Empty Nest — Souls Unfolding

Ever have those moments in life when you wish that you were someone or something else?  I’m reminded of the movie I watched as a child, The Incredible Mr. Limpet.  “I wish I wish, I wish I was a fish, ‘cuz fishes have a better life than people,” says Don Knotts who subsequently falls into the ocean and miraculously becomes a fish.  I’m not saying that I want to become a fish.  No way. I want to become a mother hummingbird and here’s why:  baby hummingbirds, merely three weeks old, start stretching and pumping their new wings readying themselves for their departure in the ensuing days.  Even when they’ve started their new, autonomous life, the mother hummingbird still feeds her babies for two to three days after they have left the nest.  With great care, she ushers them to the best places to catch insects and to gather nectar. Then, she chases them off to live on their own.  Evidently, she’s absolutely fine with the fact that they’ll never come home again for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or birthdays; they’ll never call her on Mother’s Day; they’ll never, ever need her again in the span of their lifetime!  Think of it, she suffers no identity crisis, no depression, she has no need for extensive therapy, or weight gain due to copious amounts of food trying to fill the void.  Her empty nest is merely…empty.

Being the only daughter, and youngest member of my ‘flock,’ I was never allowed to wander too far from the family nest.  My middle brother, the proverbial black sheep of the family, moved to New York with his wife and infant son in tow.  My family was aghast, and my parents literally sat Shiva.  My remaining brothers and I stayed close to home.

The night my son was born and I witnessed the miracle of his tiny mouth suckling my breast at long last, I was reminded of the prose from Khalil Gibran:  “Your children, are not your children.  They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing itself.  They come through you, but not from you.  And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

In that quiet and gentle life affirming moment, I inhaled joy, and exhaled a profound sense of sadness.  I promised my son, Jacob, that his wings would not be clipped as mine had been, and that he would be encouraged to explore his own thoughts and dreams wherever that would take him.  And then I kissed his fuzzy brown head, and cried.  No longer holding him within my body, sharing, nurturing, growing, containing him, I realized he was his very own soul, complete unto himself, with his very own journey.  It felt like a small part of my heart calved like an iceberg off a mighty Alaskan glacier – a new Self was being born.

A few weeks shy of his first birthday, my video camera had become an appendage in my right hand.  It was more than apparent that Jacob wanted to walk, and I could literally hear Neil Armstrong’s voice, “One small step for baby, one giant leap for Jacob.”  And then one night, he let go of our round, pine coffee table and walked.  Camera in hand, you could hear me crying and laughing, as I got a great shot of our brown carpet – technical, I’m not.  I missed the first few steps, but once I gained my composure, I got the next few tippy toe strides.  Another piece of my heart calved; a new Self was being born.

It happened again on his first day of kindergarten.  I walked him to school, and brought him into his new classroom; a kiss, a hug, and off he went.  I waited outside with the other moms just in case he needed me.  I caught a glimpse of him playing blocks with a little girl.  After a while, he got up, walked to the classroom door and told me to go home.  I looked at the woman next to me whose terrified daughter clung to her leg like mussels on a pier piling.  “You should be proud of yourself, you did a great job.”  My eyes welled; another calving.

And so it goes with each changing cycle of my son’s life.  Graduating elementary school, middle school, high school, piano recitals, sleep-aways, Bar Mitzvah, school trips to Europe, proms, getting his driver’s license, buying his first car, going away (far away) to college, falling in love, having his heart broken…more pieces of my heart, suddenly falling and breaking away.  A new Self was being born.

The concept of an empty nest was painfully introduced to me on the first Christmas my ex husband took our son away to Denver.  Empty nest defined as: “The stage in a family’s cycle when the children have grown up and left home to begin their own adult lives.  Note:  For parents, the empty nest sometimes results in midlife anxiety.”

Jacob was five.  The divorce had been amicable up until the moment Jacob’s father announced it was time for his son to participate in a traditional Colorado Christmas — without me. Anxiety doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when Jacob left for a week.  I haunted the house like a soul trapped between here and the afterlife.  I cried myself to sleep every night.  I sat in his room, held his favorite stuffed animal close to me, and felt as if some huge shift had occurred, and that life would never be the same again.  Surrounded by Jacob’s childhood cherishables, I realized that NOTHING stays the same.  Every life experience carries the seed of change.  Right then and there I knew that in the blink of an eye Jacob would be pack up his adolescent life, and take off, leaving behind his beloved toys, his books, his loving dog, Bamsa, and me, soaring out of reach, out of sight to places unknown.  In that moment, with that undeniable, unquestionable truth, my resolve to hold my child with open hands, and a resilient heart, allowing for his inevitable flight, encouraging it, assisting it, insisting upon it…became my mission; like a kindred soul with the mother hummingbird.  And for both Jacob and me, a new Self is being born.

We’re All In This Together

I found our current home here in Ojai when I was staying with a friend of mine; think Ma and Pa Kettle, Green Acres and the Egg and I all rolled into one very old California Craftsman.  It wasn’t only the land, trees, flowers, vegetable garden, huge porch, peace and quiet, spectacular mountain views that sold me on this 103 year old dwelling, it was the adorable menagerie of animals that came with the house:  three bunnies, two guinea pigs and three hens a laying: Finally, instant fuzzy, feathery family for our empty nest.

As a child my neighbor had rabbits and I was given a guinea pig (instead of a cat in first grade) so caring for those critters was relatively easy.  Chickens, however, had not been part of my early life experience, but there they were — three hens happily residing in a lovely two story, indoor/outdoor coop near the vegetable garden.

The black and white hen was called Tina Turner.  Henny Penny was copper, and the Queen heir apparent was a fluffy, ample bosomed whiter than white hen named Marilyn Monroe.  Marilyn definitely strutted her stuff and was very, very vociferous.  She caught my attention, not just because of her incessant squawking, but also because of her story.  I had been told that Ms. Monroe had been attacked by the previous owner’s chocolate lab, who must have had a primal flashback of some sort in which he realized that he was not only a “bird dog” but a “retriever” as well.  With that a ha moment of what he deemed his ‘authentic self,’ he went after Marilyn with a vengeance.   Horrified, the woman of the house rushed Marilyn to her vet, and waited anxiously for several hours as the doctor struggled to save a chicken’s life; and so he did even though her chance of survival was next to none.  I felt a kinship to Marilyn, having had a ‘near death’ situation myself, and labeled ‘a talker’ since second grade.

Prior to all this, I knew nothing about chickens.  I’m a vegetarian from way back so I don’t even eat them.  The day after we moved into our home, I went to our local feed store and here’s the advice I got:  You feed ‘em, give ‘em water, collect their eggs, and eat ‘em.  First the eggs then the chickens, that is.  Not too helpful for a vegetable loving, novice caretaker. Then I went to Google to learn specifically how to care for them, clean their coop, and feed them.  Honestly, I felt a little out of my comfort zone.

But one day, I was tending my garden, and Marilyn was screaming at me.  I’m not kidding.  She was screeching at the top of her lungs and I think she was using profanity.  Seriously.  So I ambled over to her and found the watering pail completely bone dry.  And one thing I know, all God’s creatures need water.  It was a hot summer’s day, and she was right to get mad even though I thought that she could have asked nicely.  I felt terrible as she kept cackling at me even though I had filled the watering pail and put it back in its rightful place. Once Tina and Henny quenched their thirst, she stopped yakking and drank up.  I apologized saying out loud, but more to myself that I had much to learn here, and I swear she stopped guzzling, walked right up to me, cocked her beady brown eye at me as if to say, “You got that right, sister.”  And that’s when our friendship began.

Marilyn was talkative, opinionated and a fighter; she was also incredibly loving.  She cared for her girls, and she accepted me more easily as a caretaker, while the other two ran from me and paid me no mind.  She spoke to me when I fed them, and squawked at me whenever I passed the hen house, as if to say, “Take a moment and visit with me, you’re running the world.”  She was the first to take food from my hand, and although chickens are supposed to eat everything and anything, Marilyn was, well, downright picky about what she liked and she told you so.  She also made very appreciative clucking sounds when you showed up with good eats.  She was the first to jump out of the hen house when I swung the door wide open, and the last to go back in without a fuss, always shepherding her flock.  When I cleaned out the coop, she’d come up to me, give me a critical look, and then a cluck or two of thanks.

I’m sad to say that Marilyn died last week.  By the time my husband and I figured out that she just wasn’t herself, she was very, very sick.  We actually brought her to a vet who gave her a shot of antibiotics and gave us a prognosis of a 50-50 chance of survival.   But I knew she wasn’t going to make it.  We brought her into our home, made a special coop for her and I watched her, excuse the pun, like a mother hen until my husband insisted I get some sleep.  I awoke in the middle of the night and went into check on her.  She sat perfectly still, her breathing labored.  She looked so frail and so alone so I sat before her, opened the cage door, and gently stroked her silky, white feathers.  I experienced a deep sadness about the fragility of life, the wounds inside of us that feel as if they’ll never heal, and vulnerability beyond comprehension.  I told her that I loved her, that if she didn’t want to fight to live I understood, that I wanted her to live, but it was her decision, not mine.  I’ve been here before mind you, but never with a chicken.  I would have stayed up with her, but my dog, Eli, came in and interrupted our stillness, so Eli and I went back to bed. The next morning she was gone.  And I cried.  I cried because I felt responsible, I cried for the loss of her, and for the grief her hens would feel at losing her.  I cried for all the times I’ve lost someone I love; a part of my life one moment, and then not.

I know what you’re thinking…she was just a chicken, after all.  But here’s the thing; and I believe this with my entire being: we are all divinely connected, divinely guided, and divinely loved.  Each and everyone, everything on this earth is a unique gift; a gem, a jewel, some rough cut, some polished, but all a part of God’s Glory.

We buried Marilyn in our backyard.  I scattered rose petals where she was laid to rest and I was reminded of this:  that even in times of profound sorrow I am blessed by having loved, and having been loved.

Thank you Marilyn for reminding me that love is not lost through loss, but found more fully.

Our beloved Marilyn Monroe

Trees – A Dance Between Heaven and Earth

We experienced a horrific storm here in Ojai the other day.  I knew we were in for some ‘weather’ because I had broken my ribs on the right side of my body many years ago, and they get achy hours before it grows damp outside.  I’m a walking barometer!  I awoke that morning to the sound of gale force winds and falling rain banging on our bedroom windows as if it had to come inside or perish. Personally, I don’t like the wind.  I’m like my horse that way; it makes me feel like there’s some type of danger lurking around the bend.  I feel chaotic inside my body and I go into hyper alert mode.  I’m not much of an alarmist, but I definitely had a foreboding feeling as I stepped outside with my husband to attend to our animals.  Our dog, Emma, God’s purest expression of joy, was glued to my side, tail tucked, head down.  She usually romps with such exuberance and freedom.  If I hadn’t been feeling apprehensive myself, I’d have thought that Emma was abducted by aliens and replaced with a ‘walk in.’ It took us several hours to clean, feed, and settle the critters, (chickens, bunnies, guinea pigs). Battening down the hatches with tarps for extra protection made me feel like I was on board The Andrea Gail preparing to face ‘the perfect storm.’

All day long, the tempest raged.  Even in the comfort of our home, Emma and I were behaving like nervous Nellies.  Right before sunset, the winds stopped, and the rain fizzled to a drizzle.  We stepped outside to check on the animals.   It was eerily quiet, and the yard looked as if it had been through a blender; bits and pieces of tree limbs and shiny, newly sprung leaves were strewn everywhere.  Walking the entire property, we discovered that we had lost a pepper tree and a pine tree, but what brought me to my knees was an uprooted oak tree.  I love, love, love the mighty oak.  They grow abundantly here in California.  This particular oak was probably well over 100 years old.  It felt to me that she had intentionally missed our barn by inches.

After the initial shock of seeing this magnificent, old tree felled, I walked over to her, touched the trunk of this fallen angel, thanked her for gracing our home, for being, and then I cried at the sight of her demise.  For me, losing a tree hurts like hell.  I’m a tree climbing, tree hugging, tree planting nutter.

Trees ground me. They’re a perfect balance of heaven and earth.  Trees reflect an uncanny willingness to join earth and sky through their roots, trunks and branches and channel the energies of both. They dance with the wind, change with the season, grow tall and strong, quietly, devotedly — embracing their beauty, and realizing their potential.  They’ve mastered the fine art of ‘give and take.’  Their roots absorb from the earth what they need, taking in moisture from the soil, returning it into the air via their leaves.  They welcome with open arms the light from the sky, using it to nourish its foliage, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, promoting good, clean air for us to breathe.  They are a shining example of an ever-evolving ecosystem with an easy-going, co-operative work ethic that we can only hope to model some day.  They give us shelter, fire, fruit, lumber, soil, paper, and shade, and house many a critter.

Please don’t tell my girl, Emma, but…a tree just might be man’s best friend—the most noble and giving form of life here on earth!

Do yourself a favor…Sit beneath, beside or in front of a tree.  Now wait, wait, and wait some more.  Be still, very still. For here you will find the possibility of growth.

Japan: A Nation’s Blessings Eclipsed

This sand sculpture was created in India.

I had been happily working on a light-hearted blog while waiting for a flight out of LAX early Friday morning.  My husband and I were excitedly joining both family and friends on the East coast to attend a concert my son had put together to showcase his musical talents. This was one of those golden moments in life that holds the promise of tremendous joy and love; something happy to remember for the rest of your life — a blessing — the gift that keeps on giving.  My heart was wide open, keenly aware of the abundance of blessings that surrounded not only me but also those I love and cherish.

And then a text on my phone: the news of Japan’s devastation; a request for prayer from a friend.   Within seconds my expansive heart retracted, growing unbearably heavy, and that guarantee of joy-filled moments slipped away from me and became a deeply dark, foreboding feeling in my soul.  The light from my blessings became shadowed.

Nature can be that way.  Life can be that way.  A killing field of sorts.  Unforeseen, unannounced and certainly, unwelcome.  Had I not experienced loss during the Northridge earthquake?  How many times had I experienced the unexpected loss of a loved one in my life?  How may times has my body been made vulnerable by disease? Too many to recount. Too painful to remember.

Yet, just 24 hours earlier, blessings in Japan were everywhere to be found.  In the love of family and friends, on the faces of children, in the songs of birds, in the beauty of nature, in the rhythm of daily life that awoke with the sunrise, and slept under the canopy of night.  Had the blessings of Japan been devoured by that mountainous wall of water that consumed so much in its path?  Certainly, a quake of that magnitude, a tsunami of such devastating power is not a blessing.  I am thousands of miles away, and I can’t deny the unbearable sorrow of such loss and destruction.  The quake and tsunami in Sendai not only altered Japan physically, it literally changed the world physically — shifting the earth’s axis four inches.

And on an intensely personal level, Japan’s collective cry of pain, shifted my feelings of joy to an overwhelming sense of sadness.  In the blink of an eye, my guaranteed blessings were eclipsed by Sendai’s demolition, and I truly grieved for that nation.  Every one of us experiences suffering; some suffer more than others, some more brutally, some more subtly.  The way in which we suffer may change from person to person, but the fact of the suffering is part of what connects us to one another.

I read somewhere that, ‘grief is the natural and healing companion of loss.’  If we allow ourselves to experience and surrender to grief we can eventually move through it and shift in powerful ways.  And there for me is the ray of light, called a blessing.  And every time we recognize a blessing, it increases our ability to receive it.  This is where G_d exists for me.  This is the place of momentous spiritual healing; this is the seed of transformation.

When our world grows dark and foreboding, and personal loss is beyond imagination, we have to remain open in our hearts.  As I watch the abundance of aid pour into Japan, I am reminded that we are all Divinely connected, if we but open our hearts and accept the love and care we give to and receive from one another.

Please take a moment — now — and pray for the people of Japan.

And finally, give thanks for your life.  Be grateful for everything you have and for all that you have become; for it is through gratefulness, we open the door to joy.