Lessons from Mrs. Orange Berry

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”

The power of the human voice; the presence of the written word.

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.”

Flowers, pollen, and other random possibilities.

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.”

You shall know me by my earrings.

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.”

Teresa and the chocolates.

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.

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.