Bird Mystery

Northern Flicker

The other day I heard an unfamiliar racket out the window and discovered a small flock of northern flickers had come to visit the garden.  They were eating bugs in the ground, and also poking their long beaks between the pavers on our patio, so I am going to guess they were eating ants.  They settled in for a feast, and made themselves at home.

They are so distinctive and beautiful, a spotted breast with a black bib (and cheek patches on the males), red heart shape patch on the back of their head, and white rump feathers visible when they fly.  Oh, and a bit of yellow on the tail.  I also saw a plain looking smaller bird that I believed was a juvenile flicker, but then noticed it had white spots on black instead of black on white. It was clearly hanging out with the male and female flickers, but it looks more like a starling juvenile.  Does anyone know if starlings ever drop eggs with the flickers to get them to raise the young starlings?

Stranger than it first appeared.

Northern Flickers

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A wing and a prayer

A poem & photo reflection from eight years ago that I found again today.  (Photos by Margy Dowzer.)Bird WingI think of the wing of a bird

the wing I found by the side of the road 

          of a bird now dead

the wing so intricate and beautiful

           now in decay

I imagine this–the millions of birds–

           beautiful

           coming into being, fading away

the artist painting a billion paintings

the stories wondrous, tragic

the story of that bird—alive, 

           growing feathers, flying, eating

            alive and then dead,

            and then the materials un-forming

so brief a story, so brief a life

 

I imagine The Life

creating itself into a billion forms

and then re-creating another billion forms 

          with almost infinite variation

a kaleidoscope of beauty and diversity

and different ways of being conscious of the work

and different ways of participating in creating

              making choices

Can you feel the inner creative energy in each one?

 

So now I am creating and seeing as Myke

          (and how beautiful I am

            eyes looking out at this world

            heart capable of love

             making changes, healing, choosing)

and I will dissolve and disintegrate too

and I will reform into a new being

 

The larger I Am –it sounds so static, in a way–

yet it is not static

it is creating, evolving, engaging, weaving, curious

dare I say hopeful?

(Is there a goal to which it strives?)

(Or is it playing to see what happens next?) 

(Am I?)

The stories, billions of stories

Can the stories appreciate the magic

            be full of wonder and gratitude

            enjoy the show?

 

I am that

I am the bird who grew feathers and died

          and was seen by the Myke

          and was photographed by the Margy

I want to wake up

 

Holy One,

open my body and emotions and intellect

to be united in awareness with my Larger Self

with the Creator

with the Limitless One

Help me to remember who I Am

          as the I

          as the Myke

Each being is beautiful

We are all one Being

Each story is beautiful

We are all one Story

Bird Wing closeup

Surrender

They say that life endings and transitions are in some ways a preparation for that greatest of transitions, dying.  So I am noticing some things about the ending of my ministry.  I have not been able to do everything I would have wished to do, or imagined I would do.  For example, I wanted to have more final visits with people, more moments of personal gratitude and farewell.  I wanted to give gifts, I wanted to express more appreciation.  I wanted to pass along more details of how things work at my church–why do I know so many details? Who will they ask when I am no longer there?

Is that how it might be with dying, as well?  That we finally come to realize we can’t finish anything?  That we can’t express enough appreciation?  That we can’t pass along enough of the knowledge we so carefully gathered?

Meanwhile, I am trudging along with the sheer volume of work to do to clean out my office.  I am asking, What should be saved to pass along, and what should be recycled or shredded?  I am remembering meaningful activities, caught in old file folders, that I had forgotten we had done together.  I am asking, What do I want to keep for this unknown future life called retirement?  Right now, I don’t feel connected to the magic, to the flow of the River.  I feel as if I am in the dark about what the future might hold and where I am going.

Is that how it is with dying, as well?  That we feel overwhelmed with the minutiae of our daily existence?  That we are too weary to feel the magic?  That we are fully in the dark about the mystery beyond death?

Meanwhile, our country is descending deeper and deeper into fascism.  Social support systems are being gutted, even as I am wading through the bureaucracy of signing up for Medicare, Parts A, and B, and D, and supplemental.  Migrant children are being detained in cages, while their parents suffer, also caged, not knowing where they are.  Discriminatory exclusions are ruled legal.  Courageous people are protesting in the streets, making a loud noise, saying don’t go gentle into that dark night.  And I am at home in this liminal space, unable to participate in resistance, exhausted and weary, and all I can do is pray, and that, not very well.

So I come to this morning, this morning of my birthday of all things, and I finally write in my journal after several days neglect.  I set it all down, by setting it in words on paper. And that is my prayer, setting it all down, while I sit outside in the backyard.  I feel as if I am in labor, but to what purpose?  Someday, too, I will enter the labor of dying, and what will be the purpose of that?

Finally, I realize, we cannot finish everything that needs doing. All we can do is surrender into the Mystery.  And so I do.  I surrender to you, dear Creator, dear Goddess, dear Mystery. I surrender to you, dear River, dear Ocean, dear Love.  You have been my source and strength since before I was born, you have led me through dark valleys into transformation.  So I trust you, and I surrender once again, into the Unknown, into the Mystery.  Have mercy on us all.

White Pine in summer

Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom

To Be of Use

Biddeford Pool Ocean view

One evening, during my first year in college, my best friend Lori and I were sitting in the quiet candlelit chapel of our campus. A few other people were also there, scattered about the pews. I remember feeling we each seemed so isolated in our private meditations. I was moved to reach out and take the hand of my friend. Little did I realize, at that very moment, she had been wrestling with her own inner spiritual struggles.

Feeling a certain despair, she had just prayed, “God if you are real, I need a sign. It doesn’t have to be a miracle; I just need you to touch me in some way.” Then, I innocently took her hand, and it was the touch of God she experienced.

I shared this story with my colleagues last week.  From Wednesday through Friday, I was on retreat with other Unitarian Universalist ministers at Biddeford Pool, by the sea.  They had invited me, because of my upcoming retirement, to share my “Odyssey,” my story of ministry.  So on Thursday evening, I talked about the long path and the many transformations that have been a part of that ministry journey, starting with this story of my being used unknowingly by the Spirit.

Years ago, even as a child, I had opened my life to that Spirit, that Mystery, that flowing River of Life.  Ministry has meant, for me, at root, that opening to be of use.  At different times in my life, that has included many different types of work.  Most lately, as a minister in a congregation, I have been preaching, offering pastoral care, teaching, writing, going to many meetings.  But ministry is not always about our intentions or our plans or our activities.

I shared another story that happened only a few years ago.  At that time, I was planning to join my congregation at our annual retreat at Ferry Beach.  We were happy to be including a visiting UU minister from Burundi, and I was going to drive him to the retreat.  But then I got sick with a bad cold or flu–can’t remember which.  I called a member of the congregation to see if she could give him a ride instead.  She did, and later she told me that it had changed her life.  She was transformed by hearing his story, and she eventually went to visit Burundi with other UUs.

I was struck by how even our limitations–even getting sick–even being missing–can be an occasion of unknowingly triggering a blessing for someone’s life.  If we are in the flow of Spirit, the flow of the River, even our flaws can be of use.  This gives me great comfort as I deal with health issues that drain my energy and interrupt my intentions and activities, and are the impetus for my decision to retire this year.  I remind myself to trust in that same Spirit who has been undergirding my life and my ministry for all these many years.  Trust in the flow of the River.

 

Sky Portal

sky puddle

Doesn’t it look like if I were to step across that threshold I might fall into the sky? The thaw of last night has opened up all sorts of cracks in the fabric of space/time.  Meanwhile, I am walking in the morning, paying attention to beauty.  Our congregation is doing a February activity called Fun-a-Day, in which participants choose an activity to do each day that gives them joy. I think mine is this walking with a camera, noticing the beauty that I otherwise might miss. What would yours be?  Feel free to join in!