Thursday, October 11, 2018

Telling Time Without a Calendar

Have you heard them? Shrill, clear whistling from the tree tops, sometimes one alone and sometimes a chorus. Spring peepers' last hurrah as they begin to prepare for winter, no longer in the marshes but clinging to trunks and branches high above us all. Or, how about the raucous raspy strident calls of migrating blue jays that descend upon us in late September, hungry for the acorns that our woodland oaks provide. Or the soft and muffled "wick, wick, wicka" at dusk of restless wood thrushes preparing for their long journey to central America, any day now. 

Have you seen them yet? The white-throated sparrows, who arrive every mid-October and the juncos who arrive soon after. Or, perhaps the purple finches who have chosen to feed in this area of southern Maryland for now. Bright red-purple males and grey females with a distinctive white eyebrow stripe, unlike our resident house finches, have come down from the far north to spend time with us, and whether they will stay the winter or ultimately move on is not for us to know. 

Have you noticed their absence?  The antagonistic migrating hummingbird numbers abruptly decreased overnight a few nights ago, and now I see only solitary individuals, dawdling at flowers and feeders until somehow recognizing when their bodies carry enough fat to sustain them on their journey. A few cricket species still sing on, but the true katydids and cicadas are silent, no longer calling from their summer perches in the trees, their breeding season accomplished. The lovely wood warblers, flycatchers and vireos who arrived last spring to bear and raise their families are gone now, excepting a few stragglers, and already I miss the melodies that were my constant companions these last few months.

And what of the changes in the plant life around us?  The winterberry and dogwoods's berries that were still green a couple of weeks ago are now bright red, signaling their nutrients to passing birds. The last flowers of the season, New England and aromatic aster, orange coneflower, and the ever present white frost aster, continue to bloom in riotous color, signaling nectar and pollen to late season bees and butterflies like the buckeye, and clouded sulfur and monarchs, all still searching for food. 

As we notice these changes, even if we haven't really realized that we have noticed them, we are being invited into a knowing that goes beyond what our busy, technological society deems important. Every day, every season, every moment, we are invited into wonder yet again, and into appreciation and into love for that which surrounds and sustains us. And, in so doing, we come to realize that we don't really need calendars to know what time it is, after all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Renewal of Wonder

As a nation, we are in the midst of a difficult season-socially, politically, culturally, environmentally, physically and spiritually. In fact, at the moment, I can't think of a single component of our corporate life that isn't being challenged or threatened or compromised, somehow. No wonder I feel on edge, concerned about facets of national life that I have absolutely no ability to change. 

Even when I go walking, of late, I have difficulty letting go of the dismay, the sense of helplessness and, yes, sometimes the anger that hangs over the DC area these days. While I do not want to give in to these feelings or allow them to consume me, I find that I need tangible and effective means to deter and deflect them. I need something more powerful than my self-righteous indignation. I need wonder.

The healing of wonder lies in its surprise, moments of unexpected grace. Such was the case when, after a weary day with family reuniting after my mother-in-law's funeral, I looked up from the northern Virginia suburban back yard to see a  mass of migrating broad-winged hawks, kettling way up high, directly above my head. Or when, the day after, as I sat on my front porch, idly watching the birds and soaking in the silence, I noticed a commotion in the black locust tree across the road. It turns out that goldfinches eat black locust seeds, opening the stiff pods with their beaks and extracting the seeds one by one, something I had not seen or known before. I had happened to be in the right place at the right time to notice and all thought of commotions in the larger world vanished.

Wonder beckons when I peer into a bouquet of my own flowers, or pursue the insect making its long, high-pitched trill in the house and find a tiny, long-antennaed katydid no bigger than my fingernail. Or when I step out onto the back porch at night and narrowly miss the resident toad making his nightly hunting rounds. Or find a patch of bright pink torenia that, unbeknownst to me, self-seeded into my garden from the hanging basket where it grew last year. Or, glancing at the feeder and find that we are hosting several female rose-breasted grosbeaks on their southward migration.

Each of these gratifying, unexpected moments are gifts that keep me humble and, once again, remind me of how much more there is to this world than the concerns and fears that sometimes consume me. God speaks to me in wonder, and in this moment I can rest...for a while, anyway.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Life and Death and Orange Jewels

My husband's 94 year old mother died last week, a sad and difficult woman in life and in death. I am weary and so this morning I needed the woodland's embrace and there I found the refreshment and the solace I knew were waiting for me. I went looking for life, life in all its fullness, life of the forest floor - creatures, plants, fungi...all of it. 

On the short bank beside the woodland road, I came across a colony of tiny, bright orange mushrooms, themselves feeding on decaying matter...matter that is no longer alive, but giving life to these jewels of the forest. 

And in the distance, stood what first appeared to be a lone white mushroom... 

... standing like a single sentry guarding its place in the leaf litter. 

However, upon closer inspection, I realized that I had almost stepped on its nearly invisible companion of a different species, a couple of feet away. 

Two different species of fungi, quietly going about the work they were given to do, decomposing fallen leaves and branches, returning nutrients to the soil. Perhaps their mychorriza mysteriously co-mingle beneath the duff as they coil around tree roots, providing the giants greater access to needed water and minerals and a means of communication, tree to tree.

I have been thinking about death during these last few weeks and about its effect on those who are left behind, for death is never a solitary event. If we give ourselves to its effect, even in our agitation and deep sense of loss, over time we will be deepened and made acutely aware of and sensitive to that which is still alive...still alive in us, in those we care about, in the order of the natural world. I find the encouragement of God in the life of the fungi, strange as that might seem at first glance. They demonstrate that there is far more to each individual than what might be visibly recognized. Though their above-ground fruiting bodies wither away in due time, their life continues on in mystery, hidden away in where they can no longer be seen. And, because of fungi's role, though individual plants and creatures die, their life is never completely ended, for it is always recycled for the well being of another.  

In this season of coming face to face, again, with the reality of death I am reminded, again, of the abundance of life and my grateful participation in it. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Walking as Spiritual Practice

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me what my spiritual practices have been lately. I was caught off guard and mumbled something about reading and contemplative prayer but, at the same time, I felt like I was forgetting something important. I was. I was forgetting what has been a practice for the last several decades, though I would not have termed it as such until relatively recently.

In the last few years I have become acquainted with the importance of living and being in the moment- not fixated on the future or the past, not entertaining the myriad distracting thoughts that pass through my weary brain, not giving in to fears or irritations or even wants, but noticing what is right in front of and all around me, taking it in, paying attention, acknowledging God's presence. Do I live this way through most of my days? No. Does being aware and awake to what transpires in the real world come naturally? No. Do I even remember that I want to experience this restorative focus on the present? Not very often. 

And so, I walk. And in the walking, I am captivated by my surroundings and I slip into noticing without effort. This morning my walk took me through woodlands and along an overgrown field, and the songs of cicadas, crickets, and katydids of all species were my constant companions. I passed bright orange fungi on the shaded roadside, a spike buck who watched me warily through the trees, and a single Acadian flycatcher calling from overhead. Such are the findings I expect to encounter when I set out early in the morning. 

Today, however, there was a message woven into my wanderings. As often happens, my walking took me past an old abandoned pasture filled with tall grasses and forbs, the  sun low behind me, casting the scene in a golden glow. The insect chorus was in full swing, though the singers remained invisible among the grasses and, in fact, I could not see any animal life there at all. When I reached the end of the field, I turned around to head back home, and the scene had been transformed. With sun backlighting the pasture, every drop of dew stood out, glistening in relief. And, in what had appeared to be an empty field, shone hundreds, or maybe thousands, of spider webs, sunlight glinting off each delicate strand. 

As I stood in awe, I realized how little I had really seen on my first pass by the pasture. All these creatures, all this life had been right in front of me and I had missed them. It was as if they had been hiding in plain sight all along. I wondered then, how often do I miss understanding others' perspectives, so intent am I in seeing things from just one direction, the one in which I am heading. How often have I assumed I am right because my vantage is the only one I can see? 

Contemplation, or living with God fully in the moment, is most powerful when we allow the present to seep into our souls. Sometimes the noticing alone is enough to fill us and we are content. Sometimes, like this morning, there is a message that deepens and changes us, if we but accept it. I find that, for me, walking is one of the most natural means of being open to the present moment. Walking as spiritual practice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Once Again

The light has turned. Every year it happens and every year it catches me by surprise. Just when I think summer will never end, it begins to wane.

The foretelling was there, of course, in the raucous hummingbird migration and the enfolding chorus of droning cicadas, crickets and katydids. Insect calls have picked up where spring's bird song left off and the surrounding woods are filled with rhythmic rattling and tinkling throughout the day and well into the evening. The birds are not entirely silent but they are collectively quieter now than earlier in the season. A couple of early morning wood thrushes trill, a single wood peewee whistles, a red-throated vireo questions, and then all is silent again, apart from the insects.

Monarchs float across the landscape, nectaring and laying eggs that will turn into this year's migrants heading to Mexico in a month or so. Lavender mistflower is coming into bloom, and early goldenrod and ironweed dot the roadsides, deep golds and purples, colors of royalty. Scattered here and there through the woodlands stand solitary black gums dressed crimson, harbingers of early autumn, soon to come.

Except for the manic hummingbirds, the season seems to pause, like the river that stills momentarily between the rising and falling tides. Such is an illusion however, as flowers set seeds, wild fruit ripens, insects mate and birds and mammals fatten for whatever lies in the months ahead. 

I am caught between savoring today's unfolding, and knowing what is to come. Predictably, I swing between exhilaration and melancholy, between breathing in the sweetness of each late-summer moment and grieving for what will soon disappear- osprey and barn swallows, butterflies and singing insects, flowers and foliage. 

O, to be like a child, living each day fully for itself, as yet unpracticed in anticipating change. And yet...might not this unwanted anticipation become the very fuel of my gratitude  for what is now ?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Autumn's Invitation

Wildly tossed in morning gales, 
encircled by autumn-tinted woodlands,
Indian grasses cavort in the meadow remnant,
backlit, as though touched by frost,
pearly seedheads, bowing and waving as I pass by.

Tinkling of chilly ground crickets
and hungry goldfinches seeking seed,
Cawing of crows, scolding jays,
Hidden white-throats rustling in the leaf layer,
Wind whispering through sleepy trees.

Autumn's invitation to pause, to breathe,
to ponder, to exult in this one moment I am given, 
in gratitude.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

In the Time of Goldfinches and Hummingbirds

"Where do you want to be?" she asked. The veterinarian, who has become my friend, was here to release my old, beloved, little dog from her pain and the discomfort of a large, inoperable, abdominal tumor. My mind slowly numbing, I clutched at the reality that would allow me to bear the next few minutes well, and we went to the front porch. How many times, in how many seasons, have Mollie and I sat on that porch, soaking in the life around us?

These last few days, the tinkling begging calls of goldfinch young and the combative whizzing of hummingbirds have been the audible indicators that summer is waning. Through the open windows, I hear the reminders from early morning until after sunset, so eager are they to take in the nourishment they need to forge ahead into the next stages of their lives. Though Mollie could no longer hear, she watched their comings and goings so closely that I half-feared for the fate of any hummingbirds who swooped down too fearlessly, in their quest to figure out what she was.

As the three of us sat quietly together, I was filled with gratitude for life itself.  For the life of Mollie, for the life of my friend, for the life of the wild ones that surrounded and comforted us, for my own life, and for the life of the Spirit who was so near and present with us. The ancient Christian Celts believed that when God created the world, He did not create it out of nothing, but created it out of Himself and, as a result, they, and I, believe that He has mysteriously left bits of Himself, in all that is. Bits of Himself that connected Mollie and I to each other, during those last moments. Bits that connect me to the wild creatures and to the sources of nourishment that support them. 

Though deeply saddened at Mollie's passing, I know that in loving her, and in caring for and delighting in so many lives in this world...those of people, of wild and domestic animals, of birds and insects, of trees and forbs, I have grown and I have been deepened, through no effort of my own, other than the loving. May it be so for you.