Pandemics

“I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24? The way that things are going, I don’t know.”              ~ Coolio, from Gangsta’s Paradise

It is a weird time. A powerful time. A scary time. COVID-19 sweeps across the planet.

George Floyd is murdered, which brings to the surface another pandemic that’s been with us too long: racism. The stink of shame and despair hang in the air.

Hope lingers on the sidelines.

Lately, nature is my refuge: illuminated trees in the morning light. The chaotic beauty of birdsong from these illuminated trees. Grass racing across the meadow in a sudden gust of wind. Sleek, silver fish flashing in the pond. Am I running from the realities of the world, or running towards it? Am I just fed up with the horrors human beings create? Ashamed of my white skin?

I watch and listen to the news, which fractures my heart in a million pieces. Will our nation ever, ever heal from racism? Is the ugliness of it too hard to look at, let alone learn from and change?

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came on to the scene, he brought us hope, heart, wisdom, and a path out of this ugliness. As a sheltered young white girl my eyes were forced open to see racism by his powerful speeches and his non-violent demonstrations, which he taught to others and empowered the lives of African Americans (Although at the time, I lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, ours was the only family that owned our home, all three floors of it, while my neighbors lived in apartments buildings. At that time, I didn’t understand why the difference, but, as time went on and I educated myself, I began to painfully awaken). His words and the passionate way he spoke were so inspiring, that in my naivety and white ignorance, I thought soon, “Little black boys and black girls will be able to join bonds with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers”.

But no. Killing after killing continued and continues. Videos taken from phones now reveal to white people what African Americans already have known too well – that at the ground level, racism is alive and well. We may have elected a Black president (and oh how I miss him), there are famous and wealthy and University-educated African Americans, but there is still blatant and systemic racism that doesn’t seem to go away, and I get overwhelmed.

So now, after I watch the news, I go outside and watch how the morning light changes the color of the landscape and the shadows move across the meadow. I smile at pine cones that litter my driveway when I walk up to get my mail. At night, I wonder at the deep thrum of bullfrogs and my heart awakens and soars when I hear coyotes yip in the hills.

Nature Feeds the Spirit

A poem by Mary Oliver

Some Herons

 

A blue preacher flew

toward the swamp,

in slow motion.

 

On the leafy banks,

an old Chinese poet,

hunched in the white gown of his wings,

 

was waiting.

The water

was the kind of dark silk

 

that has silver lines

shot through it

when it is touched by the wind

 

or is splashed upward,

in a small, quick flower,

by the life beneath it.

 

The preacher

made his difficult landing,

his skirts up around his knees.

 

The poet’s eyes

flared, just as a poet’s eyes

are said to do

 

when the poet is awakened

from the forest of meditation.

It was summer.

 

It was only a few moment’s past the sun’s rising,

which meant that the whole long sweet day

lay before them.

 

They greeted each other,

rumpling their gowns for an instant,

and then smoothing them.

 

They entered the water,

and instantly two more herons–

equally as beautiful–

 

joined them and stood just beneath them

in the black, polished water

where they fished, all day.

 

The other day I sat outside with my binoculars for a long time. I peered out at the other side of the pond and noticed a few mallards gliding along the water. For some reason they are not coming as often to “my” side – perhaps word is out that a person is regularly checking them out. I don’t know. But as I was watching these ducks, I noticed movement from my peripheral vision, so I turned slightly to see what it was. A great blue heron was inching its way to the pond on its spindly legs. I was so excited! I’ve seen one before, a few times here, when I first moved to this place, but that was years ago.

 

As I watched, it stealthily tip-toed this way and that, peering into the water, hoping for something to eat. Very patient, waiting. Then it walked behind some cattails and I couldn’t see it anymore but sensed its presence. Just like it did, I watched and waited.

 

And it paid off! Within five minutes, to my amazement, it emerged from the water with a large fish in its mouth and after a few awkward tries, gobbled it up. I was awestruck. This I had never seen before. I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to be a witness to the private, scared world that this heron lived in.

 

With all the stress around COVID-19 we all need something to calm us down, give us focus and feed our spirits. A friend of mine, who loves to sew, is happily making masks and handing them out. Another is going through boxes of old family photos and letters and archiving them.

 

For me, right now, it’s nature that gets my attention and supports my well-being. When anxiety rears its ugly head and wants to take over, I step outside and listen to a neighboring quail, watch turkey vultures overhead or I lie directly on the earth and look up at the oak tree next to me and watch a tiny wren land, its tail twitching. I take in the smell of freshly mown grass. I watch pollen float through the air, a lizard doing “push-ups” in the shade.

 

It’s all simple stuff, but it helps. It really does.

What are you doing to nourish your spirit during these uncertain times?

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Five minutes after writing the above, a young buck appeared in the yard, no more than ten feet away from me. We were both a little startled, but stayed still, watching each other. He then turned and walked slowly through the tall grass, then leapt into the woods below, leaving me to rest in the stillness of his wake.

Remember: There are beautiful surprises everywhere. Slow down. Pay attention. Listen. Watch.

 

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

 

Nature’s Presence

This morning, early, I step out on the back deck with a cup of tea and binoculars. Simon greets me with a soft “meow”. I sit down on the planks cross legged and he pads over to me and curls up in my lap and begins to purr. We both look out at the view and listen to the birds, his ears greatly attuned to nuances of sound, move this way and that.

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Ironically, since “shelter in place”, I’ve been spending more time outdoors than usual. It’s been in the upper 60s and lower 70s lately and spring here is gorgeous. There is so much news about COVID-19 that can lead to anxiety for me, but when I go outside onto the deck and listen and watch, I calm down, I heal. I open myself up to the present moment and my worries begin to slough off.

Red-winged blackbirds flash among the cattails, RedwingBlkbirdsinging out. A duck calls from across the pond. Another glides across the water silently.              The hills, further out, show patches of green meadow. Clouds move momentarily across the sun.

We don’t know how COVID-19 will affect us ultimately in our communities, our state, our country, the world. We don’t know how long it will linger. But, we do know this present moment, which is all we have, and lately, it’s nature that reminds me of this, and for that I am so grateful.

 

Mornings at Blackwater by Mary Oliver

“For years, every morning, I drank

from Blackwater Pond.

It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,

the feet of ducks.

And always it assuaged me

from the dry bowl of the very far past.

What I want to say is

that the past is the past,

and the present is what your life is,

and you are capable

of choosing what that will be,

darling citizen.

So come to the pond,

or the river of your imagination,

or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.

And live

your life.”

 

Copyright:                                                                                                                                        Oliver, Mary. (2017). Devotions: The selected poems of Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press.