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Archive for August, 2013

Intangibles

My cat died this week. And this really does have something to do with Nature, or Earth, and the essence of making it relevant to our lives, so keep with me.

micat

micat

As she did the work of breathing to the point of letting go,  I held her, soothed her, encouraged her, and spent hours, days and weeks as we came together to the final gentle moments last Sunday.

She had been sick for a time longer than I knew and when I admitted what I knew to myself (she wasn’t saying a word or showing a symptom; just sleeping a lot in a dreamy way) the tumours seemed to ‘suddenly’ appear, big, black, staining, first one, then another. She was not in pain save when I was cleaning them to prevent painful external infections; she was mostly calm, enjoying the sun and the cat mint, her food and water, until the last couple days. It was an afternoon when I, holding her and enjoying moments with her, admitted to us both the intangible reality: She didn’t need to linger, she could ‘leave’ at any time she chose, this wasn’t going to ‘get better’ nor would her life ‘be saved’ . . . somehow.

 

One by one the phrases wandered through my mind: life saved or lost; leaving; dying, transitioning, passing, flying away.  No doubt we’ve each used any one if not all of these terms when grappling with the intangible of life and not-life.

 

We are humans and apes. We do not like death. Our species does not like endings or leavings, death or not-life, or whatever we call it when one we love no longer breathes and whatever intangible it is in them that is no more leaves us with a cooling, stiffening life-less mess of organic materials no longer containing the intangible of our beloved. In her great book, The Other End of the Leash, Patricia B. McConnell  notes that our near-cousin apes carry around their dead young, unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge they are no longer, until the body falls apart and it is dropped.

We are humans and we like happy endings. We like magic. We like our words of passing, and we like the magic of after-life, no matter the place, style, or ritual involved with it. Whether my cat is near me in Spirit, still, watching, and our four-legged co-companions make room for her on the bed still as they do, which is what I feel and observe, or whether it’s my heart-soothing to believe so, gone but not gone, it’s a mystery and mystery is the realm of magic.

After all, what is magic without faith in it, and what is faith without a magic to it? We are dealing in intangibles here, of course.

 

In holding my cat and soothing her over the last evening, I watched as she tiptoed to the edge of not-breathing, then raise her head (often as I couldn’t muffle a sob) and give me a look of total exasperation. What was my deal? I was not behaving as the other animals on her/our bed, who respectfully turned their backs yet lay close by, and kept energetic-spirit watch with us. There was a unity of energetic sharing in the room, a quiet watching and waiting. But it, too, was intangible. I couldn’t prove it, but rather just feel it. And the magic and faith of it. We all breathed together, waiting.

It was hard work for her, as all of life is, getting that far and resting a bit. Like birth. They are each hard work, each transitions with rhythms and rests, physical expression (so to speak) and a process out of the control of ‘mind’.  I gently stroked her face to soothe her. When my cat took the ‘2-am’ opening to depart— my grandmother who was of an age in which a woman had to know how to care for both the birthing and dying had taught me that these transitions most-likely happen twice a day in accordance with Nature’s cycles, once at sunset and again around 2-3 am — she stretched fully twice, as she used to before being ill, and then with great leaps and loping of legs, and a small mew (she was a quiet cat not given to mewing), she . . . left.

She took off.

She leapt.

She  died . . . transitioned.

Words are hard to choose, for it is a mystery.

She was gone.

Well, her Spirit, her Life-energy was gone. The intangible that was my cat was gone, leaving me with her soft fur, small paws, and all that was physical of her left. But she wasn’t there anymore. Like in every death before this which I’ve kept watch through, whether beloved dogs or cats, or beloved Grandmothers. There is beauty, Nature, spirit, work, sadness, harshness, Life, magic, and tears. Lots of them.

It was beautiful; it was magical; the strength of my cat’s movement brought such wholeness to what otherwise was such a withering illness and for me a witheringly heartbreaking loss of a dear companion who has been with me through the darkest of nights, soothing my angst and tears through these past few tumultuous years by literally stroking my face with her paw.

 

Nature doesn’t have happy endings — there are tears and sadness, harshness and physical expression involved no matter who one is rooting for, fox or rabbit, owl or mouse, wolf or elk, coyote or cat. Nature is full of mystery, and thus magic, and I think most of us, being apes who won’t let go of the tangible, are nervous around that. So we use ‘terms’ to give soothing explanation to the intangible and hide behind concepts of ‘mercy’ that hide the hard work that is seen and experienced in care for the dying and the birthing.

 

In reaching for the intangibles of making Nature relevant, I consider now:

Maybe it is Life, and its intangible magic in Spirit, that we are seeking to make ‘relevant’ and valued. Not just Nature’s relevance, as if it were something separate or different, but the magic of Life itself.

Or maybe they are one and the same.

Spirit, Nature, Life.

 

 

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“Your visit may be marred by tragedy if you violate park rules. Law enforcement rangers strictly enforce park regulations to protect you and the park. Please help keep our contacts with you pleasant by paying special attention to park regulations and avoiding these problems . . . “

Rules are the invisible barrier between humans and Nature, writ large in the park information given to the nearly 3.5 million visitors each year who visit  Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

“Yellowstone is a wilderness filled with natural wonders that are also potential hazards. There is no guarantee of your safety. Regulations are strictly enforced to protect you and the park’s resources.”

My teenager is singing Sondheim’s “Everbody Says Don’t” as we drive from Yellowstone into Teton National Park and on the way pass numerous park signs on our attempt at a great but short American car trip; we each can hardly wait to get to the National Forest just a bit south to happily splash barefoot in the cool waters of the Hoback River (and irritating the nearby fly-fishermen, I admit) to get away from the crowds and to ‘engage’ with a Nature that feels accessible if not actually relevant, rather than this ‘do not touch’ experience of Nature protected in the national parks.

Image

Gratefully found and borrowed from Yellowstonegate http://www.yellowstonegate.com/2011/10/no-boiling-live-fish/

We are passing families breaking the rules, going off the trail to have their kids pose behind the Welcome to Yellowstone NP sign for the family photo op. They are clearly seeking the happy memory souvenir of their own childhood car trip images, but I notice these kids aren’t necessarily grinning on cue. It’s a rebellious lot, this generation, unwilling to preserve the image of a family car trip as my generation did with the requisite wave and grin. I ask my daughter if she, too, wants the photo op to memorialize our trip and she responds wryly that she could have seen Old Faithful on the cam web of the park website rather than watching people line up 6-deep on the boardwalk to watch the sploshes.

“And the hype!!,” she says with exasperation. She leaves the thought there as I wondered if it had been my hype or the park’s, or a larger, American hype of fondness over the car-trip to Nature in Yellowstone National Park to which she was referring.

Ah, Yellowtone. Hyped since 1872 to tourists, I note, remembering that this is Nature with tourism. Hyped to keep people not living near it valuing it in order that it be protected from private development by people, decade after decade; the road-access areas of the parks are a way in, an Ambassador of Nature to the public, for the millions of acres set aside that the public doesn’t normally see and therefore might not find relevant to their lives.  Hyped to keep it — Nature — in the game of the American mind or at least a relevant part of the discussion of ‘what is great about America’. Without the ambassador Nature become invisible; with the tourism, Nature stays in the picture, so to speak. Full circle.

The rules are necessary because we don’t know how to behave in Nature, from feeding animals truly wild (yes, it happened a day we were there, a preschooler pushed into the picture with the bison by goading parents wanting another photo op. It turned out okay, thanks to a park bus driver who yelled a warning) to taking a bath in the hot springs (a warning in the tourist information but thankfully no takers, so far this summer.)

We had sat on the veranda of the gracious old Old Faithful Inn, feeling the ghosts of turn-of-the-century tourists strolling about in hats and large skirts, as we waited the 88 min for Old Faithful geyser to blow. I was eying the out-the-door line for ice cream while my daughter wondered why it felt like Stonehenge where crowds of hundreds also stood 6-deep, all gazing with expectation and cameras at the ready, to one central spot. We wondered in retrospect what they were waiting for at Stonehenge; at least here was an action shot provided by Nature.

A woman from New York conversed with us on the porch, having spent 3-days-so-far on a bus from South Dakota, taking her elderly mother to see Yellowstone for once in her long life, we were told. “She could care less if she sees another geyser at this point,” the woman laughs with us. Indeed, the mother was inside eating lunch ignoring the ticking minutes to The Moment, and the daughter quipped the atmosphere around us felt like New Year’s Eve in Times Square, with the crowds and the waiting and then with pictures taken, the shuffle back home. “You always think, ‘I could have watched it on TV,'” she muses. But then anticipation rises in the gathering crowd with a small splosh from Old Faithful. “Do they at least sound a horn or something before it goes, so we know when to start taking pictures?” It was funny. Really funny. And it was so far from relevant to our daily lives; it was a good-time.

The magic and mystery of Nature that the 1800s tourists might have felt in this far-away-from-civilization wilderness seemed gone. Knowing now Old Faithful  is part of a system of a giant underground caldera that is predicted to, someday any day now, make my home of the Rocky Mountains West a geologic memory, the watching of it suddenly felt a bit like knowing too much. It felt suddenly akin to what the required sex ed class does to the romantic notion of “bff love” in middle school, at once fascinating and vaguely unsettling.

Is magic and mystery needed to make Nature more relevant to us?

I wanted to make a last effort to engage daughter with the Nature behind the zoo-i-ness of the park before we left the boundary, the Nature that is just behind the signs and the rules, the Nature that is at once protected but also wilderness and a very wild home of grizzly bear, moose, elk, wolves, is out of man’s control, and is the last, the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states. But these are just facts and facts don’t engage the soul or the senses.

I asked her to ‘just for fun’ connect to what it would feel like if she saw the beauty of the wilds in the park as what some call “God’s handiwork” or “the face of God”, or as with Native American culture, for her to try out seeing God(s) in the many facets of Nature that are around every curve in this beautiful, protected wild area. I asked her to use her imagination . . . and her heart.

She was quiet for a time.

I wondered for a moment where such a crazy idea came from in me, and then I heard the voice of my own father saying in the tone of voice he reserved for reading great stories as we stood looking at the park when I was a little girl: “Man is just a visitor here . . .” he said mysteriously, as if the mountains were Val Halla, the land of the Gods, and we mere mortals had to be Heros to last in the wilds where God or Gods roamed.

“If you can’t create it, don’t destroy it,” he added often as we’d head to the Ranger talks under a sky full of stars.  This from a not obviously religious man who loved Nature and is a self-described “recovering Christian” as the result of a too-strict church-going childhood. When I was a child, he gave me the every-Sunday-morning choice (choose one) of driving through the beautiful mountains here in Colorado or going to church, as to him they were a similar destination: a place to connect with what man can’t create.

But the mystery, the engagement of the imagination, the teaching of the intangible, how is that communicated? From a sense of mystery about something so ineffable? From an expression of ‘value’ by a parent? Or equally the time spent splashing in creeks as we did, too, when I was a child; it was the ‘treat’ at the end of the day of driving or short hike. Or isn’t the transmission of ‘importance to me’ from parent to child also often grounds for rebellion rather than a kind-of-inherited reverence for that which is valued? What is it that provides the relevance and the connection?

I wondered if the woman from New York would take her wry humor, joy, laughter, endurance, and pictures, and in the power of telling the Story of her trip, suddenly feel the value of Nature, the relevance of the experience of Nature, to her New York life? And what of the tourists we saw from India, Asia and Europe — what connection did they take home with their pictures and their stories?

Whether my daughter was humoring her crazy mom with her moments of silent reflection, or connecting ‘for fun’ with a different view of Nature as sacred (or both), I’ll never know but I do know she’s a good, good kid willing to expand her heart and soul and give such nutty requests a faithful try. She knows the importance of imagination; it’s what makes life interesting and creative, magical, and yes, engaging.

“Yes,” she finally said quietly. “It is different. It’s so … really beautiful.”

And then with a turn of the bend of the Snake River, we were out of the park with the forested Hoback River waiting just 20 min beyond the human circus of Jackson’s Hole.

With wet legs and sighs of relief, we engaged for a time in a now very relevant Nature. Who cannot connect with clear cold mountain waters, the shade of spruce trees, and the fresh air of forest on an 85-degree day and hours of traffic and driving behind us?

Magic, mystery, reverence, imagination, and clear, cold water. Nature was returned to relevance from behind its protecting rules for a lovely hour or so. Now how to carry it home without pictures, if not in our souls? And a story to tell in the future.

 

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