A Universe of Pain

This morning as I was making breakfast, I thought the words, “I am in a universe of pain.”  As someone who deals with chronic pain, I have previously thought, “I am in a world of pain” on days when it has been really bad.  But today was different.  For even though I was experiencing the most pain I’ve had in recent memory, I wasn’t using those words to mark or measure it.  Instead, there was an immense spaciousness around it, a comforting endlessness .  I didn’t feel trapped in my “world of pain”. I felt like a part of some larger truth.

To be alive, we must all experience pain at some point, be it physical or emotional.  To be a part of nature is to be in pain.  Not all the time hopefully, but it is a common experience, a thread that binds all living things together in our remarkable web of life.

Being in a universe of pain means that there is space to experience whatever is being felt.  In the past, I’ve sometimes thought of pain as being “bad”.  But in the spaciousness of the universe, there is no “bad”.  There is just space for the sensations to exist.  A space to be held.  A space to simply be.

To those friends and loved ones who might be reading this and feel inclined to send me condolences or well wishes, let me say that there is no need (although, of course I appreciate any such intention).  I am at home in my journey.  Instead I ask only this:  look inward at whatever pain you are feeling, be it physical or emotional.  Crack your heart open, even just a little bit, and surround that pain with love.  Trust that there is a place for it in the universe of pain.

Incidentally, the words “universe of pain” came to me as I was making toast.  I guess you just never know what is going to pop up in life!  Get it?  Pop up?  Toast?!  Hahaha!  I love a good pun.  Wait, is that an oxymoron? Oh well, I guess that’s something to ponder another day.

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Constant Companions

I distinctly remember the first time I realized that I would die.  I was about 9 or 10 and I was lying in bed at night, when suddenly this realization poured over me.  I am going to die someday.  The room spun.  My heart pounded. Surely, this couldn’t be possible.  Yet, not only was it possible – it was absolutely going to happen!

Sometimes I wonder if I think about death more than the average person.  It’s not that I have a morbid fascination with it.  Nor do I fear it.  But the knowledge of this universal truth compels me toward a respectful recognition of this point within the Circle of Life.

I feel a need to confront death and suffering head on.  This is difficult work, and it is a part of what draws me to working in wildlife rehabilitation.  I do not want to run, hide, or be in fear of the Truth.  I want to walk hand in hand with it, to welcome it, to be at peace with it.

A couple of days ago, I received the news that my beloved raccoon friend, Nyxie, had died.  She was a special patient at the wildlife rehabilitation center I work at, and her sweet, gentle disposition touched the hearts of all who knew her.

I was so crestfallen when I got the news, even though I knew it was best in the long run.  I took a walk down to the old cemetery near my house, and I saw a flock of turkeys coming up the path.  How apropos.  Turkeys somehow always remind me of the gifts of life and death.

I walked down to the weathered tombstones, the graves of townsfolk who witnessed the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the turn of the century.  Normally, I only walk to the edge of the cemetery. There is something that prevents me from entering.  I think it is just the knowledge that I am standing on the bones of lives that were once filled with vitality –  people who laughed, ate, slept, suffered, loved.  And now their skeletons lie flat and crumbling below my feet.

But I did not hesitate to enter the cemetery this time.  I looked at the headstones.  I looked at the surrounding forest.  I listened to the cars in the distance.  I smelled the autumn air. I felt Death and Life beside me, around me, inside me – constant companions and friends.  I felt grief. I felt the wind rustle. I felt my heart beat.  I felt peaceful.

On that note, I’d like to share one of my favorite excerpts from Johnny Muir:

“All the merry dwellers of the trees and streams, and the myriad swarms of the air, called into life by the sunbeam of a summer morning, go home through death, wings folded perhaps in the last red rays of sunset of the day they were first tried.  Trees towering in the sky, braving storms of centuries, flowers turning faces to the light for a single day or hour, having enjoyed their share of life’s feast – all alike passed on and away under the law of death and love.  Yet all are our brothers and they enjoy life as we do, share heaven’s blessings with us, die and are buried in hallowed ground, come with us out of eternity and return into eternity.”

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Nyxie had a gentle and loving demeanor that was very calming to be around.  She was a miracle of Nature, and she has now returned Home.

 

 

 

 

 

Visitors

I had two flocks of turkeys pass through my yard today.  I stopped to watch them, and in those moments, there was nothing else happening in the world.  The sky rumbled, grey and pouty, as it began to spit like a child having a temper tantrum.  I stood at my window, watching the golden maple leaves sway carelessly to the ground, feeling aware of the comfort of my home. Memories of my lifetime of autumns passed in an instant, as if I was casually flipping the pages of my favorite book.

I pictured myself making a big bowl of popcorn and sitting down to watch the turkeys.  But I knew that by the time I did that, my visitors would have moved on.  No, this was just a moment to be still, to treasure, to simply be there with the sky, the leaves, my cozy house, and the beautiful birds.  They are glorious.  They made me laugh as they pecked their way through my yard and garden, raising and tilting their eggshell blue heads, pecking, shuffling, ambling, scrambling.

I admit, I am having a hard time being back in “reality” after being away for so long.  But my heart is grateful for these remarkable visitors today because they reminded me of the “real” reality that is around me 24 hours a day, even when I’m too busy to acknowledge it. Furthermore, they reminded me that we are all just visitors here.  Like the falling leaves, we will all lay down for our final rest someday.  Perhaps that is why autumn is such a melancholy season – because deep down, we feel that reminder in our bones.  But I don’t feel sad.  I feel a deep, satisfying gratitude for all that is, and calm serenity for all that will be.

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Looking for space

imageimage.jpegI’ve seen a lot of amazing places over the last week or so. I drove from the Columbia River Gorge through the rippling brown grasslands of eastern Oregon and Washington, through the sweeping evergreen mountains of Idaho, and into the big sky country of Montana. Each place I visited captured my imagination, but none so much as Glacier National Park, where I have been for the last several days. There are no words to describe it and pictures cannot begin to do it justice. It is truly a wild place, where the purity of nature’s divinity is experienced in every golden aspen, every fragrant evergreen bough, and every crystal lake. The snow covered mountains rejoice upward into the sky, and my heart has found it impossible not to do the same.

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It has been a challenging and incredible experience. I’ve had a lot of long cold nights. I’ve met many interesting travelers and characters, including a handsome older outdoorsman who offered to lend me his pistol – hello wild west! I got to test my tracking skills when I dropped my phone in a foot of snow and it was almost impossible to find my own footsteps amongst the tremendous tangle of wild hoof and paw prints. My mind wanted to panic and rush to find it, but it was only when I stayed calm and mindful and went painstakingly slowly that I was able to find what I was looking for. It was interesting to be aware that, although I might be highly inconvenienced, in the grand scheme of things what difference does a phone make anyway?

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I certainly realize that this trip is about so much more than the physical journey and destination. It’s about trusting myself that I will be OK and that I will figure it out if I am not. It’s about being on my guard, but also trusting in others and getting in touch with my friendlier side. It’s about freedom and a space to be, to exist, and to experience whatever life brings my way.

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I can hardly think of a more awe-inspiring place of discovery. I’ve hiked in pristine snow covered wilderness. I have watched eagles soaring over jewel lakes. I’ve heard elks bugling across a remote and untouched valley. I’ve come across a kill site where the remains of a deer marked the earth with the law of life and death – a law to which we are all bound.

And I’ve seen FOUR grizzly bears!

One of the things that strikes me most about this landscape as how nature exists as intended. It’s heartening to know that somewhere in our crazy mixed up world there is still a space to be wild – or simply a space to be.

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No expectations

imageI spent the last few days visiting my good friend, Erin, in Portland, 0R, and now I am off on a brand new camping adtventure by myself for the next two weeks.

I’ve been so consumed with preparing and planning for this trip for the last few weeks that it is hard to just let go of it all. I arrived in the Columbia River Gorge yesterday afternoon, beyond exhausted from pushing too hard for too long. But the campground I am staying in an old CCC camp, with just 12 sites, and there is something sweet and reassuringly rustic about it that made me feel at home immediately. There is such a familiar look and smell to the old worn wood and beautiful stone work, laid in place like a puzzle by so many strong arms and backs so many years ago. These men, whose smiling faces peer back at me from a weathered park display, welcome me here, even though they, themselves are barely a memory.

The gorge is soft and rugged at the same time, with visible charring from the recent wildfires. There is an openness here that I hope will allow me to let go of all I am carrying, but I have no expectations. I have no needs beyond my most basic ones. I am simply here, living, breathing, being.

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Finding the point

I woke up this morning feeling depleted and bereft after pushing too hard against my natural rhythm all week.  The burning question in my mind was, “What’s the point?”  I honestly couldn’t say.

I went out into the garden, knowing that connecting with living, growing things is usually balm for my soul.  I picked raspberries, gently plucking the sweet thimble-like fruit into a well worn paper pint container – a simple and kindly reassuring task.  I harvested beans and tomatoes, and checked on the status of the rest of my nourishing bounty.  One corner of the garden has been rather over-taken by milkweed, which I left intentionally to attract monarch butterflies.  Lo and behold, this morning, I spotted 15 monarch caterpillars munching away on the smooth oval foliage.  What a heartening sight!

Shortly after coming back inside, I saw a movement outside my window.  A young black bear was out in the yard.  I watched as it made it’s way up the front slope, behind the woodshed, and up into the woods behind the house.  It was so calm, so unperturbed – just following its own rhythm and its own flow.  It wasn’t wondering what the point was.  It was just BEING and doing what bears do.

Soon the monarch caterpillars will have eaten their fill of milkweed and they will begin their transition to pupae, and then eventually emerge as butterflies to begin their migration back to warmer climes.  They too, have their own rhythm, and nothing can be rushed.  They do not question the point.   They simply go with their own unique flow.  But maybe that IS the point.  We all need to find the rhythm and flow that works for us.  Maybe it’s then that we can emerge as fully developed beings and soar to our deepest potential and purpose.

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The skunk under the bridge

The skunk under the bridge

The following is a guest post by Rob Fletcher, originally written for his blog At Your Best. It is about our experience rescuing a stranded skunk, and I couldn’t have written anything more perfect about this beautiful and poignant moment.   I’ve also included a video of some of the skunks I have been caring for at the wildlife rehabilitation facility that I volunteer at. Please enjoy. 

Another 90 degree summer day, another work day done, another evening summer swim in the books. I left the water at the base of the bridge of the Millers River and started up the bank when a movement behind me caught my eye. I turned and saw an adolescent skunk huddled on the concrete ledge about four feet off the ground. It peered at me for a moment then tucked its head back into its body, flattening itself against the wall and shaking lightly. A list of swear words had been spray painted sometime earlier in the summer above where it lay – a neat juxtaposition of the priorities of importance of animal and human realm.

I called Laura. Laura volunteers at a wildlife rehabilitation place locally and is studying to get her license – she’d know what to do, how to help. Then I sat on the bank looking at the skunk while waiting for Laura to arrive. It was beautiful. A white crown and broad white striping on its young back. It was quiet down there, just sitting and being near this scared, stressed, uncomplaining little animal. Something settled in me that moment.

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Young skunks having a meal at a wildlife rehabilitation facility. See below for video footage!

Laura arrived with a pet carrier, a broom, a blanket and a can of cat food. It took a while, cat food in carrier, open door, blanket over the carrier to create a safe, dark cave, and Laura quietly, calmly, patiently sweeping near the skunk until it finally backed into the cage. Laura carried it upstream and found a quiet spot in the woods near the water’s edge. She opened the carrier door but the skunk didn’t want to leave. She had to tilt it until it finally came out. As soon as it realized where it was it shuffled into the underbrush, vanishing to the human eye back into nature.

Laura thought that it may have been stuck up there a while. Skunks can climb a little bit , and it probably scrambled up to escape something attacking it. But the smooth surface of the concrete, surrounded almost entirely by water, probably made it too difficult to climb down. It was probably hungry and dehydrated, and definitely very stressed. I was proud of Laura – her first successful rescue mission.

I had had a good day of work previously – lots got accomplished. But nothing felt like the skunk experience. The work had me at one level, then the skunk helped me sink way down. Its quiet vulnerability released an internal wall and I felt such a deep tenderness. And to help, to be of use, felt so powerful. I could see why Laura is attracted to this kind of work.

And I was reminded again of the deep power of purpose – of aligning our actions with helping something beyond ourselves. Seeing vulnerability makes it easier to do. It unlocks that tenderness we’re all capable of. How can we be of use? How can we notice vulnerability around us? How can we let down our guards to show our vulnerability? Vulnerability is the cornerstone of trust, of connection. There is some part of each person we meet today that is huddled into itself, scared and shaking. After all, we are all animals.