If childhood had a flower all its own, I think it would be the dandelion. From the first time we’re plopped down onto a blanket on the lawn one happy spring day, dandelions appear at just the right height and brightness for a young, curious gaze. They nod and dance for us, invite us to touch and play, looking like a thousand round golden faces wearing lions’ manes and green scarves. more “Living like dandelions.”
It was intended to be a treat for him. A play date. One of my neighbors and I had considered the possibility of Quincy the dog staying at their house while I traveled later in the month.
They live just down the street, and there are four dogs in their family. The dogs all greet and interact with us everyday as Quincy and I walk past their house in the mornings.
The leader of their pack is bossy and smart and owns the entire corner inside his fence; he and Quincy trash-talk a great deal through the chainlink fence, but it’s done in good spirit and with mutual understanding. The newest member of their troupe is a girl dog that Quincy has a tremendous crush on; she’s a flirt and adorable and knows it. The third is a misfit who gets by on his personality; he and Quincy have hit it off since he moved in a few years back, tails wagging til they almost fall apart as soon as they see each other (perhaps that accounts for why this guy has only half a tail). The fourth is a Corgi; the oldest, the slowest, the wisest, the real brains of the group.
So we thought it would be a treat for Quincy to be one of the gang – playing with the cool kids, sitting in with the band. At first it was. And then it wasn’t. more “A treat for Quincy the dog.”
I remember dog Sophie was full-grown but still quite young at the time. Sophie was of mixed heritage, carrying the genes of some sort of shepherding breed, which created and crafted her reality primarily through the perception of sight. She navigated the world with her eyes – bush to bush, brick by brick, trees to rocks to houses, between fence lines and lampposts.
When Sophie was very young, and experiencing each new season for the first time, she used to bark and coax me from my desk to follow her outside for something startlingly new, of which she felt I should be made aware – often simply a new blossom on an old camellia bush, or a fallen branch from the great oak tree. After I had been alerted to this newness, she would accept the alteration to the landscape of her life – until the next season (or a new day) brought fresh changes and shifts to the truth of her world.
But this particular day in my memory, when Sophie was perhaps a year and a half into her life, I took her to the grounds of the Aiken County Historical Museum. more “Looking back … living forward.”
Her name was Mrs. Orange Berry. She lived just to the left of the front steps of our house when I was very young. She was a lovely old, plump, slightly prickly bush. And she bore compelling orange berries that were terribly poisonous to humans. I can still see my tiny baby fingers as I would pick the round berries and stir them with water in a toy tin pot with a small tin spoon making “stew.” Fortunately, I was never tempted to actually eat the stew; after all, I had been told the berries were poison and I was a mindful child. But Mrs. Orange Berry and I would chat together about important things and cook our stew in my little tin pot on a rather regular basis. more “Lessons from Mrs. Orange Berry”
I have a friend who is a trained crisis negotiator. I don’t like to think about all the whys and whens of her being needed to act in that capacity. But I’m glad she’s there. The first thing you notice about her is the quietness of her voice. The calm of it. It’s authentic and carries a touch of good humor just below the surface. And whatever she says seems to make good sense and is true and can be trusted. It’s all in there – in just the sound of her voice. more “The power of the human voice; the presence of the written word.”
A rather long time ago, I wrote an article about the ancientness of flowers. It was long before I began to write my stories for you or we even knew each other. It was long before I came to live in this wondrous place of old-world gardens carved out of nature-saturated surroundings. But what I still remember most from researching and writing that article was the image of the earth carpeted and canopied in blossoms of color and fragrance and beauty – ages before there were any people to appreciate it. It was well before there were many of today’s species of animals (most of the very first flowers had to contend with being trampled on or eaten by dinosaurs). more “Flowers, pollen, and other random possibilities.”
I found the young opossum tucked down in a brown paper bag full of light bulbs, inside a storage closet off my kitchen. He was huddled within an empty side of a 2-pack of 40-watt blubs. All nose and ears and big black eyes and tiny toe-tips peeking over the edge of the thin cardboard pack. more “Getting in touch with my inner opossum.”
I wore my mother’s earrings to a party not long ago. They are clip-on earrings – heavy with twisted gold chain, fabricated pearls, and memories.
Halfway through the evening, I found myself slipping these pieces of vintage jewelry off for a moment and rubbing my earlobes. They always pinch and keep me terribly aware of their presence. And I suspect that this was not unlike much of being a woman in the 1950s, when these earrings were made and first worn. A time when women were terribly aware of their womanhood and its attendant discomforts – from fashions to societal expectations and restraints. I wondered if the weight of it all pulled on my mother – like her earrings. Perhaps they were symbolic of the way she saw herself. And I thought to myself: ah, yes … you shall know me by my earrings. more “You shall know me by my earrings.”
She said her name was Teresa. She wore red slacks and had dark hair and spoke with a slight accent. She was soft and shy with a strand of loneliness woven about her – in her voice and encircling her movements.
She had only a few items in her grocery basket as she walked up and got in line behind me, so I invited her to go ahead. She was terribly pleased that I’d afforded her this small kindness, this quiet recognition. She thanked me – poignantly, too much, too many times.
She was about my height, my physical size, so our eyes and faces met as we waited, and we spoke to each other a couple of times about small and insignificant things. We smiled back and forth. She talked about the kindness of strangers, thanking me yet again.
And then she pointed to the two bags of Hershey’s kisses I had put up on the checkout counter after her items were starting to move through. She said she liked chocolate, too – but only the dark kind. I agreed, and told her these were the dark kind and very good – and I was quite addicted to them. And we smiled at each other over our shared bond of love for sweet, dark, chocolate.
As Teresa finished her transaction at the checkout, mine also went through, and so I grabbed one of my bags of chocolate kisses and tucked it into her sack. We both laughed. And, again, she thanked me over and over.
Then, just as she was leaving, she turned and asked if she could have my phone number. But all I could think was that she would just want to thank me some more. And that I didn’t have anything to write the number down on or with. And so she left with that sweet, not-quite-sad smile. And I felt her aloneness as it trailed along behind her like a shard of ribbon.
Perhaps it’s because this is the Easter season – one of the most meaningful for my faith – filled with lessons and requisites about taking care of one another, honoring one another. Or perhaps it’s because Easter is also one of those seasons when chocolate seems to abound wherever we go, all dressed up in its Easter clothes, in bright wrappers and wicker baskets and glass bowls. But I cannot seem to forget about Teresa and my missed opportunity for responding to her quiet request for friendship and hospitality from me.
Most faiths – most cultures – since the very beginning of our being human – profess the significance of hospitality and kindness, of noticing each other, of listening to each other, of respecting and valuing the vulnerability within each of us. Perhaps that’s why my heart keeps turning back to that unimportant day in the grocery store. And to the importance of Teresa.
I suspect I will regret for a very long time not giving Teresa my phone number that day. It was, after all, such a small thing. Perhaps we would have met for lunch or shared some tea … and chocolate, of course. And we could have found each other terribly fun and interesting to know.
During this faith-filled season of hope, I hope for all of us that we always have the grace to accept the invitations to exchange phone numbers with someone new. I hope we have the courage to always smile into another’s loneliness, and hug their hearts, and just be kind. I hope we have the generosity to never let a chance for hospitality pass us by. And that we have this wisdom in all seasons, throughout every year.
Perhaps I will meet her again – Teresa wearing red slacks and a not-quite-sad smile. And we will have tea and share chocolates, and I will say thank you.
Crisscrossed legs … hands at rest … half-closed eyes. I sat on the floor in quiet contemplation.
It was not quite a meditation, because my mind was simply refusing to be still – too busy flying from perch to perch of thought and concern and unfulfilled plans.
Then through the crack of an outer door, there came the unmistakable sounds of birds: melodious chirps and soft cries, the flutter of wings, and all the daily business of being creatures who hop and pluck and rustle through leaves for a living. But it was their singing that was the most intriguing – a comfort and a distraction and a focus all in one.
From an unsorted corner of my memory there awoke the knowledge that some birds can take up to 30 mini-breaths a second to replenish their lungs – to call out and make known their presence and wants. A silly thing to remember, it somehow fell in well with the flitting mini-thoughts that defined my own breath-of-being that day.
It seemed as though a dozen birds were singing – some all at once, like a choir of independent musicians brought together by arrangement and shared purpose. Others took their turns, back and forth, from one to the next, a sort of call-and-response, like old church music, and the Blues.
Since they were hidden from my sight, however, there could have been just two or three individual birds accounting for the entire symphony. After all, one bird alone can produce up to 300 different melodies. Another might provide more than 40 changes in notes, while yet another may repeat his particular song half a million times in a single season – as if his life depended on his voice being heard. As if his heart would break if there were no one listening. (As I suspect it can feel for most of us.)
I find it no small connection that birdsong, recorded and played back at a highly reduced speed, has been discovered to follow all the same rules and principles of classical music form – similar to Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I wonder if it is we humans who have learned the “rules” from them. Perhaps our souls are so entwined with them – and other creatures of the earth – that we share knowledge on a level far deeper than we consciously comprehend.
The birds outside the door this day enchanted me with their messages and secrets. They caught at my spirit and took it upon their wings and swooped and soared heavenward; and they feathered my heart and nested there for a moment or two. And then their music faded away … until there was just one. One lone and insistent cry and call, one final song and sigh. And then it, too, stopped. With a terrible suddenness.
It was, somehow, the sound of loss. I heard only the silence. And I was deeply saddened by what once was there and now was gone.
There is a John Steinbeck line in The Winter of Our Discontent that says: “It is so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
And so it was with my birds that day. Because I had heard their music, I heard the silence; yet I felt the trade a fair one.
But then, from out of the silence, something whispered into my heart – like lyrics, repeating as if it were still a bird’s own song: not gone, not gone, never gone … just singing in a place where you can no longer hear it.
Perhaps this is the way of all lost things. All silent voices. All lights gone dark. All souls departed. They are still there, still singing – simply in some other place, for some other heart to hear, charming another spirit.
And as I waited there, still in contemplation, listening to the silence of the birds, with a shift in time and wind and mind, I began to hear the leaves.