Did you have a pet as a child that was important to you? What do you remember? What about your household now, is there an animal member?
Much in life is more mysterious than we take time to acknowledge. For example, this whole business of people and pets. Drawing from research by Johannes Odendaal, Rebecca Johnson and others, "America's Veterinarian" Marty Becker has written a fascinating article reviewing the benefits of animals to humans (see Missouri University Sinclair School of Nursing Journal for pdf).
Dr. Becker cites the following research findings about benefits domestic animals offer humans: stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, health benefits to elderly (e.g. reduction in doctor visits and medical complaints); enhancing the relaxation response; increasing exercise; reducing risk of allergies (surprise!); animal assisted therapies (AAT); hippotherapy for physical, developmental and emotional disorders; decreasing depression and loneliness; improving children's reading scores, empathy, and, possibly, IQ (!).
During human bonding, i.e. mothers and infants, certain hormones have been found to be present which produce pleasant feelings, calmness and sense of well being. These hormones include oxytocin. One of the most interesting findings is from Dr. Odendaal, at the Life Sciences Research Institute in South Africa, who found that petting and other positive interactions with pets not only produces those calming hormones in humans, but in the animals as well. In other words, the animals feel better too, in this reciprocal release of chemicals, even from just being in the room with humans.
Isn't this wonderful? And amazing? While whatever way it is that animals perceive love/attachment/connection remains a mystery, we know more now that we used to. Just as it
used to be controversial that animals have complex emotions, this new
knowledge has broad implications and brings considerable responsibility.
My cat Jack was like no other cat I'd ever had. Although to be fair to his predecessors, I had never before understood how much cats long for attachment with their humans. Jack's bonding efforts were straightforward and intense. An adult stray with years on the street, many wounds and an extremely bad rep in the neighborhood, Jack, when adopted, regressed immediately to kittenhood to begin a new attachment. He cried a lot and I couldn't always figure out his longings, but he stopped crying when I put him over my shoulder. So for several months I carried him, this 20 pound cat, everywhere I went in the house. Ever resourceful, Jack would not be left in another room, so as I slept, he slept with his chin resting in my outstretched hand. Very endearing. His actions of frequently checking my breathing in the night by sticking his nose to mine was less endearing.
After the strong unexpected, unlooked for infatuation, Jack worked hard to be the best cat he could be and to show his gratitude for being adopted. He never complained of late meals or boring food. He never made elimination errors or broke anything. He never scratched anything but the leather sofa, only when I was on the phone, which to his satisfaction trained me to have very short phone calls.
Though I tried to give him toys, Jack was embarrassed to be caught playing and would stop immediately if I walked in on him. His life had clearly been tough, but if made me sad that someone had denied him play.
Jack died long before I was ready for him to go and I will always miss him. But until recently, when I found the research, the mutuality of our bond was a mystery. How could a species so different from me feel so much for me? And I was a little embarrassed about how much I cared for him, how many stories I told about him, nearly as many as about my nieces and nephews. Jack taught me how to love a pet because he insisted on a relationship with me no matter what.
On his last day, Jack rallied and spent the day sitting in the threshold of the front door he never used, quietly looking into the light. It was only a few weeks after we nearly lost my mother. When I told her about Jack on the threshold, she smiled and cried a little, and I could see her holding this image close in her heart.
Some of us are embarrassed at how deeply we care for our animals, and so we tend to grieve their passing in secret, fearing being thought foolish in the face of human losses, even our own. But the truth is many of these animals love us back, in their animal way, it is not our imagination or anthropomorphizing. We recognize they are animals, not human. But their devotion is unconditional, persistent.
I remember the first time I saw this quote from Meister Eckhart, a 14th century mystic and minister,
"Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature."
As I finished reading this, my cat at the time, the remarkable Jenny Lou, walked in and looked up at me. I never saw her the same way afterwards. And in the end, Jenny Lou taught me how to grieve. But that is another story.
Years ago, when serving on the in-home communion team, we went to visit a wonderful elderly church member. She requested that we serve communion to her little dog as well. We found this request charming and eccentric and a tad awkward. But I understand it better now, of what it means to want invite a beloved companion to the Table of God and say "you belong, God loves you."
The doors open and the bride begins her processional on the arm of her father. I can see through her veil that she is smiling and crying and I am moved to my own tears.
My tears have to do with gratitude and awe. Gratitude for the love being expressed in this room, for the love that brought these two to this moment, for the affirmation provided to the gathered community by this act of marriage. A glowing future spreads out before us ---all the holiday celebrations to come between these families now joined. Though, since splintered families sit together to hear the vows and promises of commitment, surely there are mixed feelings as well. I see couples with 50, 65 years together, as well as ex-spouses trying to be civil and share joy. I imagine inner regrets, grief, questions as well as gratitude. The bottom line is that we are all here saying we believe in love and ever-after. And we do, and we feel fresh and hopeful and stronger. No matter what was true in our lives two hours ago, we are now in a comedy.
The tears continue off and on, not uncommon at weddings. Our souls are warmed by the love we witness, by memories, and by gratitude that we belong here, sharing this moment. We are reminded of other weddings, and of the missing faces and their stories. We all now have new stories, stories of this celebration-- what it was like to be bridesmaid for the first time, the mix-ups by the wedding planners, the graciousness of strangers now become family, laughter at those little things that make this wedding authentic and absolutely unique.
As a psychologist, I am amazed over and over that people are so
willing to love. Hearts broken in all kinds of ways nonetheless are
willing to open up and love again, or love fiercely in the face of
troubled relationships, disabilities, setbacks, fatigue and despair. It is such a courageous, resilient drive we have.
human heart is a great wonder and mystery. Is this the way that we come
closest to being the Image of the Divine?
"Walking!" I call out firmly. "Walking!" I say again, my voice raised slightly as I follow a Kindergartner down the school hallway. He manages to slow to a skip and then, reluctantly a walk.
It cracks me up how little kids run everywhere. I remember my nieces and nephews at 4, 5 and 6, dashing across the living room or down the hall to their bedroom. In school we set aside places to run, mostly to avoid collision. It's sensible.
But I wonder about the impulse to run. Is it about being in a hurry, everything you want or every place you want to be, you want NOW? Is it about having a small body with untamed energy? Or the irresistibility of a long open expanse in front of you, huge from the perspective of being two feet high, and way too many steps to take to do it in a walk? Is the impulse to run because the ability to make your legs move, so fast, SO fast, is like being a superhero?
I remember the sheer joy of running, no purpose but to feel the wind in my face, a gloriously alive feeling I had no words for. Freedom. Possibility. Whole.
What happens to that energy we ask children to give up, to channel only into cognition? Is this how we begin to separate our minds and bodies, and use our bodies to exhilaration only at PE time, in the limited context of rules, and turn taking and staying in lines? And so we lose that sense of running headlong into a space so much bigger than ourselves, that we feel untethered, as if we could one day jump off the planet and fly.
Is this why as adults we make schedules that keep us "running" in a different way? Do we imagine if we keep moving, from task to event to task, that we might regain our freedom, our power? Do we do it with or without joy?
I feel a kind of envy when I watch people who are dedicated runners, whether in competitive sports or as a hobby. I watch them soar over hurdles or pour down the hill of a marathon, running headlong with strong bodies that snub noses at gravity or carve a determined space through the air as they go.
If you hurry through your day, is it a headlong joyful dash into what matters most, or a careless haste to move, driven by the loss of something you can't name?
"The long run puts the tiger in the cat."Bill Squires, coach
It is a hot, sticky August night, and I know I will have to wet my hair to get cool enough to fall asleep. I am sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin with an angry teenager. Earlier, I had spoken briefly with my best friend of twenty years, who
is being admitted tonight to the hospital to get treatment for recently
Just now, I am "intervening". This is the kind of thing I do all the time, but in this case I am a volunteer, helping out with a grief recovery wilderness camp. In neutral tones and repetitive brief statements, I lay out the alternatives to the sullen, argumentative teen who has been disrupting the program.
And I am thinking, "What am I doing here? I should be at the hospital!" Although I don't know it, my friend has only a week to live.
Eventually the teen chooses, by default, to go home, and I stay up waiting for her ride. She is calmer now, we speak of other things. Watching the taillights of her mother's car recede, I have an epiphany. In a flash I see a lifetime of choices that too often separated me from friends and family.
Is it hard or easy for you to say "no" ? What ---or who---are you most likely to say "no" to and who or what gets your "yes"? Which choices of how to spend time and energy are hardest to make?
Sometimes, the hardest choice is between two good things. Sometimes, it is between different people we care about that we must choose our "yes" and "no".
Each "no" inherently holds a "yes." When we say "no" to a commitment, task or activity, to what might we be saying "yes"?
To begin with, a certain amount of time and energy belongs to us again, to be redistributed in a different way.
Saying "yes" to projects and activities splinters time into fragments, more and more as we say "yes" to more.
I used to say "yes" to nearly every opportunity that was the least bit attractive--- opportunities to lead, serve, explore, learn, teach. I fractured myself into bits because I couldn't see that saying "no" really meant saying "yes" to something I valued. My ego was served by all the opportunities to do something new, different. In retrospect, I don't deny the value of those. I learned a lot, met a lot of people, probably did some good in the world. But I regret not being able to accept my own limitations as I ran as fast as could, year after year. Everything was kind of blurry as I sped by. Much that could have nourished my soul was deferred as I focused on being productive and engaged in many good things.
Some of this is developmentally typical, at least in our culture. Many folk engage in lots of volunteerism in their 30's and 40's, in order to gain a presence in the community and begin to give back, after getting their lives otherwise established. This is by and large a good thing for society. Giving back to our communities, or to those we don't know or will never meet or never see again, is both a privilege and responsibility to the world outside our narrow pathways.
I am not saying the balancing act is easy.
But in reflection that August night years ago, I thought, "does it have to be me, sitting here, this night? On this night, where am I uniquely needed to be, i.e. that place in my journey where I most belong, right now?" Maybe that question is not always the best criteria, but it is a starting place, in keeping the balance.
What I faced, sweating on that porch, was the pain of looking at the relationships of my life, and recognizing when I had been present and when I had been absent. It was not an easy reflection. But it was the start of transformation.
Are you busy, over-committed, overwhelmed? Do you meet yourself coming and going, pass your closest family and friends on the way out the door? Is it seductive to feel busy, important, involved, engaged,entertained, efficient, please others?
When you say "no", what are you saying "yes" to? Could your "no" be a resounding "yes" to feeling more alive, focused, healthy, whole, available to important relationships, noticing what's important, nourishing your soul?
The best thing we have to offer is our careful, focused attention. Who or what do you want to pay attention to?
Think of your favorite painting. Is it a Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, O'Keefe, a piece in your city museum, an artist in a gallery near you? If money were no object, how much would you pay to own it? Why is it worth that to you?
Would you die to protect it?
Is there a piece of architecture that makes your heart sing or swell with joy? Would you die trying to protect it?
Recently I saw a documentary, "The Rape of Europa", about circumstances regarding art and architecture in World War II. Much art was stolen and moved from country to country. Many people took great risks to protect, hide and track the movements of their country's art from museums and dealers. The French emptied the Louvre. The stained glass windows in Chartres were removed and hidden.
There was a too-small team of American curators and archaeologists called "Monuments Men". They worked to identify and try to protect treasures as the army moved through Europe. Battle plans by both Allied and Axis forces were affected by decisions to protect or not protect historic places and art.
The filmmakers interviewed citizens who witnessed destruction and theft as well as heroic preservation efforts. These citizens described their mixed feelings and the impact on their lives then and now.
Why does art matter? Why does it seem painful to imagine bombing ancient monuments, or the permanent loss of paintings or works like the Camposanto frescoes in Pisa, or the destruction of the Hermitage in Moscow? Yet it is equally painful to know of lives lost to protect an ancient monastery in Italy----only to have it destroyed later with no impact on the battle.
Why would a shy French woman risk torture and death to chronicle the dispersion of art from Jewish art dealers in Paris? Why in the last 60 years has there been such intensive effort to return art works to rightful owners and national museums?
The great art of humanity means something to us. It is not just great beauty and history. Nor just about monetary value, although, for some, it is about acquisition of power, treasure, status. Art bears witness to the best in us, to resilience, creativity and transcendence. Art records our longings and seeking. Art speaks to and creates connection. It is about individuals and the collective. It is about worlds in the past we can no longer know except through art, monuments and stories passed down to us. Historical works of art make their way into the collective unconscious, informing not just present art, but the metaphors and meaning we make now.
Think about the art you encounter every day, or when you visit museums or travel. Centuries ago, millennia ago, artists made sculpture, structures, jewelry, pottery, murals. Did they imagine these things would last, be viewed lovingly and in wonder in a far distant future? And what about the commitment of the cathedral builders? Workers for generation after generation, for 200 years or more, constructed what they knew they would not see completed in a lifetime.
Today there are artists everywhere driven by those some creative urges and longings that made our ancestors paint on cave walls. Know any local artists? Write them a thank-you note for keeping our pathways lit up with beauty, discovery, truth telling and joy.
"He's my brother," the young woman said, a slight tension in her voice. Then, rapidly, "Tell your friends he could be dangerous." I stared at her as my worldview rippled with a seismic shift.
This bright young teacher had always shown boundless compassion and patience and her humor was a saving grace. On this day we had been discussing a number of tough situations.It brought to mind a recent discussion at church about hospitality of the heart.
There is a man often seen by a number of my friends. Ragged, with a massive nest of snarled and knotted hair, this apparently homeless man has walked particular neighborhoods for years--- walked and walked.He is not someone who approaches, nor is he approached.
Recalling him in our discussion, a friend said, “I wonder about him, I have always wanted to help him. I wish I just knew his name.”
Now, a few days later, talking with this young teacher, I told her of this homeless man and the desire of my friends to reach out to him. She listened for a while and then she said quietly, “That’s my brother. His name is Edward".
Then she told me her story, and her brother’s story.It was full of sorrow and grace.Her brother’s problems began very early in life and painfully impacted her family life.Much had been tried; much had been lost over the years.Yet here she sat.Smiling, dedicated, giving back.
How often do you see those lonely figures, standing at intersections with cardboard signs and maybe a puppy?Walking along the highway with a shopping cart overflowing with odds and ends?I remember a well-spoken man who knocked on my door, looking for tree work. We talked for a while, and looking down for a moment I noticed his shoes were held together with duct tape. I felt confused.
I remember a thin, bleary-eyed woman who approached me several times in the parking lot of my office building, with a different variation each time of how she was just traveling through and was stranded.She taught me something I have never forgotten.One day, as she started her story, I handed her some money, cut her off and said, “Please stop.I have heard all this before; it’s not true, get a better story.”She just looked at me.I felt overwhelmed with shame as I looked at my image in her eyes.
Bishop Anthony M. Pilla wrote in the 60’s that “the moral measure ofour society is how we treat the least among us.”Why did I ever think it was my money, to dole out to those I thought would use it “wisely”?Who was I to think that it was more shameful to be “conned” into giving a bit of money than to withhold my abundance?
But in learning from encounters with people seemingly so different from me who turned out to be mirrors and angels and heart-openers---in all of that I had not thought of their relatives. The parents with confusion and broken hearts, the siblings whose childhoods were disrupted, the spouses and children left with a mystery and deep grief.
Broken connections, untold stories.
Who do you meet in the course of a day?What do you know of whom they love and what their dreams are?What might you learn from them?What parts of you do they call forth?
That next Sunday I gathered again with my friends. "His name is Edward," I said. "I work with his sister. Let me tell you his story."
From across the valley, the cool breeze carries the undertones of mud, hay and smoke. The crisp October air is easy to breathe in deeply. Drawn to the sunlight and shadows on a grassy area bounded by trees and an earthen wall, I remember other meadows, other dances of light.
I pull out the tripod first and set it in the still squishy pasture, made uneven by the hooves of sheep and deer. I unpack the easel, canvas panels and brushes. I screw on the palette extension, hang the brushholder, weight the tripod, fill a cup with water, add cleaner to the brush washer. As I assemble and arrange, I look frequently at those bright contrasts of lights and darks, squinting to see variations in value.
Each step of the preparation is done more slowly and with increasing anticipation. Now comes the pleasure of laying out the fat juicy worms of color from the tubes. The last step, mixing the palette for this moment, is playful but requires patience. Today I mix three tones of green, two of blue, two of yellow, four of brown. Each of these will lead to multiple hues on the palette and canvas.
For me, the preparation for painting has become a sacrament, a holy rite of mind, body and spirit. This sacrament allows a gradual narrowing of focus and purpose, a movement out of linear time, an opening in the heart, a deepening in the soul.
I plant my feet on whatever ground holds me. My senses awake to the orchestra of sights, smells and sounds of a particular place in the universe, of the intersection of this inner with this outer. My skin vibrates with the movement of air around me, the softness of fabric around my neck, the warmth of the hat.
Mixing the paint makes me feel like an un-selfconscious child, wondering what will happen when I do this , or that? And I paint best when I hold onto that curiosity.
We humans love our rituals. Our most important ones are designed to connect, renew, remember, embrace, recreate. Whatever we enter into mindfully has potential for a sacramental celebration.
Which rituals matter the most to you? Are they still fresh, meaningful? What practices create openings for you?
What I find is that there is a different ritual when the painting is finished or the light fades. There is a moment of fullness, a change in breathing. Satisfied or not with the outcome, the process has served to shift time and perspective and I am different than when I set up the tripod, more whole than when I first looked at white canvas. I clean the palette and brushes, put everything in the backpack, and walk gently into the long shadows crisscrossing the meadow.
"Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul." -- Kandinsky
Thursday night, watching the MSNBC re-broadcast of the news program from that 9-11 morning seven years ago, I reflected on how little we knew at the time, and all we have learned since then. And all we have forgotten, as well. Surely we needed to forget some things, or at least gain distance from them. But there was at least one "knowing" I hoped to make permanent.
Our family gathered that October seven years ago on the Arkansas River. We had planned the event long before 9-11. We arrived in a different mood than we had anticipated. The news was still full of updates on Ground Zero, and the hijackers, and all those events that we were still reeling from. My family, like most, had a vigilant sense of the precariousness of life in those days. Each shared story, each shared laugh, was being stored up for future savoring, even as it occurred. The sense of deep change in our world was almost overpowering. Whatever once was taken for granted, was now in question. So many questions. Yet we laughed a lot. We spent a long time on the porch of the rented cabin, talking under tall trees and watching 'helicopter' seeds spiral down, adding a playful distraction and undertone to the conversation, soothing troubled hearts.
I took a chair down to the riverbank. There I entered deep silence as I watched a solitary white crane, fishing in the shallows. The bird stood for long periods of time, waiting. Occasionally he moved, stepping slowly, carefully, delicately, the sticks of his legs bending at sharp angles, his beak stabbing precisely from time to time. It was the stillness that caught my attention, the patience. No wasted motions.
In the silence of the golden autumn, life seemed the same. The river flowed as always, as if nothing had happened. It felt strange to me that the earth was going on as before, as if nothing could be momentous enough to change the flow of a shallow river, the life of a crane. The fish he ate would be eaten or not, regardless of what humanity was busily trying to do.
Sudden tears rolled down my face, my breath caught in my throat. I felt a shift in the mourning, fear and anger that had filled my heart for the last month.
It was not so much that I suddenly trusted in a peaceful world. Rather, it was that I came to know more about how to live in the world that is. To know that I could be still, patient. That I could savor the light and shadows of a fall afternoon, and the tiny mystery of helicopter seeds, and the gift of laughter drifting off the porch behind me.