on wellbeing and all beings

From where does one’s sense of connections to others arise? Might it be hardwired into us in some manner or place to which the conscious soul is denied access? From where does wellbeing and simply being come?

I have never been able to separate any sense of my own wellbeing from that of the suffering of all beings alongside—now, all yesterdays, all tomorrows. I cannot extricate myself from the plight of even the least creature among us: the small ants who reliably, and moments later, show up to slake their hunger on crumbs that have fallen aside on a counter or their kin who are crossing the sidewalks on which I am walking; a rattlesnake or raccoon or skunk run over on purpose by a passing motorist and writhing in pain, sometimes still in the middle of the road; a horse or dog beaten or starved or tied outside in rain or shine, sleet or hail; a child or adult going hungry or without a home while others alongside them luxuriate in fine meals and homes; a yellow-jacket and nest-mates desperate to make a home above the back door and, in most houses, being repelled with toxins; a family of woodchucks maligned unfairly for borrowing a tiny unused piece of bare underground for a nest; a bear killed for mauling an impertinent tourist and all others just like it losing their habitats to our greed; whole communities displaced by missile strikes (from actual missiles and economic ones); vibrant trees being cut down before their time because a windstorm toppled one and the village got worried about trees, and me standing next to the grand old maple that shelters my home time and time again, embracing its rough, moss-etched bark as a mother would a child and promising to stand between it and the tree-cutting crew to the bitter end and if one day it falls on my house, so be it; the children of tomorrow who will have only our wreckage (and far fewer of these grand trees) to play in, if we adults do not heed trees and the such better than our capitalist wallets and stat; the elders who are consigned to institutions in the long years of their lives, “too healthy to go ahead and die,” as one of them told me years before he finally did; the young and old alike who are cut down by bullets and racist economies and slurs long before their time.

No matter the source of the suffering or on whom it is laid, it feels personal to me, as if it were happening to my dearest loved ones, the few souls I have known better than all the rest. I weep for other parents’ children as I would for my own; I weep for adults precisely as I do for children (knowing all too well how the child remains within and on deck, even in the most aged); I weep and rage against unnecessary pain and anguish and loss, afar and close at hand alike. Time is no gallant healer for me either, for I study the long past, and its people and beings breathe again for me and, far too often, I weep for them, for their struggles and their joys. Some would say (some have actually said, in fact) that this is deeply arrogant on my part, this feeling for all bar none. That may well be so.

All I know for sure is that I never feel a moment’s relief from the need to do what I can on all fronts, even if that often means doing little more than bearing witness and not turning aside to the entertainments of forgetting. I don’t forget, you see, even when I do revel in the gloriousness of being alive, even when I have fun or laugh, even when all about me personally would appear to be not just fine but better than that by a long shot. The skin of my soul is too porous, it seems, and serves as no barrier to all that is.

But I am unclear as to how this happened, only that it has been with me since I can remember, the first instance of it one that has been repeated time and time again since: staring out of my child’s eyes to some adult or other child behaving in a cruel manner to some child or animal and, compelled by fiery rage at such injustice, launching myself into the fray to fix it. Plenty of times I did—or at least helped—but plenty of times I failed, too. Then there were the years when I myself was assailed and didn’t lift a finger to stop it, because I was aiming for a higher good and wound up contributing instead to a great multigenerational evil. And, of course, there are all the myriad sufferings for which I must stand mute and undone, utterly incapable of doing one thing except not turning away to unknowing. Perhaps how this happened is moot. Perhaps acknowledging the trait is enough to make it more manageable somehow.

Perhaps it is my life’s singular, early and enduring gift to me: this keen awareness that I am one with all that is, bar none, and thus to disown anyone else’s suffering–even to help ease my own? Would be to deny my own humanity. Would be to no longer exist. And so I embrace trees and do my deadlevel best not to step on ants and stop to assist injured animals and give every last thing I can to those who are in need. And it may be arrogant, but the moss-etched tree bark tells me that this, too, is being. And with this comfort I can and do abide.

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~

on being sent places of a morning

“I can’t help but believe that I was sent here this morning to meet you,” she said, this woman a few years younger than me, walking an elegant dog half as tall as herself. The dog, mottled brown, wore a large shoulder bandage still from the last of two dog attacks on him, just days ago. Insecure and anxious, he had nearly provoked another one—in his efforts not to be attacked yet again—as my dog (Sexy Louis, tiny by comparison) and I walked up minutes earlier. But we, being not foes but friends, let him close the gap as we stood non-reactive but alert, letting the moment unfold without forcing it. When the big brown started to leap toward Louis, both of us turned half a step aside so the aggression could not connect, and it faded swiftly in that space.

We visited then, the woman and I, Louis and the brown, and the low-key energies of Louis and I eased their concerns, for we are friendly and approachable and, after all, people walking dogs or vice versa are nearly always benefited by stopping to sniff  one another and share stories and the like. I shared with her some of the tips that reliably have worked for me with aggressive off-leash animals, and I could see her fear lessen as I spoke, Sexy Louis standing staring up at the big brown dog, curious but leaving a completely loose leash between him and me, even when that big guy finally reached over to sniff me, and calm enveloped the four of us bar none as we stood there and kept visiting.

In the way of conversations unforced, we wound up talking about dog encounters from here on this deeply historied commons by the sea in Massachusetts all the way to the Mojave, and Louis vouched for me with his peaceable behavior. We exchanged names then, this woman and I, expecting to cross paths again before long, and she started on her way, but turned back and said that to me, impulsively, perhaps surprising herself. Definitely surprising me.

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“I can’t help but believe that I was sent here this morning to meet you.”

What a gift that was, of a morning following close on the heels of a full day and night and part of another wondering if my whole life has been wrong to this point, one bad choice unleashing a cluster-strike of decades of less-than-good decisions because there were no others to make after that single unwise choice so long ago. Life cascades at us. Pummels us on good days, and crashes in like a tsunami on the rest. We try to walk free, but keep getting sucked back into our mistakes. It’s as if our future footfalls all landed years ago, some days, and we only get to trudge through them, knowing the end and yet not being able to step aside. Ah, what dramas we weave in our stories of such matters!

For then we awake and pray and walk a small dog along the sea’s edge to the commons, and all along the way there were people connecting—making eye contact on purpose and then conversation. Another woman and I walked eight blocks alongside, visiting about this little city that I love so well, chatting about our dogs and her noticing and mentioning the look of open adoration that Louis turns my way every few feet no matter what else is afoot and how he and I seem to be communicating without words even needed, which she thought was cool and so did I, for that matter, now that it had been mentioned so that I could notice its extraordinariness, too, and that was a full half an hour before we ever reached the commons and the brown dog and his owner—and this is New England, no less, which far too many have tried to convince me (with zero success) is not friendly to strangers!

In these connections and the overwhelming feeling of neighborly kindness, of being valued just for who I am, bad choices and trudging through notwithstanding, I can’t help but believe that I was sent there this morning to meet each one of them and their dogs. For in every one—I know this now though I cannot say how—some slip of my spirit resides, calling me home in the world, dramas moot, for the real stuff of being is so much more arms-wide-open-to-it-all than that!

~

on taking a rock star for a walk on a leash

Some creatures show up here with outsized charisma, and this going-on-eight-now pup is one of them. Every day reaffirms the point:  going for a walk with Sexy Louis is like taking a rock star for a walk on a leash. People stop and stare and point and smile and ooo and aaa, and astonishing numbers of them speak to him and me and want to pet him and croon to him and just be in his presence.

Oh, what an adorable|cute|gorgeous puppy! What is he? Are the most common opening lines.

He’s all mutt, I always say. Nearly eight. And comely as any rock star.

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What is his name? And can I pet him? Are the most common subsequent questions.

Yes, of course, and Sexy Louis, which he chose for himself. I tried a slew of names on him during the first couple weeks he lived with us, and he ignored them all clean, didn’t so much as look my way. Then one night we watched an episode of A Year in Provence—the VHS, not the shortened DVD version—and there’s a pool guy on it called Sexy Louis. So when we headed to bed, I said, I think I’ll just call you Sexy Louis. And he leapt and bounded happily to me, around and around the room and then throwing himself into my lap, and that was that. Sexy Louis he is. Just Louis for the churched. But Sexy Louis for the rest of us.

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Beyond those lines, the conversations diverge into interesting paths. Some guess at his genetics; some want to know where I got him (from an Amish family); some want to share their memories of dogs recently lost and remembered more sharply in Louis’ presence. At least one person a day offers to babysit or walk or even adopt him, should I ever be so inclined. Piano tuners, electricians, wait-staff, professors, ordinary folks just passing in the street, you name it: more than any other dog I’ve been adopted by, Louis (pronounced LOO ee) is the one people want to take home for themselves.

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This started the first week he lived with us, way back in November of 2006, with an employer who wanted him so badly—“you can just go get another,” she said to me repeatedly—that she took my refusal as a sign of disrespect. What I couldn’t say without giving more offense was that Louis was terribly anxious that he not be left with her (or anyone else at that point, and it hasn’t changed too much since): he’s head over all four heels and one tail madly in love with me, and wants no one else. (He loves his dad, too, but not in the same all-out manner as mom. Our hearts are simply intertwined for good.) He is friendly, though, to the point of easily convincing passersby and friends alike that maybe, just maybe they could take him home. For my part, it is the same: I am friendly to all, but not take-homeable, for my circle of loved ones is tiny. I love the world, yes, all of it—every last jot, every last soul, every last being and blade of grass and rock—but I come to rest in the eddies of my days with a rare few, among whom Sexy Louis has been since the moment our eyes first connected in that cold November wind.

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How is it that we can come alongside one another on a planet of many billions of beings and simply fit? What serendipity exists in this realm that allows such connections? If there is any grace to be had here, surely that must be among the first. This small dog is my teacher, dashing through his days expressing himself fully, unguardedly to the world, bearing the genetic injury that now causes him pain (four herniated vertebral disks) with no little joie de vivre, leaping and pirouetting still at the least excuse or none at all, even though it hurts. When the injury first showed up this summer, we went through two weeks of limited movement (and no walks), and I made up my mind to stop his lifelong habit of jumping. I put my whole will into it, too, for several days, before it hit me hard that I was off-path. Bad.

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What a soul-killing human conceit it is, this belief that we have the right to curtail movement that threatens life just because we want to extend said life as long as possible. How gut-wrenching it would be for him to suddenly die with me—the person he loves best on this planet—having spent 70 percent of our communication prior to that moment saying No, Louis. Don’t jump! Feet on the floor. Easy. Just walk. No leaping! Louis arrived in our lives as a bouncy little effervescent bundle of fur and happy curiosity about everything. Shall I strip him of his primary ways of expressing the joy of being solely so I might be able to keep him here a bit longer?

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There is something ragged and scary about taking the safe path home. Even the words—no, don’t jump—feed the bone-shaking fear that an end comes too soon for us all and that, while this in itself is a good thing, especially for the planet, being left behind by those we adore is the rub. The lonely stretch of pathless path that all humans walk.  The last time I said No, don’t jump, though, I realized that I was asking this little dog to be a scared version of a person instead of himself, and I stopped and stared at him for long seconds, his little ears perked and head turned to see what was going on with mom. I vowed then to stop it. Out loud.

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We all live until we die, and then we die and are done with it. Why take the safe path when it is reliably so grim and unlively? Why would I choose for Louis to not live so that I can feel less fear about losing him . . . as we both march straight on to our graves? The discs could rupture at any time, leap or not. Why not let him do what his spirit urges him to do and what his body tells him is good? Why not let him be while he is actually here?

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And so I have made that vow, again and again, and kept it mostly since then. He leaps slightly less now, I believe, and sometimes he whimpers with pain. Some mornings he waits and lets me lift him down off the bed, but on most he still doesn’t. With my ‘no’ commands laid aside, though, he and I are well embarked on just being while here. There is an ease about living with death as a teacher and mentor and friend. Today—this exact moment, to be more precise—is all any of us are promised and when it ends, so be. This is one of the many lessons Sexy Louis keeps teaching me. This, and also how much fun it is to take a rock star for a walk on a leash.

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on helping and being helped between desert and sea

Desert remembers seaA few days ago, still on my way from the desert to the sea, I was rolling along in a pack of vehicles feeling hot and tired and ready for sleep but hours from it yet. We were making about 70 mph or so, steady on all, following too close for comfort, but settled into that routine and aiming for the Lackawanna toll booths on a New York pay road that wasn’t near lonely enough for my liking. Suddenly I saw a car stopped on the right shoulder and then up the hill from that a tall young man yanking on the back heel of a deer whose foot was stuck on the top line of a heavy-gauge field fence. Nine things went through my head simultaneously and hit a looping replay, in the manner of life-and-death coming down:

Must stop. He clearly doesn’t have the right tool for the job. Must stop safely. Signal, get off, get as far into the ditch as possible so I don’t cause a pile-up and wind up in the middle of an ER somewhere. Then back up closer so I don’t have so far to run. Get my Leatherman, it’s got pliers with wire cutters. Where is my backpack? Woman in a long citified dress and Crocs leaps a low ditch and heads up a steep bank, heavy weeds knee-high, and holding out an open Leatherman to the young man. Dear god, it’s hot.

He was beside himself by the time he saw me coming, having run once again to his car, clearly looking for a tool while I backed up toward him as far off the road as I could get, shaking his head and hands in dismay, and then slamming the trunk lid and running back up the hill to the fence. The deer just hung there, her front feet not able to touch the ground but pawing frantically toward it just the same. When he finally realized I was coming to help (I shouted, “Do you need a Leatherman?”), he ran toward me and took the knife, out of breath, saying thanks with his whole body, words not needed. He reached the deer before me, but not by much, and then just stood there panting.

The fawn still had spots, but she was close to losing them and large for her age. One back hoof was trapped, almost as if she’d started over, somehow kicked off on that upper line, and then flipped to the other side with her leg caught between the metal fencing. Her ankle was bleeding, swollen, and not going anywhere unless we could cut the fence free. I grabbed her upper leg with my left hand to keep her from falling when the fence was cut and nodded at the man: he clipped the top wire, and stepped back, unnerved. Blood stained my left palm, oozing out from where I was holding onto her. The other piece of the wire was embedded in her ankle and wouldn’t let go, though, so I held fast with my left hand and, with my right, bent the wire back out of the way. Then I eased her gently down to her side of the fence and stood back myself, also unnerved.

The deer floundered, trying to get up and away, not trusting that the tall fence between us was enough cover even from we two who had helped her. The young man, breathing hard and handing me back my knife, said, It may be broken. Maybe, I replied, but I don’t think so. I didn’t feel any obvious breaks. They’re pretty tough at this stage. We used to raise orphaned deer on our farm. If she can get settled down some, get that leg back under her and rest a bit, she might make it.

I was convincing myself as much as anyone, watching her lurch and struggle into the undergrowth, hoping against hope that her mother would still be nearby or that, if not, the baby would rest and then be able to go on. If I could’ve cleared the fence, I’d have dragged her into my car and headed for the nearest veterinarian, but the fence was considerable, and neither my dress nor my shoes were up for crossing it.

We watched her take cover and then a few seconds later turned back to our vehicles. Still out of breath, he said, I always carry my Leatherman in my car, but this is my sister’s and she doesn’t have anything in it! I thought to myself that this young man could’ve passed for one of my students and replied, Well, you stopped and you helped and you did what you could. That’s the best any of us can do. Thank you for that.

He thanked me, too, and then we both got back on the road, me driving more slowly and more carefully than before. A few miles on traffic tied up bad, so I exited the highway and tried to wait out the accident up ahead. Two hours later, I finally and reluctantly got back on the road, inching along with a whole new set of vehicles. Stopped mostly, for long minutes sometimes before we’d inch forward for a few more feet, stopped long enough between inchings that we struck up conversations between cars—a young woman in the back seat of an SUV noticed my Wisconsin plates and wanted to talk about the state she missed and I’d just left. When highway trucks began trying to clear out the left lane, coming up from behind, I made space for the cars on my left to merge. This annoyed a white van full of white boys from Virginia directly behind me, and they let me know it complete with the word ‘bitch’ a few times. I shook my head and ignored them, determinedly making a space for the other lane to merge (which is the only smart thing to do near an accident site, especially when highway crews are flashing their lights and trying to get drivers to merge).

Neither the van nor the SUV noticed the vehicles coming up on the far left roadway well behind us: they both ignored them clean: the SUV didn’t merge, despite having plenty of room, and the white van very nearly passed me before suddenly seeing the highway trucks claiming that lane. The first truck, dwarfing my own, finally drove up alongside me; another one took the far left shoulder and ran ahead of the SUV and three other cars that weren’t merging and cut them off (with a blinking merge light bar then directly facing everyone between the truck beside me and that one, all in that left lane). I waved one hand at the SUV, motioning that they were free to merge, but they kept on driving between the two trucks, clearly unaware of accident protocols (clear the lanes closest to the accident to avoid further problems). The boys in the van stopped shouting the B word, but they kept revving their engines, ticked off at the delay. The driver of the highway truck beside me nodded at me, acknowledging as I have done many a time in emergency situations, any person that isn’t making the job harder.

Finally we came to the accident site itself, first evident in personal items slung alongside the center grassy section to the left of the highway. For more than a city block, the clothes and papers and food items from the passengers in the vehicle lay forgotten, now unneeded. The car itself had flipped and gone into a stand of trees on its side and my breath went still for a few seconds, recognizing the make and model that had driven so many of the previous miles before the deer alongside me, both of us rolling too fast toward where we were going. And then I stopped for the deer and the young man. And they kept going. There was no way to know the timing or even for certain that this was the car I drove alongside all those miles or just one that looked like it; there was no way to know whether I, in my tired and cranky state, might’ve wound up offsides and out of kilter along with the ones in the wreck if I hadn’t stopped; there was no actual, unquestionable connection between the accident and me except that I was passing its scene and was not in it. But I got cold chills, passing the investigators and hazard crews, ambulance (if there was one) long gone, and so I barely noticed the boys from Virginia pass by with a hoot to be back on open road. I drove slowly, deliberate, alert, and even pulled over to change a hotel reservation so I could get off the road sooner than originally planned. Life comes at us every breath, until suddenly it doesn’t.

I spent much of the rest of the evening sending healing thoughts to the little deer and to the family in that car. Maybe it does no good for anyone but me, but since we’re all energy, I figure you can’t ever tell for sure and so I do it, my equivalent of praying, I suppose. And I reached back in my mind to the desert I love so well, breathed in its peace and solitude, and carried on toward the sea.

Only days later did it come to me once more, mid-prayer for the deer again and the people in that wrecked car, this truth I know in my bones from the desert, standing safely at last on the eastern edge of land and sea on this wide, wide continent: how closely knit everything is. The young men all, the people in that car and then gone to where I know not, the young woman lonesome for her Wisconsin home, the highway workers trying to get a lane cleared and nodding their thanks to me, the deer, the man who fought hard to free her, and me: bar none, helping each other to make it through and being helped just the same on the way.

The desert remembers the sea. This I have known for longer than I can remember. Its winds and sands speak of tides and waters long since retreated but still carried in memory. And now, as I go once more upon the sea? It comes to me strong that the sea, too, knows the desert’s name. And that both know all of us. And with this, I can abide.

Sea knows desert

~

on wildness near at hand

For the second time in as many weeks, I rounded a long bend slowly today and came upon a rafter of turkeys, a hen and her dozen chicks, older now and taller and more alert: standing with heads suspended high on long necks, one beady eye each aimed my direction. When I made no further move toward them, they eased on across the lane, melting again into the underbrush.

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And then, rounding another long bend slowly on a paved road that gets a good deal of fast traffic which regularly grinds small creatures beneath their speeding wheels? There they were: twin baby fawns, spotted and thin and standing close to the road, looking perplexed. Curious and perplexed. I pulled off and looked for their mom, for surely she would never have left them in such an exposed place–trapped between a slow-moving slough and a highway. I found no sign of her at all, and the babes were slightly leery of me, so I worked with that natural instinct and eased them along until they could escape into the woods, in hopes they wouldn’t opt to step onto the road again and meet a quick, painful end.

Roadkill here is endemic, unavoidable, given the driving habits of my species. Raccoons, deer, woodchucks, possums, rabbits, skunks, cats—you name it: somebody’s hit it, nearly every day. The raccoons and deer, both of which I raised as a child, have always ripped my heart out and I usually go along angry with the people who refuse to slow down and drive in a manner that would deal less death. Sometimes that lasts the whole trip. I drive the speed limit or below, staying alert for whatever might be hoping to use the road as I pass: I have remarkably rich encounters thus (as with the twin fawns). If there’s a chance that an animal may still be alive, I stop and render aid. I’ve rescued huge old snapping turtles and raccoons and squirrels and birds and helped to get them returned to the wild. Sometimes I stop and simply move the dead ones off the pavement, trying in some small manner to honor their lives, apologizing to their corpses and spirits for the people who cut their lives short, speaking when words make no difference at all to them anymore. I want my own life to be lived in perspective: hurrying has a cost, both to them and to me: slowing down and stopping and helping or just paying my respects is a way to keep my own notions of what’s important more in line with all that lives about me, rather than just me and what I want, when I want it, etcetera. That’s all fine and good but it’s easy to slip into self-righteousness when I’m angry that another small being has died due to someone simply not caring enough to slow down and pay attention. Way too easy.

Today I came upon a baby skunk, lying dead in the middle of the road, the hair on its tail moving in the gentle breeze, no blood evident, just a swift death, and suddenly I understood something different than before: “Walk on,” I said, “Walk on from this beautiful heart-wrecking dream of now.” Walk on. I have had elders who told me this is what happens when we go, that we walk on. But there beside the skunk I had a glimpse of what a beautiful dreamworld this all is: good and evil wrestling with one another so earnestly that one tends to morph into the other, and people seeming to ‘fail’ the second they ‘succeed,’ and death attending the living every step. Instead of crazy cruel and bitter, which is how I usually understand all suffering, there is a grand theatre in which we, at every  moment, choose how we will engage. We make this world what it is: each of us. Believing we’re in time, we get to contribute to its wholeness and healing or to breaking it more. A judgment on anyone else is a judgment on myself. Thoughts of anger and retribution, no matter how well-deserved I might convince myself that they are for some ‘wrongdoer,’ only help to create a nightmare of brokenness, not just for me but for all. Thoughts take form. We get to choose what we contribute while here. Walk on.

For the first time ever, as I came upon each new death—today it was all babies, tiny and only here for a short time, then spirits vanished and leaving only the broken bodies of three raccoons, a woodchuck, and the skunk—I was able to breathe, to smile in acknowledgment of my kinship with these creatures and the drivers who killed them and the fact that I am walking right alongside them all, all the very way, and happily so. Walk on, I said, to each of them and to the humans who had passed this way, and also to me. Walk on and love this grand and beautiful, hazard-strewn dream of now. Place into it all that you are, all that you can give, for what you give you receive. On waking, you love it all.

~

on fireflies and eternity

As the fireflies light up the garden tonight, I remember an encounter in words from long ago:

Florence Farr once said to me, “If we could say to ourselves, with sincerity, ‘The passing moment is as good as any I shall ever know,’ we could die upon the instant; and be united with God.” William Butler Yeats

If god is all that exists—bar none ever—I wonder: on what great longings do the lightning bugs take wing and shine? What might they know of creation and war and loss and the lickety-split nature of destruction? And what might it mean for humans—believing ourselves trapped in a world chaotic beyond easy reckoning, worsening daily and spinning beyond our control—to surrender fully to the good in each present moment and thus risk being united with all things? Might we not see in these flashes of light some better way to carry on while we still breathe? Might we not, on finding our own sinews and cells and desires rooted deep within all that exist—even those whom we most fear or hate—might we not then become a force for healing, for revival, for life? Might we not see our sisters and brothers in those we have styled as enemies, our friends in the very souls of our foes, our selves in the ones whom we have spurned and loved alike? Might we know then that we are one and thus each has a particular , irreplaceable contribution to make in this grander play for which we all fly and flash for a few moments in time?

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~