Thin Places

In January my husband and I spent 3 weeks travelling the back roads of New Mexico. They call it the Land Of Enchantment.

There are old souls in the ancient ruins, in the crumbling, rust-coloured cliffs, in the canyons and empty plains where we saw elk and wild horses.
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One day I was standing on an outlook near White Rock with the Rio Grande a thousand feet below. You could see for a hundred miles.

I have never experienced such stillness. The air seemed to vibrate with it.

I thought I heard something. Not a sound exactly. Almost a sigh. I followed it to the lip of the canyon.

There was no wind and no movement in the trees. But there was a presence. And it was something I recognized.

Time dissolved. I felt a sense of absolute peace and belonging. And I knew I had found a Thin Place.

New Mexico is known for them, but the term originated in Ireland. The Celts believed that heaven and earth are only 3 feet apart. In Thin Places, they are almost touching.

There are Thin Places all over the world: Italy, Istanbul, Nepal, the Amazon, the American Southwest. They are considered to be sacred sites, and people make pilgrimages to them hoping for spiritual transformation or miracles.

Some are hoping to stand on the threshold of heaven and glimpse the face of God.

No one has come up with a satisfactory explanation for Thin Places. Psychologists have tried, physicists and Earth scientists have tried.

Theologians have tried for centuries but lost their argument when it was discovered that both the faithless and the devout can be transported by the near presence of the divine.

Poets probably come the closest to articulating the mystery of Thin Places. But it always breaks down in the same place. The ineffable can’t be put into words.

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I’m happy to leave it at that. We all need to get bumped out of our orbit now and then. A dose of the inexplicable reminds us that we don’t really know much of anything. It opens the flaps of our minds.

You don’t have to be a saint or a psychic to experience Thin Places. You just have to be still.

There are Thin Places everywhere. In own back yards. In a pot of crocuses on the windowsill. In a winter sunset while you are waiting for a traffic light to change. Or in the morning when you are standing at the kitchen sink with a cup of coffee and the rest of the house is still asleep.

You’re not thinking about anything. Your mind is empty, and you are still.

You feel a sort of shimmer. Something opens inside you, and for a moment you are filled with a wordless wonder. You know that you are in the presence of something vast and eternal, and that you are part of it.

Heaven is never far from earth. That is the divine mystery of Thin Places. They take us joyously out of our depth, and remind us of where we belong in the great family of things.IMG_1124-1

It’s a recognition of kinship. Human beings share DNA with every living thing on Earth. We are all part of everything. Part feather, part tree, part bone.

That is the daily miracle of our lives. That is what saves us.

As for the sound I heard at the top of the canyon, perhaps it was the whisper of old souls. Perhaps it was the Universe breathing.

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Paris, Baghdad, Beirut

Recent terrorist attacks in three cities have left many of us overwhelmed by rage and despair. We are fearful of repercussions on the innocent, and of the world spiralling into darkness. We can’t choose our feelings, but we can choose what to do next.

Feasting on hopelessness and negativity won’t help. Dropping more bombs won’t help. Closing our borders, our minds, and our hearts won’t help.

What helps is connecting. We have to unglue ourselves from Facebook and Twitter. Go outside and be with people. Look at them. Say hello to strangers. Cherish our kids. Show them what love can do. Forgive someone. Notice beauty. Laugh! Join the Refugee Support Project and welcome the Syrian family that our community is sponsoring.

Do what’s right in front of you. Feed the homeless. Adopt a stray. Give all you can to the helpers, the healers, the creators and peacemakers. Because every time you do, it makes a tiny pinprick of light. And this is what happens ……

Safe Journey

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It’s a gift to share someone’s journey towards death.

I was sitting outside eating a piece of toast at around 2:00 this morning.

The night is a private place. A current of air passed my cheek like a breath. The moisture falling through the trees touched my skin and hair. I sat in the sentient darkness, and I could hear the distant, restless murmur of the sea. The night was so still I could almost feel the beating of its heart.

Then I began to pick up other night sounds. A shuffling of feathers as a bird wakened briefly and settled itself again. A fruit bat snapping up the moths fluttering at the curtained window where I’d left the bedroom light on. Something rustled in the underbrush. Probably a raccoon eating the orange I’d cut up and put on a log by the compost.

IMG_2448-1I looked up and saw the moon through a break in the trees. I thought about a friend who is waiting for an operation, and another friend who is dying.

I said goodbye to John yesterday. This morning he was transferred to a palliative care facility on the mainland. As I walked over to his house, I prayed that I would find the right words to say.

He was sleeping when I got there. I spent a couple of hours with him while he dozed. When he woke, he was immediately lucid. We talked, mostly about old movies and books, and he’d come up with a title or the name of a character while I was still groping around in what passes for my long-term memory.

IMG_9728-Edit-1His physical form is a shell, paper thin and almost translucent. It reminds me of my grandmother’s teacups that came from China. They are called bodiless ware or eggshell porcelain, and if you hold them up to the light, you can see through them.

Most of the time, John hovers between waking and sleeping. I see no signs of pain or struggle in his face. He lingers peacefully in that tenuous borderland where birth and death are scarcely a breath apart. Not a place of darkness but of light and continuous, joyous renewal.

It’s a gift to share someone’s journey towards death. To watch them move closer to the Source where all life begins and to which it returns. In the presence of such great mystery, I am filled with something that’s close to reverence.

John asks if I brought him a smoothie, and I take it out of the fridge. He wants to know what kind it is, and I tell him to guess.

He savours it with closed eyes imitating an oenologist. “Strawberry-mango,” he says.

“Bingo!” He never gets it wrong.

He tells me he wants chocolate in the next one. “Chocolate with raspberries.”

I promise him a chocolate-raspberry smoothie that there won’t be time to make. The ambulance is picking him up first thing in the morning.

I hear a car in the driveway. It’s time to say goodbye. I was hoping to come up with something deep and illuminating. “I love you,” I say, and it sounds about right.

“Love you,” John replies, and the thing has completed itself.

In the end, it’s love that matters. It’s what the Universe is made of and why we are here. To love and be loved. Without that, your net worth doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

IMG_0233-1I kiss John’s forehead and whisper, “Safe journey.” He closes his eyes and smiles. I let go of his hand.

Walking home, I hear an osprey circling overhead. I hope that John can hear it too.

John

Morning Pasture

I want to say to God, is this your idea of a plan, because it sucks.

We are told that God has a plan. I have a plan too, and mine’s better.

My plan is that my friend John won’t die.

This time last year he and his wife were in Tuscany. I imagine them driving through the hilly countryside with red poppies growing in the ditches beside the road, and wild iris in bloom between the rows of olive trees.

Last winter John caught the flu, which turned into pneumonia. He couldn’t shake it off. He continued to have difficulty breathing, and in January he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.

By the end of March, the smallest effort exhausts him. He is skeletal. When I put my arms around him, I’m afraid something will break. He has no future beyond the next breath.

Just about everything is wrong with this. I want to say to God, is this your idea of a plan, because it sucks. I suggest a few alternatives such as people not getting sick in the first place. Or only hateful people getting sick.

John’s body shrinks. I take his hand, and it is nearly weightless. It reminds me of picking up a bird that’s hit the window. I am surprised by its warmth. His bones are so fragile. I can see the joints of fingers, hand, and wrist, and all the intricate connections beneath the skin. The beauty of it takes my breath away.

There’s a fierce vitality in his eyes as if his life force is concentrated in two points of light. Soul-light. Reaching through him, spreading radiance. It’s travelled light years.

IMG_4372-1Meanwhile, my nectarine tree sheds pink blossoms on the windowsill. A goldfinch embroiders the air with song. Meanwhile, hepaticas open. Diane helps her lambs to get born. A friend’s cancer has stopped growing, and John is still breathing. It’s enough.

Everywhere there is mercy. He is hooked up to an oxygen generator.

The community quietly forms a network of love around him. A neighbour chops wood every day and fills the log cradle next to the stove. Someone prunes the apple trees, hangs a door, does the shopping. People bring food.

For now we do whatever can be done with love, and soup, and chocolate. We listen with our hearts. John talks about getting better. We don’t look away.

We take him books. When he can’t hold them up anymore, we will go and read to him. We’ll tell him whose baby has started walking and who’s bought a new truck. Who has left the island, who has come back. What the price of gas is. There’s a new cook at the pub.

Meanwhile, we sit with him and watch him leaving us with every breath. His lungs are matted with fibroids. We sit with our grief and discomfort, and our desire to run away from this, just to reassure ourselves that we are still alive.

But we don’t because this isn’t about us and our common human aversion to being confronted with sickness and death. This isn’t even about sickness and death. It’s about love. So much of it is getting passed back and forth, it’s like fairy dust, bright particles suspended in the air.

It touches all of us in our net of magic that we’ve woven Brown Cowaround our friend. Some of it escapes and drifts away. It’s carried on the wind and the backs of birds. Over trees, across fields and fences until it settles on other people, and possibly sheep and cows.

We love, we grieve, and we agree to be broken. Somehow we are made better by this.
Maybe that was the plan.

Three Kinds Of Magic

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“It is the small deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay …. small acts of kindness and love.” Gandalf

Yesterday I received a petition about a lion cub that was being starved in order to keep him small enough so that circus goers could pose with him for cute selfies. Every 20 minutes an African elephant is killed for its tusks. Pesticides are destroying the world population of honey bees, and terrorists continue to commit acts of numbing horror.

Some days the terribleness of what we do to each other, to our fellow creatures, and to the environment is so overwhelming that the weight of it almost pulls you under. On those days I have a hard time convincing myself to get out of bed.

I think the only person who has any hope of saving us is Dr. Who, but I’m not sure he’d consider us worth saving. I wouldn’t blame him.

How on earth can we heal all this suffering? Are we going to pursue the path of our own destruction until all that’s left is a couple of mutant viruses, a grotesque species of giant cockroach with 3 heads, and a wrecked planet limping around the sun until the light finally goes out?

Before this train of thought leaps off the rails and I’m tempted to end it all with a chocolate overdose, something shifts, and I catch myself sitting on the kitchen floor with a batch of brownies that I’ve fished out of the freezer and 3 bars of Green & Black’s organic dark chocolate. It’s guaranteed to contain a minimum of 85% cocoa solids. That’s the chocolate counterpart of Screech.*

At this point, I’m way beyond a hug and a cup of tea. What I need is Gandalf.

He said that it is the small deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay …. small acts of kindness and love. In other words, magic.

imageI decide to give my chocolate brownies to a neighbour. This will involve getting out of my pyjamas. Ten minutes later, I go out the back gate and cut through the woods.

That’s the second kind of magic. Some of our trees are hundreds of years old. Winter storms tear at them and break off huge branches, but they endure and endure. They are so deeply rooted in the certainty. I stand under them, and they always bring me to the same place. Peace.

When I get back, I decide to check on some geraniums that are over-wintering in the potting shed. It smells of earth and dried lavender. Planting something works another kind of magic. I bought trilliums last week for my woodland garden, and wild cyclamen with their tiny, orchid-shaped flowers that sometimes blossom in the snow. I turn over the soil and gently pat them into the ground.   image

I grieve for the lion cub and the elephants, and send cheques that are too small to save them. I sign another petition against Monsanto.

Tomorrow I will finish cleaning up my raised beds and plant carrots and sweet peas. I will feed the birds, put up the bee house, and wait for the light to come back. It always does, and things will start to grow again.

* Screech is a lethal alcoholic beverage for which Newfoundland is famous.

LOVE, AURAS, AND THE WEATHER REPORT

Rainy DaysAround here, precipitation has killed far more marriages than infidelity.

The first time I went to a local reiki practitioner, she told me that my husband has a golden aura. Mine was a sort of muddy brown at the time. The colour at the bottom of your coffee cup when you get home from work and find it sitting on the kitchen counter.

But Greg radiates goodness. It’s the first thing I noticed about him. His face is lit up by some sort of inner sun. He’s like the weather in Bali. A treat to live with.

The sight of him makes me smile. If I run into him unexpectedly, it fills me with irrepressible delight. I’d wag my tail if I could.

Greg is known as a natural problem solver. He fixes computers, bicycles, and remote control devices. He once fixed the satellite dish at a public television station.

If something isn’t working properly, I take it very personally. My first impulse is to throw it. This rarely helps, and it has resulted in a number of shattered iPad screens. To cut the cost of repairs, when Greg senses my temper rising, he gently takes the iPad out of my hands.

Edging Toward TomorrowYou need a compatible relationship in order to live on this island. You also have to be able to handle the weather. We get a lot of it here. Violent storms, fog, rain that lasts for months. It’s the rain that gets most people. Around here, precipitation has killed more marriages than infidelity.

We get more kinds of rain than you would have thought possible. Environment Canada has a special thesaurus just for rain. Light rain, periods of rain, steady rain, rain mixed with snow, showers, a few showers, drizzle.

There’s an important distinction between a few showers and drizzle. With a few showers, you might be able to go outside for half an hour without getting wet. With drizzle you can’t.

If the rain looks really bad, Environment Canada pluralizes it: Heavy rains, torrential rains, damaging rains. That’s the one to look out for. It means flooding, mudslides, trees and power lines coming down. For some people this is serious. It blocks the only road to the liquor store.

In the city, the weather is mostly in the background. Here it gets in your face. The power frequently goes out during the winter. At first we panicked. Then we bought a generator. Now we hold Power’s Out Potlucks.

Charlie in the SnowWhen it comes to the weather, unlike problem-solving, Greg and I have equal equanimity. If it’s sunny, we run outside with the dog. If it’s snowing, we run outside with the dog. If it’s raining we run outside but more slowly. The dog has to be dragged.

We love mist and fog. We go for walks and Greg takes pictures of it. He also takes pictures of lightening and snowfall, a curtain of rain moving across the water, a triple rainbow after a summer storm.

If the weather is really pissy, we opt for cocooning. Even before the power goes out, we stoke up the fire, light candles, and make a nest in the sunroom. Sometimes these are the best days. We set a pot of soup on the back burner to simmer. We let life and the weather take its course.

It’s taught us something. What we can’t control, for example everything. What we can do without. Running water, Facebook, television. And what we can do with. With acceptance, with patience, with a creative imagination. And most importantly, with love. The smallest amount, and like a candle in a dark room, it spreads light.

Spring BlossomsA spiritual teacher said that it doesn’t matter what you love, only that you love. Your garden. Your friends. Your cat. Your neighbour’s cat. People who are sad, or sick, or lonely. The courageous, the honest, the homeless, the ones who have hope, and the ones without hope on this suffering, broken planet.

We aren’t cut off from the world on this tiny island. If anything we feel more connected. To all our fellow creatures. There is no outside world. There’s just Our World.

Perhaps the island has helped us or healed us. It has certainly changed us. For one thing, my aura’s a much better colour.

Dear CSIS

Is it possible to order lattes in jail?

There’s been an acrimonious debate going on in Ottawa about Bill C-51, Stephen Harper’s so-called Anti-Terrorism Bill, which looks the tiniest bit like an Anti-The WebEnvironmentalism Bill. Also Anti-Democracy, Anti-Transparency, and Anti-Accountability ….. but perhaps I am being picky.

Coincidentally — or not — there was a disturbing story in The Globe And Mail recently about the RCMP investigating anti-petroleum organizations.

I know it’s only a matter of time before I am preventatively arrested, so I have prepared a letter of confession. I don’t write well under pressure, and I would hate to be thought inarticulate.

Dear CSIS:

To make your job easier, I am turning myself in.

I belong to a number of environmental organizations, at least 2 of which are blatantly anti-petroleum. I have attached their names, as well as a list of the petitions I have signed and my borrowing record from the library for the past 10 years.

I have also written several humorous articles criticizing Mr. Harper and the petroleum industry, which I will be posting on my blog. Please see Appendix A.

To date I have not committed any acts of civil disobedience. But I am contemplating several, so it might save time if you just arrest me now. I may not come quietly; I rarely do.

But once incarcerated, I will be very little trouble as most of my friends will be in jail too. We will probably form a book club and teach people how to knit.

You will find my contact information below. Have a nice day.

Sincerely,
Susan Hamilton

PS I took an elective in Comparative Religion as an undergraduate at UBC in 1968. You might want to look into that too.

PPS Is it possible to order lattes in jail? SH