Our cat Billie posing in the box for me, just for fun. (These are posted in the order in which I took them, as she moved around the box.)
Our cat Billie posing in the box for me, just for fun. (These are posted in the order in which I took them, as she moved around the box.)
I wake early this morning and see the shadows of the two cats, sitting upright together on a small table, gazing out through the semi-sheer curtain to the bright full moon. The moon is called nipawset kisuhs in Passamaquoddy, the one who walks in the night. The sun is espotewset kisuhs, the one who walks in the day. The moon and the sun are both considered animate, living beings. That is how it has always seemed to me as well.
And so I am lying quietly awake, lifted by this beautiful light, this moment of magic, as the moon begins her descent into the west, into the branches of trees. We earth beings, cat and human, love the moon.
These days have felt fraught with fears for me, new coronavirus fears adding to the larger fears of ecological destruction, the resurgence of white nationalism and fascism, the horrors being wrought by our government on innocent children and parents who seek refuge from even larger fears of their own. So many fears. Now that I am retired, now that I am not so occupied with constant pressure from work, the fears have more room to rise up from their subconscious depths to trouble me directly.
Yet, the moon. The moon eases the fears with her beauty.
Something about the moon calls into my memory a poem I wrote many years ago, back when I lived in Boston. That poem was about the sun, and also about fear. I think I want to share it here this morning, though it feels vulnerable to do so. These sacred moments. But perhaps it will be a blessing for someone else who is living into fear. The moon and the sun shine for us all.
The Sun spoke to her sometimes,
early, mostly at dawn,
though dawn usually meant
first glimpse she got each
morning, maybe standing
on the front porch to get the paper,
maybe looking through the window
between branches and buildings.
The Sun spoke to her then.
Is that a prayer?
Seems like she didn’t call out
or ask for anything–maybe
just a heart full of certain
needs–but the Sun seemed so eager.
The Sun seemed eager to name the day.
It was through the window
between the tree branches one time,
and three story buildings,
the Sun gave her a name too.
She never talked about the name,
seemed like it would sound silly
repeated like ordinary words
When the Sun spoke her name,
that was different,
so clear and simple
like words of power are:
As soon as she heard those words
she didn’t feel afraid any more,
even though she could see so clear
how true it was,
how fear was always first in line
when things came up,
her heart clutching at the moments,
not wanting to let go or let come.
And there was the sky turning
from pink to yellow
and night was turning right into day.
She sees the moments passing,
and all quiet-like inside,
knows that even her fear
can’t stop that turning,
and her hands relax a little,
her eyes watch, curious.
She remembers a child learning words
and colors and numbers,
the names of things.
All the world fitting
into the hands and mouth,
touched and eaten and spoken
–her mouth so full of power
she can’t help laughing–
words multiplying like popcorn,
words sweet like candy,
she wants to say everything.
But then her mother’s voice
tightens like a lid on a jar
–be careful, be careful–
as if naming were sharp like a knife
or heavy to drop and crush,
words so hot they might burn.
As if she just might eat up
the whole world and leave nothing left
at all, And so she stops to measure,
stops and measures.
The Sun doesn’t slow down or speed up,
moves surely, gently, warmly.
Caresses with indifferent generosity
across the words
of morning or noontime.
The Sun speaks her.
Puts words back in her mouth
and on her fingers.
Sky turning from pink to yellow
and night turning into day
through the window
between the tree branches
and three story buildings.
The Sun puts words back in her mouth
and on her fingers.
One of the great things about our cats is how they alert us to visitors in the yard. This morning, Billie suddenly leaned over into the bedroom window, all focused attention, and then she hurried off to the kitchen. I looked out the window, and then I too ran to the kitchen–to look out the French door windows to the back. We had both seen a raccoon, walking right onto our deck, checking things out.
Sadly, this was not a great nature photo–I didn’t capture the raccoon’s adorable face. And when they saw us at the window, they decided to move along, leaving only small wet footprints behind. I barely caught their distinctive striped tail as they hurried past on their way toward the steps to the driveway.
The Passamaquoddy word for raccoon is Espons, and it means the one who leaves a mess. I pulled on my boots to go outside to see if Espons had left any messes anywhere in our garden–but the only thing I found was a tiny hole dug into the side of our compost barrel. It looks like that compost is ready.
I think this is the first time I’ve seen a raccoon in the yard, though I saw one in a tree down by the brook a while back. As much as Margy and I love to play in the soil, plant trees and bushes, and tend to the growing plant life all around us, the most thrilling part of connecting to this land is when the critters visit us.
Many small birds and squirrels live here all the time, but we’ve also seen turkeys, a very occasional deer (and not in the last year), the skunk, the groundhog, a few chipmunks, the fox, the hawks, the turkeys (they visit a lot–though not this spring–they must be raising young somewhere else right now), not to mention tiny toads and salamanders. I call them visitors, but really, we share this urban environment. They live here as much as we do–but not usually on the deck! We try to find a balance between welcoming them, and reserving certain garden foods as our own “territory.” (Since we don’t yet have much food in the perennial food forest we’ve been slowly creating, it hasn’t yet been a big issue.)
I am reminded somehow, by the joy of this unexpected visit, that my spiritual “marching orders” during this past cycle of seasons have been rather clear. I was not to try to “make magic”–which I understand as to focus my intention and will to create something or to make change in this world. Rather, I was to flow with the already flowing magic of the deeper River, to let the Earth move my feet, let the Wind guide my mind. I was to rest, and let the Fire of joy carry me through the days. That joy has carried me into some marvelous learning–the Wabanaki language class comes to mind. That joy has carried me out into the garden to plant and tend and haul wood chips around. That joy has carried me to the pages of this blog site, to write and reflect. But it isn’t really about creating a garden or a blog.
It is about observing, being quiet, listening to the trees, tuning in to the flow of interconnected life. It is about moving beyond doing into a different way of being. A way that is alert to the many beings who visit us, whether we notice them or not. It is about noticing.
Today is a day when I chose to stop my plans and just love my body and follow what it needed. My teachers were our cats Billie and Sassy who were having a cuddle and a nap in the sun on the bed, washing each other’s faces. I lay down next to them, and took a few photos with my phone. Sometimes, even in this desperately wounded world, we must honor the demands of our bodies, first of all. This I what I am learning about illness or whatever it is that has taken hold of my body. My own tendency is to want to figure it out and fix it. But some things can’t be easily figured or fixed. And so we are faced with other choices.
When my partner Margy and first I got to know each other, she had been dealing with chronic illness for a long time already. She has been my teacher in what that means, and how to cope, how to live in the midst of it all. But in that process, I took on the role of the “well” one, the one who would carry things when she could not. But now, I also have some sort of chronic illness, and it’s a new chapter for us, a new chapter for me. I haven’t really ever identified myself as having a chronic illness, because that was her identity. I know that sounds a bit illogical, but it never seemed that I had it bad enough to call myself ill.
But then there are these days, more now than before, when I just can’t follow my plans, can’t work in the garden, can’t go to the beach. When I ache all over, or feel weary and slow. As I said, mostly my impulse has been to try to figure it out–what did I eat? what did I do?–that might have triggered all this. What can I do to make it better? But today, I thought, just follow the lead of the body, just love the body and do what it wants to do. Rest, lay in the sun, watch mysteries on the television. No shoulds.
I am remembering Paula Gunn Allen writing about this, and I found the quote, an excerpt from “The Woman I Love Is a Planet; The Planet I Love Is a Tree,” from her book, Off the Reservation. I love how she links our love of the body to our love of the planet–even when we can’t even go outside.
Our physicality—which always and everywhere includes our spirituality, mentality, emotionality, social institutions, and processes—is a microform of all physicality. Each of us reflects, in our attitudes toward our body and the bodies of other planetary creatures and plants, our inner attitude toward the planet. And, as we believe, so we are. A society that believes that the body is somehow diseased, painful, sinful, or wrong, a people that spends its time trying to deny the body’s needs, aims, goals, and processes—whether these be called health or disease—is going to misunderstand the nature of its existence and of the planet’s and is going to create social institutions out of those body-denying attitudes that wreak destruction not only on human, plant, and other creaturely bodies but on the body of the Earth herself….
Being good, holy, and/or politically responsible means being able to accept whatever life brings—and that includes just about everything you usually think of as unacceptable, like disease, death, and violence. Walking in balance, in harmony, and in a sacred manner requires staying in your body, accepting its discomforts, decayings, witherings, and blossomings and respecting them. Your body is also a planet, replete with creatures that live in and on it. Walking in balance requires knowing that living and dying are two beings, gifts of our mother, the Earth, and honoring her ways does not mean cheating her of your flesh, your pain, your joy, your sensuality, your desires, your frustrations, your unmet and met needs, your emotions, your life.
I woke at 5 a.m. to a cat scratching at a closed door, and decided I’d better get up for cat duty, so Margy could get some sleep. I was glad they were finally exploring the house. It was so upsetting yesterday to see how traumatic the move was for Billie and Sassy. We had started them off by sequestering them in the basement bathroom where their litter boxes will remain. Sassy went into the cabinet and hid there, and Billie huddled behind the toilet. Margy and I took turns being with them and letting them be alone.
After an hour or so, we opened the door so they could come out at will. Sassy relaxed soon enough and started exploring the house, but kept hissing at Billie. Billie stayed behind the toilet for hours, until I finally took her by the scruff of her neck like a kitten and carried her upstairs, and helped her to hide under the covers of the bed. At least that would be warm and familiar to her–she loves curling up under the covers–and it seemed to work. She stayed there for several hours, and when I got under the covers, she cuddled with me for a long while and then finally jumped out. So exploring the house is a good thing. And hey, 5 a.m. is only an hour before I usually get up. But I decided to forego my sunrise walk today and follow them around to make sure they didn’t get into too much mischief.
But they hate those pesky doors that they can’t open. At our old house, the closet doors slid open and the bottom of the door wasn’t attached, so they had complete access to the closets. They also knew how to open cupboard doors. Here, the closets pull out and fold–that is frustrating to kitties.
We may not be able to know and appreciate all the animals and plants, but we sense that something important might emerge if we can know and appreciate one animal. This has led some to have an interest in looking for a “power animal.” I think this interest comes from a desire to be connected to our fellow creatures here on earth. Finding a power animal began in some ancient shamanic traditions but has become popular in the modern spirituality marketplace, where often the idea is romanticized. People look for the exotic and the wild.
But there is another way to find a power animal. First, you can start by thinking about your food. If you eat meat or fish, or eggs or milk, what are the animals that give you their life, so you can have food?
In our culture, it is difficult to honor the animals who are most important to us. Chickens, cattle, and pigs are the most widely eaten animals in the United States. Most of them are raised in horrible conditions. My purpose right now is not to talk about the nightmare of factory farming. But when we begin to open our hearts to our connection with other animals, we have to ask ourselves about the animals we eat for food.
Let’s focus on the chicken—the animal most eaten in the United States. Sometimes they have been given a bad image in the media—we call someone “chicken” when they are lacking in courage. But chickens lay eggs that feed us, and give their lives to feed us. When allowed to roam a yard, chickens will kill and eat the ticks that can cause Lyme disease. They have their own nobility and useful simple lives. A chicken would be a fine power animal. Except that perhaps we feel too ashamed of how the humans have treated them. If we respected the chickens, how could we consider the agricultural practices that confine them to torturous cages?
To eat is a sacred act. So often, we eat mindlessly. We don’t pay attention. When we eat, we take one part of Mother Earth, and unite it with another part of Mother Earth—our own bodies. Eating is necessary for life, and yet always includes death of some kind, whether of plants or animals. The great mystery of life and death can be present to us every single day, in the ordinary communion of eating a meal. But most of the time we are separated from that mystery because we can pick up our food in the grocery store, without any indication that this food is from living beings.
One of Henry David Thoreau’s practices when he went to the woods was, for a time, to try to catch or grow whatever he ate. He spoke about how needing to kill and prepare one’s meat was something that inclined him toward being a vegetarian. Some people do make that choice, out of respect for the animals. For my part, I try to honor the sacredness of food by thanking the creatures who have given their lives that I might eat. And because of that, I try to buy meats of animals who have been raised with dignity. In our culture, it can be a difficult thing to do. But it all begins by making one simple change—to recognize and celebrate the source of our food at each meal.
The Indigenous Innu people of northern Quebec did rituals in which they asked the caribou spirit to help them in the hunt. They believed that the caribou spirit helped them find caribou to kill and eat. They did rituals after they killed a caribou, and made sure that none of the bones touched the ground. The animal they ate was the animal to which they prayed. We can do that too.
When I watch our cats looking at the birds outside, it seems to me that they are doing something like praying. We don’t let them go outside—we’ve interrupted their hunting of birds. But when they shiver and chatter in excitement just watching the birds, it seems very much like deep devotion.
Another way to enter this sphere of earth connection is through making a relationship with one other species. Maybe for you it is with your cat or your dog. We can play with our companion animals, cuddle and pet each other, curl up for a nap, and feel love for each other. Sometimes when I am meditating in the morning, one of our cats climbs up into my lap and sits with me there, purring. Isn’t it amazing that we can make a bond across species and communicate in so many silent and vocal ways?
I heard an amazing story about a connection between a man and some elephants. Lawrence Anthony worked with rogue elephant herds in a reserve in South Africa. He had taken on these elephants because they were causing trouble in other reserves, and were about to be shot. He spent time living with the elephants, feeding them, talking to them, until finally they relaxed in their new home. He became known as the Elephant Whisperer, and other troubled animals were sent his way. It is a wonderful story.
But here is the amazing thing. When Mr. Anthony died in March of 2012, a few days later two of the elephant herds were seen walking slowly, as if in a procession, toward his house. They walked for twelve hours from a distant part of the reserve, and when they came to his house, they stayed around for two days, as if to say goodbye to the man who had saved their lives. How could they have known that he had died?
Rabbi Leila Gal Berner said,
If there ever were a time, when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all beings,’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart’s stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend.