"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Saturday, February 26, 2011

February Winter

I'd forgotten February winter. Some years these late winter days are mild, but often the season saves its biggest bite for the end. This is one of those years. We've had snow and more snow, and now the thermometer on the patio hovers at 20.

In spite of bright blue skies and even brighter sunshine, the air feels like acid. Ground crunches like broken glass underfoot. Exposed flesh reddens, numbs, then burns. Bones ache as layers of body and fabric do little to  keep the cold from burrowing like some determined rodent.

More snow is predicted.

I've accepted the gifts of this dormancy, been grateful for the time of rest and recovery, been intentional about receiving each new day for the abundance of grace it has to offer. As my own inner life reflects with near perfect synchronicity the onward grind of this season of death, even recognizing the new life it reveals in the darkness,  I find myself wondering when the rising of sap will explode into spring green leaf.

I am winter weary. Thinking enough is enough, and it's time to move forward. Thinking I'm ready - as cleansed and healed and rested as I need to be.

Then this morning as I stood outside at sunrise to bask in dawn's pink smile, surrounded by the deepest stillness possible, as though the air were so frozen no sound wave could move, a new awareness sparked. All around I could see that what had seemed stripped before by weeks of rain and wind and snow, was even more bare after days of brittle cold. What had seemed as revealed as it could be, stood more open and thus more ready to bear the fruits of a new season.

And even as winter offers its last burst of cleansing, my front lawn was full of robins yesterday afternoon, the air vibrant with their declarations of territory. The calendar says March is days away. My heart whispers, soon, soon enough. I draw the cold fire deep within, and trust it to burn away the last of my own dead leaves. I trust. I breathe. I abide.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Six Eagles and a Drunk

The first half of our trip around the refuge was uneventful. As is our custom, we had windows down, the heat cranked, and seat belts off for ease of movement. Walt drove with his camera and its big lens resting across his lap. I rode shotgun with the good binoculars which I'd bought him for a birthday a few years ago (and which he rarely gets to use). The wind blasted through the car with what seemed like malice, but we just buttoned coats and ignored it.

There were the usual coots and mallards and shovelers. Distant calls of redwing blackbirds. Canada geese and tundra swans flocked by the hundreds.

More cars than we usually see on a Sunday afternoon strung out in front and behind, creating a beaded necklace encircling the wide throat of the refuge. We played a slow game of leapfrog, passing a car pulled over to study the nutria grazing on the nearby dike, being passed as we stopped so Walt could shoot a solo snaky-necked egret.

While Walt focused his camera on the egret, my eyes were drawn upward to soaring wings which tipped just enough to reveal the flash of tail white that could only belong to a bald eagle. I craned around to watch him circle behind when another flash of brown and white hurtled right at him mid-flight. The two flew out of sight, one pursued, the other pursuer.

Just a few yards up the road, we noticed several cars bunched together, and arrived just in time to see another baldie lift up from a branch and disappear into the skim milk sky in the disconcerting way of eagles, like animals in a magic act.

For another long stretch there was no more excitement. We noted the dearth of herons and harriers, usually abundant for our visits. Walt started to speed up a bit through a stretch where we've only ever seen the chewed evidence of beaver presence, geese in the distance, and the occasional grebe, when we both noticed brake lights filling the curve in the road just ahead.

As we sat in the line, no room for leapfrog in that narrow spot, waiting to move forward, I began to hear the high-pitched whistle that could only belong to a raptor. I saw the white head in the midst of bare branches first, then the red meat between talons, and realized I was seeing a mature eagle feeding. We watched for a few minutes before I spotted movement a few branches above, which turned out to be a yearling: dark streaked brown, fluffed feathers, with eyes that begged to be given a turn at the carcass below.

Suddenly from out of nowhere another yearling shot into the picture, causing the perched one to topple. Somehow they both ended up on the adult which resulted in a frantic flurry of feathers and wings. When all three had resettled themselves on separate branches, I noticed the door open on the car in front of us. A woman was trying to see the birds, one of which was peering down just above her head, so when she stepped out of the car, I tried to tell her to look up.

Instead, she staggered toward me with a loopy grin on her face and alcohol-pink eyes, almost tipping over when her foot caught a soft rut. The driver of her car was yelling at her to get back in the car now! which she blithely ignored. She apparently needed to point out one of the other eagles to me as the one she and her partner had rescued earlier in the day. I smiled and nodded in response, wondering if she really believed such a preposterous story, and more, if she expected me to.  Her smile grew wider in the telling of her tale, which made her head bob which threatened to topple her. For a moment she looked lost, uncertain, but then her smile returned and she turned and lurched back to her car, which took off like the getaway car at a bank robbery.

In the days since our visit, I've found myself thinking about that woman even more than the wonder of getting to observe such amazing eagle behaviors.

Part of it is the incongruity of running into a drunk person in the refuge that is our sanctuary. People are not supposed to get out of cars there this time of year, so we rarely have contact with our fellow birders anyway, but when we do it's usually to share a smiling nod or the name of a bird or to point out an interesting sight. There is a definite air of dignity and holiness about that wild place.

Mostly, though, I think I can't quite get her out of my mind because she could easily have been me twenty years ago. Needing a drink to feel the glory around me, to feel safe, to feel anything at all. Unable to face a Sunday afternoon without the false fluid warmth of alcohol to soften the ever-present edges. Telling stories that I believed made me look important to smiling strangers, and not realizing how obvious my altered state was.

I wish I could save her from herself, and convince her she is beautiful and appealing and enough. I wish I could tell her to stop listening to the lies that keep her imprisoned, that she has the power to break free. I wish I had been able to say, "It's possible to find your own light. I'm proof, in the same way these eagles are proof that you can come back from the brink to flourish and thrive."

Sunday, February 20, 2011


My cousin Sal and I were in the midst of one of our frequent, and deeply satisfying, conversations about the nature of God, how religion does or does not reflect that nature, and our own experiences of the divine. Just naming the topic of our conversation is often interesting. "God" was used in my earlier experience as a weapon and a means of control. It was a synonym for shame and judgement. But after years of trying different names, "God"is the only one that really works for me.

I'm never really sure what I mean when I talk about God. I've mostly shed my childhood picture of the angry old man with the big white beard - sort of an anti-Santa - who was just looking for me to mess up so he could punish me. I've never not believed in a higher power, but in the last few years, my understanding of what that means has expanded to the point of my having to simply accept the mystery beyond human understanding.

In this last conversation with Sal, one of us (or both - we often have some of our more brilliant insights piggy-backing off one another's ideas) said, "You can't believe God into existence. He exists with our believing or without."

I knew right away we were saying a version of, "Bidden or not bidden, God is present." Most often this quote is attributed to Carl Jung and I remember feeling a huge sense of relief the first time I saw it. Partly because I've always thought Jung's wisdom came from a soul-deep place, and partly because it felt safe - like I didn't have to work quite so hard any more.

But it was the believing part  of what we said that felt different and significant.

While I chose not to use AA in my path to recovery, when I first became sober I was thrilled to know the only path to freedom from the grips of alcohol involved relying on a higher power. Some being who knew more than I did, who had unlimited capacity for patience and understanding, and who apparently loved me just as I was.

From the time I was old enough for any awareness, I knew God existed because of the colors, fragrances and wild lives that flourished with no human intervention. I wouldn't have named that experience God, in fact couldn't for years, because the name was already taken by the punishing old guy. However, those times when I was outside, warmed by a gentle sun, stroked by a playful wind, watching deer graze in a meadow surrounded by the simple light of daisies - those were the times I felt a certain rightness and connection to life that didn't exist at any other time. That has not changed in nearly six decades.

I have a number of friends who believe in no God beyond their own ability to be good or to live a full and meaningful life. I can't quarrel with that, or even argue them out of that belief. I don't want to. It's not my place. But when I'm in conversation with them, and consider what it might be to live that way, I can't - not really. Any more than I could consider living without breathing.

You can't believe God into existence. But, for me, believing in that existence is what gives life meaning, power and substance. To know that love exists in a bigger and deeper form than I'll ever be able to grasp offers not only comfort, but also a safe place to rest. I can't say exactly what I believe, but when a stranger smiles at me, or responds to my smile; when Walt looks at me with his kind and loving eyes; when the robins return declaring spring has to arrive because they have, I feel without doubt a love far too large to be simple human.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Snow Day

As I sat here this morning working and waiting for the sliver of pink I so often see in the east just before day truly breaks, what I saw instead were flashes of white against the clinging darkness. It was snowing. I figured it would be a few random flakes that would turn to rain soon, as is often the case here.

The lighter it got, however, the heavier the snowfall. Soon the ground was as white as the air, and not much later I found myself surrounded by winter.

There have been many times when this snow would have been a burden to bear, an occasion to escape into some warm comfort. Today, I'm finding a deep and healing comfort in its presence. The cold of a snowy day is much different than the cold of a rainy day. Snow cold is clean and alive and rushes into my head like the scent of lavender in the summer.

The world is two colors right now: the purest white possible, and everything else muted to a dark green. Simple and soothing.

Kathleen's death, her absence, has been close this week. Somewhere I read that you never get over losing a child, it just becomes more permanent over time. It feels as though another line has been etched in stone. I don't know why now, and I guess it doesn't matter.

For a time the snow fell in thick sheets, filling the air with what looked like little tissues sent directly from heaven to honor tears spilling from a broken heart.

Later I stood on my front porch, trying to capture something of the magic with my camera, and just stood for a bit. Bare-footed. No coat. No protection at all. My feet grew quickly numb and I didn't mind. It made me think that some numbness is necessary to allow space for healing, to give rest. Paradoxically, the cold also brings feeling into much sharper focus.

I absorbed the weighted stillness, a silence only possible under snow's sound-damping blanket. A vast empty space big enough to hold all my sadness and all my gratitude in one embrace. And it felt like such a gift, that absolute nothingness containing the promise of everything.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Just like that, light begins to return in random sparks. The weight of my long winter is eased by the flashes of golden grace that suddenly seem everywhere. I know they've always been there, and more I haven't yet felt, but in the last few days I've found myself delighted at every turn.

The awareness of the feeling first came on a walk with Toby (no surprise there, right?). It was a rare morning walk, below freezing beneath a lively blue sky. I was enjoying the particular freshness only to be found in morning light and air, following the trail, when I looked up to see what I thought was fog blanketing the clearing ahead. When I broke through, what I found instead was a breathtaking display of diamonds liberally painted over every surface for as far as my eye could see, sparkling like life under the bright morning sun.

Later it was a video of babies laughing, found as I scrolled Facebook. I'm rarely there, and even more rarely willing to take the time to watch the many videos linked, but that time I did. I can still hear the music of those four angelic voices crowing in delight.

And then like fireflies at dusk in the Midwest, a couple of sparks became a skyful:

A new massage therapist with warm hands and a warmer heart.

A phone call from my older brother, which always makes me happy, but this time I could hear my own joy at the sound of his voice, and was surprised by it. Frank's grief over the loss of his stepson is still fresh, and I think our shared losses this year have opened something new for us.

Shiny, velvety, new-green foxglove leaves whorled against the ground, the first step toward the brilliant brave spikes that will wave in summer breezes.

On the edge of a meadow, plum blossoms festooning a baby tree, clearly not aware they're meant to wait for warmer air.

Lunch with a friend that felt as soulful and satisfying as the soup we shared.

It's not the events. I know that. And each is something I am always aware of feeling grateful for in some way. This new sense of lightened, light-filled delight is a very different thing. A return of an old friend, but more somehow. Stronger and more precious because of the shadows from which it's emerging.

Winter still holds here, even with the many small signs of spring. We could still get weather, often do into early March. The cold still grips like there's no tomorrow. I'm prepared for even more frost, and won't be relying on the warmth and light this week has given as proof winter has been defeated. But for now at least, my spring has arrived.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Small Gifts

Gifts are offered, not to bring change or even to ameliorate what is, but to remind that change is happening with every breath in and every breath out.

Walking with Toby, taking a trail we avoided all summer because of denning coyotes, I looked up. My eyes searched for eagles, as they always do, but instead they found an odd looking lump of a bird resting on the branch of a dead tree. I was struck first by the beauty of the tree, perfectly triangular but stripped of everything but the cones hanging like ornaments from every branch. The bird didn't fly, even though I stood and studied him intently.

At first I thought it might be a sort of sparrow, puffed up against the cold. Right size, right color, right kind of tail. But the longer I watched, the more convinced I became it was something else. So I stepped carefully through brush until I stood right under him. It was the wide head and the way he swiveled it that made me realize I was seeing a northern pygmy-owl. The first in my experience, ever. We watched each other for as long as Toby was willing to entertain himself, then I reluctantly headed home, my heart lighter than it had been for days.

The next day's gift was a sound. One I've come to know and recognize - itself a small miracle. The chuckle and whistle of two bald eagles, in what I assume is a courtship conversation. I was in the same clearing where I'd seen the owl the day before, and the sound seemed to be circling me. I strained my eyes, stood as tall as I could, searching in vain for the telltale flash of white. I finally gave up, decided the music was enough, and continued along the trail.

Movement in the air brought my head up just in time to see the pair fly directly above me.

I almost missed the next one. Driving into my driveway, my mind already in the house and onto the next thing on my list, I registered a spark of yellow where none has been for months. One single fully bloomed forsythia blossom. A promise of abundance to come, yet a powerful and beautiful light all by itself.

I was at a friend's house yesterday. Her crocuses are blooming, her daffodils about to burst, her tulips forming tiny tepees in a clump by her door. And while I appreciated the gifts they offered, the proof that spring will come,  her flowers did not move me in the same way that one bit of yellow in my own yard did.

As I do my best to embrace each new day of this very long winter, I've been reluctant to accept what feel like false comforts. The old stand-bys like summer memories and a breath of warm air. Even occasional breaks of sun have done little to ease the cold that will not be melted easily. Yet somehow a tiny owl, an eagle courtship and one small flower have the power to reach into my heart and begin the spring thaw. No reaching for them, no intention, no seeking - just openness, presence, and now a releasing gratitude.

Middle photo by Walt Shucka. Bottom photo from Google Images.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Winter Green

Branches are as bare as they're going to get and new growth is weeks away. I can see the river through green-furred skeleton arms. Singers in the bird choir are still winter wren and flicker, nuthatch and chickadee, kinglet and junco.

Air is cold, moist and gray, somehow gray even when the sun shines. A still, quiet gray; breathless, waiting.

River runs strong and clear - liquid jade revealing smooth stones. Often freezing on Toby's fur after an exuberant swim, becoming glittery diamonds adorning his broad chest.

There is a surprising amount of green everywhere: moss and sword fern that thrive in these exact conditions. Cold and damp - a time when not much else moves, let alone grows into newness. Green glowing the brightest on the grayest of days, somehow creating light out of the shadows. Looking dusty and almost invisible in the half-hearted light of winter's sun.

It's hard not to think about what's missing, what the spring will bring soon enough. It's hard to breathe air that holds not one kiss of warmth and to allow the cleansing cold all the way in. It's hard to love winter green when a heart longs for just one moment spent lying in sweet summer grass.

Memories stored away throughout the summer to pull out at such times are faded like fir branches in lifeless light, offering no more satisfaction than shiny magazine pictures of tropical places where people romp without care at the edge of the ocean.

I walk and breathe and search - eyes ready to catch the first violet, ears ready to hear the first robin song, shoulders ready to feel the soft comfort of a sun whose power is returned. Winter green within and without, holding me still in a life that feels stripped of all but shadows, skeletons, and gray waiting; that also promises spring will arrive at exactly the right time.