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.

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.

Repose

Winter Fog

You don’t have to live on a small island to discover that winter is a journey.

So much for spring. The weather closed in last night, and when we got up this morning, the island was muffled in clouds. We feel disoriented, as if we’ve been set adrift.

We love the winter months. The soft greens and greys, and the deep silence. All you can hear is the rain hitting the skylights and the thrum, thrum of a freighter passing somewhere in the fog.

It’s a time for solitude and reflection. For allowing your mind to settle and your brain parts to stop randomly jumping around. Besides, there isn’t a lot to do on a small island in the winter. We’re experts at cocooning.

My husband makes lattes and brings them into the sunroom. I’ve already made a nest on the love seat. There’s a fire in the wood stove, and we settle in.

I love the word repose. It means to remain still. There’s something graceful about repose. Unlike rest, which is something you do after surgery or childbirth.

Rest often means taking a break. Breaks are sharp-edged and grudging, taken with one eye on your watch.

What happens at a meeting when someone says, “Let’s take a break”?

Do people meditate, do yoga, or go stand under a tree? Do they talk to one another, listen, make eye contact? No, they take out their cell phones.

Most of the time, you take a break from doing one thing in order to do several other things for five minutes. It’s hard to find rest during a break.

Repose also means resting, but resting in stillness. The mind chatter gradually ceases. The knots loosen. All the jumpy circuitry stops firing every 3 seconds, and your brain waves slow to smooth swells.

Your mind is like a settling pond. When you are still, the mental garbage — which means most of what’s swirling around in your head — sinks to the bottom. The pond clears. What’s important can then start rising to the surface. Things your mind may have forgotten but your heart has not.

You can’t do this while multi-tasking. That’s why periods of repose are necessary.
What are you doing with your one irreplaceable life? How are you spending your precious time?

There would be fewer divorces and mid-life crises if people sat still once in awhile.

Wintering here isn’t for everyone. If you hate the rain and the days when it gets dark by four o’clock, you’re better off in Mexico or Arizona. If you stay here, you’ll probably start drinking.

A lot of people pack up after Christmas and leave for 3 months. The island seems deserted. But if you stay, along with the storms and power outages, you may find a poet, or an artist, or a pilgrim inside you.

Of course, you don’t have to be on an island to do this. You can be anywhere and and discover that winter is a journey.