Longest Night

Snow-Light

Snow-Light

If I had a blog, today I would write about Yule  – The passage of  the Winter Solstice.

Forty-five years, and most of what I remember is light: The mellow gold of sunlight in autumn, the cobalt hue of a snowy morning, the greenish hue after a passing storm, the pink and violet of a summer’s eve, and the welcoming glow of the lights of home. These are the palette upon which my memories are painted and so, on this shortest day of the year, I think it is fitting to share some thoughts on the return of the light.

December 10 - Winter's Tapestry

Endless Twilight

Each year I look forward to the Winter Solstice, to the annual tipping point when the daily loss of light is stopped and the process reversed, bringing us a little more dawn and twilight each day until mid-summer. If there was ever a year when I need the Return of the Light, it is this one. Since the passing of our two canine companions in October, my inner light has been burning low. I get up every day and do my chores, my desk-work, and my errands in town, but it is all in a world as grey as the winter landscape outside my window. Until now, my only resource has been to submit to the perpetual twilight and ride it out as best I can.

The Yule Log

The Yule Log

As we gather around the fire tonight and light the Yule Log – an white oak log draped with juniper boughs, sage, and rosemary, aromatic herbs that symbolize life; with holly and ivy to symbolize the ancient celebration of Yule, and with sunflower seeds to celebrate the return of the sun. As we sprinkle the log with a few drops of wine as a toast to the coming year, then set it alight as a symbol of letting go of the past, I will try to send my sadness skyward with the fragrant smoke and dancing flames. Though my grief will not vanish as the Yule Log turns to embers, perhaps I can draw warmth from the memories of Owain and Hank and let that drive out the darkness of grief.

Celebrating the Light

Celebrating the Light

One more long night and the earth begins to tilt back towards the light. I am ready to reach for the light as well.

Happy Yule to one and all.

Julie

Poor Thanksgiving

If I had a blog, today I would write about the sadness I feel for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Almost Home

Almost Home

I have always felt sorry for Thanksgiving. The sad truth is: It is the bastard child of holidays; the act that precedes the glitz and glam of Christmas as well as the revelry of ringing in the new year. What is a holiday to do when its foundation is in contemplation, not commercialism? Try as they might, the ubiquitous “they” have not been able to turn Thanksgiving into a gift-giving holiday (yet) and I suspect that is why the single aisle dedicated to autumn decor is dwarfed by the countless aisles of toys, ornaments, trees, and prepackaged gifts as soon as the Halloween bric-a-brac is stored away. Aside from the appeal of sanctioned gorging, time off work, and endless televised sporting events, I imagine few would miss Thanksgiving if it disappeared from our calendars altogether. It is just another obstacle in the path to Christmas, and that, my friends, is truly a shame.

At this point, you may be thinking: “Wow, is she cynical or what?” and, I suppose, to a certain extent that is true. Forty-five holiday seasons rubbing my introversion the wrong way certainly shaped my perspective. But it isn’t just cynicism that drives my thoughts. It is also my empathy for the underdogs in life. I actually like the Christmas season a great deal, but I feel a need to give Thanksgiving its due. After all, don’t we owe it to our lives to look for the blessings and thank whatever gods may be for the goodness, however small, that exists in our lives on this one, special day.

My Owain

My Owain

This past year has been a hard one for my family. In the space of a few, short months lost the companionship of three dogs who had shared our lives for more than a decade each. The loss of Emma, Owain, and Hank makes the approach to the holidays a daunting task, but I remain determined to give thanks anyway. If, as I have written before, my heroines, Corrie and Betsy ten Boom, could find reasons to give thanks while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, I can do no less. My pain and grief are nothing compared to theirs and a lack of gratitude on my part would not only be be rude to The Universe, it would also fly in the face of the miracle Corrie and Betsy experienced in that darkest of  all dark places.

Hank

Hank

And so, on this most auspicious day, I give thanks that Hank, Emma, and Owain lived such long, happy lives and that those lives encompassed me and my family. I am thankful that, when the end came, we were able to help our companions slip the “surly bonds of earth” with dignity and make The Crossing without fear or pain. I am oh, so very thankful for Bree, the Great Pyrenees who still resides with us. Bree has risen to the challenge of being an only dog and now accompanies us to the barn twice a day, sleeps by Mom’s bed at night, and is a constant companion in all that we do. At the age of ten, Bree has taken on new life. Just a hint that we’re headed for the barn and she starts dancing in anticipation. No one can be sad in the face of such joy. I am also thankful for my four cats, my beautiful horse, Rain, and, of course, my human family as well. It has been a hard year, but the love we share is a balm to our aching hearts and I give thanks for that love every single day.

Emma

Emma

In closing, I will share with you a quote from Robert Fulghum, that, for me, captures the very essence of the love I wish for everyone this Thanksgiving Day: “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.”

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Arwen’s Choice

If I had a blog, today I would write about living through grief.

Winter Sun Over Mockingbird Hill

Winter Sun Over Mockingbird Hill

Living through grief is a journey through shades of gray. After the first blackness, into which we plunge when we experience loss, the pain eases and we come to rest in a place somewhere between pain and joy. Days pass softly, without the demands of desire, the need for excitement, or the drive of creativity to shatter our cocoon. If life permits us to submit to this lassitude, I think it is part of the return from grief, the journey back to a bright and joyful life.

Since Owain’s death, I have struggled to do more than get out of bed in the morning. I do my chores, my office work, and even take my photographs, but there is no energy behind my daily round. I’m not devastated anymore, I just don’t want to “feel” right now. I find comfort in a life without peaks and valleys, where I work and rest, eat and sleep, and demand nothing more of my battered soul.

November Woods

November Woods

In The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien writes of Arwen Evenstar, immortal elf maiden, who fell in love with a mortal man and, instead of following her people to the Undying Lands, she stayed in Middle Earth with her beloved, King Aragorn. After Lord Aragorn’s death, Arwen returned to the now abandoned Elvish kingdom Lothlorien. Tolkien writes, But Arwen went forth from the House, and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star…she went out from the city of Minas Tirith and passed away to the land of Lórien, and dwelt there alone under the fading trees until winter came. Galadriel had passed away and Celeborn also was gone, and the land was silent.

There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.

We who choose to give ourselves to an animal make Arwen’s choice: We give our heart, the entirety of our love, to one who will, most likely, precede us in death by many years. We are willing to love completely, all the while knowing the passing of our beloved will, for a time, bring us pain.

The coming of winter is a mirror of my mood this year. I don’t believe I could survive the flash and dash of summer or face the coming of new life that happens in spring. Right now, I am as mellow as the pale sun shining in my window, as somber as the leafless trees. It feels good to follow the year as it winds down towards its end. Like the circle of the year, I will come back to color and light, but now I am comforted by the sense of finality that the end of the year brings. For now, I am happy living in shades of gray until the day I am ready to make Arwen’s choice and fall in love all over again.

BC’s Anonymous

Owain's FIrst Day at Home

Owain’s FIrst Day at Home

If I had a blog, today I would write about my secret addiction. They say the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one, so here goes: I am addicted to border collies. When my fourteen year old BC, Owain, passed away a few weeks ago, I knew I would eventually get another dog, but I had no intention of getting another border collie. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that life with a BC was unfulfilling, its just that these are seriously high-maintenance dogs. They are brilliant, energetic, and demand entertainment from everyone around them. I thought one small consolation to losing my dear Owain would be a quieter, simpler life where I could do things like watch TV without also playing catch, sit at the river without my dog asking for a running commentary on the sheer awesomeness of the hold he’d dug in the sand, or have breakfast without shouting, “Wow! You’re the man!” every time my furry friend chased off a flock of songbirds. I thought life would be easier that way, but boy, was I wrong.

Finding the First Leaf

Finding the First Leaf

It appears that once a BC has installed himself in your life and become your best friend, workmate, and entertainer, you simply can’t live without that glorious energy humming around your life. I know I am grieving for the individual who was Owain and regardless of what kind of dog I get, it won’t be him, but even in studying other breeds (labs, corgis, golden retrievers), nothing but a BC can fill the empty place in my heart.

Ordinarily the solution to my problem would be: Get a border collie, but our farm has changed since Owain came along and I worry he (or she) wouldn’t have enough to do. At present, the only livestock we have are five horses, two old Jersey cows, one ancient sheep, and an assortment of poultry. We might get back into sheep in a few years, but would that be soon enough? Would I be able to provide enough stimulation to satisfy a border collie’s startling intellect. If an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, then a border collie without a purpose is the inner ring of Dante’s Inferno.

Owain Working Sheep

Owain Working Sheep

So here’s the issue: Do I go with my feelings and look for the next BC of my dreams or do I wait? My thought is to approach this as I have all my animal friends: I will send out a request to the Universe and trust that when the time is right, a border collie will fall into my life. It has happened with all four of my cats and my horse, so there is a good precedent to work with. I will set my compass towards all things BC and follow the arrow as it flies from my heart.

The Ocean of Grief

If I had a blog, today I would write about grief.

By the Sea

By the Sea

Life is hard, often too hard. Losing a loved one to death is the hardest test we face. It is the price we pay for being human, and sometimes that price is too high. On October 20, we lost our border collie, Owain. Owain had shared our life for almost fourteen years and he was family. Owain’s intellect, his zest for life, and his boundless love made him as “human” as a dog can be. Owain not only shared our home, he was our partner in every moment of our lives. Whether we were working sheep, herding cows, playing at the river, or watching television, Owain was there – all day, every day for thirteen-and-a-half years. And now he is gone. My mind can’t seem to wrap itself around the fact that his absence is permanent; that until I make The Crossing myself, I will have to live without my most beloved friend.

Since Owain died, I feel as though I am afloat in an dark and perilous sea.  I am overwhelmed by endless waves of emotion that send me down into darkness; a darkness where I can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t tell which way is up and which way is down. At first I thought i could keep myself atop the waves, but strength died with hope and now I just let the sea do with me as it will. If I was a selfish person, I would simply breathe in the icy flow and become bones on the sea-floor, but there are people and animals who depend on me, so I will do my best to keep my head above water until my rescue comes.

My Owain

My Owain

Today I found a glimmer of hope, a fleeting glimpse of  the beams from a distant lighthouse; today, instead of talking to God, I talked to Owain. I told him how bereft I was, how sad and lonely and unbearable my life had become. I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to go on without his shining face to greet me and his boundless love to guide me. In the silence that followed my catharsis, I felt him. I felt Owain’s presence within me, filling a corner of the empty space his passing left behind and I considered the possibility my life might go on.

Though I am still at the mercy of the Ocean of Grief, there are moments when I feel hope; hope that one day I will see a shoreline and the high hill on which my lighthouse stands. Someday the waves of emotion will lap at my ankles, unable to pull me out to sea. Someday The Spirit of Owain will fill the hollow cavern in my heart and I will begin to live with joy again. Someday.

Until then, I will keep talking to my Mr. True, keep remembering the beauty he brought into my life and years of bliss we shared. Those memories will be my guiding light, the beam of hope that steers me through the reefs and back to safer shores.

Best Friends

If I had a blog, today I would tell you that, this morning, I lost my best friend, Owain, the border collie.

Owain was part of our lives for thirteen years and from the day Mom and I brought him home, Owain and I were buddies. He respected Mom as his trainer and companion, but Owain saw me as a littermate – someone to pal around with, someone who was always up for a game of catch or tug-of-war. I am thankful for every second Owain and I spent together and although the house has an empty place tonight, my heart is full. I can feel Owain’s presence everywhere I go and for that, I am so grateful. The days ahead will be a mixture of joy and tears; of funny stories and touching remembrances. The love of family and our other pets will help us find our way and I have no doubt that one day, Owain and I will be together again. Godspeed Mr. True. I’ll see you soon.

Owain - Our Mr. True

Owain – Our Mr. True

The Voice of the Wilderness

If I had a blog, today I would write about the healing power of the natural world.

October 11 - White Throated Sparrlw

White Throated Sparrow

It has been a hard week. On Friday, I lost a dear friend: My nephew-dog, Hank the yellow lab. Hank was with us for thirteen years, most of them spent living next door to us with my brother and sister-in-law. For the last four years, we were Doggie Day Care for Hank when his people were at work, so his absence from our life has left a great empty place, a place even our own dogs, Owain and Bree, can never fill.

Yesterday it was chilly and overcast, the weather making my sadness deeper. I tried reading, watching a movie, and even attempted some writing, but I couldn’t focus; couldn’t stop my mind from going deeper into dark places that pronounced life nothing more than a long string of sad goodbyes. I felt hopeless and depressed, too bereft even to sleep, so about noon I packed up my camera gear and went for a walk in the woods.

Given my state of mind when I started, I figured my walk would be short, but I thought maybe some fresh air would do me good and I needed a photo of the day, so I headed down towards the little valley just beyond the barn. When I got to the gate, I felt a little better and decided to go a little farther.

Down by the creek, I came upon a gathering of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, and juncos – all feeding on rose-hips, the berries of the multiflora rose. I took a few photos, then a few more, and before I knew it, two hours had passed and I was watching kingfishers down at the river.

About mid-way through my walk, I started to feel better. The dark cloud in my mind lifted as the sun peeked out and warmed the landscape with it mellow light. I still carried the weight of grief, but out in the woods, it was a weight I could bear, and I realized as long as I have Nature, I have refuge from life’s heavy-handed blows.

I can’t put my finger on any one event or sensation that eased my pain, so I can’t offer a ten-point plan to finding peace in the natural world. All I can tell you is: Being surrounded by the beauty and abundance of life made me feel part of something larger, more eternal, and more substantial than fragile, mortal life.

I returned home in the late afternoon, sweaty, tired and covered in stick-tights, but my mind was quieter, my thoughts less troubled. As I tended the barn-cats and chickens, settling them in for another night, I had hope – hope for myself, for my loved ones, and for the future. With that hope came thoughts of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Singing Wilderness, by naturalist Sigurd Olson. In it, Olson writes:

I have discovered that I am not alone in my listening; that almost everyone is listening for something, that the search for places where the singing may be heard goes on everywhere… We may not know exactly what it is we are listening for, but we hunt as instinctively for opportunities and places to listen as sick animals look for healing herbs.

Amen.

Rooting For the Underdog

If I had a blog, today I would write about my deep compassion for vultures.

October 7- A juvenile vulture sits in the morning sun, warming his wings before flight.

October 7- A juvenile vulture sits in the morning sun, warming his wings before flight.

In keeping with the All Hallows season, today I want to write about a bird that has a truly undeserved bad rap. The bird is the turkey vulture. In mid-America, we call them buzzards or just plain old vultures, but their name is important because world-wide, there are 23 species of vulture, inhabiting every continent but Australia and Antarctica. Admittedly, the vulture was created to fill a rather gruesome niche (i.e. feeding primarily on rotting carcasses), but without them we would be in trouble. Without the vulture, every landscape would be littered with decomposing carnage and disease would run rampant. Not only do vultures do nature’s dirty work, but their stomach acid is strong enough to kill nightmare bacteria such as anthrax, botulism, and cholera, preventing it from entering the environment and infecting otherwise healthy creatures (humans included).

Outbreak prevention aside, turkey vultures are also dedicated parents who mate for life (40-50 years).I witnessed their dedicated parenting skills this morning when I encountered a young vulture standing on the ground, soaking up the morning sun. To conserve energy, vultures lower their body temperatures at night. The downside is: In the morning they have to warm in the sun until they are warm enough to fly. Apparently they young bird I came upon hadn’t quite got the hang of his morning warm-up and continued to idle on the ground long after his parents had taken flight. The juvenile’s concerned parents circled continuously above him until he finally got up the gumption to fly. I admire that kind of dedication in parenting and it made me smile to know that all young creatures struggle on their way to adulthood.

This alone would be enough to earn my admiration, but there’s another reason I like vultures: I always root for the underdog.

Throughout my life, regardless of the situation, I have always been on the side of the social pariah. I was a nerdy kid who didn’t fit in at school (or in any other social setting), so I developed a deep compassion for others who shared my plight. I champion a wide range of causes, some social, most environmental, but my deepest feelings are for the creatures we humans have cast our lot against. In addition to vultures, I support snakes, spiders, a variety of lizards, and any predator given a bad name just for eating meat – a trait, I might add, shared by a two-legged species I know. I rescue earthworms from the sidewalk on hot summer days, guard nests of lizard eggs I find in our sawdust pile, and rescue bats that get trapped in the house. I know I’m a soft-touch, but it makes me feel good to support my fellow outsiders.

So, as we travel the road of autumn towards the festival of All Hallows Eve, let us remember what is fact and what is fiction. A vulture may look sufficiently scary on a tombstone, but he is not an omen of death. The vulture is our protector and sanitizer, working behind the scenes to keep death at bay. The next time you see a vulture at work on the side of the road, call out a hearty “thank you!” and wish him a Happy Halloween.

Lighting the Way

If I had a blog, today I would share with you my synchronicity for the day.

The Lights of Home

The Lights of Home

As you know, my family is going through a very hard time right now, coping with the news that our border collie, Owain, has cancer. His prognosis isn’t good: Two or three months at best, and I find myself struggling not to fall into despair. The ever-present voice of the Ego whispers morbid, soul-wrenching thoughts about abandoned dog-toys and empty places by the dinner table and while I’m determined to not to fall for these destructive ploys, some days its just plain hard to keep going. In an effort to raise my spirits, I decided to blog about a very special book, one that I discovered almost thirty years ago, during another summer of duress. The book, called Light from Many Lamps, is a collection of essays, poems, and quotations – some well-known, some little-known – compiled and published by Lillian Eichler Watson in the early 1950’s. It was Ms. Watson’s intention that her book be a source of inspiration for anyone who is facing hard times and her hopes were certainly realized where I am concerned. In today’s blog, I intended to share my past experiences with you, but Light from Many Lamps had another agenda entirely.

As I prepared to write, I brought out my dog-eared, well-worn copy of the book and laid it on my desk. I noticed a Post-It note stuck to one of the pages, so, before I started my blog, I opened the book and read the essay I had marked some years ago. It this short piece, rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman writes:

“I often feel that death is not the enemy of life, but its friend, for it is the knowledge that our years are limited which makes them so precious. It is the truth that time is but lent to us which makes us, at our best, look upon our years as a trust handed into our temporary keeping. We are like children privileged to spend a day in a great park, a park filled with many gardens and playgrounds and azure tinted lakes with white boats sailing upon the tranquil waves. True, the day allotted to each one of us is not the same in length, in light, in beauty…but there is enough beauty and gaeity in the hours if we will but treasure them. Then, for each one of us the moment comes when the great nurse, death, takes the man, the child, by the hand and quietly says, “It is time to go home…It is your bedtime child of the earth. Come; you’re tired. Lie down at last in the quiet nursery of nature and sleep. Sleep well. The day is gone. Stars shine in the canopy of eternity.” 

I laid the book down and reached for a Kleenex. Once again, Light from Many Lamps offered me not what I expected, but exactly what I needed. That is the way of synchronicities.

This afternoon I will sit down with my book and draw strength from those who have gone before. I will trust Marcus Aurelius when he writes, “Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear,”and I will take heart that Epicurus knew whereof he spoke when he encourages us that “…pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting – if thou bearest in mind that it has its limits, and if thou addest nothing to it in imagination.”

I don’t want to face what lies ahead, but I have no choice. I can’t run from it, frighten it away, or deny its existence. My only alternative is to face it, without resistance, and rely on Light from Many Lamps to lead me safely home.

Take Joy

If I had a blog, today I would reflect on the words of a 14th century monk named Fra Giovanni, that he wrote to a friend on Christmas 1513.

Owain - Our Mr. True

Owain – Our Mr. True

Life is hard. Some days too hard. Earlier this week we learned that our beloved border collie, Owain, has cancer. He is fourteen years old, well beyond the normal lifespan of his breed, and it has been a joy to travel the road of life with him from the day he came to us as a pup. Owain is family and his passing will bring many, many days of tears, but I am lifted up by the words of Fra Giovanni, who assures me that behind every trial is the hand of an angel, outstretched to lift us up until we can stand on our own two feet again. All the wonderful things in life are before us, offered freely, for those who have the courage to believe in the light when all the world grows dark.

For the moment, Owain is as happy and energetic as ever. He’s outside this morning, barking at the songbirds, his voice drowning out our breakfast conversation. Such things might seem an annoyance, but under these circumstances, Owain’s eccentricities are a joy. A few days ago, it seemed as though happiness had slipped through away forever. Sitting at the vet’s office, hearing the awful news, I couldn’t fathom how I could face the days to come, but then I read Fra Giovanni’s letter and I began to look beneath the veneer of gloom for even the smallest glimmer of hope – and I found it. My time with Owain may be shorter than I had hoped, but they can be good days, days of richness and depth of feeling that I can store in my heart forever. They will be my touchstones on days that are more difficult to bear.

We live as mortal beings, our days numbered from the hour of our birth. Mortality can be a curse or it can be a blessing; the choice is ours to make. If we are have the courage to set aside our fear and grief, we will find moments of joy in even the darkest hours of our lives. Thank you Brother Giovanni for showing us the way.

I salute you.

I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.
There is nothing I can give you which you have not;
But there is much – very much – that, while I cannot give,
You can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today.
Take Heaven!

No peace lies in the future that is not hidden in this present instant.
Take Peace!

The gloom in the world is but a shadow;
Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
Take Joy!

There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see;
And to see, we have only to look.
I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver.
But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard.
Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor,
Woven of Love,
By Wisdom,
With Power.

Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.
Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty. . .
Believe me, that angel’s hand is there;
The gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence.
And our joys: be not content with them as joys.
They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering,
That you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.

Courage then, to claim it. . . .that is all!
But courage you have,
And the knowledge that we are pilgrims together,
Wending our way through unknown country. . .
Home.

And so at this Christmastime, I greet you
Not quite as the world sends greetings,
But with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you,
Now and forever,
The day breaks and shadows flee away.