What animals have you seen in the wild? Not in a zoo, aquarium or even a preserve, but actually living their lives out in their chosen home, adapting even as that home changes? I made a list recently, reviewing animal encounters over my lifetime. I decided not to include the usual neighborhood birds (although once I counted 12 different kinds in my yard, when I still had running water in the creek) or omnipresent squirrels, geckos, and such.
I made this list while gazing peacefully out the window on a rainy day. I was on a ferry, part of the Alaska Marine Highway System, cruising through the inner passage. The inner passage of Alaska is a temperate rain forest, and it rains a lot. But until this day it had actually been fairly dry. So I was ready for the soft drizzle against the ferry windows, not hard enough to blot out the view of snow capped mountains. The sea was gray, blending into the mist, but I was hopeful for wildlife sighting all the same.
I made my list. I added to it over several days and it became an interesting way of doing life review, i.e. in terms of encounters with the wild. Not necessarily in the wilderness. I had quite a few animals on my list that I met in my house and yard: baby armadillos, raccoons (in the house!), possums, screech owl (in the house!), wild turkey, coyote, baby goat, red fox.
I remembered the manatee in the canal in south Florida where my grandfather would take me to fish with a cane pole. I also remembered the baby nurse shark swimming around my legs as we hauled a motor boat up to the beach for a picnic in Biscayne Bay. The pink mouths of alligators yawning in the Everglades. A baby rattlesnake on a dusty road. I remembered being surrounded by graceful stingrays in the Cayman Islands, and the time I spent desperately trying to video whales submerging off Cape Cod. And my surprise at the elk sauntering past the porch of a mountain cabin.
Each of these memories remains tinged with wonder. Do you know what I mean? There is something deeply moving about coming so close to other species in territories they share with us. Who is to say, in those places, who belongs and who is guest? Those zones of intersection between human and "other" remind us that we are connected not just with all humans, but with deeply different worlds and minds. It is like multiple parallel universes.
Recently I read an article in Spirituality and Health magazine by Jill Neimark titled "Do I have Nature Deficit Disorder?" Reading her article, I was struck by the fact that the encounters I recalled with such wonder and gratitude may be more rare than I realize. Jill writes about her understanding of what may be lost in keeping our distance from the wild. My sense is that while zoos and such may convey to visitors something important about a world otherwise unknowable to them, it is not the same as being in that "shared territory". Yet as we humans seek out those wild encounters, we change the habitats and can create a different kind of deficit. Someone I met in Petersburg, Alaska asked: "How do you encounter these deeply beautiful places and not become part of the problem, part of what is destroying them?"
It was the coyote's silence that gave him away. No dog is so silent, as he walks grinning by, eyes always on my face. With a small shiver, I met the wildness in the silence.
Are you creative? Does even the question make you cringe? Do you secretly think you are but dare not say so to others? When I started doing workshops on art and spirituality, I encountered a lot of people with what I call "fear of art-making." There is much to be said about how this came to happen to so many of us, this assignment of creativity as a trait to a precious few. But for the moment let's pursue a more inclusive, optimistic idea about creativity.
Robert Sternberg, former president of American Psychological Association, has written extensively about “defying the crowd”, about psychologists and other scientists who were creative and faced many obstacles gaining acceptance in their own professions. He posits that creativity is fundamentally a decision, connected very little to innate ability. He writes that people are creative largely because they have the will and the courage to:
do things like define problems differently than the ways their colleagues do, and to have enough humility to accept new and better ideas and be willing to grow, and to continue to believe in themselves when no one else does.
Deciding to create depends on persistence in the face of obstacles and rejection, requires flexibility and humor, and the willingness to encounter different ways of thinking.
Sternberg writes, “People generally decide against creativity because the creative way often is too painful, at least in the short run. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s change it.” (RJ Sternberg, "Creativity is a decision", APA Monitor on Psychology , V. 34, No. 10, November 2003).
I like this idea. My sense is that the heart of creativity is about seeing--in both the broadest and finest sense of the word. Putting things together in a new way requires seeing different aspects or angles, seeing possibilities and connections, seeing new relationships. It is perspective with fresh results. It is "taking a long loving look at the real", as Walter Burghardt advised, but also at what might be. The way we see is based in who we are. It is looking at the world with eyes of wonder and appreciation, and asking questions. The techniques of expression are myriad, but it all starts with seeing. There are people who the world calls creative because they make things. But they do not necessarily see nor have the courage to say what they see. Change for change’s sake alone is not particularly creative, nor is a random juxtaposition that doesn’t result in new perspective, but rather just clangs.
So what is "seeing differently" about? This process is visual, perceptual, intuitive, emotional, contextual, experiential, attentive, contemplative. It can be a felt sense (i.e. located in the body), in rhythm with or in reaction to (dance, responses to music, singing). The viewer/listener/reader interacts with the art and "sees" differently as a result of the encounter. Thus art is fundamentally social. Creative people seek out the stimulation of different media to fuel their own process. Seeing is about fresh encounter, it is about being awake.
What are your ways to stay awake, mindful? It isn't easy. Sometimes it helps to create a little jolt of change. Simple things to change familiar routines can provide that "just enough" change. Things such as driving a different way to work every few days.(see an earlier post "Take a Wrong Turn".) Or enter your home by a different door, it changes your movement and your perspective. Look for things in the environment intentionally, thematically. For example, one day on the way to work, why not look for the color red? The next day look for blues. Or how about taking a 5 minute "sensory break" once a day? Taste, touch, smell, listen , look at what is around you in just that moment.
My nephew was 7 and we were exploring the Fort Worth Nature Center. We had walked a long way on this particular trail, and mindful of the time, I knew we had come to a place to start the return trip. Ethan was disappointed, he wanted to keep going to see what was at the end of the trail.
"Ethan," I said, " you know, things will look so different on the way back, it will be like we are on a new trail. Keep your eyes open, and you might see some amazing things." Sure enough, we soon came upon a beautiful iridescent lizard, like I have never seen before.
"Wow", said Ethan. "That’s an amazing thing!" A little later we came across a very large turtle crossing the path right in front of us. "Two amazing things!" Ethan shouted. Now his eyes were roving the area with expectation, he was completely engaged in our walk. Sure enough, we came upon a beautiful green snake. "Three amazing things, three, Aunt Carol! You said we would find amazing things and we did! "
I was grateful to Ethan, and grateful for a synchronous universe, and being able to keep a promise…..
What is "seeing"? Some of you may be like me, and read the dictionary for fun. Will anyone confess to this? At any rate, I looked up the word "see" for fun, and found 13 definitions. Let’s look at the synonyms for these definitions:
Perceive Come to know Discover Undergo Visualize Recognize Understand Suppose Examine Read Judge Visit Receive Accompany/escort Call Grasp Pay attention Apprehend Investigate or inquire Acknowledge or consider something being pointed out
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” Frederick Buechner
When was the last time you looked at the stars? Maybe it was last night, maybe much longer ago since you were in a place far from city lights. Picture that night, gazing up. What were you thinking? What did you notice or question as you looked into that velvety blackness, those blazing pinpricks?
There is a place in the Hill Country, on the Guadalupe River, called Mo-Ranch. Down by the river, as the violet hour drifts into darkness, the fireflies come out all along the banks, reflecting in the river. Fireflies like I haven’t seen since childhood, winking in and out among the trees and hedges.
As the sky darkens, the path by the river disappears. The night sky at Mo-Ranch is star-filled from horizon to horizon, an immense sparkling dome. Walking toward that horizon is like walking into the depths of the universe.
One such starry night, I lay outstretched on top of a limestone wall, breathing it in. As I lay there peacefully, it suddenly seemed to me that several stars were moving in a pattern with each other. I thought, “the stars are dancing!” I felt a mysterious, transcendent fullness of spirit that lifted me up and overwhelmed me simultaneously. I got up and began to move in step with the stars.
An acquaintance passed by on her way into the nearby lodge. “Whatcha doin’, Carol?” Still caught in the moment, I told her I had seen the stars dancing. She looked at me as if I were crazy, snorted and said, “well, well…whatever….” and went on her way.
This clash with someone else' reality was like a cupful of cold water in my face. Taken aback, I was utterly dumbfounded that she didn’t look up, just to see what might be happening in that dark night.
It isn’t easy sometimes, to tell another what we see. It is risky, sometimes even dangerous. But in this time and place, the only risk was to my sense of wonder and my self-esteem. A small risk, when I considered that someday, this woman might look up. She might look up and remember and, if nothing else, ask herself, “what would it be like to see the stars dancing?” And by asking herself that question, she will begin to change.
Stars on their axes, dancing in chorus, And the sun, their sister, light of the heavens, Let these adore you, O ever-almighty, And sing their blessings throughout all the ages
These words were written 1,000 years ago by an abbess in Germany, Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard was a mystic, writer, composer, artist and powerful woman, who broke barriers and changed the world. But my favorite image of her is that which connects us most through time and space. Hildegard, looking at essentially the same star lights as I have seen, imagined that she could see the stars dancing.
My friend Julia gave me this green stone with the word “Harmony” engraved on it.
Harmony. When all the parts of myself relax together in contentment and wholehearted focus on the present, on whatever is in front of me.
But harmony, peaceful unity of rhythm and pattern, is also something I like to feel in a group, in relationship. I like the feeling of “singing in tune with”, of dancing together, of laughing all at once, caught by surprise. I like the nodding in agreement, the mixing of sentence fragments in dialogue, or oft-repeated stories we savor.
My family gatherings would sound cacophonous to some, but I hear the harmonies under the volume, the timbre and waver of older voices, the fresh, endearing inflections of the young, the cracking sounds of change in teenage boys. I hear passion and confidence, questions and opinions, teasing and bids for attention, the myth-making out of an ordinary event. Conversations in the kitchen flow out the connecting door to the dining room, joining another thread that winds around the corner into the livingroom, then flows up again to the breakfast table.
Sometimes I physically follow these melodies, adding my notes to the mix. Sometimes I simply listen to the harmony, look at the faces. This is the energy we shore up, store up, so that we give out of surplus. This is the energy we name “us.”