Thursday, October 31, 2013

Living Hearts of Compassion

Beannacht - John O'Donohue

n the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

After months of anticipation, my copy of William Todd Schultz' newest book, Torment Saint, a biography of the beloved musician Elliott Smith, arrived last weekend.  I stayed up many nights reading it, rapt in the story of a gifted artist and his arsenal of demons.  The book itself is a feat of research and devotion.  It is lovely.  You should buy a copy and send up a prayer for all the sensitive souls who find this world too much to bear.  

As extreme as many parts of Elliott's life were, there were parts of it that gave me real pause, as they reminded me of my own struggles through the years.  As I read about Elliott's onslaught of depression in his adult life, I kept thinking, Do all artists have trouble accepting who they are?  Do we create because we feel like weirdos and we need a place to be, a place where we feel safe and in control?  Or do we feel like weirdos because we see things differently and feel in constant need of connection? 

Honestly, I don't know.  What I do know if that I've felt like a weirdo my entire life, even and especially when I was a little girl.  Sometimes I think focusing on your differences as signs of weakness, rather than simply signs of who you are, is a human condition.  Very few of us are immune to bouts of self-doubt.  At other times, however, it seems to me an artistic state of being - constant questioning, constant unrest. 

On a different end of the spectrum, I somehow managed to stumble upon a GQ photo shoot with the band Fun recently, where Nate Ruess, speaking of the band's success (and speaking to GQ, no less) said: "There is a part of me that feels like we will never belong...and I hope that doesn't ever change."

It made me blink, hard, because earlier in the day I had been watching an interview with Elliott Smith in which he said something like, I'm the wrong kind of person to be a big rock star.  He was no doubt alluding to his perception of himself as either a regular guy or an anti-establishment artist, but the truth is, he was a prodigious talent, and like it or not, he was a star. 

I don't mean that as an indictment of anyone's reaction to success, although I think it's safe to say that Elliott Smith did not have an easy relationship to it.  I just mean, geez, I wish he could have seen himself the way other people saw him, which, according to Shultz' was: generous, compassionate, and hilarious, though troubled.  

In any case, I appreciated certain allusions in the book to depression as a breeding ground for compassion, and I related strongly to the feeling of being able to love others unconditionally while sometimes with-holding that devotion from myself. 

Which brings me to my point: it's funny how much I need my friends to show me who I am.  Sometimes, while talking to a good friend, emotional topics will pour out of me that I had not been aware of holding back at all.  I will realize I had been waiting for a safe place for my words, my story, to land.  And when I find those places in others, in someone who accepts the whole of me, someone who sees and still loves the painful parts, the wounded parts, someone who can in the same sitting show me the funny parts, the glowing parts - that is quite a healing. 

I once read somewhere that as you age it becomes increasingly important to stay in touch with the people you knew when you were young.  (I might have read this in AARP the magazine because, in addition to meticulous biographies about tormented artists; I also love me some AARP.) 

I think of this advice now when connecting on the phone with friends, or seeing my brothers, trading old jokes when we are together.  There is a wordless and deep remembrance that happens in the company of these people.  What am I remembering, exactly?  Perhaps who I am, or who I once was. And perhaps I am remembering what I knew before I grew older and sprouted adult concerns: that love is the ground for grace in my life - it is the one thing I am here to get right. 

Driving the dark, leaf-strewn streets of my town two nights ago after leaving work late, I listened to a good friend's voicemail and felt myself in disbelief at the kindness pouring through the phone.  I thought: this is what I need from friendship, and I am so so lucky to have it.  I have friends with whom I am in mutual disbelief, dazzling gems who remind me who I am inside, with whom I trade devotion back and forth with giddiness and gratitude, and I now believe true friendship should be no other way.   

Todd kept writing in his book that music was everything to Elliott, and when I listen to his music, I feel that so completely.  I stop in my tracks when I hear his voice, and it pains me to think that all the people who had the same reaction, the people who bought his albums and maybe considered him a big rock star, were not enough to convince him that he was a gem.

The saddest thing in life to me is the inner environment we are all contending with, the minefields we must walk on our journey to psychological and spiritual health.  Then again, some part of me believes that we are here to heal, simply and purely, and that wounds are invitations, too.  At the very least, when held with care, they can teach us to hold holy the souls around us.

To all of you, and the art in us all,
With love,

Friday, October 18, 2013


A couple of weeks before we put Bear down, when he could still go for a proper(ish) walk, he stopped on the lawn of a small community church around the corner from our house.  He rummaged in the bushes per usual, then he did something he had never done before.  He led me up the steps of the church.  Someone was practicing a song, a tenor with a beautiful voice.  Someone else played an acoustic guitar, and the sound system they used wasn't shabby.  Bear wanted to go further inside, beyond the closed sanctuary doors.  I couldn't work up the nerve to bring a dog into someone's sanctuary, especially as a stranger, so I sat on a wooden chair just outside the doors and listened, while Bear breathed his raspy, old-man breath and tried to nudge us further inside.

I wanted more than anything to go deeper inside, to nestle up to whatever was calling both of us.  I wanted to sit at the feet of whomever was singing and let their devotion wash over me.

Recently, walking by myself after work, the autumn air cooled my hot work blood and I thought how walking by myself is becoming more and more tolerable.  (I almost wrote bearable, but that's not the right word at all.)  The first few times I went out without my partner at the end of his short red leash, it broke my heart.

But walking by myself recently, I remembered the church and thought how, although Bear was still mobile, his breath was already growing rough, and he was starting to do things like wander almost absent-mindedly into spaces he had never cared for before.

One of those spaces was the church narthex, and I wondered as I walked without him if that had been a moment of doggy last rites - if his spirit was needing a final blessings - or if, like always, he was helping me slow down and open my heart to the beauty in the world.  Either way, I am grateful for what washed over me in that strange church while I huddled with my dog, worried someone would come out and wonder what in the world we were doing there.

We walked on that night, and the next time we passed the church, Bear only sniffed their sign.  There was no one singing, no dog pulling me inside.  The curtains had closed, the window passed.  Part of me worries that things like that will stop happening when I don't answer the call.  I chose the world outside the church that night, as I have done for some time, but I want to remember that feeling, something tugging me toward it, something bright and glowing behind those doors.

In a more literal take on the subject, I went to a wild animal sanctuary last weekend and spent a full day with tigers.  There were lions, black bears, grizzly bears, and leopards too, as well as, curiously, two porcupines who refused to show their faces.  (I can't say we actually missed them.)  The website for the sanctuary says they rescue and rehabilitate animals who have been the subject of human "immoderation" - in other words,  people who thought they could raise a bear cub inside their house, or circuses who trained their animals with the handy aid of nicotine addiction before being shut down. 

My eyes welled with tears hearing about these huge creatures spending time in tiny spaces, at the will of people who do not understand or respect their essential needs.  But I love the discreteness of that phrase: human immoderation.  And it is true: that's exactly what keeping a bobcat as a pet is.  I don't know what happens when sanctuary workers rescue an animal.  I'm sure there is deep grief and outrage by all parties, on all sides.  I am just glad there is room enough on the Colorado prairie for these animals to live out their now peace-filled lives. 

There was a sign on the grounds of the sanctuary that read something like: Certainly, saving one animal cannot save the world, but to that animal, it means the whole world.  I've heard this about adopting strays too - meaning dogs and house cats; not, say, a bobcat - and it certainly is true.  There were two things I never forgot when Bear was alive and living with us.  The first was that he was an animal capable of summoning wild qualities at any moment.  He never turned on me, but when I crouched down to his bed at night when he was crankiest, or scratched his chest and tugged playfully at his muzzle in the morning when he was sweetest, I felt honored that he trusted me. 

The second thing I never forgot was the day I adopted him, and brought him home to my room in a spacious basement full of previous tenants' rick-rack.  He glowered at me from the corner of my bedroom.  Neither of us knew what the other was about.  I honestly didn't know if I would be alive in the morning.  I went to sleep worried about the shadow sharing my room, uncertain what he was thinking or what he would do.  He must have had similar questions about me.  It took a couple of years for Bear's glower to disappear, and when it did, I never forgot how far we both had come: me in providing a safe, cozy home for us both, and him in opening up and softening. 

And now I am crying at my computer.  Well, here's to the wildness in each of us: to its strength and ferocity, and striped, tender underbelly.

With love,

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wolves Underneath the Stars

I've been thinking lately about niches, how I might be more successful in the Web-o-sphere if I wrote say, a vegan cooking blog, or had an allergen-rich child who had radically altered my life, and I could now show you how to prosper in the brave new world of wheat-less living. 

I don't have any aces like that up my sleeve.  In fact, trying to come up with a list of rules I like to live by, the first rule of Fight Club came to mind: You do not talk about Fight Club.  Except for me, it was more like - the first rule of living is: there are no rules.

Tim likes to quote the guidance he read in a book called Blue Highways:

1) Don't go around hurting each other


2) Try to understand

If there are rules in our house, those might be it, because there certainly aren't ones about cleaning things on time.

I guess rules are good for understanding how to live in community, how to care for one another, how to make space for those around you.  But I also think the human spirit is pretty intuitive, and when left to its own devices, I find it is a pretty benign, loving thing. 

I once wrote about how much wilderness means to me, and I've been seeing similar themes pop up here and there.  Lily at bigBANG studio wrote a gorgeous post this week about what wilderness does for her, and it made me think of this Wallace Stegner quote I've been sitting on, not quite knowing how to integrate it into the blog.  I guess the best thing is to just whack you over the head with it, so here goes (thump).

Have I mentioned reading Shopping for Porcupine, Seth Kantner's out of this world memoir about growing up in Alaska?  It is chock full of chipped, frozen knuckles, bear hunting, wolf hides, and moose.  In other words, my piece of heaven. 

I don't know how to explain how a girl who grew up in Connecticut, who hails from funeral directors and tobacco farmers in North Carolina, thrills while reading about harsh elements, extreme conditions, and homesteading.  I assure you, most of my free hours are spent day-dreaming on suburban streets, and wandering the fields of memoirs I adore, buns planted firmly on my porch rocker.  But still, I would only be half as alive, half as powerful, were it not for the wild spaces I love so much.

Here is another book that blew the door off my mind, about long-distance swimming in Arctic waters, of all things.  (If your library carries it in hard-cover, as mine does, it is a particularly beautiful cover.  When you get your hands on it, you should probably just sleep with it next to you like a big, watery promise.)

I suppose I'm getting at two things here.  The first is how important it is for me to explore in this life.  Besides woods and vistas and swampy lake curves, I probably enjoy exploring feelings best.  And the reason I love woods and vistas and swampy lake curves is because they resemble the un-tame parts in all of us - the messy, the scary, and challenging parts of being human. The not-easy parts, the one-size-fits-only-me parts, the parts that refuse to behave, and the parts that allow vulnerability and life-on-the-edge to rule supreme. 

Those are the parts of life I like to honor above all.  Anyone who can read can follow a list of rules.  Even more of a challenge, I think, is to let yourself howl wildly, a lone arc of hope across the crystalline night.    

I could end every post with a Josh Ritter song but try not to.  Here is one for you, though.  Do yourself a favor - go out and buy The Animal Years if you don't have it already.  Then go out and live your biggest baddest animal life.


P.S. For those of you following the mysteries of my neighborhood, a family moved in down the street with, like, 15 children.  One of the youngest kids was out in the yard one night at dusk, dressed in a diaper, armed with a long stick, banging it with authority on a mound of dirt.  As Tim and I walked past, Tim joked, "Hey! A feral baby."  But seriously, that little boy took my breath away.  I don't necessarily want to be a baby allowed to run around in the dark past my bedtime without a stitch of clothing on, but the fact that someone out there is living an existence like that, and right on my street, well, that pretty much made my summer.