January brought us news of several celebrities’ death…a number of musicians including David Bowie; actor Alan Rickman (one of my favorites)…and…my Aunt Lil…
One might reflect on why it is we react emotionally to the deaths of celebrities, people we’ve never known personally. Someone tweeted: “We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” That’s worth reflecting on, but it’s not what I’ll focus on here and now…
As I typed the first draft of this post a week ago, I was on an airplane flying from Denver to Minneapolis for my Aunt Lil’s funeral. She helped me to BE myself – helping me to be the single parent I was for 14 years, by her graceful and vibrant modeling of being one herself during my childhood. There’s so very much I could say about my Aunt Lil, but I’ll stick to this: She was truly the sunniest person I’ve ever known. Always seeing bright things, humor in situations, the upside of circumstances, and always with a ready smile and laughter. She lived a wonderfully long and full life, 98 years old. We had a purely wonderful time last weekend gathering with extended family and celebrating her long and vibrant life.
And: Thoughts of death. Mortality. Loss. And of other, closer, more searing losses I’ve experienced…
And also: My current, shaping reality of living with a beloved, geriatric dog, making all kinds of adaptations to her various and increasing frailties and challenges. For the past 2 years I’ve been observing and noting, judging and weighing, all the apples and oranges that make up a daily/hourly judgment of her “quality of life”… Feeling the loving burden of holding “the decision” that may be needed for her on my sometimes weary shoulders. As I tell people when they ask how she’s doing, “She just keeps tottering on!” I’m grateful to and for the loving dog sitters who stay with our dear furry friend when I travel…
Yes: Thoughts of death. Mortality. Loss.
There are countless literary and traditional stories one might explore that I, as a storyteller, might refer to and commend to you. But I’m moved instead to share some musings from my many hours of working and sitting in my back yard, letting my Old Doggie patrol about, watching the “Wild Kingdom” behind our yard – the open space riparian area alive with blue jays, hawks, raccoons, doves, finches, owls, flickers, rabbits, and the coyotes we must keep alert for…
In spring I love watching the hawk’s nest high in the cottonwood across the way as much as the doves’ and robins’ nests in my own plum trees out windows…and I know that the hawk must hunt “my” baby robins as surely as the robins must hunt for worms. At times I find bones and feathers and fur in my yard…Everyone must eat somehow. And: Everyone must die sometime, somehow.
Watching nature, being out in it, breathing and observing –
– not only the inevitable violence of predators and prey, but also the other kinds of passing…the plant life that changes with the seasons, the dying grasses, the storm-broken tree, the creeks and landscapes that change course and shape with the passage of time…the lessons of creation – I’ve found can help profoundly to live with the realities and emotions of the deaths of loved ones.
And then the other day, sitting bundled up in the 40-degree sunshine in my yard, and listening to the juncos and jays, I did find myself thinking of a specific story: my friend and fellow storyteller Kate Lutz’s story, “Left, Right, Breathe.” It’s a powerful story about her climbing a mountain in the Himalayas, and about climbing the mountainous challenges life brings, including loss and grief – She told it as a fringe performance at the 2015 National Storytelling Conference. I sat with the memory of her personal story I’d heard interweaving with my own, and with the story of Nature playing out before me…
The stories that we know, we hear, we remember, combine with our lived personal stories to create our inner narratives, those narratives that guide our understanding and decisions, and the ways we handle the challenges that come our way.
Whatever your spirituality or philosophy, religion or personality or inclination…one of the things I deeply commend to you is to make time and space in your life to watch, to observe, to be with nature.
The natural world has untold bounties to teach us. There is violence and death to be sure. And there is beauty and peace. There is a wholeness, a balance that is real, and instructive, and nourishing.
Nature’s story is our story.
We humans are not apart from nature, much as we might wish or think or strive to be – with technology, with “intellect,” or whatever. We simply are as much a part of nature/creation/the world as any robin or spruce or river.
I left my Colorado “Wild Kingdom” one week ago and traveled through the clouds to Minneapolis to gather with extended family, to celebrate a wonderful woman’s life, now passed to the next adventure…And I now sit once again at home, outside on this unusually mild winter day with my Old Doggie patrolling at the edge of the Wild Kingdom…And on this day, January 29 – the anniversary both of my mother’s birth and of my father’s death (both gone now) – my heart returns, as it does often, to one of the best poems ever, by Wendell Berry:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998. (Counterpoint Press, 1985)
Thanks for reading –
Featured photo at the top of this post is of a robin fledgling in our aspens, at the edge of the Wild Kingdom, summer 2014. I hope it made it.
All photos taken by Pam Faro.