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."
"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
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.
Know any “late bloomers”?Or have you named yourself that, in some aspect of your life?Many of us could lay claim to blooming late in something, as life is rarely lived moving forward in a straight line, all parts of ourselves in sync and equally developed. (Though many of us tick off milestones as if it were, comparing our progress with other people. Say, like our college friends). And those stages of life that psychologists often talk about have blurry edges and indistinct ages. The path is more spiral than highway.
Perhaps you have heard “late bloomer” used as a polite discount to describe someone who doesn’t seem to be meeting expectations for his or her age or tenure in a job.I’ve also heard it used to reassure young people who seem to lag behind in cultural expectations of grace, beauty, athleticism or popularity---“You’re just a late bloomer, don’t worry.”Or maybe you’ve heard it used with surprise and respect when someone’s career takes off, when everyone else thought it never would.“Late bloomer.”
I admit to ignorance about most things botanical. So I never recognized the truth and beauty of the late bloomer until recently.
The rose season was just past its prime as my friend and I walked through the Botanic Gardens.We came upon a cluster of white rose bushes, full of blooms only the week before.Now the ground was littered with brown petals and remaining blooms were opened flat, faded.But there were stand-out spots of brilliant white, perfectly shaped, velvety fresh petals.Late blooming roses.Suddenly I got it.Just as I had begun to mourn the passage of the season, the surprise of the bright new growth pulled me into the present.
Are you a late bloomer?In your career or fulfillment of dreams?In creativity, love, joy or spiritual growth?Ah, what a gift, what a great start to the summer.
Our boat was deep into Tracy Arm fjord when we began to slow and everyone rushed to one side. We advanced carefully toward a large iceberg, an astonishingly blue iceberg, sculptured into a smooth dome, like the stereotypical UFO. Only the day before I had learned about the blue glaciers of Alaska, visiting Mendenhall Glacierin Juneau. But this iceberg was almost close enough to touch, and the deep cerulean and cobalt blues seemed impossible. It has to do with the crystalline structure of the glacier, formed not by ice but by compressed snow. So I also knew that the ice I was looking at was several thousand years old. Soon we passed another, and another, each sculpted differently.
These had broken off one of the two glaciers of the fjord. As we glided on the glassy water, the floating chunks of ice increased in number but were smaller. Soon, I noticed that many of the floes carried a mother harbor seal and her baby. Once i saw twins. One baby was suckling as we drifted by. As far as you could see, there were mothers and calves dotting the small icebergs and floes.
The ice got thicker as we approached South Sawyer. It was like a slurry, and few seals were visible now. The boat stopped and I realized how cold it was, and how silent. But that was only for a moment, for soon there were cracking sounds, and then a boom like thunder. The glacier. It was retreating, the term used when the great river of ice, that is always advancing slowly, breaks off at the front edge faster than the rate of advance. When the big chunks break off, it is called "calving". I am curious about the origin of this term, a birthing image, rather than a dying image, to describe the breaking down of glaciers.
So we waited in silence to witness this birthing.
We were farther away than I realized. What seemed like small bits made great thunderous sounds hitting the water. We could see an arch being formed, and we knew the support for it was failing, it was only a matter of time. Suddenly it started, and several huge chunks crashed into the sea with cracks and booms. A collective yell of triumph and excitement erupted. We could see an enormous wave rolling through the slurry towards us, but it had diminished by the time it reached us. The newborn ice sculpture would now set out on its journey, drifting slowly, become a resting place for eagles, perhaps seals.
Slowly our boat turned, moving alongside the face of the glacier, now so different than when we arrived. A stories-high blue cave had been created, and white birds flocked in the opening. We were well pleased by the experience, but it was time to move on. It's always time to move on, isn't it? Behind us, the glacier continued its transformation and the river moved... an inch?