good dog still living, and a cat curled beside me.
Last night, writing was like pulling teeth. But all I have to offer to the Earth, to the Great Turning, is my soul, and my soul writes and makes pictures. So. I hereby commit to posting each day, until the next winter solstice, at least one thing that I am grateful for. Thanks to Laurel Webb for proving that a daily post is possible!
Today, I am grateful for coffee and toast with honey.
Grateful for the honey, Uley’s Gold, sent from Florida by a dear friend who notes that Tupelo honey is so special because it never crystalizes; also, it tastes exquisite. Grateful for the toast, that I have a pretty copper toaster I’ve had for 16 years, that I have solar-powered electricity to operate it, grateful for the solar electricians of this valley who provided and maintain that; grateful that Ruth gave me sourdough starter five years ago and I’m still baking bread from it, that Modern Appliance in Delta sold me a propane stove to bake the bread in, that Pioneer Propane fills my tank automatically, and that I can afford propane; grateful for the blue and white fish plate inherited from my mother, for the plain white mug I bought on Amazon, that coffeemakers are so easy, that Jay at Rubicon Roastery in Paonia purchases ethical and delicious coffee and ships it to Crawford. And all that doesn’t even count the butter…
This is the beginning of my gratitude today. This is my gratitude practice. Won’t you join me?
At last, another one of those recently-all-too-rare days when I can heave a sigh and enjoy the benefits of months of practicing the skill of relaxation; awareness that there has only ever been and will only ever be one thing in Life that I can control: my response to anything. This is true freedom.
A negative Covid test has released me from four months of holding my breath. From Covid only incidentally, the pandemic being one equal part among many distressing external conditions that have cascaded over me this year, and that’s only the overwhelming sadness of a single particle of humanity, the insignificant itchings of a lone flea on a small dry patch of the planet’s skin.
I’ve tried so many ways to say this, and it’s kept me silent since August. Ojo was eaten by a mountain lion.
Lots of Life went on, as usual and unusually, all summer in the garden and the forest: the roller coaster careened through weeks and months of joy and sorrow, contentment and compassion, and the grueling, rewarding practice of mindfulness. Bees pollinated, flowers bloomed and went to seed.
Life began and life ended in the wild.
All summer long I have accepted deaths, and threats to the lives of others, those I love and those I’ll never know, with equanimity. Years of practice have really helped develop a calm abiding, regardless of what happens. Ojo didn’t come home on August 24, and two mornings later, after numerous searches, I followed a magpie and Stellar’s nose to a grisly scene not far beyond the yard fence in the woods. I felt calmed, knowing what had happened to him, and that it was quick, and he probably didn’t suffer. I suffered less, knowing, than I would have wandering the woods for weeks, months, years, looking for some sign of him.
I gathered up what I could find, three legs stripped of muscle, and his sweet, perfect head, and brought them home to bury under the apricot tree. The shock of finding his remains. The finality of it. A small black cat left a huge black hole in my life, into which, in my darkest moments, all hope and love and light vanishes. On the surface, I’ve kept my sense of humor, and joy in the fawns growing up, satisfaction in the garden harvest, pleasure in connections with friends and family mostly online, interest in my vocation. I’ve rejoiced in Stellar’s unexpected improvement with a new magic potion from his holistic vet, and Topaz has grown fatter and furrier than ever in her brother’s absence.
For weeks I saw him everywhere in the house that he used to perch or sleep. He filled the house and the garden with his remarkable energy. I struggle even now to write any more about him because when I do the ache swells inside and mutes me. One might say, the cat got my tongue.
Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on, infecting more and more people I know, taking the lives of friends and relatives of friends, and as of today more than 1.6 million others around the globe, including 2500 Americans just today. The malice and ineptitude of the Trump regime’s lying, denying, misguiding, and dividing also renders me speechless. Thank god for the integrity of scientists the world over, for the dedication of healthcare workers, for the kindness, compassion, creativity, and fortitude of people everywhere, delivering the best that human beings are capable of during this monumental crisis.
Add to the current regime’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic their escalating onslaught eviscerating environmental protections: It’s been hard to grieve the death of a single cat in the midst of such overwhelming human and planetary suffering. I search my soul for something I can do. I meditate. I pray. I try to offer help and comfort where I can, and fight as I am able. I cherish the wild world that surrounds me, I love the lion that ate my cat, I surrender my self to the larger body of the living Earth who spawned us all. I wake up each morning determined to celebrate the miracle of being alive, choosing to turn my attention to gratitude for all the beauty and joy that each day offers, even in the midst of suffering and loss.
I listened to an interview with Joanna Macy that reminded me that Hope is a verb, Apathy is the refusal or inability to suffer, and “Unblocking occurs when our pain for the world is experienced and expressed.” I recommend it as an antidote for anyone else who feels despair at the suffering of the planet, panic or paralysis induced by this pandemic or the climate crisis, or the isolation of living in a fragmented world. We belong to this Earth, our mother. Hang in there. Happy Solstice.
Wrapped in melancholy as thick as the smoke that obscures the northern horizon, I sit inside in the cool house, in the recliner, just thinking. A flutter outside the window, and a phoebe lands on the cable where the parents perched for months while nesting, where the babies learned to cling as they were fledging. It gladdens me to see her there, after a long hard summer. It’s mid-August, and soon the phoebes will fly south to their winter range along the US-Mexico border and beyond.
My little phoebe family. It was an emotionally arduous journey, wrapped up in so many other journeys of love and loss, to get them to this point! How funny, to think of them as ‘my’ phoebes, but I do. They’ve been a lifeline for me during this season of profound loss, and there was a week at the end of May when I thought I’d lost the phoebes too.
They began plumping up last year’s nest under the east deck in early April, singing, chirrrrrrupping, and both swooping in from the yard carrying bits of fluff from the weathered patio rug, wool from the garden fence, prayer flag tatters, bits of grass, and other soft scraps. The nest was pretty large for the two-inch deck joist it was resting on, tucked into the corner with the wall and the foundation beam.
On April 20th, I found the nest fallen into the geraniums below. It was upside down, but it was barely disturbed. Without thinking, I got the ladder, a 1×6 board scrap, screws and screw gun, built a wider ledge, and tucked the nest back into the corner. The next day they were back at work. By May 9, she was sitting on eggs.
I watched with delight as Mrs. Phoebe sat on her nest, and her husband bird flew and sang and hunted the yard. I worried when a whole day passed and I didn’t see him, but he’d invariably show up in the evening, perching in the birch tree, before flying down to check on her.
Since the phoebes arrived summer before last, I’ve not had a grasshopper problem. They also eat flies, wasps, and moths, some of which lay eggs of potential garden marauding caterpillars. We have a symbiotic relationship. I do what I can for them. But sometimes it’s not enough.
Every day I’d sit as much as possible at the patio table or under the nest, for morning coffee, lunch, midday break, and happy hour, as the phoebe father flew around me. She would take breaks too, to hunt for herself, then return to the nest. They perched on everything upright in the vicinity, from the shepherd’s crook where the hummingbird feeder hangs to the dead locust sapling, to the back of a chair, to the candlestick beside me, so close I could identify their prey without binoculars.
I was amazed with their dexterity: one flew straight at the tower wall, I was sure it would die from the collision, but it snagged an insect off the wall, banked steeply, and flew off unharmed, well fed. One evening I sat sipping a martini with my bare legs up on the patio table, enjoying Phoebe TV. A fat black fly landed on my thigh. A phoebe swooped down and plucked it; all I felt was a rush of air, not a thing more, in that split second thrill.
On May 25, I noted the chicks chirping; they are silent, or at least below my hearing range, for a few days after hatching, so these were at least a few of days old. On the 27th, I saw three fuzzy, barely-feathered heads popping up above the nest edge! Success!
The next day, I had to take Stellar to the vet in Montrose and since I’d be gone all afternoon, I shut the cats in the house, a precaution to protect the phoebes while I couldn’t keep an eye on them. Just in case. Mostly, the cats feared or at least respected the phoebes, who would swoop down clacking at them when the cats crossed the patio or, phoebe-forbid, lay down under the nest. But since they were still hanging out on the patio, I didn’t want to take a chance that one would snag a phoebe mid-clack in my absence. The poor kitties were also being chased around the yard by magpies, who were raising chicks in a juniper on the other side of the house.
When I returned, I released the cats and fell asleep in the recliner. That evening, I sat down in the deck chair outside the window, under the nest. The phoebes flew and perched and chattered nearby. Ojo jumped up on the bench behind me among the geraniums. Hey! get outta there! I scolded, turning to look: he was intently peering at something on the bench, and to my horror I recognized it as the phoebe nest. It was upright and empty. I was crushed.
No sign of a chick anywhere. I assessed the possibilities, and concluded that a cat couldn’t have reached the nest without an extraordinary acrobatic feat involving the ladder, the hanging orchid, and an advanced rock climbing move called mantle. The obvious culprit was a magpie, who could easily have swooped in to grab the chicks, and knocked the nest off the ledge. What to do?!
I gathered ladder and tools again, a curved juniper stick, and some 1×2 scraps, tidied up the nest and replaced it, braced it with the juniper, and screwed in some baffles spaced so that, I thought, the phoebes could get in but not the magpies. The poor phoebes flew around confused for a few days, until I realized the baffles obstructed their entry. A desolate week after I removed the baffles, the persistent phoebes began to tidy and fortify their nest again. Around Juneteenth, she settled onto her second clutch of eggs. Joy returned to me.
Sort of. In the meantime, Raven had died in mid-May, followed closely by Auntie’s stroke; Michael had a stroke in early June and died ten days later; Diane entered hospice, and another friend received a scary diagnosis. Around July 5th, new phoebe babies hatched, providing solace as Auntie continued to decline, while Diane died in mid-July, the same day a next-door neighbor also died.
The phoebe feeding frenzy ramped up, and consumed me. Again, I spent as much time as possible outside watching, or watching through the window in passing.
July 25, the first baby flew over the nest from one deck joist to the next and back a few times. The next day it flew from the nest, following mama onto the wide-open window frame, about a four-foot flight with a one foot drop; then mama flew back to the nest and baby followed. I saw the first flight of the first phoebe baby!
I watched like a hawk from then on, and kept the cats inside if I couldn’t be outside to supervise. I couldn’t bear it if one of them caught one of these dear birds we’ve all worked so hard all summer to bring to maturity. By ‘we all,’ I mean myself and the phoebe mama and mr. husband bird, and of course Stellar. It’s been a lesson in perseverance.
As I sipped coffee, I watched mama fly from the ladder to the nest and back, calling, encouraging them to follow her. At lunch, I spied the eldest chick perched on the garden cart handle, where mama fed it. Mama lured it around the yard from tree to tree with a fat grasshopper in her mouth, while the other chicks perched on the joist, peering at the activity beyond, screeching for food.
The next 24 hours were filled with excitement, as the remaining chicks took their first tentative flights to joists, the window frame, the ladder, and finally, nearby trees.
For a couple of days, they returned to the nest to roost overnight. During the day, I could hear the parents calling in the woods beyond the yard, and occasionally spot one of the five flitting through the trees. A week later, I noticed mama, with a full beak, flying to the ground outside the bathroom window. I ran outside to see what was up, and all three babies flew up and away. I think she took them away from the house that first week, far from the cats, to teach them flying skills, and then returned to the insect-laden yard to teach them to hunt for themselves.
Since then, I’ve spied the three chicks along the driveway fence, hunting in the field; noticed occasionally one or two phoebes returning to the house in the evening; seen them perched and flying around the yard day to day; each siting a delight.
On August 6, Auntie died. I lost myself to grief for the next week. Compounded by the global loss wrought by Coronavirus, a devastating fire season from the Arctic to the Book Cliffs, mind-boggling corruption and democracy-dismantling by the US government, shredded environmental protections and climate chaos denial, I struggle daily to keep my chin, and my spirits, up.
To see a phoebe last night, still coming home to roost, gladdens my sorry heart. I know they’ll leave soon, but the good Lord willin’ and the climate don’t rise too much, I’m confident they’ll be back next spring.
We passed Ditchley House after an evening drive around the interior of the Northern Neck Peninsula, to entertain the dogs and to enjoy the last of the fall colors.
“Have you been to the ferry?” Auntie had asked. I hadn’t yet. So the Corotoman River ferry provided our initial destination. The river flows softly flat past the ferry dock at the end of the road. Beside the dock lies a small triangle of river sand, below a bluff with opulent private homes on top. We let the dogs out to run on the sandy beach before continuing our ramble.
We wended our way back east and a little south, in the general direction of home, along small roads getting smaller, crossing the peninsula on Goodluck Road. It was almost my last day there, and I hadn’t yet taken a detour to see the hamlet of Ditchley, on a point flanked by two creeks.
I saw Ditchley from across the creek on my walks out to Hughlett Point sanctuary along the Chesapeake Bay. The historic Ditchley mansion, up Dividing Creek from the bay, was once the home of Jessie Ball duPont, a teacher and philanthropist who helped create the Hughlett Point Audubon preserve, where I walked as often as possible during my autumn in Virginia.
From the sanctuary parking lot in the woods, you walk east through a short strip of lovely swampy forest, cross a grassy strip and a low dune, and arrive at the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of miles north of Hughlett Point. There’s nowhere to go if you turn left, but if you turn right, it is a different walk every day, every tide, every weather. The dogs run, Stellar flies, Raven runs away, and I walk and walk barefoot in wet sand or dry, wade in turnunder waves or tidal pools.
Most days I walk all the way to the point, savoring sea and sky and solitude. From the very tip of Hughlett Point I can see Ditchley, so I’d always wanted to drive down Ditchley Road and check out Hughlett Point from there.
It was cocktail hour when we drove past the mansion’s driveway toward the village dock, so we didn’t turn in, though Auntie insisted we should do so on our return. I thought it looked more like a private drive and I said so a couple of times, but she said, “No, this is Ditchley, it is a private home, but they use it for all kinds of public functions. I just want you to see it. We can drive through, there’s a turnaround.”
Then she pulled another friend out of her magic hat and said, “Let’s go have cocktails with Jan.” Jan lives on Dividing Creek, almost to the bay. She wasn’t home, but we walked out on the dock behind her house and watched for a few minutes as the water pinked up, then greyed over, and the sky to the west lit up. The dock had a great view of Hughlett Point, our main objective anyway, so after enjoying that we headed for home. It was dusk, and I was hoping she’d forget about Ditchley House.
As we approached the Ditchley mansion driveway, a sporty red car turned out of it and zipped past us toward the bay. I didn’t like the idea of turning in while they could see us. I was hoping nobody was home. I resisted.
“Turn in, turn in!” Rita insisted, so I made an acute right turn and drove slowly down the colonial-style brick drive through a huge lawn, toward the brick mansion on the right. The driveway narrowed suddenly as it approached the mansion, and passed directly below the foot of the front stairs. I saw with dismay that there was in fact nowhere to turn around but the perfectly smooth green lawn, that the driveway went right up to and around behind the caretaker’s cottage, across a concrete carport, with a grill, bikes, a basketball hoop, and worst of all, a pack of barking dogs. The moment I saw the dogs, I said, “Cover your ears!”
The driveway funneled us through this very private domain: we were bayed up by a large black lab, a midsize gold dog, and a little cocker spaniel. Our dogs were snarling and snapping and barking their heads off trying to get through the car windows. It was a tense cacophony. Our car was so big, and the carport so small and so crowded! I was afraid I would hit one of the dogs snapping at our tires, or knock over a garbage can, or that someone would run yelling out the door. After we slowly, carefully, rounded the back of the house I sped up as fast as I dared and we lost the gold dog, but the big and little dogs pursued us another few hundred feet, Raven and Stellar still snarling and barking.
When they fell off, my dogs settled down. We drove a long silent stretch under arched trees, both of us looking straight ahead, until we turned onto the road. Then Rita turned to me and broke the silence by saying, with a satisfied smile, “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley!”
I laughed so hard I almost lost control of the car. We laughed all the way home. We laughed through our cocktails. Six months later, we are still laughing about Ditchley, when one of us mentions it over the phone.
Auntie turned 85 yesterday. I cherish every laugh with her and every memory of our wonderful autumn together. What I treasure most about that moment, that smile, that “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley,” is that it was utterly unexpected. I should know by now to expect the unexpected from my Aunt Rita, it has always been the way she rolls. But in that moment, after the violence of the barking dogs, the awkwardness of our intrusion through a private home, the tension of our escape from Ditchley, and my anxious sense of guilt, her sweet satisfaction was the last thing I expected.
Eight years have elapsed since I wrote that. I visited Kilmarnock again, but not for the past few years. Occasionally through those years Auntie and I will be chatting, and she will say, “Well… at least we’ll always have Ditchley!”
Auntie died Thursday, after months of suffering. She had a stroke three days after Raven died, the Sunday before her 93rd birthday. After struggling to recover, she courageouslychose to relinquish her attachment to living.
There’s been a lot of loss in my world since May. Of them all, I will miss the most my dearest Auntie Rita, my last mother in this world, my friend and role model, my drinking buddy, my favorite person on the planet, whose flair and humor and kindness showed me the way so brilliantly.
Going through photos from our visits through the years, a lot more memories are coming up, bringing laughter, tears, gratitude, joy. She loved to play cribbage, and delighted in a great winning hand…
After cousin Leslie told me that her mother had died, I hung up and walked a few steps farther into the woods, then laughed out loud: in my head I heard so clearly, in that sweet satisfied voice, “We’ll always have Ditchley!”
I’m not claiming that it was she speaking to me; just that I heard her, from within my heart at the very least, though I didn’t realize for two days how much that moment has helped me cope with the loss of her. Having this trove of memories is a gift beyond measure, an enduring connection with her beautiful, mischievous, loving soul.
It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Weobegone — wait, no! It’s been a challenging month here at Mirador. Lots of life happening hard and fast, life including death, of course. Without the garden, exquisite pollinators, and five years of serious mindfulness practice under my belt, the weeks since Raven’s death would have been even more tumultuous.
What with Raven dying, auntie’s stroke, Michael’s imminent demise, another friend in major-medical limbo, Stellar on his last legs… the cherry tree dying, the phoebe nest knocked down and chicks devoured… the little and the big, all against the national backdrop of socio-political upheaval (and hopefully, awakening), and the slow-moving catastrophe of climate chaos; it’s been like log-rolling in a swift river, but I’m no longer a beginner: I’ve stayed afloat, dancing on the rolling crashing logs, keeping my balance. That takes practice.
Each spring, time with lilacs becomes more precious. Each year, time on earth becomes more precious. Various plants in the garden command their share of my attention during their unique brief windows, and my devotions keep pace as well as I can. A hidden blessing during this Time of the Virus for me has been more time, more time, what most people ask for on their deathbeds. More time than ever before with the lifegiving lilacs.
Suffering keeps going deeper, taking a turn you hadn’t anticipated. How does anyone ever think It can’t happen to me? The more I learn of what can happen, the limitless, infinite array of possibilities that might occur in any moment of any day, that expanding cone of possibility that flows outward, infinitely, from every individual sentient being based on the sum total of conditions present within and without that individual in that precise and only moment, the more gratitude I cherish for each and every moment of my life that holds beauty and serenity.
Bee sightings ramped up over the past month, from crocuses and grape hyacinths to dandelions and tulips, to blooming fruit trees. First the apricot, then the wild plum, then the crabapple. A butterfly I haven’t seen much in the past is also prevalent in the past week, the Anise swallowtail. Hummingbirds have also come to the fruit trees, but so fast I haven’t been able to catch one with the camera.
Despite the lockdown, or perhaps because of it, I am busier than ever outside in the garden. I can’t tell you where my days go, except to say that they are filled with as much color, light, love and joy as I can manage between sunup and bedtime, most of it outside in the garden. Work is of course diminished, as is almost everyone’s in this dire time, but I am doing my best to make the most of extra hours in the day. Fortunately my body is in better shape than it’s been for years, thanks to physical therapy and a healthier attitude, and I’m able to work more in the yard than now than ever before. I’m so tired by the end of the day that I just don’t sit down and post the pictures I’ve taken. Off to bed now, with more thoughts and images to come. Wishing for everyone to lay low, look close to home for joy and beauty, and stay well during this continuing pandemic. Please don’t be impatient and too quick to seek the old normal, which I hope never comes back. The planet and all its non-human inhabitants has appreciated the break from our reckless pace.
I don’t often drive off the mesa after a drink, but tonight was an exception. I was enjoying a quarantini on a Zoom happy hour with Dawn when my phone, across the room, went off with text dings and call rings. I ignored it until Dawn got a text from Pamela, asking if she knew where I was, saying they had found a tortoiseshell cat at the end of their road…
It’s a miracle. I knew she had gotten in Philip’s or John’s vehicle that day a month ago when she disappeared, but… they both checked, and… somehow… who knows how… she ended up at the end of the road a quarter mile from the Bad Dog Ranch. A month ago yesterday. Both Marla and Pamela saw her in the past few days and thought she was Idaho, her sister who lives at the ranch, but Idaho was accounted for. Pamela said, “I knew it wasn’t Idaho because she’s so furry I can’t see underneath her, and I could see underneath this cat. I thought she was a feral cat from one of the ranches down there.”
This evening, they caught her, carried her home, put her in a crate, and tried to reach me. Dawn and I were chatting away, about the pandemic, of course, and other things, and Dawn checked her texts. “Do you know where Rita might be?” That moment when someone’s face changes so dramatically you know it’s important? I saw that. I leapt across the room to my phone, and saw this picture:
“It’s her I’m on my way.”
Had there been any doubt, which there wasn’t, because I have memorized her face during all my adorations of her, it would have been immediately dispelled when I got the crate out of the car. She began thrashing and butting her head against the grate. She knew she was home. The dogs were waiting in the yard, and she went nose to nose with them. Inside, I took her out in the mudroom, and flipped her upside down just to make triple sure, checking for that sweet flan spot on her tummy. She wiggled out of my arms and butted against the door to get in the house.
She ran right in, pranced around the house, ate half a can of food, ran upstairs, checked out all her sleeping spots. Ojo chased her around hissing and growling. I guess he didn’t miss her as much as I thought he did. I know she smells different. And maybe he was actually happy to be an only cat. She hissed back. She’s thin and tense, and very happy to be home.
One thing’s for sure: this cat is on lockdown for at least two days, if not two weeks. She’s not going outside until I get my fill of cuddles, and feel some sense of certainty that she won’t run off after her taste of the wild. No pun intended. I’ll have to buy another bag of that kibble. And clean the copper sink more often. And fret a little more about keeping cat food supplied during this uncertain time. Although we know now that she can hunt her own food. And, sorry Benny, but I’m glad I didn’t give you her scratching post yet because she used it immediately.
We’re all doing quarantine for various reasons around here, some because of recent flights from both coasts, some from reasonable caution, but we are all extra happy tonight. Topaz is lying on the rug in front of the fire now. Thanks to Cyn and Pamela for catching her and for the pictures, and to my dear friends who are as happy as I am that my ‘forever kitty’ has returned home. It’s made our day: a moment of pure joy and gratitude in this deeply disturbing and uncertain time.
And it is. I experience waves of terror when I think about the future. But I’ve got a few resources that keep me grounded in the present moment. One is Catherine Ingram’s podcast ‘In the Deep.’ Another is the remarkably sane newsletter from Robert Hubbell. And there’s Telesangha, a weekday morning meditation group: since September 2016 a dear international community has developed in this half-hour telephone sangha that I look forward to each morning, and that years ago caused me to commit to a daily meditation practice without which I suspect I’d be losing my mind to utter anxiety at this point.
My heart grieves for all of Italy, for the horror of the unnatural aberration of death and mourning there during this pandemic. My heart grieves for all the suffering and death worldwide that is happening now and is yet to come as a result of this natural disaster, this once-in-a-hundred years pandemic, this world-changing plague, this inevitable result of too many humans exploiting a finite planet. Amidst all this grievous suffering there are also tiny sparks of joy. The practice, the balance, lies in holding the experience of the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows at the same time.
It is an inconceivable situation. And, for this one iota of life called me, as I learned to breathe with decades ago in a Thich Nhat Hanh meditation, In this moment, all is well. Inhale In this moment, exhale all is well. Over and over. And over. In the next moment, or the next month, or six months from now, it might not be. “We’ll know more later,” as my auntie always says.
Although there are some things, very few things, that we will not know more later about, like the past month in the life of the flan-tummied cat Topaz.
It was a rough holiday season here at Mirador. The worst of it, on one level, was the dogs, who each suffered for three straight days, first one then the other, with diarrhea. It was a real shitstorm. I was up every hour or two for that whole week letting one then the other out, and entered the new year as sleep deprived as a new mother. But from a big picture perspective, this latest escalation of US dominance and prerogative in the Middle East is just about my worst nightmare, for so many interconnected reasons.
Consider the Iranian spider-tailed viper found only in the limestone mountains of western Iran. Imagine that you are that creature. You hatched from an egg, and you have grown up just the way your millions of years of evolution have conditioned you to do. The tip of your tail looks just like a spider, with a pale bulbous abdomen and a bunch of legs. When you’re hungry you emerge from your cave and coil, perfectly camouflaged on the limestone rocks, and ever so slowly wave that tail tip about, until a bird comes to eat it. Then you strike and eat the bird. It’s a marvel of adaptation, one of the most amazing examples of caudal luring in the animal kingdom. There you are, in your remote desert-cave, living your amazing, singular life, and some corrupt, lying, power-hungry bozo an ocean away decides to start World War III. KABOOM!!! You are no more.
Spectacularly unique endemic species like the Iranian spider-tailed viper live on all continents. Endemic means that they exist only in one particular place or habitat on the planet. We have a few here in western Colorado: the Colorado hookless cactus, for one, and the Gunnison sage grouse, as well as four ancient and endangered fish species. Most of our endemics are threatened by habitat loss and destruction, much of it from extractive industries.
The astonishing variety of reptiles and other animals native to the wartorn Middle East, as we call it, or center of the universe as they might refer to it, diminishes with every bomb that some regime explodes. We humans are destroying the planet in many ways by the needs and greeds of our sheer numbers, but the worst culprit by far is our addiction to petroleum, and the lengths we will go to to get more of it.
For 150 years the Petroleum Industry has fed this addiction and knowingly deceived us about its consequences, with evil disregard for Life on Earth in pursuit of their obscene profits. The climate crisis that now rages unchecked is the end result of the stupid greed of a small number of heartless magnates over the past century, though we are all complicit for having bought into or been born into this ‘consumer culture.’
Imagine that you are a tiny marsupial, a joey still confined to your mother’s pouch, and she is running or hopping for her life ahead of a monstrous fire that sweeps at the speed of wind across the only home you’ve ever known. And that fire is faster than you. More than half a billion animals have perished in the Australian wildfires this season, and countless more are suffering. Entire endemic species may go extinct on that continent. Don’t let industry propaganda fool you: there is no question that this disaster is a direct result of the climate crisis perpetrated by the petroleum industry.
Perhaps you are a refugee from Sudan or Central America fleeing unlivable conditions that have arisen from the climate crisis, and you traverse seas and countries to find safe haven, just to continue to live your fragile, single human life. You get somewhere and you’re not welcome, and you try to move on hoping you’ll find refuge somewhere farther along. Or you die on the journey. Or you are imprisoned at the border.
I cannot bear the pain of living in this world for another minute. My heart breaks constantly, and I am filled with rage.
And yet, here I am, with my delusions and my hopes (many of which are the same things), with my best intentions, with my random prayers, with my gratitude and appreciation, witnessing the magnificent, minute, grand and ever-changing exquisite beauty of existence on this fragile planet. I continue on with a crushing burden of guilt for my part in this human shitstorm that is rendering the planet uninhabitable for many species including our own.
How is this not visible in every living moment to every living human on this spinning globe? We are but a tiny, miraculous speck in an increasingly incomprehensible universe. As the inter-relationships among all things become more clear, the very nature of Life grows more divinely mysterious. Not only is the largest living organism on the planet an underground fungus, but Gaia’s crust is actually alive. We the human species are a tiny part of an immensely complex organism.
We are all one. None of us is a single unaffected, unaffecting life. But how does this awareness help us? How do we do something in the service of Life, to protect and preserve the LIFE that we revere above all in this world?
It’s hard to be a Buddhist and practice acceptance during this time. It’s hard to cultivate loving-kindness for the people in the regimes of this country and others who perpetuate war, hate, misogyny, and genocide. I personally can’t do it. I believe there are enlightened people who can. I try not to hate, but I hate. The most cogent expression I’ve encountered of the crisis facing us is Roshi Joan Halifax’s Friday Fire Drill Speech.
Who wins if the US goes to war with Iran? Not the Iranian spider-tailed viper. Not the people of the US or Iran. Not the young men and women who will lose lives and limbs. Not the parents and children of those soldiers. Whose stocks have soared since the US president’s reckless assassination of a revered Iranian general? The manufacturers of weapons, the manufacturers of the devices from drones to jets that deliver those weapons, and the Petroleum Industry. Those will be the winners in another war. Their wins are short-sighted and will be short-lived. Another war will only speed up the already accelerating climate catastrophe.
This isn’t what I want to write about. But I must. We must talk about it with open, breaking hearts, to our friends and families, with people who share our beliefs and with people who don’t. We must meet on the common ground of our shared planet. I implore you to vote for compassion in the next election, whatever country you live in.
Vote in your own self-interest, which is not the interest of the Petroleum Industry, the Weapons Industry, or the corporate billionaires who have won tax cuts that only hurt you. Stop voting for their interests and vote for your own. In the US, vote to save the place where you live from reckless energy extraction, vote for comprehensive healthcare and a decent living minimum wage, vote for extensive upgrades to our failing public education system, and the crumbling roads and bridges we travel every day in our petroleum driven vehicles. Vote for science-based solutions to this climate catastrophe, for renewable energy to power our homes and vehicles, for common-sense kindness, for the protection of Life on Earth.
Ojo cracked me up the other morning. I could tell the day before that he wasn’t feeling well. When he’s constipated, (and also preceding the loss of his first four lives), he contracts in on himself, curls into a tight ball, his cheek fur flares out because he pulls his head in like a tortoise, and he moves sluggishly if at all. He sat on the patio chair for an hour, refusing to come in even when I shook the treat can. Although it’s possible he was just pouting, because he’s an emotional little fellow. Either way, dusk was coming so I picked him up, tight little black ball, and carried him in, whence he disappeared and I didn’t see him for hours.
I mixed powdered psyllium husks into his dinner with extra water, and in the morning gave both cats a squirt of catnip-flavored laxatone instead of their first breakfast before letting them out. An hour later, I fed him his usual quarter can. Shortly, I took the dogs out, and called the cats for a walk. Ojo and Topaz both wanted to come in for second breakfast, but I said, No, you have to walk first, I want to see you poop.
So they came running along behind me and the dogs, sprinting past me in their usual tag-relay game, one or the other shooting up into a juniper occasionally. Ojo plopped down in the dusty trail and rolled, meowing, not unusual for him, but I missed that in this case it was the first sign that he didn’t want to walk. I rubbed his tummy fuzz and walked on.
Around the next curve he attacked my ankle, ran up meowing and grabbed my pants leg and gave a quick bite. I laughed and walked on, as he continued to meow, stomping along angrily behind me. A couple more times he lunged but I kept going; then he grabbed my ankle again, and this time he was very persuasive. He did not want to walk! Still laughing, I turned around and up the hill. He shut right up and walked a yard in front of me the whole way home, where he got another quarter can and so did Topaz, and then they sprawled on the living room rug at total ease.
I draw some firm lines with them. I won’t feed them before first light, or let them out before sunrise; both must be in before sunset. Both those lines ensure my peace of mind in different ways. Experience with numerous cats has taught me that if you give a cat an inch in the morning, you’ll be getting up earlier and earlier to feed it until you’ve lost two hours of your usual sleep. On the sunset line, if these cats aren’t in by dark I won’t sleep until they are. They seem to take turns, one every few months, trying to get away with it.
But in a moment like that morning, when one of them had such strong feelings, I was happy to change my plan to accommodate his need. They ask for so little, and give so much. I still see in them the kittens they were, and also imagine the old cats I hope they will survive to become. But I know cats only have nine lives, and around here those can go pretty fast. So I treasure every day with them, and accept their their little quirks and demands, and do my best to keep them happy.
Ojo and his siblings are four and a half years old next month. They all remain happily alive in four neighborhood homes, although Ojo has been whisked from death’s door four times (that I know of). Topaz has not. She is self-sufficient, often aloof, and sweet as pie. He is a perpetual surprise, a spoiled mama’s boy who wants what he wants when he wants it, and won’t take no for an answer. They still make me laugh every day.