Gemini

Gemini constellation stars furnished by NASA

Gemini is many things.  First it is a constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere and one of original constellations described by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. The word Gemini means twins in Latin and is associated with the Greek mythological twins Castor and Pollux.  Secondly, Gemini is the astrological sign of late spring from May 21-June 20, just before the summer solstice.  I have many wonderful friends and relatives born under the sign of Gemini and they are fun, joyful and the life of the party.  They bring so much life to my more staid Taurus personality. Gemini was also a NASA mission from 1964-1966 that explored the ability of humans to handle spacecraft that laid the groundwork for the first moon landing in 1969. Now there is one more personal meaning of Gemini and that is where I will begin my story.

Alexandra was in Houston at NASA filming an upcoming documentary about astronauts.  She is the producer and has all the intense responsibilities that come with that job.  One evening the crew was having dinner at an outdoor patio when a little black kitten jumped in her lap and spent the entire dinner snuggled up to her. Young and underfed, this kitten was a little lost stray with an amazing personality.  Alexandra is a cat person like her mother and sister. Cats are essential to our daily happiness and equilibrium and she was desperately missing her own kitty. She took mercy on this little one and took it to an emergency vet to be checked out—she could not bear that it wasn’t eating and so underweight. 

Well…things didn’t go well at the emergency vet and Alexandra felt this precious one’s life was on the line and it was her fault and so she did what all mama’s girls do —-called her mommy sobbing.  My baby had all the responsibility she could take and needed her mama to take a burden from her overburdened life.  I knew she needed me right then, so I did something I have NEVER done in my life.  I booked a plane ticket to Houston, packed a change of clothes and boarded the flight less than two hours later.  Fortunately, Houston is one of the few direct flights from my airport, so I was there quickly and picked up a rental car and was with her just a few short hours after her call.  Thank goodness for smart phone and airplanes—I will never take them for granted.

She came to the car with the precious 5 month old kitten who just happily curled up in my lap as I started to call veterinarians to get a health certificate to fly her home with me the next day.  It was Sunday and I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task.  But after several tries, I found Urban Animal Veterinary Hospital who could fit me in and issue a certificate and give a rabies shot so I could take the kitten on the plane the next day.  The staff was so kind to me and quickly got me on my way to Petco to pick up an under-seat carrier for the plane and supplies to get us through the night.  I then headed south to the NASA area to a pet friendly hotel where Alexandra joined me for the night. I couldn’t believe what a day it had been.  One minute I was quietly drinking my coffee and reading.  The next minute I was on a mission to rescue my daughter and this very special kitten.

The entire afternoon my girls and I had a texting chain to name our newest family member.  I knew it needed to be something celestial. So after several different suggestions we decided on Gemini because of its multiple meanings and I liked the nickname Gemmi.  And she is a gem.

The next morning, I put little Gemini in the new carrier and heading north to the far side of Houston to the airport. It’s a long way up the side of this enormous city.  I passed the oil refineries with the steam making billowing columns against the pink morning sunrise.  I could see downtown in the distance as I made my way up and around the toll road. It all seemed surreal as I thought back on the events of the last 24 hours.  All went smoothly in the airport and Gemmi easily handled security and except for a few meows was perfectly content to be heading to her new forever home.  Flying with a rescue kitten defiantly gave me full lifetime membership in the Crazy Cat Lady Society and now I have the baggage tag to prove it.  

Caroline picked me up at the airport and Gemmi had a heroine’s welcome with a fancy ride in friend Anthony’s Tesla.  We got her set up in the guest room until we could make sure she was disease and parasite free before we introduced her to my unsuspecting elderly cats Persy and Tim.  Gemmi continues to be a spunky but very snuggly kitten. She has no fear but is happiest curled up in my arms while I read or watch TV. She is a cat lover’s dream kitten.  I haven’t had a kitten in 12 years and I feel like a little girl again with my new kitten to carry around and play with. 

Well, that was an adventure for the record books.  Never in my life have I done anything like that.  But you know it was fun, a big adventure and I never doubted that I needed to go.  The Call came and I knew what I was to do. I got to find out if I was up for the mission.  My daughter had the comfort of knowing her mother was there for her no matter how old she is.  And little Gemmi is now a precious member of the family with a big story.

Sandhill Cranes

Photo by D. Cone

I’ve always loved birds. I love everything about them. I like all sizes of birds — the tiny hummingbirds at the red feeder and feisty little chickadees flitting around.  I love the cardinal couple that is almost too big for the feeder.  I have a special place in my heart for the mourning doves that patiently wait for the chickadees and nuthatches to throw seeds out of the feeder so they have a bit to eat and then make squeaking noises when they fly. I love the Canadian geese in September when they fly in formation honking guidance to each other in the fog.  There are now Osprey and Bald Eagles in my neighborhood, and they are always breath-takingly majestic.  And the wild turkeys and the clever crows in the yard—I could go on and on.  Last but not least, are my precious pet peacocks that give a special rhythm to my day as I feed them morning and evening.  I just wish they would let me cuddle them; I’m sure they would love it.

In January, my Wednesday hiking group was working on a list of hiking adventures we could take when one of my friends suggested going to see the Sandhill cranes. Wait, what? How have I miss the Sandhill cranes? A 90-minute drive from my home is the one of the largest wintering grounds for the Sandhill cranes in the eastern US.  The Hiawassee Wildlife Refuge hosts around 14,000 wintering Sandhill cranes as well as Bald Eagles, Whooping Cranes and who ever happens to be flying south and needing a rest.  This adventure went to the top of the list as January is peak wintering season and they start migrating after that.

On a very cold but bright blue day my friends and I migrated south to the refuge. We easily found the viewing platform down a short gravel road.  It only took a few seconds to find the cranes—there are thousands of them everywhere: in the fields, by the water, in the air.  Sandhill cranes are around 4 feet tall and have a wingspan of 6 ft.  They are a magnificent sight with their long legs and necks, ruffly gray feathers tinged with gold and bright red faces. But what I love most is their beautiful voices, honking and trilling as they fly.  Every few minutes, a small grouping would fly across the cloudless winter sky, calling and soaring. Then a wildlife management truck drove by them and a mass of cranes took flight, filling the air with wings and song.

Photo by D. Cone

I could have stayed all day just enjoying this remarkable experience, but it was bitter cold and we all needed to warm up. We got some great pictures and videos to remember the morning. I know I will be back—it was just too much fun. Mother Nature in all her feathered glory and I can’t get enough of it.

The happy hiking group then migrated to the little town of Dayton, Tennessee, and visited the famed courthouse and toured the museum and courtroom where the Scopes Monkey Trial became the first “media circus” trial.  (Here’s a link to a previous blog post about Dayton and the trial).  Then on to a delicious lunch in a historic former boarding school. We never did hike that day but enjoyed being on an adventure. The drive home went quickly as we all chattered happily about future hiking plans. We are looking forward to the spring when we start hiking again in the Great Smoky Mountains. But in the meantime, we are happy with shorter hikes and lunches out close to home, enjoying the beauty of our own delightful part of the planet.

Rhea Co. Courthouse, Scopes Monkey Trail Courtroom

The Great Smoky Mountains

Rainbow over the Great Smoky Mountains

About a century ago—in January 2020–I planned to visit Ireland in September and Alexandra had reservations for Japan.  We all know what happened next: plans changed, life took a detour and staycations became the new way of life.  Fortunately, one of the major tourist destinations in the United States is in my own back yard so to speak.  Every time I drive to town, I’m treated to a perfect view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Daily, I get to see these ancient mountains in all their glory.  Many days they are clear with gradations from deep purple to lavender.  Then there is the winter with snow and clouds turning purple to pure white. Many days the clouds reflect the name “Smoky” and a misty haze covers the horizon.  I don’t often make the hour drive to the park itself but, when I do, I love the rocky stream beside the road, the dense tree-cover overhead and the sweet wet smell of the moss and ferns.  The Smokies really don’t have many vistas; it is more like being in a massive Zen garden where Nature herself has curated every inch to be perfect.  In the autumn, the Smokies put on a magnificent show when the trees are ablaze, and the air is cool and dry and the sky is bright blue.  I am so happy to have a staycation in this magical place.

When Alexandra was little girl, we would go play in the cold mountain stream on hot summer days but never hiked.  But ever since we walked the Camino in 2014, hiking has become such a joy and a priority. And we are very compatible hiking pals. We are also wanting to make the most of her extended time in East Tennessee since she will be working from home until at least next year.  We are using this time-out-of-time to make the most of our lives here and now. So let me tell you about our September adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains.

For our first hike, I chose “The Chimneys”.  This is a well-known trail that isn’t very long but very steep with hundreds of stairs up to a rock outcropping and a beautiful overlook.  The path starts flat and has several bridges over a wide, rushing stream that tumbles down massive boulders.  If we had just stopped there, it was worth the hour and a half drive. But then the trail starts the assent which means at least it is downhill coming back. Fortunately, we have a trail on the farm with a steep hill and so I’m use to the incline but it was still a big challenge.  Everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes—deep green moss, dark tree trunks, rock outcroppings and leafy canopy. The fresh air and rushing water fills in what the eyes miss for a full body experience.  We were tired at the end, but I was glad to get to mark that trail off in my hiking book as a trail well done.

Sunshine illuminating the path

As we were driving to the hike, Alexandra mentioned she would love to pet a deer as we love seeing the deer on our lawn feeding at dawn and dusk.  I had her google petting zoos and amazingly, there was a deer park and exotic petting zoo just 30 minutes from the trail in the next town over.  You know we had to go right then! Instant manifestation of desired deer petting, and did we have fun.  The Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo is full of goats, deer, horses of all kinds, ostrich and emus and beautiful reindeer.  Most of the animals you could feed either a corn mix or apple slices.  We started in a big pen of Fallow deer. They loved the food and we were quickly surrounded. If you weren’t careful some of the deer would give a light nip from the rear so they could get some too—I must say a bit overwhelming but fun. We enjoyed the pen of goats with docile babies that love being held,  I loved cuddling their warm furry bodies. But our favorites were the Sitka deer and reindeer—so gentle and beautiful.  We were dirty and tired by the end of our day but so happy with our mini vacation. Plans are already being made to return to the deer park, maybe with some outlet shopping first.

Sitka Deer

Fallow Deer

A few weeks later I chose a hike on the famed Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, over 2000 miles. We did a four-mile section to a point called Charlie’s Bunion, an outcropping of rock with a magnificent view. This is the part of the trail that starts on the North Carolina/Tennessee line and is at 5000 ft elevation.  The trail is rocky and the rainy remains of a hurricane made the trail like a small stream.  I definitely had to be careful not to turn an ankle. This higher elevation had a special feel with dense moss and hemlock trees which smelled like Christmas, so we chattered on about this year’s Christmas plans. Unfortunately, the beautiful vista was a pure white cloud, so we hungrily ate our PB and J sandwich and headed back down. I did slip on the way back, my legs were getting like rubber by then, but fortunately there was another hiker right behind me who took hold of my arm which softened the fall so I wasn’t hurt.  We were happy to see our car and the vista from the parking lot. Some ibuprofen and a latte got us home to hot showers and beef stew in the crockpot. The hike was 8 miles of rough trail but I felt like I had a big accomplishment and a magnificent adventure in our beautiful world.

 

 

 

 

Peacocks

Brunhilde, Figaro and Mimi

I’ve always loved peacocks. There is something about their iridescent blue-green color and magnificent tails that calls to mind the exotic and extravagant.  Over the years I would be drawn to journals, pillows and clothes with peacock images.  I didn’t overdo it. I wasn’t a crazy peacock lady, just a reminder here and there of this beautiful bird. I also imagined having peacocks on the farm, wandering around the yard and making their haunting calls—it would be so beautiful. I worried about predators so I never investigated owning peacocks and peacocks remained a dream.  But things changed this year. I stopped traveling and Alexandra came home to ride out the pandemic. Suddenly, there was time and space for new opportunities I would not have otherwise and the dream of owning peacocks became a reality.

The end of June, I showed Alexandra a video of baby peacocks on my favorite YouTube channel, The Chateau Diaries.  She started to research peacock care and look for breeders and the next thing I knew we had reserved three baby peacocks to be picked up a few days later in the next county.  We already had plenty of space for them to roam and a shed that would make the perfect roost to keep them safe at night. It seemed like destiny, all with the help of Alexandra’s persistence and love of animals. We finally succumbed to the lure of farm animals, albeit vanity farm animals whose sole purpose is beauty and to make us happy.

Since Alexandra and I both love opera as well as birds, she thought it would be fitting that our babies have very distinguished names from our favorite opera composers.  We have hatch-mates, Figaro, a male and Brunhilde, a sweet dove-colored female.  Figaro is already turning green and struts around like he is in charge.  The third baby is Mimi, a white peacock, beautiful if a bit neurotic, so we are forever pleading “no no Mimi”. Caroline is the official bird wrangler and likes to hold and cuddle them. Alexandra has become a farmer with pitchfork and straw to clean their roost.  Every night, I fix them a lovely supper of lettuce and white bread. In a few weeks, they will be old enough to start exploring the yard and the bread helps lure them back into the safety of the roost at night.  We can’t imagine life without our peacocks.

The challenges of 2020 are bound together with the changes we make this year that become this iridescent experience as the highs and lows are seen from different perspectives.  For me, the loss and sadness has been inextricably bound with gain and joy. I mourn the loss of how life use to be when we could gather with friends and be in the world. But there has also been gain with time as a family and deepening connection with farm and home. I’ve been reading Life is in the Transitions by Bruce Feiler, a book that came out at the beginning of the global transition to an unknown future.  The book is a guide through the transitions in life that come more quickly and last longer than we would probably like.  Sometime, the big shifts in life come voluntarily, but most of the time, it is involuntary, and it is these big changes that make up the fabric of our lives. This year, I’m glad to add peacocks to my life tapestry and the lore of my family. We have also a new tradition born from our transition. Every Saturday evening, we gather on the patio for “aperitif” (also inspired by The Chateau Diaries). We have a glass of pink wine and some “sexy cheese” or other special foods and enjoy the end of the week.  We enjoy the planning as much as the eating, a mini-celebration of life and joy which has been the highlight of our summer and will sure to continue on for many years. Peacocks and aperitif are part of the new colors of our life that we will remember as part of life in transition.

 

 

Noticing

A couple of weeks ago, Alexandra was ready to have a trip to town.  Since she was working from home she had not been anywhere in a couple of weeks and was hungry for a Dairy Queen vanilla cone. I needed some plumbing parts from Home Depot to fix a leaky faucet.  The ice cream was just what she wanted and we headed home through the countryside to our small rural town.  About halfway home she saw some cows in a field, including several calves. I promise, she has seen baby cows before, but even though she is closing in on 30, any baby animal brings a delight usually reserved for toddlers.  She made me turn around so she could admire the babies. We found a driveway to pull in to and had a perfect view of a mama giving her baby a bath.  The little one stood patiently as mama’s rough tongue cleaned under its chin, each lick making the baby lift up a bit, yet the bath happily continued for several minutes.  It was a mini-magical moment for Alexandra and me.  In the background, were the purple silhouettes of the Great Smokey Mountains. The rolling spring-green field contrasted with the dark angular bodies of the Black Angus cows. It was a simple, bucolic moment but yet one of perfect contentment for the mama and baby and me and my sweet girl.  At that moment, all was right with the world because Alexandra had noticed.  She noticed the simple beauty of babies in a field and wanted to savor that moment.

Noticing. This is how we pilgrimage to the present. This isn’t remembering the past or anticipating the future but finding those little moments of everyday life as special and beautiful. Currently our physical worlds are reduced in size as we tend to the business of life and health. But our internal world is infinite when we take time to notice the beauty of life. It is in connecting with nature and the amazingly creative human mind and spirit that we find those timeless moments that feed our soul.  It is so easy to get caught in the negative and the difficult and forget to see, to notice the abundance all around, the opportunities to enrich our minds and souls.  I’ve enjoyed the operas, ballets, gardens and museums that are online for us to enjoy in a way I haven’t before.  I’ve had time to read and tend my house, cook and take a daily walk to enjoy the spring flowers and budding trees.

My sweet friend Becky was reading a passage in my book about pilgrimages to your own back yard. She took that idea to heart and noticed that her own backyard needed some tending and decided to build a “pretty little garden” where she could put her hands in the dirt and find refuge from her busy “on-line” life. Every day she would pilgrimage a few short steps to her little place on earth and found healing and peace.  She shared her special space on Instagram.  It is up to each of us to find and nurture that space of time and place to pilgrimage; we just have to stop and notice.

 

Noticing, observing– brings gratitude for the details of your surroundings, the little things that are often ignored but actually hold the essence of life.  Notice the taste of simple food, the earthy smell of a cat, the softness of worn sheets, the heaviness of a hardbound book, the tattered edges of a warm rug, the brilliant purple of the tiny violets in the grass. Notice the bird songs in the early morning, the whipporwill’s call at dusk, the croaking frogs after a rain.  Each of these things and an infinite amount of other little things in our world become a moment of pilgrimage to our life as we live right here, right now.

My dear cosmic mother Rachael passed away last month. She was in very poor health, the perfect target for Covid-19.  As I mourn her loss, I think about something she would often say, “we are in the glory now”.   By noticing, we experience Now in each glorious moment.

Rachael Salley   1942-2020

A Fawn

fawn

This is one of my favorite stories from five years ago. My wild friends make me so happy.

Hamilton was on his second attempt to bush-hog the field across the street.   The first time he was interrupted by a mighty thunderstorm.   He hadn’t gone but a few times round the field when he saw an animal out of the corner of his eye.   He first thought it was a rabbit but then on closer inspection saw that it was a new fawn.   The mother had hidden the little guy in some tall grass and it was too young to walk around on his own.

He called me and I came to see what could be done.   I called the local vet school and talked to a wild life specialist.   She said it was too young for them to take so we agreed that I move him out of the 90 degree heat to the shade and hope the mother returns.   I carefully wrapped him in a towel so I wouldn’t touch him and moved him about 20 feet to the shade.  Only the size of a long legged Chihuahua, he was delicate and beautiful. I couldn’t believe I was picking up such a tiny baby.    We left the area in hopes mom would come back soon.   I did some internet research and was reassured that we did the best thing for his survival.

It is rare to see such a tiny one since the mom usually has them well hidden.   Hamilton went back a few hours later and was distressed to see him still there but on my way to check on him we were lucky enough to see the mom bounding around nearby.   We left the area with hopes that mom would find him and he would live to be a magnificent buck.

I sent Alexandra a picture of the little guy and this is her return text. “TOO MUCH TOO MUCH IT HURTS OMG OMG PLEASE BABY DEER DON’T DIE”.   When I told her the plan she sent this text “Okay good. Keep in mind; I am willing and able to raise him as my own.”    A kind offer but unfortunately illegal so we left him to his mother’s care and took the tractor out of the field so we could give him time to grow.

A week later Hamilton went to finish the field and saw the little guy up and around and able to run out of his hiding place and saw the mom in the creek bottom, a happy ending to the story.

In the language of animal totems, deer means gentleness and a new innocence being born in you.   I like to be reminded of gentleness, we all need to be gentle with ourselves and each other.   There is far too much harshness in this world.    The doe keeps her baby hidden and nurtured until he is strong enough to be in the world.   We too need to keep our deepest experiences, new insights and joys hidden and nurtured, away from the harshness of criticism and ignorance until they are strong.  Alexandra doesn’t want to talk about her Camino experience with her friends, she wants to keep it her private joy, safe and nurtured.    So try a little gentle love on your spiritual journey so your heart can have the space to be safe and grow into something magnificent.

 

Essential books for your spiritual library:

Animal –Speak and Animal-Wise by Ted Andrews

Animal Wisdom by Susie Green

 

Summer on the Farm

Isn’t it adorable!   photo by C. Bowen

My father-in-law loved land. He was only 30 when he bought an old farm which was, at that time, way out in the country and moved his young wife into the ramshackle, 100-year-old farmhouse that was free with the land. He kept his day job but enjoyed his time as a gentleman farmer tending his forest and hayfields. Now over 60 years later, I live on the farm in the farmhouse that was restored to its original glory in the 1960’s. Hamilton and I love living on the farm and now Caroline lives next-door to us in an apartment, so she can live in the country too. People ask me what we grow, what animals we farm? To which I reply, trees, hay and two indoor cats. But the farm busy with wildlife that requires no effort on my part.

Hamilton tends the land. We lease out the hayfields, but he mows the road on the edge of the forest and has made a path through the woods. He spends many peaceful hours finding his inner Jedi while mowing with Obi Wan Kabota, his big orange tractor. Then, of course, the chainsaw is pressed into service to clean up downed trees along the walking path. What is it about chainsaws that make men so happy? With the help of the new woodsplitter, we have plenty of firewood to keep us warm in the winter.

Planting trees on the farm

Caroline is the official game warden of the property. She heads out multiple times a day wearing a floppy hat, sunscreen, her well-worn Redwing boots and armed with a shotgun in case she encounters a beer can. It is a sight to behold but she is on a mission. Last year she noticed that there were a lot of dead box turtles. She sent specimens to Tennessee Wildlife Resources and found out the turtles had the first documented case of a rare amphibian virus in the state. She has cared for several sick turtles, but the scourge has decimated the population. Her favorite turkey family, Fernando, Mama Mia and Dancing Queen, have new babies. The rabbits have less exciting names: Side-yard rabbit, Back-yard rabbit, etc. The deer are always a delight, bounding around the edges of the property. Occasionally we see the babies including one fawn that was too tiny to walk—awwwww. Last week Caroline found some baby racoons hanging out in a tree. They all had a long conversation and she came away with remarkable videos of their chatter. The next day I encountered the mama. She quickly ran high up in the tree, then held perfectly still, imitating bark, until I continued on my walk.

The old farm feeds us body and soul. We love the history and the peace. Each of us has our own relationship with the land. Caroline is having her “Walden Pond” years. She goes out on the land to think and dream up new art projects. I like to “forest bathe”, the new nature craze, and revel in the green trees and spring flowers. Hamilton is always renewed by driving heavy equipment. Alexandra finds refuge from her hectic big-city life. She has a page from Gone With The Wind highlighted and framed which reflects her love for our little bit of earth:

“Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”

Chickadee

Photo by Christopher L. Wood

Every morning I look out my kitchen window into my herb garden where I have my bird feeders and watch my darling birds flit and land, throw seeds on the ground and have little spats. Nothing could make me happier for in my world my birds, specifically chickadees, are “A” list celebraties. Forget seeing humans parade on a red carpet, it is these adorable birds that turn me into a screaming adolescent girl– “OMG there is a chickadee.”

Just like the opossum, I have always had the chickadee as a totem animal. There are so many characteristics of animals that play out in our lives and its common to have more than one totem animal. But over the years chickadees and opossums have played a prominent role in the lore of my life. According to Animal-Speak by Ted Andrews, the bible of animal totem information, the black cap of the chickadees indicates the depths of the mysteries of the mind and the search for Truth. There are seven types of chickadees that indicate the alignment with the seven chakras, seven stages of alchemy and ancient mysteries. All of that wrapped up in this charming little bird that demonstrates that Truth doesn’t always have to be hard but sometime comes to bring joy and cheer to life. I’m all for that.

The other day I saw a little post on Facebook that brings new meaning to the chickadee totem. According to Audubon News, chickadees have the remarkable capacity to swap old brain cells for new ones allowing them to keep track of the hundreds of new places they store seeds. Sign me up chickadees! I want some of that. As I head deeper into the second half of life I’m taking on chickadee medicine as I am actively swapping old brain cells for new and building new neuron paths. Remember last year I went to the Joseph Campbell Library in California? Well on that fateful day I picked up a catalog of degrees offered a Pacifica Graduate Institute. One program caught my eye and wouldn’t leave me alone, Depth Psychology: Jungian and Archetypal Studies. I tried to resist with lots of good reasons including a previous vow never to go back to school. But it seemed to be the next step on my pilgrim’s path—the road deep into the infinite universe of the mind and the mysteries of life. I started classes last month and although a challenge, it is a good challenge and with the help of my chickadee pals I’m going to grow some new paths into the mysteries of the mind. Thanks for being my adorable companions on this magical journey.

This month marks my 5th blogaversary! When I tentatively pushed that ‘publish’ button that day I had no idea where my pilgrim’s path would take me but it sure wasn’t across a country or to graduate school. But there you have it. Tell the universe “I’ll go” and you never know where you will be headed next but it will be well worth the journey.

Chickadee World

Opossum

It was a perfect early October day here in east Tennessee and it was time for an annual customer appreciation picnic at the local wildlife/nature center. This is one of my favorite days of fall for not only is the atmosphere beautiful but I love the food and each year there is a theme, this year it was ‘America’. After I had my dinner I went in the main building to see this year’s exhibit of birds of prey. The featured star was a bald eagle named America. He had been injured as a young bird and so had a long and illustrious career teaching children about his species. It is amazing to be so close to this magnificent bird, so regal. There was also a beautiful small screech owl with an eye injury that keeps her from hunting. It was too bad these lovely birds were no longer in the wild but they do so much to teach about birds and conservation.

But what does that have to do with opossums? Well nothing really, I was just setting the scene. Now on to the opossum. When I arrived at the picnic the head naturalist Lyn Bales was holding an opossum named Olivia. I’ve certainly seen lots of opossums, alive through the window having a midnight snack on my back porch and also unfortunately dead on the road, a way too common sight. But this was the first time for me to see one up close and personal, I love opossums. They are odd little creatures with pointy noses, beady eyes and a long hairless tail—I’m not much on the tail. They are the only marsupials in North American and they can be seen carrying their babies on their backs. The babies are beyond adorable.

I went straight over to Olivia and was totally enchanted by her whiskers and soft round gray ears. I mentioned to Lyn that I had just read the day before he had written a new book, Ephemeral by Nature. I guess I looked harmless and he let me pet her! I got to pet an opossum. Well here is why I was so excited—the opossum has long been one of my totem animals (symbolic personality traits). Strange, I know, most people have cool animals like wolves, bears, hawks or owls. Not me, I have an opossum but I’ve learned to love the gifts that opossum gives me. The gift of the opossum is to play dead. (Actually the faint when scared and give off a scent of rotting carcass.) That doesn’t seem like much of a skill set but let me tell you it is mighty useful. When you play dead you don’t have to use any energy fighting off detractors or criticism. “Nothing to see here” and then you run off as soon as the danger passes and go about your business. It is a good way to stay out of trouble and arguments with nary a scratch. It has saved me lots of suffering.

I loved having the opossum on my side but after awhile I needed some new techniques that were a little more empowered so I took on a bit more strength with the black panther. But every once in awhile the opossum keeps me out of trouble or is just the most expedient choice. Olivia the opossum was just the medicine I needed that day to remind me that opossums are not just helpful but cute too.

Iona

Iona had been calling me for a long time. This tiny island, the last bit of land before the great Atlantic, is at the end of the earth. Ireland is 40 miles to the south but other than that the only thing west of Iona is the vast unknown. It is serious work to get there: fly to Edinburgh, take a train to Oban, then a ferry to Mull, cross Mull on a one-way road in a bus and then one more ferry ride to Iona, walk to the Abbey and you finally arrived. Why would anyone feel the need to go to such a remote place? Why would this tiny island call me?

The story goes that St. Columba got in a bit of an argument over the Psalms at his Irish monastery so he was banished to Iona and built a monastery there in 563 and thus credited for bringing Christianity to Scotland. The monastery thrived and the Book of Kells was written on the island. It became a major pilgrimage site and great honor to be buried on the island. The first major Celtic crosses stood in front of the Abbey and the remaining pieces are in the museum. But there is a power to this place that seems otherworldly. It is often said that “the veils are thin” on Iona and it is easier and quicker to reach heaven if buried on the island. Many years ago I read that it is an “Atlantis Priestess Portal”, I can’t remember where I read that but I never forgot that description. I can’t say for sure what the power is–history, geography, geology, myth– or what this island means to other pilgrims in the past but what I can say is that I had one truly perfect day on earth on Iona.

I didn’t go to Iona on my 2009 trip to Scotland, I knew that time wasn’t right. On this trip it was the final destination that all the holy sites on the way prepared me for. It was raining and foggy on the one-way road across Mull and the traffic was very heavy. I couldn’t see the landscape and felt like I was in a cocoon in the very slow moving bus. Every few hundred feet we had to pull over and wait for an oncoming vehicle. We finally arrived at the parking lot and I got my suitcase and walked through the rain down to the ferry and across the waves onto the ramp; no tourist cars are allowed on the island. I got to the hotel and settled in and then had a group tour of the Abbey. It is plain but it is hallowed ground. I visited the museum and took a walk. As I walked the path to the ocean I had the same overwhelming feeling of joy that I had on the Camino. Three black sheep grazing by the road added to my happiness.

That first evening after supper, most of the group went to the service in the Abbey. The Iona Community, which is dedicated to social justice, conducted a beautiful ecumenical service with singing and sharing of bread. Coffee and dessert in the hotel lounge with my dear friends ended my first partial day on Iona.

All day a song that I had in my iTunes had been going round my head, Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure. The words are in Latin so I looked up the translation, I felt there was a message. “O Christ look with favor upon your faithful people now gathered to praise you”. In my excitement to visit these holy sites and have experiences I forgot the true goal of pilgrimage—-devotion. I was on Iona not for my benefit but to give my devotion to the Divine. I was on this holy isle to sing praises and give thanks for life. I listened to the song over and over, soaking in the beautiful melody and important message.

I had been watching the weather all week hoping that we would have a sunny day on our full day on the island and my prayers were answered. I woke to bright morning sun and the sound of mooing. I walked out to find a herd of “hairy coos”–highland cattle in the nearby barnyard. The baby came running to greet me but was kept at bay by a long-horned mother with gruff voice. I promised her I wouldn’t touch, just admire. After breakfast the hikers in the group met at the ruins of the nunnery to walk across the island to St. Columba Bay. We had a few moment to enjoy this place of worship where stones stacked by man and meadows provided by Mother Nature come together to make the perfect chapel.

After obtaining a few snacks our little group started the walk. The sparkling sun, green meadows, charming animals and the chatter of dear friends made the world even brighter and more vivid. How about the ram with such curly horns that they looked like he had spectacles on. Or my personal favorite, white fluffy lambs frolicking on yellow-flower meadows—ahhhh, it was almost too much to bear. Every step was like walking in a dream. Down the final hill was a beautiful, turquoise bay. The beach is a thick pile of perfectly smooth rocks and down by the water are innumerable green marble stones polished by billions of waves for millions of years. I was surprised we could walk back to the hotel with the weight of all our treasured stones which are said to give protection.

I went over to walk the near by labyrinth and had a bit of an encounter with the head cow as we were walking in open pasture. Apparently I was on her path and she told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of her way. Big bossy cows not behind a fence are not to be trifled with and I quickly obeyed.

Then lunch and a bit of retail therapy—that didn’t take long for there are only a few shops. I decided I needed more time in the Abbey to wander alone. I sat in a stream of sunlight and listened to the theme song of my visit on my iPod and soaked in the glory. It isn’t a fancy Abbey but the history and devotion of 1500 years makes it a powerful place. I sat in front of the stone crosses in the museum and thought about all the pilgrims before me and those to come.

After supper I went to the Abbey for the evening service. I was the only one in the group to go but I felt called to be in the Abbey as much as possible. I was greeted by the shadow of the cross on the stone wall of St Columba’s tiny chapel and then made my way inside and found a seat in the Choir. The service was more traditional with just a handful of participants. That was fine with me because I love traditional liturgy. I know it was a time of devotion but the service was absolutely devised by the Divine for my perfect joyful day on Iona. First there was a cosmic joke—the young Englishman leading the service was wearing a bright green tee shirt that said “Dollywood Tennessee” I kid you not!! Dollywood is just up the road from my home and I have been there many times.

The first song, one I knew well, reminded me of my dad. He was a very spiritual man and would have loved my pilgrimage. A few Bible readings and then another song. This time the hymn tune was St. Columba. Wait, that is my favorite tune—I’ve played it on the piano hundreds of times—I didn’t know that was the name. I play that song like a chant. There I was singing new words to my most loved hymn, St. Columba was already a part of my life. A few more Bible verses and then the closing song. The veil between heaven and earth was nonexistent as I sang the final tune as a two-part round “All praise to thee my God this Night for all the blessing for the Light”. I knew all the words by heart. “Praise God from whom all Blessing flow, Praise him all Creatures here below”. A perfect reminder of the message of devotion from the day before. My voice echoed against the ancient stones and I held my hand to my heart in pure joy.

I joined my friends for our final coffee and dessert to share our experiences of the day as the sun set for the short night on this tiny island outpost in the north Atlantic. It was a magic day—not of big experiences but of subtle joys of our beautiful world, meaningful songs, sun and water, friends and history all bathed in the light of the Divine.

The Dove and the Stone by Alice O. Howell

Christ of the Celts, The Healing of Creation  J. Philip Newell