Star Light, Star Bright

Opening the door and stepping onto the back deck on a clear, cold winter night feels like falling into a universe of stars for the first time – such is the wonder. While I am told that on the clearest night the eye beholds perhaps as many as 2,500 stars, I feel certain that there are tens of thousands of glittering jewels – all indistinguishable to my unaided sight. I am mesmerized by the gradual appearance of more and more layers.

Some years ago on a summer night I stood at the edge of a cabin porch, surrounded only by mountains on every side, and the pitch darkness that creates shivers of appreciation. I toasted the skies’ magnificence with a glass of wine. “Look,” I shouted a bit too loudly, “see the next whole layer appear.” My friend, thinking I was a bit knowledgeable about astronomy, got caught up in the excitement said, “The nextal layer? Where?”  The “nextal” layer drew me from awe to adulation.

I know enough to wonder at a light – several thousand pinpoints of light traveling through the vacuum of space at the speed of 186,000 miles per second for a span of at least four years. Some star bursts of energy have continued to shine for billions of years. I cannot begin to wrap my head around the power of light.

This winter night I pondered whether each point of light is as distinct as each snowflake, as nature has a propensity for diversification. Indeed, I read that the colors of Betelgeuse and Arcturus are cool red and Vegas burns a hot white. Astronomers have a range of color categories. There are varying degrees of brightness; the luminosity we see is dependent on the distance from us. The distinct size determines the giants and the super giants. And yet our eyes are trained to the sameness – it’s a star. Unless, of course, we are talking about Hollywood, and then the star is a standout.

Origin and design form the unity of the stars. At the core they are pulsing bodies creating energy, the results of the collapse of a nebula and dense heat that produces nuclear fusion. A new star is born. When stars explode as supernovas, dispersed elements release the building blocks of life through the universe – hydrogen, helium, carbon, calcium, iron, sodium, chloride, silicon… What is there about the twinkling star that doesn’t create wonder?

Diamond in the sky. Orion’s Belt. Big Dipper. Great Bear. Water Carrier. I can only make out the simplest patterns of constellations, but imagine the millions of tales told by sailors, settlers, wanderers, poets, mystics – trying to make meaning of the heavens. Light blankets our darkness with more than joy; stars emanate life. In this reality I discover a Divine plan.

The Universe stimulates the ‘zest for being’ and provides the nourishment which are transformed into Love of God.”

Teilhard de Chardin “My Universe”

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Song of the Evergreen

Fall has changed my landscape, taking my breath away. My words seem to disappear. I have been looking at the world through the end of a kaleidoscope, every slight turn, every new angle, producing a new vision. The trees, stripped bare, open my horizon. I stay inside on the days the thick veils of smoke from burning forest fill the air. Nature prophetically parallels the changing landscape taking place in society. In silence I let go of the chaos of thought, creating space for a new configuration.

As a child I was churched in liturgical seasons which I experience as divine revelation made visible in nature’s signs and symbols. This unfolding begins with advent, waiting for what is to come. Light diminishes, darkness moves in, but we wait with expectant hope for Love.

I was running late for church the first Sunday of Advent and reached the door just as the chanting began. “Wait for the Lord; be strong; take heart.” I was transfixed by this familiar and reassuring refrain. A large green wreathe stood in the center of the sanctuary; evergreen, the symbol of hope. Four candles, one light for each week of waiting. As a new flame is added, hope burns brighter.

On a Sunday afternoon hike  I found myself walking to the rhythm of that mantra. Be strong. Take heart. Hiking is a truly Zen experience for me. I can let go of every thought and awareness, moving forward one step at a time. When I pause to catch my breath, I look around me, reading the signs of nature, discovering its messages. More than once I have had the feeling of standing of holy ground, stepping into the universe’s cathedral. On this particular walk, I right away saw the thick trunks of trees wrapped in braided vines, tall hardwoods, pillars creating a firm foundation. Ferns spread on the ground like green altar cloths. The evergreens stood out, a new stand of pines relishing in the possibility that through the winter, the light would make its way into the usually dark forest and they would grow!

Each of us has our own way of making sense, finding meaning, expressing understanding. The signs and symbols speak to me; from the sights, sounds, and touch I draw courage, not a lasting supply, but enough to get me from one week to the next. I am going to envelope myself with this season, using the time to reflect on past, present, and future. I know a seed is being nourished in the darkness and trust that in time I will emerge with the light, finding new answers to old questions. What does Love compel me to do?

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An August Appreciative Gaze

Appreciate gaze. That’s the phrase that settled in my mind’s eye this week. Late August and the cultivated butterfly bushes, cone flowers, daisies, and their wildflower companions are browning, returning to seed. I welcome the cool breezes that have broken through the dense heat waves of August this week, but I am not ready for the season’s change. I want to cling to the lift that summer’s colors cast on my day, the ritual of stopping to admire my neighbors’ gardens on our evening walks, standing with amazement at the nature’s display.

Somewhere along my writing way I copied a prayer in my journey notes without acknowledging the author. “Bless God bless; the whole world bless; quietly through the night; gently through the day; each and every creature you meet along the way. Bless God bless.” Just saying the words expands my delight.

Ronald Rohlheiser in Sacred Fire writes that we cannot give ourselves the blessings we need, but we can bless others and our heart will experience the exuberance that makes us say “God, it feels good to be alive.” This is what I learn from the summer’s profusion of color – to bless is to take delight in; to cast an appreciative gaze.

Mid-June when the stress of a move began to dissipate, I entered into the summer’s landscape with the intention of attending to the details I often miss because I am blinded by busyness. I discover a wealth of blessings when I delight in profusion of purples or stars forming constellation in the center of a flowering stalk. Nature instructs me and though I’m not a wildflower or garden perennial, I know what it feels like to be blessed with an appreciative glance. When another sees me, acknowledges my presence, I grow into a fuller sense of my place in the world – just as I am. How can I make a return for this goodness – I too can bless those who come my way with an appreciative gaze.

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Butterfly Feast

Just after my noontime lunch, I sit on the porch with a glass of peach tea, hoping for a sacred pause in a day that moves quickly from beginning to end. Hanging pots of pink and purple flowers, freshly watered, attract butterflies looking for what they want most out of life – a taste of heaven.

Butterfly sips sweet
nectar, delicate wings fold,
poised to return thanks.

No bells call you to
worship. Only the delight
nature freely gives.

One fleeting moment,
my heart stills, beholding this
eucharistic feast.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac tells us that butterflies and flowers were made for each other and that, as other poets pointed out, “butterflies are flying flowers, and flowers are tethered butterflies.” Such is the communion of nature.

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Moon at High Noon

Science is not my forte, but a little bit of knowledge mixed with awe can realign my world. I have come to appreciate the power of observation, which seems to be an essential dimension of a scientific approach. When I create the time and space to pay attention to the world outside my usual frame of reference, I experience mystery and a question eventually emerges.

I’ve been moon watching. Four weeks ago my granddaughter and I sat for the first time on my new mountain-view deck and observed the waxing crescent moon hanging close to Jupiter just after sunset. The June moon was just four days old. We shared the excitement of being amateur backyard astronomers. For the next few nights the moon appeared a bit later, a bit fuller, and bit more to the east. We discovered that thin crescent first day moon we spied in the west was not rising, it was setting.

When my grand-joy returned home, I kept scanning the night sky to feel our connection and realized that without a moon chart, I could not quite predict just where and when it would appear. I began waiting and watching for the arrival of the full moon which would coincide with the June 20 solstice. The night of the solstice I drove to the top of our mountain road to see the bright strawberry moon and offer my gratitude for its reassuring appearances.

I am not sure why “knowing” about the patterns of the orbiting moon helps my appreciating, but I think it is about my becoming a more attentive participant in the mysteries of the universe. Reading the stargazer’s footnotes, I discovered that the convex, protruding moon that later appeared was called the waning gibbous moon, and I already knew that the light would eventually disappear from my night view.

I have been measuring the first month of my transition to a new location in incremental steps of rising and setting moments, at times feeling like I am spinning in the same place. The moon has been a signifier that in nature’s pattern, I can predict the appearance of light in darkness. My aha awareness increased near the end of the month. Sitting on the same deck peering into the midday sky, I unexpectedly saw the moon at high noon; light upon light. Who looks for a sign of constancy when the day is bright? Who celebrates such an appearance?

My vantage point changes, but the predictable sky companion does not. I have moved on my own orbital path this month, a bit further away from my grandchildren, but they are always in my universe. In fact the moon gives us a shared vantage point. In just a few days as we are standing on different grounds, looking from different angles, we can both sing “I see the moon and the moon sees me. God bless the moon and God bless me.” I like that thought.

If you are interested in moon gazing, this link provides a 12 month chart of the phases.

http://www.calendar-12.com/moon_phases/2016

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Mountain Dweller

I can condense the description of my natural world context into two sentences. Born near the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, my soul stirs with the sun, sand, and salted waves. Wandering in the Blue Ridge Mountains, hiking a path one footstep at a time, my spirit soars. For the past 32 years I have flourished in a location where I could easily access both.  However, my busy years of doing are slowly being transformed into a desire to find peace and satisfaction in just being in the here and now.  I have experienced a repeated nudge to attend to the inner life of the spirit, my mountain way of being.

In World Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions Huston Smith writes that the differences in human nature call for a variety of paths towards life’s fulfillment. Just as Christianity examines the changing landscapes of spiritual life that intersect with human growth, Hinduism describes different stages of life that call for their own agendas. In the second half of life – defined as the time that grandchildren arrive – individuals may claim the license of age, withdrawing from obligations shouldered during earlier years. Huston summarizes the Hindu principle of this later stage in life. “Relief is in order lest life ends before we understand it.”

I find that in western culture it takes a certain courage and determination to claim these years for spiritual adventuring which Hindus refer as the time of the forest dweller. In reflection I am quite certain I am both interpreting and simplifying the Hindu world. However, Smith notes that forest dwellers are working a philosophy into a way of life, pulling up stakes unless things continue as they always have. He writes that in time one becomes inner directed to the point where it doesn’t matter where you are – market place, farming village, forest, or mountain, one reenters the world a different person, a truer self.

In these past months of labor and silence I have been furiously examining, evaluating, packing up the elements of my past life, honoring the memories and simplifying the possessions, yielding to a draw to quiet solitude that is just a breath away from vibrant community. I have learned much about our ultimate dying in the process, for letting go requires immense effort, the support of community, the embrace of multiple losses and the courage to trust in possibility. For months I have been making arrangements. Now I am embracing new life as a mountain dweller. How about that!

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Taking Another Look

In A Whole New Life, Reynolds Price describes returning to New York City for the first time confined to a life in wheelchair and gaining a new eye level perspective of those who lived on the streets. Listening to Price recount this story in 1994 at a book reading was a pivotal moment that left a sensitive mark in my own awareness – there are so many ways to see the world. To see through new eyes, to understand a new perspective is not only a privilege but an essential view of a world marked with diversity.

I spent just such an eye-opening day during spring break with my granddaughter. The day began in her back yard where we visited the world of inch-worms dangling from threads, doing pushups on the stone path, or inching their way along every visible surface. “Look here,” she says, “this one is posing for a picture. Did you know that male inchworms have black stripes?” I could hardly stifle my response, “How about that!”

When she took my hand to help me across the street for an excursion in the neighborhood park, I knew I was a very special somebody about to be introduced to marvels I would otherwise miss in my “push through, get it done” approach to life. She pointed out blue-faced forget me nots, the polished yellow gold of buttercups, fields of violets, and first appearances of dandelions, along with numerous tiny white, pink, or purples flecks of wildflowers smaller than her petite fingertip.

We collected specimens for further viewing in plastic baggies – lichen and bark scraped from fallen limbs, new sprouts of wild green onions, variegated flower petals falling from shrubs and trees. But we left the moss in place for it “would take another decade for even the smallest patch to be replaced.”

We ended the excursion in a field of clover, looking for the lucky four-leafed specimens, making clover-chain crowns and necklaces. She picked a small bunch of wildflowers to carry home, but not before spontaneously thanking Mother Nature for providing us with these gifts. What wonder to see through the eyes of a child, to celebrate the richness of a splendidly diverse world, to take a walk in slow-motion with no other agenda than to discover the hidden beauties I could so easily overlook.

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