When the songbirds leave.

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.

Thoughts about “famine walls” and dog fences.

They’re called “famine walls.” They’re found in Ireland and they’re made of stone and start in the midst of nothing and go nowhere.

There are multitudes of them. Random walls across open lands, built in various lengths and widths and heights. They were created during the great potato famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s as a sort of work-for-food project, and had the slight benefit of at least clearing the lands around them of large stones – preparing the way for future farming or other use of the countryside.

I am quite intrigued with these hauntingly named structures that still mark their place in time. I can barely imagine the mindset of the individuals who built them – so desperate for food for themselves and their families that they willingly struggled to overcome physical depletion to gather large stones from empty fields and build walls that began suddenly and stopped just as abruptly and served no function and were without design. Famine exchanged for futility.

I found myself remembering these walls recently – or, more accurately, contemplating fences in general. I live near a part of Aiken that treasures its architecturally elegant “Old Aiken” brick walls that surround estates of incredible beauty and heritage. I walk past lush paddocks edged by the grace of traditional horse fence and history. And, just down the street, on the corner of my block, there is a large landscaped and wire-fenced yard surrounding a well-loved family home; a family that includes several beautiful rescue dogs of various shapes and sizes and personalities. Their leader is Tucker. And Tucker claims righteous ownership of this corner loudly and insistently whenever anyone walks past – especially if the passersby include another dog. Tucker is especially vocal with my dog, Quincy. The others join in with enthusiasm.

All of these creatures are lovely pets and extremely well trained. But Quincy seems to ignite an explosion of group “trash talk” through their protective chain-link fence. Quincy eagerly returns insult for insult, but then veers away when he feels he has made his point, leaving Tucker to kick up dust in frustration, trying desperately to get in the last word.

This needless confrontational expression had gone on for over a year. Until earlier this week, when Tucker’s human suggested we let them all mingle together inside the fence.

Immediately, attitudes were dropped and friendships formed. Without this fence between them, they blended into each other’s spaces beautifully, peacefully, joyfully. When there was nothing allowed to separate them – when they could search each other’s intentions, experience each other’s silent languages; when they could engage each other in reality, and in energy, they formed immediate bonds of understanding and respect. They recognized their shared interests and similarities. They forgot their fears and fearsomeness.

I suspect this situation is all too often a reality for humans, too. Perhaps it isn’t our differences that create conflict and fear; perhaps it’s the emotional and imagined fences we put up between us that separate our souls and our ability to come together in human bonds of sympathy and understanding. And I suspect it takes a great deal of struggle to build our fences and divisions – in the midst of nothing, that go nowhere, that break our backs as well as our hearts. I suspect we work terribly hard to put these barriers in place. And, in the end, I suspect we find we’ve created nothing more than our own hunger for empathy and inclusion. We’ve likely just created our own “famine walls” – without direction or design, without beginning or end.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll learn from the Tuckers and Quincys and other wise creatures around us; and we’ll open our own gates to our hearts, and we’ll gather together, and we’ll learn to trust and take care of each other and live in grace and peace.

I know that fences and walls have their purposes and places and history and beauty in the world. But I suspect not the silent, stagnant versions between us. Because with those kinds of fences, as Carl Sandburg wrote: “passing through the bars and over the steal points will go nothing except Death and Rain and Tomorrow.”

 

© Marti Healy

Finding second sight.

They call it second sight. And it refers to the sudden vision improvement many of us experience just as we reach the age of cataracts. Quite unexpectedly, our vision can clear perfectly. We can read without glasses. We have the near vision of our youth – sometimes, even sharper than we enjoyed back then.

Curiously, however, it only affects how we can see things right in front of us. And it doesn’t last long. And then, too soon and just as suddenly, it is followed by layers of clouds, and dark corners in dimly lit rooms, and the dulling of colors. It’s rather like a brilliant dawn, just before the dark of a storm.

I learned of this visual phenomenon only recently. But I am intrigued with it – as well as its nomenclature.

The term “second sight” was first coined in the early 1600s, when it was recorded that only those blessed with second sight could see the mystical world of the fairies. Since then, this term has been used traditionally to describe those who can see into the future, or sense things yet to be – those who are able to see what others cannot. And now, it is applied to an identifiable state of aging eyes.

But, regardless of definition, perhaps because of both definitions, I like the idea of second sight. And, I suspect, the two meanings are somehow and significantly connected.

I think seeing the world with new sight is a lovely concept – an amazing experience – both with actual clearer vision, and with clearer perception and understanding.

When I was growing up, I was considered to be a “late bloomer.” It was a polite and condescending explanation for someone who simply awakens to things on their own schedule. And also one who sees the world differently. It was a label I hid behind for a great deal of my life. It’s one I wear rather proudly today. Because, to me, a late bloomer gets to have second sight all the time. We get to see everything for the first time – whenever we want, and for as long as we want.

There is a gratifyingly high percentage of writers and musicians, artists and philosophers, scientists and leaders, who began their greatest (sometimes their first) works when they were well into their lifetimes. Some of our human brain capacity doesn’t even hit its peak until we are at least in our fifties. I suspect a good many more of us than we realize are meant to be late bloomers.

Late bloomers have the added ability – and responsibility, I think – of empathy. Because only after experiencing a lifetime of joy and pain and courage and cowardice can we begin to know another creature’s heart and soul. And perhaps only as late bloomers do we possess the grace to walk over that threshold to meet them where they are.

Many of us reach a certain point in our lives when we think only in terms of missed opportunities, of paths not taken; at best of starting over or second careers. But what if we are all meant to be late bloomers? And at that point – right there, right then – is who we were actually meant to be and what we were created to do all along. The passage of time was simply to allow for the stages of our development – for us to accumulate the experience, to acquire the knowledge and spirituality, to create the understanding – and empathy – needed to execute our purpose. It isn’t the beginning of the end, it’s just the beginning … the opening of the late bloom.

Late bloomers are, perhaps, the butterflies of the world. All their energy and struggle and growth and transformations lead to that ultimate bursting forth – from dark into light, with beauty beyond reason – to at last fulfill their intended purpose under heaven. Perhaps to see the world with the most amazing second sight.

Lead with your heart.

I suspect most of us have the shared joyful experience of holding a newborn baby closely to us in our arms and feeling its heart softly seeking out and speaking to our own.

The mind-thoughts of an infant may be still unformed, without any context and clarity or ability for expression. But its heart knows things. Its tiny heart-voice is articulate and uncensored, compelling and terribly wise.

I have personally experienced and wondered at these heart conversations with human babies as well as other forms of new young animals – dogs and cats and horses in particular. I have also sensed it from the roots of trees and the petals of gardenias; even from sun-warmed river stones and frost-coated blades of grass; and from seeds that pop alive into a new generation – seen or unseen, planted or wild (bidden or unbidden).

I am quite convinced that all living things (and what in the entire universe is not alive in some measure?) do have this heart energy that allows us to communicate with one another. And, I suspect, we are highly influenced by this energy of the heart whether we realize it or not.

Studies have proven that heart energy – or the heart brain, as it has been called – can be measured up to five times the distance and strength of the mind brain. It’s further been determined that we can control it – or rather the message it delivers – as intentionally and as significantly as we can change our thoughts.

I am particularly intrigued by the research that shows that “appreciation” is the strongest of all the heart-brain messages. Stronger than love or hate … stronger than happiness or anger … appreciation speaks the most clearly and authentically.

Not long ago, I regularly morning-walked a neighbor’s untrained, highly energetic young pup. Placing my hand against her heart – focusing my heart thoughts directly onto hers – was often the only way to calm her enough to walk quietly at my side (most of the way). I suspect only the wisdom of our hearts will ever understand the how and why of that. But I witnessed its effect, its truth. And it was brilliant.

Even beyond the “heart” as we quantify it, new and wondrous science is uncovering how older, mature trees pass wisdom on to the younger ones around them – things about survival and health, how to thrive in their prevailing environment; about the sharing of resources and taking care of each other, as well as providing for other life-forms that depend on them.

We know that native American cultures expressed thanks (appreciation) to the game and plant life and water that fed and sustained them. And they lived and slept and walked as near to and as softly on the ground as possible. Perhaps they knew their hearts could speak their appreciation to the very earth itself in this way. Perhaps the earth expressed its appreciation to them in return.

Howard Thurman – one of the 20th century’s most wise individuals – wrote: “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.” Perhaps we can also whisper with our own hearts appreciation for life in all its forms and states of being and experiences.

Because Thurman further observed that “life wears down the edges of the mind.” And perhaps it does. Like shoes after a long journey – becoming uneven at the heels, soles thin and cracked. But then, with the dulling of the brain-mind, perhaps the heart-mind is polished to a new sheen, and made even stronger, and able to let appreciation shine out in all its brilliance, allowing us to experience and express the ultimate appreciation at the ultimate moment of appreciation – as when we were newly born.

I suspect that we should all lead with our hearts at all times – literally and figuratively, thoughtfully and energetically. We should speak through our hearts on purpose. Appreciate through our hearts with abandon. After all, babies and dogs and other living things will be listening.

A full moon rising.

Last night I dreamed I was adrift in a small rough-edged boat, floating through the night on a beautiful, shimmering lake. I seemed to be in one of those miniature boats we make as children, using large leaves and sticks for hull and sail. It was a very old lake, I think; the waves were gently gliding up to a short beach of smooth stones and shadows. But most memorable of all was the splendid full moon just above the horizon, and it spilled across the water like quicksilver and pearls.

My long-ago dog, Sophie, was with me in the dream. And, strangely, so was one of my former cats – a longhaired beauty named Katie. All of us were hushed and entranced by the moon.

My dreams are typically neither very complicated nor difficult to discern in origin. And this one seemed to be no exception.

I had recently acquired a vintage book of children’s poems and rhymes – written with total abandonment to fun, brilliantly illustrated, with all the charm and delight appropriate to the style of its 1924 issue date. The book is titled well: On the Road to Make Believe, and it caught at my imagination, while it created images in my subconscious of childhood as we all want to believe it exists. And so the leaf boat appeared in my dream, complete with animal companions, on a warm, still, moonlit lake.

The moon seemed to have taken on its starring role in my night creation with equal ease of explanation. But that began a few days before last Christmas. The full moon that occurred that night took one’s breath away and replaced it with a sense of awe and peace. The very sight and magic of it became holiday party chatter and caused people to stop in wonder as they were scurrying up doorsteps, hands full of treats and packages. Hovering low in the sky, the moon in all its fullness that night somehow warmed the icy air and reassured inspired hearts that, indeed, perhaps all was calm … all was bright.

Since then, I have been especially mindful of full moons.

I’ve been remembering the names given to the different monthly full moons by our native American ancestors – including the wolf moon, the flower moon, and the hunter moon; February’s full moon alone was known variously – and hauntingly – as the bone moon, the hunger moon, the cold moon or the crackling moon.

I’ve also been recalling some of the folktales and lore and widespread beliefs about the moon that exist in every culture and every place and every time. Stories involving giant rabbits and beautiful princesses; or of the moon being hollow and home to an entire culture and race of beings; legends of gods and goddesses; tales of shape-shifting and transformations; and the moon’s influence in love potions and health cures, madness and meditation.

I have personally lived to see a dozen humans imprinting themselves on the very face of the moon – leaving behind bits and pieces of our species’ inventiveness, our science, our art, traces of our humanity – as if they were some kind of hostess gifts.

And yet, while the rest of our reality shifts and groans with evolution and meddling, the moon remains constant. Regardless of war and weather and religions and governments, it does not change with time or even human intervention. It is predictable in its phases. It is seen the same from every place and gaze from earth and every time in history. In fact, the phases of the moon are quite simply changes of our own earthly perspective – not changes or phases of the moon itself at all. The moon, like truth, never changes; only our perception of it.

I find all of this strangely comforting. When I die, the moon will be the same enchanting celestial entity it was when I was born. And I can know that it was the same when my ancestors went down to their own sea in their own sailing ships. And it will be the same for all those who come after me. And it was so in the vintage children’s book of 1924, and it was so in my dream last night.

I suspect we all need something of constancy in our lives and hearts. I am glad one of those constant things can be the moon. For it is the perfect mix of perception and reality, lightness and dark, reflection and insight, precise measurement and quantum mystery. And hope. Perhaps in its constancy, the moon represents the fullness of hope.

I am hoping that my dream might come to me again. Perhaps it will … on the beams of the next full moon.

© Marti Healy 2019

Begin Anywhere.

Begin anywhere. Just two simple words that I read recently, quoted from composer John Cage. And yet, like a message from the universe, they have been weaving themselves in and out of my life for the past several days and weeks.

Begin anywhere. The message shuffles around in my consciousness and circles through my dreams and pushes into things I see and hear and read and am told and must do and want known.

Everything from major work projects to housekeeping tasks seems to invoke the advice: Begin anywhere. Even the latest book I’ve been reading is written in the “en medias res” style (opening in the midst of action, then flashing back to the beginning for context). Begin anywhere, it reasserts.

And then, just today, a friend sent me a video link of wolves in the wild, singing. The focus is on one wolf, alone, who hears the echoing calls of the others. And he throws back his own voice to join in the song. It is not at the beginning of their music. He simply begins at that place where he feels the pulse of their primeval rhythm … where he senses the wind wants to carry his call along with theirs … where his heart tells him it’s his time and place. He just begins … anywhere.

My dog, Quincy, stirs at the sound of the wolf song. It reaches out and resonates with his primitive self, even as he sits next to me, warm, safe, well fed, on a soft-cushioned couch. I watch his ears twitch, and remember that it was just a year ago that he came to live with me, with eight years of mysterious life behind him, trembling between an unknowable past and an uncertain future. He began a new life in the company of strangers solely on trust. (A life that also included a small opinionated cat who would soon adore him beyond all reason.) And we continue to learn about each other, bits at a time, in foreign languages, by listening to each other’s hearts. All because he agreed to just begin anywhere.

Not long ago, I was writing a story about fairytales. And in my research I discovered that the traditional beginning of “once upon a time” was a derivative of the German word “Marchen” – which meant, “a little story from a long time ago when the world was still magic” – or “in the old times when wishing was still effective.” (The Germans certainly fit a lot of meaning into a small word.) But as intriguing as I find those concepts, I further discovered that “once upon a time” was also coined to be able to set a story in any time, in any place. It just happens. Like all the best stories, it just begins anywhere.

It seems to me that the best experiences I have ever known in life were those when I just began … anywhere. When I just stepped into the parade. When I just began singing along with the song – even if I had to “la-la-la” the words. When I joined in the linedance not knowing the steps. When I made a new friend without realizing it, or fell in love with an old dog on faith alone.

I suspect the best bits in life always do happen that way – when we don’t worry about knowing how or where or if we’ve missed the beginning, and we just begin anywhere. And trust in the outcome.

I found that John Cage himself put that thought rather compellingly when he also said: “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

Begin anywhere.

Listen to me with your eyes.

Long before it became a fashionable phrase, or a catchy new business technique, or even a spiffy scientific experiment, I heard my mother’s voice saying the words: “Listen to me with your eyes.”

It typically sounded very far away at first – working its way through thick pages of books, or floating over a great body of imagination; pulling me back from paper dolls, or Nancy Drew, or putting underpants and a bonnet on the dog and lifting him into the doll buggy.

“Now, listen to me … with your eyes.”

It meant: don’t just nod and say yes Mother. It meant: turn your attention fully to me and hear what I’m saying. It implied: this is important … and I’ll mean more than I say. She may have said simply: I’m leaving for the store now … but she meant: take care of each other, I’ll be back, I worry about you, I love you.

Like most mothers, I think, my mother knew that unless we turned our faces to her – focused our eyes on her face – we weren’t really listening. Not really. Not with our full minds and hearts. And, later on in our lives, perhaps we might never know how to listen with our humanity.

There are vivid flashes of moments listening with my eyes that seem to always stay with me, tucked not far away; sometimes they surge into my mind on waves of fresh experience as if they had happened only that morning. Perhaps they did.

There is one held forever within the cold damp concrete of a hospital parking garage; a man is walking by himself, tears just under the surface of his face; his shoulders bend forward, a woman’s soft yellow sweater is folded carefully over his left forearm, her purse in his hand.

There are others. A dog pulls a felt blanket out from under a small decorative Christmas tree to make himself a bed against the cold. An old woman watches the cash register total at a grocery store, putting back some of the food. A young woman, alone, pushes through crowds of Christmas shoppers creating a sort of smile on her lips that never reaches her eyes, her arms empty of packages, her coat new and barely worn, her eyes tragic. Children holding hands to cross a street. Young men waiting on a bench. Military combat veterans weeping into the necks of horses. Horses running up to a fence searching faces – searching for a particular face. A cat creeping through a strange gate and into the corner of a warm house, as if she didn’t care, but clearly does. Little girls in old coats sharing cookies. Old women in old coats sharing laughter. Men of every age and color and circumstance singing together in harmony.

Perhaps my mother understood the deeper significance behind her words – listen to me with your eyes. It didn’t just assure that we were listening, it let us learn to truly hear one another. Because when we listen with our eyes, we hear each other’s authentic hearts and silent stories. And then something happens to the spaces between us.

This Christmas season, I hope you witness the abundance of possibilities all around and near you. Perhaps you will listen for them and to them. Perhaps you will listen to them with your eyes.

Where the fairies have gone.

I suspect the spirits of the woods teased the tree branches overhead just at that moment, allowing the sun to suddenly dazzle my eyes. Because at first I didn’t see it. But then the breeze sighed the leaves back into place and shade again. And Quincy the dog became still and alerted his ears. And, following his gaze, I found what I had been searching for.

The fairy castle in the woods.

It was still there, just steps beyond a crumbling, crusted, fallen tree, only a few yards from the ragged edge of the path, just as I remembered it.

I first spotted this earthy yet otherworldly delight in the very early spring of this year – perhaps during the last proper walk in the woods I had taken. But a new dog with old illnesses, and raging summer heat and storms, and books to write and talks to give and projects to complete, and all the daily necessities (that are forgotten within another day), had taken the place of woods-walking for me for far too long. So I wasn’t sure that this bit of woodland joy and fantasy would still be there – even less sure the spirits of the woods themselves would let me find it for a second time.

But this day was different, somehow. It was a day of rare autumn warmth. A willing and well Quincy companion was at my side. I had a breath of time between promises to keep, and a heart that sorely needed to be embraced by the peace and reassurance that only the natural world creates and holds waiting in the palm of its hand for us.

The moment I entered the woods, finding the fairy castle seemed terribly important and compelling to me. Something in me longed to feel its charm and touch its substance as I remembered it, heavily draped in moss and subtext; I wanted to listen for its music and messages, hoping to hear some sort of lost wisdom or suspended secrets.

I thought back to when I had been writing the book The Secret Child. I remembered how I had explored through a depth of literature and lore about fairies and sprites, water babies and changelings, Celtic spirits of the woods and all the other beings that have inhabited the realms just at the edge of our own reality for as long as time can remember. There is far too much written and recorded about them to allow for total disbelief. And, of course, my own Celtic roots are deep, and tangled well with my childhood memories and books – and a singular ability to imagine most possibilities.

With that being understood, and that perspective in mind, I sat and watched and listened to the fairy castle in the woods for quite some time. And I remembered reading the texts that recounted how fairies had once walked beside and shared the earth with humans on equal ground. Until human conceit declared its own superiority. And discrepancy and disparity were allowed to exist. And in the gaps that formed, respect fell in from both sides. And trust crumbled and dried into dust.

The fairies were suspected of all crimes without reason or reality. They were driven into slavery, captured and imprisoned, hurt and hunted into the woods.

Some accounts say they retreated underground. And then, in some dark, liminal crack in time, the fairies slipped away to the other side, to another plane of reality. And with that loss, all their magic and secrets and knowledge, their music and art, all their stories and dance, their friendship and cooperation, their affection and loyalty and laughter and energy disappeared from our world as well.

Sometimes you can still hear their echoes on a clear night under a full moon, or see their remnants in the woods between the sun and shadows or next to streambeds or where the wildflowers grow. A few times there may be a perfect tree stump castle still above the ground, or a field of smooth cool moss patched over a bed of rocks, or footprints left in an early morning dew. I suspect that these are left only to remind us. To keep our memories of them alive just enough.

I left the fairy castle in the woods glad that they had shared this bit of themselves with me. Yet my heart was exceedingly afraid and ashamed and sad that the lesson of the fairies hasn’t resonated deeply enough among the humans of the earth. We haven’t heard it or seen it or felt it or recognized it for what it is, or embraced its universal truth.

Perhaps one day we will. Perhaps then we will stop losing each other.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” The words belong to poet Rainer Rilke. I want terribly to live them.

But I suspect it is a conviction very few of us allow ourselves to experience. I wonder if it is because we may sometimes fear beauty as much as terror. Perhaps we avoid both when we are unable to discern one from the other. And perhaps that is the trick of it all, exactly what Rilke hoped we would realize. That they can be, at times, bound together – beauty and terror happening as one. more “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”

Irises and open doors.

“Not knowing when the Dawn will come,

I open every Door.”

Emily Dickinson wrote that thought in 1884. I suspect she meant it relative to inspiration. Because she went on to finish the poem with the lines:

“Or has it Feathers, like a Bird,

Or Billows, like a Shore – ”
more “Irises and open doors.”