The Church of Awe

If you can look at a spider mite, or a cumulonimbus cloud, or the ring around a full moon and not be simply knocked out by the wonder of it, I can't imagine what it would take to impress you. This day-to-day awe forms the core of my religious experience -- best described as the deepest imaginable appreciation and gratitude.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Earth Loses One Sweet Kitty

I wish I had a better photo of Sable, my cat companion for the past 18 years. She was black, elusive and given to cat ways -- meaning when the camera was pointed in her general direction, one minute she would be there and the next minute, not.

I've known for quite some time that Sable was slowly exiting my world. After a crisis a few months ago in which I thought she wouldn't make it another day, she has faded away by degrees. Once again I am struck -- as I was with my mother's recent death -- with how much time it can take to die, if the organism is healthy to begin with and doesn't experience trauma. Life is so powerful, so strong and tenacious, that it releases its embrace in slow motion, function by function, system by system.

And then, just like that, it's over. One minute she was there, the other she was not. Poof. I had a sweet black kitty and now I do not.

I'm so honored to have shared my life with her. She was one of the good ones. Never bratty, always gentle and companionable. The photo shows just how good-natured she was. She actually liked -- or else patiently endured -- my scratching her tummy as she hung upside down on my legs. Bob Dog always ended up spoiling the game because he couldn't imagine that this wasn't prelude to a rumble and would start gnawing on her head. Even at this affront, she would give him a few warning meows and only as a last resort, if he remained insensitive to her needs, would she bring out those switchblade claws and give him a painful warning that, no, really, she meant that she didn't want her head gnawed upon.

For 18 years that sweet, spunky cat being has been part of my life. She came to us when she was so tiny I couldn't imagine that she would even survive. My daughter found her under a car on a street in Oklahoma City and, although having a cat wasn't in my life plan at that particular moment, one look at her and my heart invented a different future. She was Ariel's cat while Ariel was still at home. Her purring presence witnessed Ariel's adolescence and evolution into college student and young woman on her own. Sable was a fixture on Ariel's twin bed during those long stretches holed up in her room with the music loud and the drama dripping off the walls. Eventually, when Ariel would call from college, it was always, "How's Sable?" before we got down to other business, like, "Got money?"

She was my son's cat, too, even when the dark moods of his black tee-shirt days pulled him away from much that was sweet and gentle. I always knew Austin was still reachable, despite how hard he tried not to be, when I spied him sitting in the rocking chair cradling Sable and talking low and rumbly, gentle as a lamb.

For the past several years, however, Sable has been my girl. All cat, all the time, of course, but still my girl. Her place of honor was in her own little two-foot square of my bed, up by the pillows but never oppressively close. She liked her space as much as I like mine.

She had insisted, these last few nights, on going outside. This wasn't unusual, but what was out of character was her immediate disappearance. The first night, I panicked and spent half the night calling for her and then she suddenly appeared from The Alternative Cat Universe (which I'm convinced is where they go when they simply cannot be found). The next night, I suddenly felt that she had to be outside. I don't know how I knew this, but I'm fairly certain that Sable told me. Her spirit told mine that this is how she needed it to be. And who could blame her? If I had the choice of dying outdoors, surrounded by cricket rasp and bird twitter, wouldn't I want to go that way, too?

But I had my needs, too. And the next time I had the opportunity to hold her, I told her that I needed for her not to just crawl away and disappear. I needed to be able to say goodbye, regardless of when it happened.

Last night, the rains came, and with them, thunder and lightning. This meant that Bob Dog needed to be on my bed, shivering and whining his insane fear of the weather. So as I lay there, trying to settle him down, I again knew that if I went out on the porch, I would find Sable.

She had crawled out from under the porch and, barely able to walk, was trying to make it back to the steps. I scooped her up as the rain pelted us, brought her in to my rocking chair and held her as the gentle spirit I had come to know as Sable simply ebbed away. A few rattly breaths and pffft ... I was holding a bundle of inanimate fur. Sable had disappeared forever into Alternative Cat Universe.

And once again, I am left with mysteries to ponder. What is this spirit that has us be beings one second and simply matter the next? Where does it go when it leaves? And how long does it remain discretely that being? Is there a Sable cat spirit out there prowling the underbrush in some celestial garden? Or is cat spirit like helium that was once contained in a balloon? Once it's out of the fur and sinew that enclosed it, does it dissipate into ether? Do we?

Mysteries I'm too limited to answer. But I can tell you this: Whatever that is -- that life, that animation, that amazing juice -- it is miraculous and utterly worth honoring. I stand in gratitude and awe.

Hallelujah. Holy cats.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

It's All About the Belly Button

At some point in every bicycle ride, I experience a moment when I become fully, unabashedly me. Not that I'm not me the rest of the time – who or what could I ever be but me, really? But sometimes the fragments of me head off in many directions at once, or my mind is resolutely elsewhere or I'm just asleep at the switch and could be anyone.

But once I get on my bike and go through the initial battles with inertia – my body being at rest generally protests for the first 15 minutes or so the indignity of being put into motion – I begin to notice how great it is to be out and going.

A sprinkle of rain cooled me this morning and my skin started saying "Thank you" before the rest of me caught up to the fact that I was being rained on. My curmudgeonly mind's initial reaction was to worry that this was a harbinger of the deluge to come. "You'd better go back home while you're still just a few minutes away," it intoned in its concerned, managerial way.

But my skin had already begun to awaken my other senses and anarchy had begun: They were having none of this "go back to the house" nonsense. I could smell the soil and the corn and the weeds in the ditch alongside the road. I could hear the usual summertime cacophony of bird, frog and insect, accompanied by the rhythmic swoosh of my bike tires on the blacktop. The ride was a Mardi Gras of green – the nearly black green of the trees, the mid-level green of the cornfields through which I rode, the chartreuse and neon green of roadside weeds.

All at once, all my parts and pieces pulled themselves together and we became one. One being, in motion, with cicadas setting the cadence. On every bike ride in the past dozen years or so I've reached this point in which I become sensationally aware of this being just about as happy as a human can be. That's a lot of years and a lot of bliss.

Often, it's bliss bought and paid for with much struggle. These days, for instance, I'm getting back into shape after having parked my bike for a very long time. Why I ever let myself do that, I'll never know, but it's literally been years since I considered myself a cyclist. So now, hills I once considered a nice little warm-up are crazy challenging. And as always, just managing my internal conversation ("Give UP!" "What are you thinking?" "You're too old for this!" and "You look like a jerk!") is most of the battle. The body is happy to be working again and ready to be put through its paces. So I head for the hills and struggle. And once I get to the top, the Who-hooo factor sets in and bliss soon follows.

The roads were relatively traffic-free this morning and, without planning, I found myself doing something I've wanted to do since I was 8: I rode hands-free. All the while, in my head, was my mother's voice warning, "Look, Ma! No hands; Look, Ma, no TEETH! Kathryn, don't DO that ..."

When I was a kid, all the boys in the neighborhood would go whizzing past on their bicycles, riding hands-free like a troupe of unicyclists. I always wanted to join them, but the idea of spending the rest of my life with no front teeth made me timid and inept.

But this morning, I got it. In the same way the distinction "balance" happens all of a sudden and you go from training wheels to two wheels, this morning, I let go with both hands and realized that the key is all in the belly button. Focus your attention on the belly and balance takes care of itself. The yogis have been saying that for centuries, but this morning, I got it.

This opens up a whole new world of possibilities. That unicycle I've always wanted, for instance ...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Home Before the Street Lights Came On

Growing up on the edge of a small town where our backyard rolled away right into the countryside and summer was a non-stop opportunity for play, one of the only rules our parents laid down was, "Be home before dark."

Tonight is one of those nights I would have argued what "dark" meant, precisely.

I had gone out on my bike reluctantly. I had promised myself I was going to ride at least an hour tonight and somehow had forgotten to remind myself that this was because I enjoy riding, not because I have to. Finally, at 8 o'clock, I changed into my shorts, threw on a tank top, hopped on my bike and took off.

I made a large loop around my neighborhood, nodding at people sitting out on their porches, noticing the hibiscus in this yard, the hollyhocks in that, and the profusion of coneflowers everywhere I looked. A neighbor said something to me from her porch, but the tree frogs and cicadas were so loud, I couldn't understand a word she said. I circled back toward my house, but changed my mind and took a back road that led to the outskirts of town.

Rounding a corner, I encountered a wall of fragrance that nearly made me run my bike into the curb. I couldn't identify any particular flower at the source of the scent – just a profusion of underbrush and wildflowers and vines winding their way up the enormous cottonwoods near the road. There was just enough humidity in the air to hold the fragrance – not overpowering, but thick in the air as though I could scoop aroma into my palm like stream water.

I came to the end of that lane and made a U-turn, almost running directly into a man on a bicycle similarly distracted by the smells and sounds and summery sweetness. We dodged each other and laughed as we continued in our own directions.

I got back to my neighborhood and made it to within a block of my house before turning around and making another loop in the other direction. And suddenly, it occurred to me: I was dawdling, flat-out, old-fashioned dawdling. I didn't want to stop playing and have to go in the house. I was arguing with myself about how dark it really was and figuring I had at least another 15 minutes before I completely ran out of light.

By this time, the tree frog symphony had reached a crescendo and the lightning bug ballet began winking rhythmically in bushes and flowerbeds beside the street. I couldn't see anyone on the porches, but their laughter and conversation drifted lazily past me in that soupy summer air, and I might have fished out some of their words if I'd cared to.

A car rounded the corner in front of me, going fast and in my lane. I realized I was wearing dark shorts and a black tank top at about the same time the driver looked up, saw me and swerved back into his lane.

OK, OK. I got the message. I can practically hear my father's voice reminding me that, if I can see the lightning bugs, that means it's dark.

Tomorrow, I start earlier, wear a white shirt and see if I can find a snow-cone stand.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Horse-kissing and a Happy Dawn

I began my morning being kissed by a horse. A perfect, snow-laden dawn, barely light and eveything the color of doves and smoke, four horses pressed against my neighbor's fence, steaming and stamping, their coats covered by a light rime of snow. The broad brown one pushed his big face over the ice-coated wires and flared his nostrils, seeking more information about this blue-coated stranger at the fence-line. Bob Dog bounced through the new-fallen snow, part rabbit, part puppy, blissfully unaware that he is old and blind and not expected to be so zippy.

I was in a hurry, sure to be late for work if I lingered. But the horse whickered and tossed his furry chin in my direction, horse for "Come over here so I can get to know you," and once again, I was a goner. For certain parts of life, I have no resistance, regardless of how many clocks might be ticking in the background. Beautiful, snowy, horse-filled dawns count.

As I sidled up to the fence and began scratching the big boy's ears, he put his surprisingly downy mouth on my cheek and gently brushed back and forth, a horse kiss if ever I've felt one. I blew gently in his nostrils, happy to know he didn't much mind the coffee breath. He inhaled deeply and pressed against the fence, nuzzling my face again with that great, fuzzy nose.

The other three horses crowded around behind him, wanting their turn, but he placed himself sideways between them and me, leaning his head down this time, horse for "These ears are made for scratching, you know," and I obliged, laughing at his audaciousness.

By this time the farm dog had come to take her place, nose stuck through the rectangles in the wire fence, also ready for a good-day greeting. Bob bounced around, inviting her to come through the fence and frolic with him.

I could have stayed all day, letting the horses whisper, the dogs scamper and the snow drift silently down. But the neighborhood was starting to stir around me -- cars idling in the distance and my toes turning to ice. So I gave the big boy a final scratch under the chin, and got another quick kiss nuzzle in return. "You might bring carrots sometime," I think he said as he snorted and nodded in my direction.

I backed away from the fence, reluctant to let go of the sight. The horses leaned against each other, watching me with huge, calm eyes. Breathing deeply of horse smell and dawn, I turned for home, blessed and beloved, hearing, faintly, the ticking of the clock.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Katydid Sings at the Window

The polar bears are drowning in the Arctic.

That one sentence, which I read several weeks ago, was powerful enough to stop me in my tracks. As if I had received a punch in the solar plexus, I've been holding my breath ever since. Those lovely, goofy, huge yellow-white bears -- the object of such fun in calendars and such fascination in zoos -- are drowning because the ice floes are too far apart or too insubstantial for them to find a place to rest and eat.

This is no joke, no exaggeration. And the grief this fact produces in my heart is beyond words.

On the news a few days ago, I heard that the number of “dead zones” in the world’s oceans have increased by a third in just two years, threatening fish stocks and the people who depend on them. Fertilizers, sewage, fossil fuel burning and other pollutants have led to a doubling in the number of oxygen-deficient coastal areas every decade since the 1960s.

I'm taking this very personally. I don't have to live next to them to know that these are MY oceans.

I was upstairs in my bedroom the other day and I heard the persistent chirrrring of an insect inside the house. Going downstairs to investigate, I peered around canisters, lifted curtains and peeked in cabinets until I finally found her -- a bright green katydid, Katy-doing her little heart out behind the blind in my kitchen window. Every time I got within a few feet of her, she'd stop singing, so it was very difficult to pinpoint the source of the racket.

When I finally did find her, to my enormous surprise, I began to weep -- great wracking sobs that had both dogs circling and peering up at me with concern. She looked so innocent and so all alone, hidden away there on my window, trying passionately to attract a pal from a place of complete impossibilty. And my very first thought, the one that gut-punched me again, was, "When will it be the last katydid that we're hearing?"

The rush of tears was just the teeniest, tiniest nano-fraction of the outrage and helplessness and fear and frustration and grief, grief, grief, grief, grief that I carry unremittingly these days. I want to -- to paraphrase Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction -- get all Old Testament about it. I'm feeling the need to wail and gnash my teeth and rend my clothing and loudly proclaim, all of which make it challenging on a day-to-day basis to conduct busines as usual.

I have always been so connected with the physical world that I feel some days I could walk out my front door and just disappear into a tree or a field or a bird in flight. For many years, I have been aware that what separates me from this perfect universe is just a millimeter thin layer of skin -- and that's no separation at all, since it's made up of precisely the same stuff as whatever is on the other side of it.

We all are this connected, most of us just manage to get through our days and nights being unaware of that truth.

And given how bad the news is these days, my temptation is to foster that separation. It's certainly more comfortable that way. It's easier on the spirit somehow to believe that the number of miles I drive my car and the number of lightbulbs I leave burning and the amount of heavily fertlized produce I consume have nothing to do with the phytoplankton blooming everywhere our rivers dump into the sea or the numbers of species that are disappearing forever from the planet-formerly-known-as-our-garden. I would so much like to believe that my life is unrelated to the fissures forming so rapidly in the arctic ice pack that even the most rational of scientists is reaching for the panic button.

If only I could be that unconscious. I want to be ignorant and blissful. Dammit.

But I also can't think of one thing I can do personally that will amount to a hill of beans in the face of the maelstrom of consequences that's gathering power just beyond the reach of our imaginations. I can recycle, I can drive my little hybrid car, I can turn off lights and try to wean myself completely away from conspicuous consumption. But I think Lester Brown, one of the finest minds on the planet, is right: For us to turn this catastrophe around is going to require a mobilization the likes of which we humans have never known.

The cooperation, drive, sense of purpose, coordination, grit, determination, sense of sacrifice and sheer united will that our country manifested during World War II is just a drop in the bucket compared to what it is going to take of all the people of the world in the next decade to keep this cataclysm at bay.

I wish I thought in my heart of hearts that that previous sentence were hyperbole. I don't. It actually might not be strong enough.

So, consider me -- my spirit, my heart, my passion for this earth -- as one of those canaries in the coal mine, beating our wings against the cage, trying with all our fragile might to sound the alarm. How many piles of canary carcasses will it take to turn this juggernaut around?

We must stop our own destructive behavior now. Right now. There are books, websites and resources available all over the place to provide the tools. The steps to take are no secret. We have to do what we can do and we, individually, have to do it now.

But most of all, we have to insist that our leadership at all levels be focused on this transformation. We cannot permit ourselves the comfort of swallowing any more evasions, lies, nostrums, equivocations, stalling tactics or claims that taking action will wreck the economy. If there's no ecology, there's no economy. Period. No planet, no profits. End of story.

Now then, one of my friends is ever quick to remind me that the planet doesn't need saving. The planet will be here long after every human being has drawn her or his last gasp. This is true. I would, however, like for the planet to continue to support life in recognizable forms and, being somewhat species-centric, I would like for those life forms to include human beings.

The benefit is that we actually will see new economies bloom and unimagined solutions crop up as soon as we turn our imaginations that direction instead of denying how dire things really are, or trying to milk the technologies of the past for every drop we can squeeze out of them. The faster we move, the faster we see an amazing new future unfold.

If it takes the grassroots dragging the powerful along, let's get cracking. We can move and shake from the bottom up just as well as from the top down. Isn't that all that has ever really created lasting change?

I come at my relationship with nature from my faith tradition. I believe the whole shebang -- the planet, the universe, the canopy of the heavens, the soil beneath our feet and every infinitesimal, wriggling, squirming life form anywhere in all the universes -- is the work of a creative force so magnificent not one word of our sacred texts has even begun to describe it. And I believe that we, we human beings, are accountable to this creative force for the life and the intelligence we share with it, and the hands and voices we've been given to do its work.

I want to be able to open myself up to my conscience and my consciousness -- my connection to the creative force -- and not turn away in grief and revulsion at the destruction that occurred on my watch. In truth and in metaphor, I want to be able to stand before my beloved Creator and not shrink away in shame. I want us all to live as though the future depended on us, and I want us to do it now.

In the name of the polar bear, and the katydid and the fishes great and small, amen and wow and hallelujah.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Waving Hello to Orion

Bob Dog convinced me this morning that "walking the dog" should be put ahead of "drinking coffee" on the daily schedule, so at 5 a.m. I was out giving Bob a spin around the 'hood. As he paused to smell the daily news left on the neighbor's hedge overnight, I looked up through the trees above and saw the constellation Orion spreadeagled across the sky.

I looked away and tried to keep on moving, but Bob was finding a trove of information there in the boxwood, so I glanced up again and almost gasped with amazement. Orion had moved so far! As I stood there, watching it glide across the sky, I had to look away because the sense of motion was making me a little queasy. "Good morning, Mighty Orion," I said, as Bob jangled his tags to let me know it was time to move on.

This weekend, I was interviewed by a reporter for Voice of America radio about the somewhat recent phenomenon of successful, educated adults moving to rural areas and starting small farms. Why, he asked me -- in a voice that indicated there was really no rational, acceptable answer to this question -- would anyone do that?

I tried to answer him, but I could see that nothing I said was really penetrating the cotton balls of arrogance he had stuffed in his ears. People want a more manageable lifestyle, I said. People like the security of knowing that they can surround themselves with a few acres where they can grow some food and create a buffer and a sense of safety. It's more pleasing to the senses to wake up to the sound of frogs and crickets than the wail of sirens and the rumble and clang of garbage trucks.

There's nothing particularly wrong with cities, I said, but there's a lot more right for some of us about small towns and rural life. This morning I got an even better answer, but he probably has no way of appreciating it either.

Our little blue-green ellipsoid is just a dot way the heck out in space, and this morning, one infinitesimal speck on this dot, this amazing assemblage known as Me, looked up and noticed something in the sky. We were passing in the night, Orion and I. And I, among a handful of humans on the entire planet, noticed and was moved by the experience.

Wow. Wow and amen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Two-part, Curdled Harmony

Last night I was checking my email before bedtime, hunched over the keyboard, oblivious to anything but the letters and images captured on the 15-inch screen in front of my nose. In the distance, but not consciously, I heard the wail of sirens. I thought automatically, "I hope it's not serious ... " and kept on clicking the keys.

From the floor beside me came a quiet little "Oooo-oooo" and Bob Dog began to pull himself up off the carpet where he had been doing his best impression of a throw rug. He moved closer to the window, sat on his haunches and assumed the coyote/wolf position, nose in the air, mouth pursed for a full-on howl.

Did I angrily shush him and keep pounding the keyboard? I most certainly did not. I did what seems to me the far more rational thing: I turned, put my hands on my knees, found my pitch and started "Oooo-oooo-ing" right along. Bob looked over at me, gave a brief, doggy nod -- we've done this enough times that it's become a routine now -- situated himself even more solidly and wailed. I started out on the same pitch, then moved a couple of tones higher. We howled until we ran out of breath, broke off with a lift on the last tone, filled our lungs and went again.

The first sirens were joined by others (I have to check the paper this morning and see what calamity befell us in the night) and soon I could hear other dogs in the distance, singing their ancient, eerie harmony. We wailed and wailed until the siren sound began to taper off. Bob finally stood, sighed, shook his tags and came over to bump my leg with his nose, which is Bob for "Good job. I'll make a coyote of you yet ..."

I developed this habit of singing with Bob a few years back when we lived out in the country and the wailing actually was coyotes. We would hear them starting to yip out in the orchard, the yips would become more and more fevered and would turn into howling, then suddenly, everything went silent. I was amazed by the coordination -- I've sung in ensembles all my life, and to get that many voices to stop at precisely the same moment takes some pretty intense work on the director's part. But they all just ... stop. On some psychic cue -- or maybe just when they catch the rabbit -- it's over.

And last night, with Bob, it was over. He stopped, shook and bumped and was ready to go back to the throw-rug thing. I tried to milk it a little. I could still hear the sirens in the distance. I matched my pitch to them and howled a little. Bob looked at me with exactly the same look I used to give my kids when they had missed a social cue. "That's enough," the look said. "Knock off."

Although Bob is small and cute, he is also all dog, all the time. I don't kid myself about this. I have never subscribed to the Master/Slave relationship with my animal companions. I try half-heartedly to teach them tricks, but they never buy it. They know I'm the boss, enough for all our safety and for sufficient social control to keep my home fit for human habitation ("Do NOT bring that stinky thing in this house," and so forth), but mostly, I just appreciate the company.

After the ruckus died down last night, I noticed that a bird was singing just outside my window. A train whistled in the distance. The breeze coming in the window was caressing and clear. It felt like the high notes Bob and I had just sung.
I had come to my senses, thanks to Bob, ancient instinct and some curdled, two-part harmony.