Do Herons Watch Sunsets?

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One evening T and I drove out to Abbott’s Lagoon just before sunset, both feeling a bit anxious and melancholy for no specific reason; perhaps missing the kids and longing for connection in our new community. Soft waning light set the purple needlegrass aglow, the sigh inducing magic hour just before twilight. River otters had been spotted in the lagoon and a few photographers trained their colossal lenses on a pair of ducks nonchalantly paddling in the placid water. A famished otter will sometimes grab ahold of webbed feet and make a meal out of a floating bird; the photographers waited patiently in hopes of capturing the moment. The lighting was perfect, after all.

Winding our way through the dunes, we continued to the miraculously deserted beach. Sandpipers danced with the waves and pelicans plunged with abandon. Leaning against a smooth chunk of driftwood, we gazed at the wild waves, stern cliffs, and miles of undisturbed sand. We spoke of aging and loss; paths not taken, but mostly we were silent. Who can explain the human longing for beauty and the truths we conjure from sea salted air and wind whipped hair? The solace found on a raw, lonely coast; scattered with washed up wood that resembles bones and strewn with stringy webs of rotting kelp. The universe offers an antidote to distraction; it’s immersion with the elemental.

Back at the lagoon, the photographers had abandoned their lookout. A great blue heron stood like a zen master in the shallows, still spindly legs vulnerable to hungry otters. Slowly, and for no apparent reason, the heron broke from its trance-like state and delicately picked its way out of the brackish water and onto the bank, then ever so slowly crested the dunes separating ocean from lagoon. There on the summit, the heron paused. It stood at the top of the dune, frozen, feathers tousled by wind, facing west until the sun melted away, as if this was the purpose of its effort. To any human observer it sure seemed so.

By this time, melancholy was displaced by wonder, the joyful ache of being overwhelmed and awestruck by life’s mysteries, and a deeply felt gratefulness for the privilege to witness them.

As we retraced our path through the iridescent grasses, a fluffy ebony and ivory orb of fur slowed our retreat. A mama skunk with four tottering babies led a procession down the trail, moving as one plush ball, stopping here and there to root around for a juicy grub or perhaps a lizard, and then rolling on, T and I following at a respectful distance. Honestly, the most delightful traffic jam I’ve ever experienced. Once our presence was noticed, mama skunk ushered her babies into the brush and we passed by without incident. As I glanced behind the family scuttled out to resume their evening foraging. Another successful lesson passed on from one generation to the next.

Nearly back to the trailhead, I gazed across the darkening landscape; a coyote loped through the grass, pausing to note our progress now and then. Mary Oliver wrote, “the universe does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” No doubt scientists can explain why that magnificent bird deftly climbed to the top of the dune to face the setting sun, but I don’t need to know the reason. Perhaps it was just an enchanting coincidence. I am sure it wasn’t for my sake or my improvement, but I was improved by it nonetheless. Nature is the finest remedy for restlessness, angst and despair, a reminder of greater things at work; each moment a gift to be savored like the sun’s last rays. To embrace my part in this epic adventure is to pause, take notice and be grateful. And to remember the time I saw a heron watch the sunset.

Tree Meditation

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Every child needs a tree. In my mind I can map the one acre yard in which I spent my childhood by the trees that were my companions, refuges, dream spaces. Now I understand why these kindred spirits are part of every childhood memory. Children and trees share a common language, the language of now. Tree and child are fully present in their skin, soaking up nutrients coursing through root and vein, whole worlds of transformation and growth bubbling beneath the surface.

Four cherry trees, an oasis of white blossoms in the spring and sweet fruit in the summer grew on a scraggly piece of land we called a pasture. One of the branches served as hitching post when the farrier came to care for pony hooves. I could only reach the ripe fruit with a boost from my paint, Dolly. She patiently stood beneath the branches as I snacked, cherry juice staining her white coat as it dripped from my fingers. In my cowgirl reverie, Dolly and I were explorers in the wild west and the cherry trees a source of survival and sustenance; with cherry trees and wild blackberry bushes, why ever go home?

In the far east corner of the backyard, the beloved pussy willow, buds soft as lamb’s ears beckoned. Who could imagine such a magical being? Stroking the silky teardrop tips stilled the soul. The companionable trunk split at its base, just wide enough to shelter a small girl seeking solitude; a room of her own. Snuggling in the crook felt like an embrace, Mother Nature’s womb.

North of the pussy willow, in what seemed a distant land but in reality was perhaps fifty feet away, the mighty maple summoned with branches that, in a child’s eyes, were ladders through an emerald city and straight to the moon. On a windy day I was aboard a ship at sea, green sails flapping. And on a still, calm summer day, the maple and I had all the time in the world to ponder the spackled light and shadows; feel the ants and spiders tickling bark and skin; savor life from an enchanted perspective while still deeply rooted, the maple in soil, and me within the maple. Time doesn’t exist for child or tree, only sunlight, breeze and breath.

The guardian of all, a frothy green evergreen smack dab in the center of the front yard. Life orbited around this stoic giant. It offered no welcoming low limbs or accessible shelter, but a presence that emanated safety. In my memory its branches shaded my whole world; snow draped limbs watched over me as I made snowmen in the winter, white flakes sifting through needles. Summertime meant a steady shower of pinecones and a chore for me on lawn mowing days. Circling its trunk in a widening arc, flinging the scaly cones into the woods, the evergreen was my anchor, an unchanging entity.

As tree climbing days faded away, my arc expanded outside of that safe one acre world, but my spirit has remained firmly rooted with those first steady arboreal companions; those trusted beings with whom I dreamt, escaped, awakened.

In these days of middle age, my feet are securely planted on earth. Instead of climbable limbs, I’m drawn to wise weathered skin, wind twisted trunks, fire scarred bark; a particular slant of light through a canopy and the myriad soul quenching shades of green. Is it possible they have all been named? Instead of wondering how high I can scramble, I’m intrigued by what’s going on below the surface. I’m not surprised scientists have discovered that beneath earth, trees are intimately connected, communicating through roots, helping each other to heal and grow. I marvel at the coastal redwoods that soak up sea sourced fog as it envelops them, and in turn share valuable nutrients with the life within and below; a benevolent sprinkler system. Redwoods contain worlds within worlds, as do I. There’s still the little girl with the cherry stained pony and bark skinned knees, the mother of three, and a woman seeking deeper truths; a human grateful that as a child, my soul connected with trees.

Bird Lessons

IMG_1565Presence; that ever-elusive state of nowness. One of the best ways I know to cultivate presence is to hang a birdfeeder (or several) in a peaceful slice of a backyard. Many of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had with my children have taken place in the company of birds who lunch. Politics, parenting, relationships, vocation; a backyard feeding station is life in miniature; the daily rituals of finding a mate, the artistry of a well constructed nest, the tender caring for young, the enjoyment of a meal, and every now and then the pleasure of a nice cool bath.

While sipping our morning coffee, we marvel at the antics of the ruby-throated hummingbirds challenging each other to duels over the giant plastic flower filled with sugar water. We ponder this microcosm of scarcity and resources and its affect on these tenacious dazzlers desperately fighting for survival. They are not unlike immigrants worldwide seeking resources in an ever-changing global environment. How unfathomable to imagine their arduous journey over the Gulf of Mexico, only those miniscule wings to keep them aloft. What drives humans and wildlife to make perilous journeys? Resources, scarcity, an innate longing for life.

A fledgling cowbird flutters in with a tiny chipping sparrow half its size, frantically flapping its wings and chirping incessantly at this small bird it perceives to be its mother. “Feed me, feed me!” The somewhat comical display raises the question, what defines a successful parent? Does the fact that Mama Cowbird dropped off her egg in Mama Sparrow’s nest make her a brilliant opportunist who can now enjoy casual lunches at the sunflower buffet while another bird is responsible for her needy child? Is she lazy or a genius? Maybe both. And what about Papa Cowbird? Where was he when his offspring was deposited with a stranger? Which is stronger nature or nurture? And how does this abandoned cowbird learn to be a cowbird?

And oh my, look at that handsome red crested cardinal delicately placing seeds in his lovely mate’s beak. What is it that makes a relationship work? Should she be more independent? Your daughter’s boyfriend (thankfully, now ex) disdainfully declares she should be retrieving her own seeds. It’s hard not to shoot daggers at him. Obviously he’s courting her and proving he will be a reliable mate, one who will partner with her in raising their children. (inaudibly, you add, moron).

As downy and red-bellied woodpeckers swoop in and cling to the suet feeder, the finches dangle from the thistle filled sock like golden minions. Meanwhile, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and cardinals congregate around the seed filled hopper, each intuitively knowing where they belong. How do we tap into our own innate wisdom and knowing? How do we find our feeder; that true north inside that we can trust exists because we too are part of nature?

My children have all flown the nest now, each following their individual path. When they visit, we still congregate on the patio and tune in to the birds. There’s something deeply grounding in observing nature. It reminds us that we are meant to connect with the rhythms of the day and gives us permission to embrace simplicity. Isn’t this what most of us long for? A supportive partner; a safe, cozy nest; to nurture and to be nurtured; to enjoy a simple meal, and every now and then the pleasure of a nice warm bath. It’s elemental; a display of universal longing that begs the question, what can we learn from these brilliant feathered teachers?

A Playground Meditation

img_1780.jpgWhy do parents obsess over firsts? We fill baby books with detailed lists of our child’s first step, haircut and tooth as if later this will be critically important information. In hindsight, it’s the lasts I desperately wish I could recall; the last time I transformed into the tooth fairy or Santa; the last time my son reached out to hold my hand in public; the final push on the swing before strong legs began pumping themselves; and oh that last sweet time we all nested under the same roof, a cozy soft bed for everyone. This is what guts a parent when the last child leaves home; all of those soft, empty beds; the vacant, unoccupied space where bodies and energy had seemingly, just seconds before, been enough to fill a life. Too much nostalgia can break a heart.

Life is a series of moments, woven together that, when teased apart like threads from a beloved sweater, are enough to make me weep. Not just because I realize the moments are gone, but because so often I know I wasn’t truly paying attention when they happened. Maybe I was preoccupied by bills I couldn’t pay, or frustrated by my coarse curly hair, or lamenting how my life was supposed to be so much more than this. Maybe I was simply wishing to be anywhere but on that damned playground again, pushing the swing for the billionth time. Seasoned parents wistfully told me to savor these days for they would pass by in a breath. Politely, I’d smile and nod, bleary eyed with sleeplessness and think, if only. It felt like time was standing still; an endless loop of naps, feedings, needs to be met, play dates to be kept. But time was not standing still at all. Those messy, chaotic years melted away as fast as a July popsicle.

Breathe in, push the swing, breathe out and I’m standing in the middle of Peace Park in Taipei surrounded by squealing children swishing down slides and soaring on swings. My teenaged daughter has spent the past year on exchange and I’m visiting for the first time. I gently remind her not to slouch and she snaps in frustration. Her longing for independence is palpable as, nearly in tears, she proclaims her autonomy. Not only does she not need me to push her swing or catch her at the bottom of the slide or hold her hand, she doesn’t need me.

And that, I suppose, was the plan all along. Parenting is, at its core, planned obsolescence; a poignant reminder of universal impermanence. Of course the antidote to wistful regret is presence. Emily Webb in Our Town realized this truth when she returned as a ghost to relive her twelfth birthday with her family. She desperately cried out for her family to just stop and look at one another. “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”