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Pay Attention


I started this series of watercolor Southeastern Wildflower Postcards last year, and with spring in the air and blooms popping up here and there, the painting bug bit me, which is awesome.  I do random little paintings and I also keep a nature journal.  These are from photos taken by me and by my naturalist friends, and I think in the case of all three of these they are done from photos by my friend Don Hunter.

Here’s why I love drawing and painting things in nature:  you notice things.  As an example, I noticed that the veining on these tiny common blue violet flowers (Viola sororia) is the same as the veining on the leaves, which makes perfect sense of course.  I noticed that it looked a LOT more like a violet when I added the scalloped edge to the leaves.  And I noticed that Inktense watercolor pencils are splendid.

This was my meditation this morning.  I put on groovy meditation music, which not only facilitates the right-brain shift that makes art so much easier, but once you’re there, you’re meditating.  And it’s different than sitting with a mantra or some other focus… youre noticing, in a way you don’t tend to see all the time, unless you are making art on a regular basis.  Then you tend to see that way all the time, or at least much of the time.

kayak canehollow 3.20.17

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
— Heraclitus

Russ and I went kayaking this afternoon, the maiden voyage for 2017.  Rivers seem like a theme today.  I found a lovely river meditation that I want to try in which you ARE the river, surrendering to the course.  I’m looking forward to trying it.

Russ was getting frustrated with the wind, the current, everything. I told him I’d paddle, just chill. We passed a little waterfall and stopped paddling and just listened to the laughter of it. Then we started noticing a heron following us along the bank, a beaver dam along the water, the chill the evening wind was carrying as it whispered through the newly budded trees.

On the way home I asked if he had fun and he said he’d had a hard time relaxing but once he did, it was fun. You can paddle and paddle up the river of life, cursing everything along the way, striving, feeling like you’re getting nowhere and everything is against you. But the minute you stop and get quiet and notice things… sounds you’d been ignoring, the beautiful thing right under your nose, the sensations in your own body, the glory of the sky… well, it changes everything.

I listened to an On Being podcast (my favorite) this week with Gordon Hempton, an “acoustic ecologist” who mourned the loss of quiet places in the world.  I’m going to send you there to listen to it.  In it, Hempton walked listeners through a journey into a rainforest, accompanied by his own recordings of the sounds you’d hear there, and it’s pure magic.
These things — meditation, spending time in the quiet places in nature, being with horses, making art — are training to do just that:  slow down and notice.


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Going Gentle

Dink Magoo 0504a
Magoo with his best friend, Dink, two years ago

My cat Magoo is dying of probable cancer.  He is so weak, fading away before my eyes.  Last night I lay on the office couch (his preferred spot) with him, crying.  So many people have said, “Noooo, not Magoo.  He is the best cat.”  To know him is to love him, even if you’re not a cat person.  Everyone is a Magoo person.

So I will take care of him and pray for the miracle I guess I have expected.  He told me a few days ago that he was dying, but I wasn’t ready for it and I pretended I didn’t hear it.  No, my spirit said.  He didn’t argue, that’s not his style.  But I took him to the vet yesterday and I can’t be in denial anymore.  I was worried I’d lose him overnight, while he was alone.  I don’t want him to be alone.

Why is that?  Why do we fear being alone at the moment of death?  Is it something everyone fears?  I didn’t realize feared it until just now.  The reason I was so insistent on being with my old dog Rascal for his surgery is because, if he died, I did not want him to die alone, without someone he knows there.  Surely this is some sort of projection of my own fears onto them.

I have always believed that the animals in our lives teach us about life and death.  I have always thought that it’s good for kids to have pets so that they understand this process before the time comes when they must face the death of a beloved human.  And each creature I have loved teaches me some new thing or things.  We can see the whole of their life spans; in Magoo’s case, truly the whole.  He slid into the world under my desk 15 years ago when I was fostering his mama.  I was 31, and I think he was the first creature I had ever seen born (not counting my own son, because I was hardly watching that), the first of his litter of five, his eyes squinted shut and his ears pasted to his head, which looked gigantic on his tiny kitten body (thus his name).  I have never believed in breeding animals just so your children can “witness the miracle of life,” but I was grateful for this opportunity for my son to see it.  I think it’s important for human children to see life begin and end, and not be shielded from either.  Is it callous to say, get your kid a goldfish, because he needs to see it die?

But we do.  We need to know that death is a sad thing, but not a fearsome thing.  Loving a thing that dies creates a call in your spirit, an opportunity to grapple with questions we didn’t know we were asking.  Like, why am I afraid of being alone at the moment of my death?

I always said Magoo was a Zen master.  When Otto was small he would crouch, butt-end wiggling, getting ready to pounce on then seven-year-old Magoo, who was sitting, dozing (meditating?) in the sunshine with his eyes closed.  And eventually the kitten would work his wiggle into a pounce, and Magoo would lift a paw and bat him down while not seeming to move a muscle otherwise.  He is the ultimate Taoist, yin and yang in his fur, going with the flow of life and enjoying it all along the way, loving and offering love at every opportunity, making every friend he can gather.  Nothing really rattles him.

He meets the end of life with the same equanimity.  He never read Dylan Thomas.  He knows that his words (meows?) don’t need to have ever “forked lightning.”  It is enough to be, and to have been, and to love, and to have been loved.

We humans want to make our indelible mark on the world.  We want to have children so that something of us survives.  We want to create things, knowing we are brief, looking for something to outlive us.  But nothing we can do while here will mark ineffaceably the time we spent here in this body.  The epochs are inexorable and even Oyzmandias falls, his features erased by the sands of time.

But our spirits endure.  Each moment I am alive, I am sending my spirit out to make a connection.  What I create on paper or stone may not last forever in its own right, but if for the briefest moment it, or a word I said, or a gesture I made, made someone else feel less alone, then that spark of memory will come around again.  I do not have to wait for death to be reborn.  All I have to do is, like Magoo, send my love and my light out into the world.  I cannot know where it connects, flickers, becomes something new where it joins the light another creature is sending into the world, but I do know this: where those flickers are, there is no darkness, and we are never alone.


My good friend Ric Finch told me that this post is incomplete, that I should tell the story of Magoo’s final hours, which happened after I wrote this.

Magoo had a fan club.  The last two days, half a dozen people came to see him, and he said goodbye to each one, sitting in their lap, his bones jutting out.  I think it was important to him, the goodbyes.  I think he was waiting until he’d said them before he was ready to go.

He had a rough go of it the morning of the last day and I started fearing that I’d made the wrong decision, that I should have taken him to the vet for assistance in the passing.  But I should’ve trusted him and me, that I’d made the right decision.  I think I did.

He grew weaker and weaker throughout the day and I finally put him in a little box next to my desk so he could be beside me as I worked.  Throughout the day all of my other animals came and paid him respects, checking on him as he slipped away.  And I was there at that moment, the same as I was there the moment he came into the world.  My hands were on him as he took his last breath and he did go gently, peacefully, at home, surrounded by love.

After he had passed, we sat in the room with him in a little wake of sorts, talking about what an amazing cat he was.   Otto, Magoo’s protege, came and moved aside the towel covering Magoo so he could look at him and say a final goodbye.

Otto grieved with me for weeks afterwards.  I was sitting one morning, journaling and crying, and Otto came to me and curled up in the space between my body and my journal as I wrote, with his comforting purrs.  “I guess you’re the wise old cat now,” I told him.  He head butted my cheek.  “I guess I am.”

How ironic it is that nonhuman creatures can teach us so much about what it is to be human.