Tag Archives: Spirituality

Listening

Like something dropped on me, so sudden does it hit, stopping me there in the center of the path, in the mute light, shards of ice catching sparks from the hiding sun, black branches, a horizon where the snow and the sky meet and weave together and become one another. And I am filled with it, the suddenness of it — transubstantiation.

It doesn’t matter that I am here, on the path, and not at Mass. It doesn’t matter that the dogs sniff the undergrowth and I worry about my father. It doesn’t matter, any of it. It will be fine.

They hit me, these small epiphanies, in surprising ways. They always have. I had no words for them before, and few enough words now. I simply stand and wait, absorbing it — the knowing, the calm. I could die like this. There is another side — but that is the wrong word, side. As though there really is one place, and another, or one time, and another. Opposites. Bifercation. They are constructs. Words cannot say.

My mother’s head spilled light when she was dying. I dreamed of beautiful nothingness and came back through flaming embers. Those moments, those memories that are more than memories, stop me dead. They return and return. If I had been born and raised Catholic, I would be a nun.

Old Girl’s reference to Martin Luther King’s experience on the bench when he was tired of fighting, a time when God spoke to him, followed me all day yesterday. I have carried with me the moment on the path last weekend, that sudden, knee-buckling realization that is pain and ecstasy at once. There is no difference between the two, in the end. Martin Luther King heard God speaking to him. I hear no words. There is no grand light, no operatic music. Just that moment, repeated and repeated. Mum’s head spilling light, the rich earth spilling through my fingers in Ireland, the rising up and up and then falling into emptiness of my strange moments as a 10-year-old in Ireland. Kuan Yin and Teresa of Avila spin in the clouds, touch fingers and dissolve. Nada is my beautiful emptiness. I tell Mum of my dream. “I know,” she says. “I’m not afraid.”

The light in her head flickers, and fades. I am the only one who sees it — Mum and I alone in the house that afternoon — but the heron is for all of us. I do not fear dying.

After Thanksgiving bits n’ pieces

It’s 61 degrees in Dad’s house. I hate the cold. I’m wearing a coat and gloves to type, drinking tea. The milky morning light is burning off the water as the sun rises. The water is bleached and still now; everything seems to wait.

Later on, we’ll be finishing off a downstairs room in my sister’s house. Every time I come over there’s some project to do. Ruth May’s house is old and with the baby she can’t do much. Dad’s knees are bad and he can’t kneel any more. I’ll put on a mask and try to put the skirting board back in the room where she (we) put down laminate wood floor and painted in the fall. The paint will slip through the mask and I’ll cough and wheeze anyway. The three of us are worthless at home improvement.

The dogs try to help, but they’re not allowed in the basement. They’ll skitter around upstairs, angry at being shut out. Sadie will climb the gate and come down anyway, or push through and come down. She wants to be with me. She’s used to it. Yes, she’s spoiled, and I don’t care.

Outside Dad’s window, the cormorants sun themselves on the nearby pilings. They lift their wings to dry them, and their black feathers shine. Obadiah hasn’t been back since Leah’s birthday on the fourth. I’m glad. Every time the heron is absent on an insignificant day, her appearance on a meaningful day becomes more poignant. Still, I miss her. The year Mum died, she was here any time I came down, as though to convey her approval. Now, I guess, she just expects that I’ll be here quite often. She comes only for birthdays or gatherings, or when illness threatens.

I’ve been working on my young adult novel for my friend’s daughter. It’s to be a Christmas present, though the odds of me finishing it in time are getting slimmer and slimmer. It keeps getting more complicated. It’s got to be a series, like Harry Potter, but with theme of religious pluralism and respect for this spinning planet that we are hellbent on destroying. I started it three years ago, then stopped, then started again. I’ve stopped and started only because my friend’s daughter keeps asking about it, so finally I decided to write it for her, making a commitment to her that becomes binding on me. It’s slow going, though. It requires research, for it weaves in mythology and religion from all over the world. The protagonist, who is my friend’s daughter, of course, loves otters, so I had to find an otter friend for her. I found an Irish otter, Dobhar ChĂș, who is white with a black cross on his back, and who is dangerous in all the mythology about him. But the otter in my book, the “water hound” in my story, is not dangerous at all, except to those who would destroy that which he is charged to protect.

To write about him, I have to find pictures, read about him, find the core of his being in the stories about him so that I can present him to my friend. He comes alive that way.

Dad is downstairs…. Time to start the day.

Kooky

“Kooky,” they say. “Crazy. Believing in superstitious nonsense.”

It’s alright. I’ve been called worse. I’m used to that attitude, being the daughter of an atheist physicist. And for me, it makes no difference anyway. The heron’s repeated appearance since my mother was dying could be a series of coincidences (extraordinary, I’d say. Why did it show up on her deck railing while she was dying, stay there until she died, reappear over Hedgebrook while we were burying her ashes, prompting the director to say, “Oh look, the heron. We haven’t seen it in weeks”? Why did it stand on the roof of my parents’ house the Thanksgiving after she died, turn to face me and dip its head in my direction, then turn again and fly away? Why did it fly onto the beach just feet away from Zeke and her friend, and chatter at them? Why those appearances and a dozen more to my sisters, my mother’s friend, me?) Or it could be synchronicities. The label doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s just what it is. How I interpret it is up to me.

I know the heron I saw on the deck while she was dying is not the same one that flew over Hedgebrook or that appeared in Ireland or that dipped low over Sadie a few weeks ago when she was on her first walk after her illness. It’s not as if my mother’s consciousness animates those lovely birds, not as if she is reincarnated in a single bird that flies all over the world. It is something else, something I see as a synchronicity that invokes the beauty and mystery of the world. And that a physicist would dismiss as just a coincidence doesn’t bother me, because coincidence or synchronicity, it is simply what IS.

What matters to me, to the four of us girls, is that the heron binds us. When I said I knew the heron’s appearance was a sign that the weekend would go well, the words represented my understanding that all of us, all four of us, watched the heron watch my mother dying. Because of that, and because of the heron that flew over Hedgebrook as her ashes were being buried, we all see that particular bird as a representation of my mother’s spirit. That it appeared once again the first time we were all together since she died, to look directly in at the table where we all were sitting, comforted us, allowed us for the first time to shed the anger and resentments of that difficult time.

Coincidence? Maybe. But who cares. What the heron does to us is real.

When I first started RCIA, almost three years ago, I was sure I would never finish. I went as a concession to my friend. A pamphlet handed out at one of the first meetings described faith in a series of steps. The first step is the fairytale world presented to children, with a literal personal God looking down on tiny humans in fatherly love and choreographing everybody’s lives. At the top of the journey towards understanding is the place where people like Jesus and the Dalai Lama and Gandhi reside(d). People who recognize that Buddhism and Catholicism and Islam and Shinto and whatever are essentially the same thing. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Catholicism puts faith in a personal God. They seem on the surface to be totally incompatible, but they are not. Atheism isn’t incompatible either, though most atheists don’t or can’t see it.

So when literalists laugh because I invoke the heron as the spirit of my mother, because I recognize that all four of us sisters understand the heron in different ways (Ruth May, right now, has a far more literalist understanding of it than I do), it doesn’t bother me. I’m not by any means close to the top of the scale of understanding. Not close to enlightenment, whatever that means. Not close to anything but my own understanding, which is clouded simply because I’m alive and human and filled with memories that get in the way of equanimity and fearlessness. But I do know I’m not crazy.

___

Warning: Those who abhor superstitious nonsense, read no further!

I didn’t mention, in the last few posts about the heron and my sister’s birthday, that on the night of her party, my mother’s friend pressed an envelope into my hand. “For you,” she said quietly. “Happy belated birthday.” The envelope contained a pendant from China, from where she and her husband had just returned. China is significant to me because I have a personal connection to it through my mother’s grandparents, who lived there for 40 years. Mum always wanted to go there, and she, Dad and their friends made plans  for a trip the spring before she died. The tickets were purchased and the bags packed when the trip was called off because of SARS. A few months later the trip was rearranged for September and Mum began planning again. Only a couple of week before she was due to leave, she fell down in a hotel in Vancouver one night. The cancer had spread to a part of her brain that controlled movement and paralyzed her left side. Mum, Dad and their friends canceled the trip, and it was only this fall that my parents’ friends were finally able to make the trip they’d so looked forward to with Mum and Dad.

When I looked at the pendant, I saw a piece of green stone, jade I suppose, with Kuan Yin wrapped about it in metal. Between Kuan Yin warm against my chest under my dress, and the re-appearance of the heron just a few moments later at the birthday party, I knew everything was going to be just fine.

The Restaurant Heron

“Look,” Dad said. “A heron.”

Dad, Leah and I had just left a waterfront restaurant where, for the first time in the four years since my mother died, my three sisters and Dad and I were all together. Ruth May and Rachel had stayed behind for a drink, while Dad, Leah and I headed for the opera. And then, as we crossed the boardwalk bridge to the sidewalk, Dad saw the heron, not 20 feet away in the water in the dark at 7:45 at night, staring fixedly at we knew not what.

People passing by exclaimed too, as Dad pulled out his camera and tried unsuccessfully to get pictures.

“Oh well,” Leah said. “We saw it. All three of us.” Her words triggered something in me. I ran back into the restaurant and touched Rachel’s shoulder.

“Look,” I told her and Ruth May. When I turned to point out the window, I understood what the heron had been staring at. He was framed perfectly in the center of the window, looking at the table where we’d all been sitting together.

“It’s Mum,” Ruth May said, tears in her eyes. “I wish I had Liam here to see it.”

“She’ll be back,” Rachel responded, hugging Ruth May. “She’s always here.”

We had all been dreading this weekend. Actually, I hadn’t been, and Leah hadn’t been, but then again I don’t worry too much any more about family politics. Getting the four of us together might be a disaster, but I’m not going to go looking for trouble. If we can all just breathe and forget for a minute how hard Mum’s death was, we’ll be OK. But the Rachel and Ruth May? Well…. they dreaded it.

Leah was the one who insisted on the get-together. “I don’t want the next time we get together again to be at Dad’s funeral,” she said. “You know Mum wouldn’t want that either.” And she was turning 40, flying from Ireland for her birthday. She wanted us all there. When Rachel refused, Leah called on Dad, who called Rachel and insisted she come.

Now, looking out the window at the heron, Rachel leaned towards me.

“Even Dad knows about the heron,” she said. “Even if he doesn’t admit it in so many words. Did you know when he called me to insist I come to Leah’s party, he said, apropos of nothing, ‘oh, there’s a heron on the railing.’ Mum was there then, too, making sure I said yes, and he knew it.”

My parents had lived on the beach for nine years when Mum died. In all those years, we’d never seen a heron on the deck railing. Not till the one that showed up when Mum was dying and stayed there, watching her, till she died. And since then, at this time of year, the heron returns to the railing every year. I’ve never seen one on any of the other decks. Why our house? Why, for every meaningful event and moment in life, does a heron appear, sometimes to stay and watch us, as the heron last night did, and sometimes just to fly overhead, glimpsed for a second, then gone?

For me, it’s a sign that this weekend will go just fine. Mum’s back, uniting us again, reminding us that life is mysterious and inexplicable, and that she’ll always be here.

“If you four fight,” she said as she was dying. “I’ll come back and haunt you. You know I will. So don’t fight.”

I’m glad she chose the form of a heron, a flighted spirit, a natural inhabitant of these parts, but also usually aloof and wild. It’s perfect for her. For us.