Sunday, January 29, 2012

Abbey's Rabbit

 This engaging story is a Guest Post by Deborah Williams, whom I met at the Upaya Zen Center last fall. Deborah posted this story for her fellow writing friends on the last day of the Year of the Rabbit, giving us a "certain rabbit's last day." Deborah states: "My main goal was to tell the rabbit's side of the story without being overly sentimental; or sentimental at all. I have wondered about animals and Buddha Nature many times; it seems to me that human enlightenment involves the active choice to move the mind into a particular space, whereas animals never left that space to begin with. Animals and humans do not inhabit the space in the same way."
     I immediately was drawn to this piece because it takes us out of our egocentric human view, to a view of the rabbit, who is neither outraged or pleased about the possibility of his life being taken, or saved, at any given moment. Is that not the truest acceptance of life's circumstances? We wrestle with human emotion, day in and day out, which is at times destructive and exhausting, but does it have to be? How would it feel to be in that space of equanimity, not overly impressed, not overly depressed...just a state of being in the ever-lasting and enduring circle of life and death? I look forward to your comments upon reading this simple, beautiful story.
                                                                 Abbey's Rabbit
The average lifespan of a desert cottontail rabbit is two years. It is not a great distinction, becoming an average rabbit. But it isn’t easy either, staying alive for 730 days.
He didn’t count the days, but their rhythm ruled him. Each dawn he ventured from a shallow dugout in the brush and sniffed the air for the scent of those near, those who had come in the night but were no longer close, the scent of the wind itself telling where his own scent would be carried. Around him, still concealed in shadow, others emerged. They surveyed the horizon, the sky, the close grass, and moved in ones and twos out of vague shadow into vague light, stepping here but not there, moving now but not then, eating this grass but not that grass, head and tail kept low. Young rabbits watched old rabbits, who inadvertently passed on the skills that would help them become average rabbits, and they would pass them on to others if they got the chance. Average rabbits are skilled at survival above all else, with little time for behavior that did not add days to their lives.
The sun rose, the wind blew. He fed, which for a rabbit involves searching, and watching, always watching, and finally grazing in his preferred spot between mesquite bush and the prickly pear, although he didn’t call them that. Long step, short hop, his trembling nose sampled the grassy aromas just out of reach. He had distinct preferences and would often clear the space of one kind of grass, then make a second pass for the less desirable varieties.  He enjoyed bark too. Even the toughest piece was a plaything for his teeth, and he had spent many hours under one helpless bush or another, mercilessly denuding its lower branches. Cactus was nice, but he felt exposed when eating it. Ideally, he’d find a small piece he could take with him to a safe place. The moisture from all these things was sufficient, but an actual drink was always welcome. Puddles after the rain were refreshing but dangerous and didn’t last long. Dewdrops were rewards for the earliest risers and widest wanderers. 
He chewed and then paused, again and again, sampling his surroundings with ears tuned for centuries to the slightest sound and eyes designed to scan for movement in almost all directions. He chose another bite. Occasionally he sat straight up on his haunches, using the higher vantage point to keep watch while the others grazed. It amazed him, each time, how small a thing a rabbit is under a big sky. He did not entirely dislike the feeling. Plus, he was able to warn others, by thumping a back foot, if he perceived a threat. It seemed like the least he could do.
Day came on full and they returned to the spaces where they felt safe, as safe as a rabbit could feel, in sleep, in thought, or in distress. He dozed contentedly to the howl of the wind until just before dusk. He was hungry. He crept out and sat for a moment, eyes blinking against the light and the sand. Others nearby were grazing with ears down, their grayish-brown fur blending into the dust-filled atmosphere and the early evening shadows. Invisibility was essential to small creatures reluctant to advertise themselves as prey. Equally important to the illusion was stillness. At the slightest threat, or the threat of a threat, he could remain motionless, breathing the barest breath, for many minutes, although his skin was too thin to hide the hammering of his rabbit heart.
Fear followed him, although he didn’t call it that. Predators simply came from all directions. From in front, from behind, from above, they patrolled the scrub and rock like casual, confident sentries. A rabbit’s best option was to remain hidden. But when that failed, he ran. Like a rabbit.  Zig, then zag, exploding from one small space to the next, a few lightning strides away, across the sand through the scrub, his white tail bright against the desert floor and deliberately highlighting his back-and-forth flight until he finds grass enough to suddenly freeze, tuck white tail low, and, to a predator who tracks movement, vanish completely. It didn’t always work. He’d seen rabbits, mistakenly caught in the open, zig and zag to no avail. Claws dig, jaws snap. Sometimes, without warning, the rabbit next to him was overtaken by a feathered shadow and scooped up into the dusk. And sometimes a rabbit he knew just wasn’t there anymore. 
So he knew about death, although he didn’t call it that. What’s evident to rabbits is that there are exactly three ways to die: get eaten, get hurt (and then get eaten), or get sick (and then get eaten). He had seen all of these things, although it had taken some time for him to work out that the same thing was happening each time.
Mating was similarly mysterious. He did not ask to be consumed by an act that caused so much turmoil. Still, he did his best. He knew how to fight, if he had to. He didn’t like it, and no rabbit really does. For all the scratching and kicking, there was seldom a clear winner. The males were left bloodied and full of rabbit rage, most nursing the suspicion that the females were doing the choosing anyway. But he had chosen (or had been chosen) more than once and so he knew females. The mating urge was inexplicable and dangerous. He himself had followed the scent too far, crossed fields too wide in moonlight too bright, to reach the bearer, the heat, the release. But the urge came and went, and new rabbits emerged from nests, according to the schedule imposed upon them.
He was focused on a patch of grass near the deer path when the air changed. Even the wind didn’t disguise the slight variation and without hesitating, he took quick shelter under a bush. A budding blackbrush, he observed, although he didn’t call it that. And when he foolishly darted across the path to another, bigger bush, he saw it. He huddled, frozen, a tall shape reflected in his soft dark eye.
He didn’t know this. He knew a lot of things. But he didn’t know this. He might have figured something out, such as a rabbit could, given a little time. Instead he watched the figure stoop and then rise again. A brief pause and no more time at all. 730 days, give or take a few. He was an average rabbit. And in the end, he became a meal for a coyote on a lucky streak, although she didn’t call it that. But the requisite 4,562 days were behind her, her belly was full, and she felt better than average that night.
Bio:  Deborah Williams is an editor and graphic designer living in Oklahoma, where she and her husband have a permanent sanctuary for stray and difficult animals.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Who Needs the Sun?

Music has always been instrumental (pun) in my life, as it has for all my siblings. One brother plays guitar and follows jazz (a few years ago, we saw Alexander Zonjic, flutist,  play in a small venue in Dearborn, Michigan. I walked out of that concert stunned). I seriously had no idea a flute could be commanded to create such a wide range of sounds and moving dynamics. What a master. Another brother can pretty much recite the discography of all the major rock bands from about 1969 to present. My sister is a die-hard, decades long, made in the wool Led Zeppelin fan.  At age 48, her teenage son got her the complete CD compilation of Zeppelin for Christmas, and she couldn't be happier. She tells the story of my mom using her Visa card to front tickets for my sister and 15 of her friends to see the mega band in concert (back in the day when a credit card was used ONLY for emergencies). My mom apparently conceded this was an emergency... of sorts, so she obliged. How can you NOT fall in love with Stairway to Heaven (and the forest will echo with....laughter)?  I learned to love Fats Domino from my mom, who sang Blueberry Hill with abandon; and she once told me her favorite contemporary artist was Rod Stewart singing Maggie May with his sexy, gravely voice.  I'm a true rock n' roll junkie with  lots of wiggle room for the blues, bluegrass, folk, and Celtic musical liberties.

So it is only fitting, that after several weeks of below zero temperatures and negotiating eight-foot snow berms, we get relief by attending the Anchorage Folk Festival, where you can enjoy (for free, by the way) ten days of performances, workshops, jam sessions and dances, plus all kinds of silly raffles. This is how we get through the long winters.  Film festival in December, and Folk Festival in January. If you make it this far and haven't yet jumped on a plane to Hawaii for relief, then you're going to be alright because the sun is making a comeback fast and furious, though when driving it shoots a laser beam straight into your eyes because it's still so low on the horizon. During the festival, you forget about the sun and immerse yourself in the arts. Dances are happening all over town, from contra to swing (my fav; I learned to swing at the Back Porch bar in Spearfish, South Dakota, circa 1978) to the art of the simple and elegant waltz. The greatest thing about the festival is all musicians (except the headliners) have a 15 minute set, and veterans to beginners are welcome to play. If you can fill 15 minutes with some pretty decent music, you can get up there on that stage and fulfill a dream! There's all kinds of talent: The Alaska Native American Flute Circle, Raggedy Banjos, Sourdough Biscuits, Down Home Easy, and Rogues and Wenches (I'd fit right in with these folks who sing sad love ballads, happy war songs, sea shanties and pirate fare). There's Hot Sauce and Jubilee and Red Elk and Mountain Echo. Anyone for Acoustic Banana or Three Fish in a Tree? Most memorable was Esther Golton's flute duet called Aurora Borealis. I swear you could hear the swish and crackle of the northern lights and feel the full display as it crescendoed across the night sky. A real spine tingler.

The headliners play a 2.5 hour set; Friday night we enjoyed the Hanneke Cassel Trio, featuring Ariel Friedman on cello and Keith Murphy on guitar. Playing traditional Celtic and North American themes, they were exuberant, rhythmic, haunting and brilliant.

And so I ask you, Who needs the sun, when you've got good music? Calling all musicians to the Spenard Road House for a late night jam. Be there or be square!

Bootleg Brown playing Luxury Liner

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If Prayer Would Do It

If prayer would do it,
I'd pray.

If reading esteemed thinkers would do it
I'd be halfway through the Patriarchs.

If discourse would do it
I'd be sitting with His Holiness
every moment he was free.

If contemplation would do it
I'd have translated the Periodic Table
to hermit poems, converting
matter to spirit.

If even fighting would do it
I'd already be a blackbelt.

If anything other than love could do it
I've done it already
and left the hardest for last.

~ Stephen Levine ~

I've had Stephen Levine's book, Who Dies? on my bookshelf for over 20 years.
I peruse his wisdom from time to time, wondering about the Great Mystery, and how for centuries, all the world's religions have developed their theories on death and eternal life thereafter. What they share in common is this: something lives on; the body resurrects in a physical form that goes to either Heaven or Hell (Christianity); or in Levine's Buddhist viewpoint, the physical brain and body dies, never to resurrect, but the mind merges with a universal energy that lives forever. More importantly, though is how one lives day to day, and if we think about our own death from time to time, we learn to be more mindful, present, and grateful for each moment we are alive. 

Levine, a poet, teacher and hospice worker for over 25 years (along with his wife, Ondrea)  took Socrates advice, who, on his deathbed advised his followers to "practice dying as the highest form of wisdom."  From this experience he wrote the book, A Year to Live: How To Live This Year As If It Were Your Last. For one year, he lived as though he were dying and found a radical shift take place that enamored him to a glorious presence most of us forget in our day to day lives. Learning to live with dying forces you to examine priorities and motivations, and appreciate loved ones on a more heightened level. Your life comes alive like it never has before. I've read accounts of people who were dying express something similar: that life had never been so vibrant or immediate, and on some level, peaceful than it was in their last days. Not surprising the vibrancy. You don't miss your water til' your well runs don't think about or appreciate your life as much until you are about to lose it.

But I have my doubts. I'm not so sure one could attain this level of vibrancy in regards to death, no matter how much meditation and study was practiced. After all, you can't pretend to die; without the authenticity of an actual illness or injury, could this horrendous and often life-changing experience be duplicated or bring about the same results in a genuine manner? The human mind and body would have an immediate reaction to the news of impending death and go through the familiar stages of avoidance, grief and perhaps acceptance over time; this is monumental change unprecedented in an individual's frame of reference. Though he didn't write day to day entries in the book, over the months it became clear that valuable to a life well lived is learning to be mindful, aware and fully alive in each moment.  

Levine's teachings are some of the most precious spiritual ideas I've ever read. His Healing Into Life and Death explores techniques for working with pain and grief and developing a "merciful awareness" as a way of acceptance and healing.

What other poets have to say:

 The Gods who conceal from those who have to live what a happy thing it is to die. (Lucan)  

Oh Death, the loveliness that is in thee. Could the world know, the world would cease to be.  (Mary E. Bradley)

And my favorite: This, wonder.   (Charlotte Joko Beck's last words)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

See You On the Road Ahead

(Nuns, Forence, Italy)

Looking back on my first year of blogging, I am infused with gratitude for all the comments you have shared in response to my feeble attempts to do what I love most; and that is to connect with you through poetry, art, essays, photographs and sometimes a rant or two on issues I can't help but take a stand on. I'm not going to give away free stuff or start advertising or add a slew of badges and meaningless awards to  lure you to my site; but hopefully I can add some substance to your work day, generate a few laughs, ponder a hidden revelation, and enjoy a photograph as much as I enjoy taking them.

I appreciate your presence on this journey with me as I experiment with different art forms, report on the miracles of nature that keep me grounded, and talk to you, my tribe, as if we are all sitting around the dinner table (or better yet, the campfire). The meaning and the purpose of this blog is connection, not numbers. To all of you who have connected and shared, Thank YOU! I can't wait to hear what you have to say in the months ahead as our thoughts and ideas mushroom. When you link to YOUR site, you entertain me, make me laugh, inspire me to try new things (especially the many wonderful cooks out there), propel me to new thoughts and ideas, teach me to paint and write and appreciate great music (though rock n' roll is still king!), and crack open my heart with your stories of triumph over illness and divorce and depression and grief. There is so much beauty and grace in this crazy spinning world and sharing our stories lightens the load and takes us to a place of deeper meaning.

Last night I watched the movie, Camille Claudel (the highly accomplished French sculptress), about her relationship with the legendary sculptor, Auguste Rodin.  Back in the late 1800's, women were highly discouraged from practicing and pursuing an artistic career so it was quite a surprise to learn of a woman with so much inherent talent and passion for her work. The film is a biographical drama where Caudel abandons her own work to assist Rodin, becoming his muse and lover. Eventually, she begs him to marry her, but he refuses and the affair ends disastrously, with Caudel becoming a drunk plagued with constant emotional turmoil for the rest of her life. Their work together, though brief, is legendary: The Crouching Woman; I Am Beautiful. I have always been fascinated with the human form; its elegance and beauty in dance and yoga and tai chi; and the human face with its range of fleeting emotions, how the eyes tell a story of what lies broken and healed in the heart. In the film, Rodin closes his eyes and slowly explores Claudel's face with his fingertips; in another clip, he is molding her face in clay as if he didn't require sight to create a delicate reproduction of her energy and grace.

Art sustains us. And slow food. Friends, family...a glass of fine wine. I look forward to hearing about what sustains you in the coming year when your path is murky...or light. What lifts you up, makes you strong; what breaks your heart open?

Thanks for tuning in thus far...see you on the road ahead.

(Family crest: may you have wind in your sails, Florence, Italy)

Monday, January 2, 2012

You Step in the Stream

You step in the stream, but the water has moved on. 

I thought of this while lying on the floor with my 29 year old son, looking at the stars and the intermittent fireworks breaking the night sky from the warmth of our living room floor, our heads propped on a giant pillow in front of an expanse of windows, our voices quiet with wonderment. What's out there? We are so small, spinning through galaxies, living and dying, embracing tiny sands of time that slip away with each breath.  We can never make a memorable moment or lofty experience last. Everything is fleeting, winging its way to decay the moment it is born; what should we fear?

The bad news is you're falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: There's no ground. *

I said to my son..."there will never be another moment like this. It is 2012 and here we are, together, experiencing a moment that will never come again."

With that simple declaration, the moment expanded, albeit temporarily, and it felt huge and delicious, even miraculous.  Recognizing reverence for the beauty and wonderment of "just this, right now", I got a tiny glimpse of an ordinary,  everyday experience that inflated my awareness of what was right there in front of my face. Moments I probably wouldn't have noticed had I not paid attention; had my mind been roaming in the usual repetitious and familiar territory other than present time. No need to compare experiences of the past, or desires of the future.  Time stopped, or slowed down a bit and I had a chance to relish the ordinariness of the "now", which in reality, is pretty extraordinary. I realized that to "voice it out", to speak of the moment plainly is like praying, the way ritual brings us all into a common, focused moment in time.

As is fairly typical in our neck of the woods when "old man winter" dumps crazy amounts of snow, we were greeted with a power outage that lasted for hours, up and down the valley. Everyones' lights were out, and pretty soon hazy glows of candlelight emerged from neighboring windows. We lit candles, powered up the wood stove, and sat in the dark and talked. Are we really in the year 2012? It sounds so...oh, I don't know...futuristic. Change is like a revolving door, ever spinning, a new idea making a few go-rounds before being spit out...obsolete. We get a good foothold in the stream, and in a flash the stream changes course.

Well then, so be it.

I have only one desire this year, and that is to remember that there is nothing more worthy than this hour, this moment, this breath...

each and everyday.