The Fire Monkey’s Sermon

ganesha3

There is no cost to kindness.

There is no calculable worth to forgiveness.

There is no equivalent weight to love.

There is no purchasable happiness.

All of these are free for the taking, but are unattainable to us while we find ourselves unworthy.

2016 has been a trying year, but for me it has been one of tremendous awakening and transformation. The year of the Fire Monkey, in the Chinese Zodiac has been the year in which I finally emerged from my chrysalis and am striving toward the mountain with new, powerful wings and a joy in my heart that resounds like great drums.

One hears so much talk about mindfulness, meditation, living in the present and so many other wellness clichés that it becomes like snow, like background noise, present but meaningless.

Sure, once in a while a particularly stunning image in a meme will brings us to a halt long enough to digest the message that comes with it, and even more rarely that message resonates on the frequency where we feel things, where we truly experience things and then, for a moment, or an hour, or perhaps a day, we change. And if feels good, and we wonder how we can make sure that we feel this way all the time.

Then the feeling fades. We do not pursue it. We flirt around with the edges of it, but gradually it lessens in its impact, and then poof, it is gone.

That is not happening with me anymore. The feeling doesn’t fade, I have been living on this level of passionate intensity for about ten months now and if anything, it is gradually increasing.

I have a certain primal excitement within me that makes me feel like a child, but with an adult’s awareness. Each day holds some raw fascination, each thing that comes along is an invitation to adventure. I do not see warnings about winter storms as things to dread, instead, I curl up to watch, to experience, to immerse myself in what might be.

What changed?

I committed to an attempt at genuine mindfulness. I tried to slow down, actually read the memes, listen to the talks, examine the paths, and to listen to what others said, not so that I could respond, but to truly hear what they had to say.

I attempted to live in the moment as much as possible. I immersed myself in experiences, some as simple and small as a warm breeze on a chilly spring day, others more intense like the rolling, post storm surf under a cloudy sky in North Carolina.

I took time to breathe when people cut me off in traffic, I stopped to sit on the ground and pet the dogs and cats that crossed my path, I watched hawks and vultures soar and circle in the summer thermals and listened to the sparrows titter to one another at first light.

I lit candles around the house, as often as I could and burned good incense when the mood struck me. I meditated. Sometimes for thirty or forty minutes a day, sometimes guided and sometimes just sitting with my back to a tree, or the bricks of a building and let the world fuse into watercolors around me.

I loved with all that I have, I forgave old grudges, even ones against myself and I reached out and am still reaching out to old friends. I visited memories and examined them with a Sage’s eye and learned from them more about who I am. I visited places that I thought were lost to me and found pieces of myself there as well.

Gypsy and I began to re-follow old family traditions, we celebrated birthdays with the importance that they deserved and we let whimsy lead us to some breathtaking places, and gods, we laughed a lot this year.

We began to eat at home more, we grew herbs and vegetables in buckets on our back deck, we ate what we grew and we grew spiritually from our connection to the earth. We spent the second half of the summer and well into fall obsessed with a single beautiful Zinnia plant that arrived next to our parking space without human intervention. It sprang up from the mulch by the parking lot and over the course of four months, it gave us 16 blossoms, huge, beautiful and unexpected in its gift.

Gypsy too went and is continuing to go through her own awakening. Her photography has grown from brilliant to breathtaking in the year of the Fire Monkey and she had changed people’s lives with it, at least their perceptions of their own beauty. (Isn’t it odd, yet wonderful how sometimes it takes someone else showing it to us for us to see our own beauty?)

We stopped fearing the future, we stopped asking, “What are we going to do?” and started being excited about it and declaring, “This, this is what we are going to do.”

We joined an orchid society and immerse ourselves in the beauty of that once a month. We welcomed a handful of rescue animals into our lives and gave them the care, love and compassion that they needed and in return, they thrived for us and have become members of the family, or have moved on to brighten the lives of others.

We traveled as often as we could afford to, and sometimes traveled when we could not afford it, because we needed the road more than we needed other things. We visited her family, we visited our family and we gained new family as they months progressed and I never cease to be amazed how wonderful and kind some people can be. But that is, after all, the key to what I am talking about here. We all have the potential to be beautiful, kind, mindful, loving and loved.

But you cannot alter the world, except by altering yourself.

This year was far from perfect and we fell. We lamented. We lost. We cried. We raged. We felt unworthy and we lost our way more times than I can count. We struggled, I struggled and am struggling still but I am also hopeful, grateful and at peace with the process.

As each day passes, I pause as I walk through our home and I offer gratitude and honor to the gods that populate our space. I pause before the Morrigan, strong and fearless, and I offer her a candle and I stand a little straighter, knowing that she has prepared me to protect my family. I cradle the tiny white Mother Goddess in my hands and thank her for all that she has given me over the decades of my life. I give a nod and a smile to Sun Wukong, the monkey King, Equal of Heaven, Great and Holy. I thank him for my sense of humor, my relentless hunger for what is right and my ability to persevere. I give a moment to the Buddhas as they watch from the windowsills and book shelves, always high so that they can be seen and their lessons remembered. And lastly, I give thanks to Ganesha, I tell him of my gratitude for his help in bringing down the barriers that for so long held me in stasis.

Find someone, something to lean on, until you can rely on yourself. If I, who for so long lived in doubt, rage and suspicion can make this progression and transformation, then you have the potential. I promise you, it is better on this side.

I am by no means a guru, or a sage or a Buddhist master, but what I am is in love with the beautiful kaleidoscope of life and I am willing to help. I cannot ferry you over the river that lies in your path, but perhaps, if you are wanting and willing, I can help you learn to swim.

In Celebration of the Lizard King

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“Is everybody in?

Is everybody in?

Is everybody in?

The ceremony is about to begin.

The entertainment for this evening is not new, you’ve seen this entertainment through and through you have seen your birth, your life, your death….

you may recall all the rest.

Did you have a good world when you died?

  • enough to base a movie on??” ~ James Douglas Morrison

~

In a way, on this wintery edge of ritual, I am offering a prayer, I am offering a lament, I am burning candles in a dark room for my profane father on this, his seventy third birthday.

Jim Morrison came to me as a sort of inherited interest. My mother loved Jim. The liked The Doors but she obsessed over Morrison like no other person I ever saw her pay attention to. She collected facts, kept small journals full of notes, information, suppositions that she corrected over time.

She went so far to keep a small picture of him, taped to a thin piece of cardboard as a bookmark.

A couple of oddities about Morrison and me personally. I was born a month pre-mature exactly eight months after my mother got backstage at The Doors concert in Columbus Ohio.

After I discovered this fact as a teenager, any time The Doors would come on the radio within my father’s earshot, he would chuckle and say, “Your old man is on the radio.”

During my late teen years I bore a striking resemblance to Morrison. Does any of this mean that I believe myself to be Jim Morrison’s biological son? No. But in a way, he is most definitely my dad…

While I loved the music of the Doors as a teen, it wasn’t until I was nearly twenty five before his voice, his magic, his illness slipped into my bloodstream through my eager ears. I discovered a cd called An American Prayer on a shelf in a used record store and when the word POETRY glared at me from the cover, I knew that I had to dig into it and see what it held for me.

I bought it for a road trip, to listen to during a trip to New Orleans, a trip meant to drown out the sorrow in my head surrounding the death of my mother and how horribly I had fucked up the most amazing relationship that I could have ever had…

I was burning, I was lost, I was angry, terrified, drinking more whiskey than should have been possible and leaving myself vulnerable to any lightning bolt that had the guts to strike me down. I was ready to go out, but I was not going to fall easily, the world would have had to work for it.

But as I rolled down that grey Gypsy ribbon of highway, I slid that cd into the slot in the dash, listened to it him for a moment and then there was Jim’s voice asking, “Is everybody in?”

And he owned me.

From that moment until the cd ended some forty five minutes later with him uttering the lines

“I will not go

Prefer a Feast of Friends

To the Giant Family.”

His voice, honey and huskiness, soft and roaring, gentle and manic had ridden with me and through tears I could do nothing but re-start it and listen again. He was speaking of forbidden things, using words that made society tremble, still, twenty four years after his passing, he spoke to my gut, my raging sexuality, my bottomless pain now had a description and he had painted it with his tongue on the skin of a dark skinned Mexican girl that existed forever in the hotel room of my mind. A gift from my new lyrical father.

By the time my trip was over, I knew the album by heart, had purchased both of Morrison’s poetry books at a shop in NOLA and had already dog eared and stained them with tears, bourbon and chartreuse. I had a new voice curling in my void, it was sinuous and serpentine like smoke, but oily and smelled of male musk and by the time I put pen to paper again, I was forever changed.

Jim had seduced me, much has he had done hundreds, if not thousands of others, with his fingers on their throats and his teeth in their skins, he had growled his energy into me, thus ensuring his immortality perhaps, but without a doubt, marking me with his brand. I had been burned, I had been altered and it was not possible to hide it. I walked back into my life with a chip on my shoulder made of language and the arrogance of a fallen angel.

When he has screamed “WAKE UP!” I had done just that, and I have not slept since.

I ask you, I implore you, sacrifice yourself on this altar of silence and join me in wishing him, wishing Jim a happy 73rd birthday and I will finish with a quote about Morrison and one of his poems…

“Jim Morrison—it’s a strange story—that he drowned in a bathtub in Paris. It seems a Goddamned odd thing to happen. I never believed it for a minute.” – William S. Burroughs

jim-morrison-in-miami-1969

“Do you know how pale & wanton thrillful

comes death on a strange hour

unannounced, unplanned for

like a scaring over-friendly guest you’ve

brought to bed

Death makes angels of us all

& gives us wings

where we had shoulders

smooth as raven’s

claws” ~ Jim Morrison

Mailbox Dreaming

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It has barely had time enough to become December and the official arrival of winter is more than two weeks away, but spring began for me today with the arrival of the first seed catalog of the year.

I can barely contain my excitement!

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog was folded carefully into my mailbox this morning and the truth be told, they sent me two of them which is a boon because the Baker Creek catalog is beautiful, huge and worth keeping, so I have one to mark up with place markers, post it notes and bright pink pen stars indicating which seeds I want to buy for the coming year and one to keep pristine for future perusal and plotting.

I inherited my love for seed and plant catalogs from both of my parents. Dad received catalogs of bonsai, cacti and succulents on a regular basis and mother collected vegetable, herb and flower catalogs. I remember times when the biggest event of a given day was the arrival of a seed catalog and us gathering around the kitchen tablet to discuss what we were going to try and grow the coming spring.

It takes a certain kind of magic to the spirit to find fascination in shopping for nature. We are, if you think about it, pondering the creation of temporary biological Edens. This year I am already obsessed with trying to grow several kinds of Basil and Gypsy wants us to grow salad greens again! We found a type of super tiny bok choy that maxes out at about 2 inches tall. As we have no ground to plant in and do everything in containers, that one may be a possibility.

We spent over an hour flipping through the pages, marking and sharing as we went. A half dozen kinds of rare squash caught our eyes, tiny yellow tomatoes that grow like currents and get only as big as blueberries, an odd heirloom pepper that when mature looks like it has been engraved and a watermelon whose flesh is white and is supposed to be superbly sweet. We also marked Zinnias, Morning Glories and a gorgeous little flower called Butterfly Peas which can be used to make a delicate blue tea.

I am going to try and raise a type of small, white cucumber this year, grow it in a five gallon bucket and build rustic (translated as cheap) trellises out of sticks and twine. I love our container gardens, but gods, what I wouldn’t do for a quarter, even an eighth of an acre of good soil…

This year we had wonderful little successes with an heirloom variety of Crimean tomato what were red and dark green mottled and had a very earth, sweet taste to them and made wonderful Bruschetta topping. I also grew amazing little African Cherry Peppers and our one plant produced over forty peppers for the season. They were hot on a mild Jalapeno level and were spectacularly good stuffed with asiago and the roasted in olive oil.

We had an odd variety of mini banana peppers that though delicious, did not produce very much fruit and I think we may have harvested only six or seven of them and so they will be off of the list for next year.

I think next year is going to be all about the herbs, mini tomatoes and oddities like the aforementioned cucumbers.

For herbs I am thinking about growing them this year is sections of rain gutter attached to the support beams for our back deck. I have seen people growing strawberries overhead in rain gutters with amazing success and I thought herbs, grown at chest height for ease of care and harvesting would be ideal.

I once had a dear friend named Molly, who was in her 70’s and we met through a local gardening group when I lived in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Every year for Christmas (and my birthday if she remembered when it was) she would give me gift certificates to Burpee Seeds, and I always used them to purchase oddities, something I would normally not have bought for myself and through her and that habit, I found some varieties of vegetables that I confess to having an addiction to to this day.

I miss those little gift cards, but I miss Molly more. She was a curled up little apple doll of a woman who always seemed to have dirt on her hands, leaves in her hair and a smile on her face. We had been raised in different places, had different values, vastly different belief systems but once our conversation turned to the dirt and what sprang from it, we were family.

My friend Barb, an amazing author, knitter, kitty mama and all around awesome person is just as bad as I am! Or worse. She seldom ever comes to visit without seeds, seedlings, or plants that have appeared in her very green life. She not only keeps her own garden but has her hands in the dirt for several other people and places who are damned lucky to have her. I am hoping her catalog came today too so that we can compare notes.

Over the years I have given many plants, seeds, herbs and edibles as gifts for holidays and birthdays. I remember making candied violets one spring and gave them to a friend who was having a June wedding and she covered her wedding cake with them. I have some of those African peppers in the fridge right now, pickling in Balsamic vinegar along with some garlic cloves and mini onions, and I do apologize but that is ALL mine! You should smell it, it is enough to make you woozy with its sweet, spicy goodness!

I wish to grow grapes, full, heavy, glowing muscadines that I can eat off of the vine or make into wine as the mood strikes me. I want a garden heavy with harvest that will provide a tomato for a sandwich or fifty pounds of them to make sauce for the winter. I want small, delicious eggplants for moussaka or baba ganoush. I want peppers from so sugary sweet that you can’t do anything but eat them raw and ones that are so hot that they become the fodder or asinine games of who is toughest.

As I was telling Gypsy earlier, I want to have dinner parties (yes, you are all invited) where there is a menu that tells you what every vegetable and herb is and if you fall in love with one of them I want to send you home with seeds, or plants so that you can have it for yourself. That is one of my fondest dreams.

Come and sit with me my friends, in the garden of my fantasy. We will sit in the sun, with broad hats shading our eyes, we will sip too sweet tea with freshly crushed mint floating in it and listen to the thrum and hum of the bees working their bliss along the garden rows. Butterflies and moths like satin gemstones will flit around us as the dogs roll around in the tiny patch of grass that still remains.

On a small table will be a salt shaker and a bottle of olive oil and when the mood strikes us we can rise, pull off a tomato, cut it, dip it in oil and salt and let its juice drip from our chins as we drink in the taste of summer through its flesh.

We are fifteen days away from the first day of winter, and I am already dreaming of what comes next…

Take care of yourselves and each other…

They are not disposable

Yesterday Gypsy and I spent several hours cleaning the cages of our reptile family and taking time to interact with each of them along the way. It was a lot of work but at the end of it, it was also incredibly rewarding and though it left us tired and ready for bed, it also left us with a sense of almost Zen like calm.

During the day, during one of our breaks for tea, I was perusing my wall on Facebook and noticed that someone had posted a video from an animal shelter somewhere. The video showed a Belgian Malinois joyfully celebrating the return of the family that had surrendered it there, only to switch to the dog’s utter dejection when it turned out that having only given up the Malinois a few days before, they were apparently there to adopt a different dog.

I swallowed my anger, my building rage, the bitter feeling in my stomach, I closed Facebook, put some music on through Pandora and did not look at social media again until much, much later.

Let me start by saying that the Belgian Malinois is not for most people, in fact it isn’t even a dog suitable for a large minority. The Malinois is a creature of intelligence, great will, strength, stamina and the relentless pursuit of its job, and if you are not capable of giving it a job, it will find one and I almost guarantee you that you will not be pleased by the choice it makes.

So, the be all and end all is that this family, with their young children and busy schedules were not the right fit for that particular dog, but the time to find that out should have been BEFORE they purchased the dog, before they allowed it to fall in love and gain trust in the family and before they betrayed that trust by abandoning it at a shelter.

A ten minute internet search would have yielded a dozen stern warnings of what dogs like that are like and what the requirements are to keep them happy, safe and out of trouble. The information is available to anyone, but some people think that the rules don’t apply to them, or worse, they don’t care, because it is “just a dog”.

But it isn’t just a dog, just as our little rescued leopard gecko Simone is not just a lizard, or our beautiful rescued Columbian red tail Usnavi is not just a Boa, no, these are commitments, living creatures that once you purchase them, rely on you for their welfare.

Are you failing them?

About half of our reptiles are rescues. Rescues from all manner of circumstances, but the most common one, is that they have been abandoned. They were purchased with the idea that they were neat, a novelty, something trendy or out of the ordinary to have as a pet and with the market such that many exotic animals can be had for a song, they are easy to view as disposable.

But these are living, feeling, thinking creatures.

I am going to repeat that.

They are living.

Feeling.

Thinking creatures!

Let me hit you with some facts.

Ball pythons can live up to 30 years in captivity. As a matter of fact there is one documented male that is still living and thriving at 40.

Leopard geckos average 6-10 years but there is a male still living and breeding at 27.

Corn Snakes can easily live to nearly 20 years, some more than that.

Umbrella cockatoos can live 60 years and many large parrots can outlive us.

Sulcata tortoises average 50 to 150 years but can live much longer than that.

But all of these animals I have found available today on my local Craigslist.

So, they have been purchased, the shine has worn off and like a used car, an overplayed video game or an impulsive purchase like a purse or a motorcycle, the owners are now trying unload them and recoup some of their expense.

But for every one of the snakes, lizards, turtles, birds or what have you that ends up getting a second, third or fourth chance with different families, there are dozens, maybe hundreds that simply wither away, starving to death or dying of easily treated diseases because their owners didn’t want to spend money on vet bills.

And since snakes, lizards and what have you can be had so inexpensively, the attitude is that they are really not worth all that much, and so are by and large, disposable.

Life, isn’t disposable.

I am going to use one of my favorite kinds of animals as an example.

larry

This is a picture of me holding an sub-adult male Savannah Monitor (Varanus exanthematicus). This particular monitor belongs to a local pet store and his name is Larry. As you can see, Larry is puppy dog tame, very sweet, and handsome and has already been through three owners, not counting the pet store.

Larry is a terrestrial monitor species from the plains of Africa, he will grow to between 3 and 5 feet in length, he requires a minimum enclosure of about 6×6 feet with enough sandy soil for him to dig, and burrow in, and will require heat in the form of uv bulbs that will five him basking spots in the 120 degree Fahrenheit range. He will eat pretty much anything offered him from rats and mice to fish, birds, raw poultry, snails, insects, I mean all kinds of things and if he is taken care of properly, he can live more than 20 years.

Baby Savannah Monitors are available at almost every reptile show we attend and they are seldom more than $20 to $30.

So every year, thousands of beautiful baby Savannah’s are purchased by people with little to no reptile experience. They are taken home, placed in the wrong kind of enclosure, fed the wrong diet, they aren’t given substrate that they can dig in, they are not kept warm enough, and when they are not worked with correctly they can become (or remain) fearful and aggressive and a bite from a monitor of Larry’s size could very easily remove a digit or put you in the hospital needing stitches.

Thousands are sold every year, but where are they all going? We know that there are not thousands of new ones growing to thrive as adults out there in people’s homes each year, so that leaves us with only one solution, they are dying because of improper care.

I adore Larry and would simply love to give him a home with us, but I don’t. I don’t because I cannot afford to do it properly. I do not have the space, the enclosure, the budget for food, nor to purchase additional specialty lighting that he would require, so I leave him, where he is, hoping that someone who CAN afford those things comes along and gives him a good, healthy, and happy home.

Here we sit, right before Christmas, right before the biggest commercial holiday in our country and I am asking you, no, I am begging you, that unless you are experienced, equipped and knowledgeable animal keepers, do not purchase any animals, or especially reptiles as gifts.

Our best guesses are that at least 80% of reptiles sold as pets are not living a full, healthy life and at least 50% of them aren’t making it through their first year without dying, being rehomed or becoming ill.

We have a beautiful Yellow Rat Snake. His name is Salazar and he is my familiar, my buddy and one of my biggest inspirations.

salazar

He was produced as a breeding animal, but he turned out as an adult to be an escape artist and spent much of his time with his owners (a petstore) as an escapee, wandering their shop where he acquired some nasty scars and some trust issues. His owners gave him up because he was relentless in trying to escape, he was too active and was just too much trouble.

Salazar has been with us over a year, has never escaped a single time. He is very intelligent, especially for a snake, he is charming, very docile, easy to handle and is easily one of the coolest snakes in our collection and all of those things made him intolerable to his previous owners.

It makes me angry and it makes me sad, it makes me frustrated, often to the point of tears that we cannot stop placing ourselves upon these pedestals where we think that our lives are so important but the lives of these other, beautiful and magical creatures are simply disposable entertainment.

These are not stocking stuffers, they, are, lives!

 

Take care of yourselves, and be kind…

Brimming with Emerald

This time of year is always an odd transitional period for me. My mother and many of my friends who refer to me as Greenman do not do so lightly. I am connected to my very marrow to the green world and all of its cycles. So when the days shorten, the sun goes into hiding and the nights become cold, it takes a considerable amount of effort for me to remain active, outgoing, and energetic, at least at first.

The instinct that comes upon me first is to sleep. To curl up in the dark and await the coming of the spring rains and lengthening days, but I, sadly am incapable of hibernation and so soldier on I must. Many things keep me delighted, alive and focused during these grey days and among them are gatherings with friends, adventures, laughter and peaceful times with my loved ones, the enjoyment I get out of the animals I keep and my houseplant jungle.

Every available piece of sunshine in our home is populated by plants, odd mixes of flowers, trees, greenery and strange visitors inhabit tables, windowsills and the floor, anyplace that the light can reach them.

We currently keep begonias, cacti, aloes, palm trees, a fiddle leafed fig, two Malabar chestnuts, a lime tree, two clementine trees, an avocado tree and six species of orchids, along with a tillandsia or two and a small group of rescued African violets.

I have lived for short periods of time without plants in my homes, but in truth, the lack of them has made those places more aptly called way stations, or temporary dwellings than actual homes. I need them, I need the air they share with me, the scent of them, the clean, green, beautiful joy of their presence and like many of my predecessors, I talk to them, commune with them, checking in daily to see if they need to be repotted, watered, spun to balance their time in the sun, or just if they need a bit of attention.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to do something amazing and I wanted to share it with you.

Gypsy and I belong to the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania and contrary to what you might think, the Orchid society is not filled with stuffy rich people who take every opportunity to look down on others with some kind of horticultural elitism. No, these people are loving, caring, knowledgeable fanatics who are in their own maniacal way, the most devilish enablers I have ever come across in any hobby.

I obtained my first orchid over a year ago from the bargain rack at Lowe’s. It cost about $2.00 and looked like it was almost ready for the dumpster. It was bone dry, the leaves were droopy and its solitary flower spike looked pathetic and I couldn’t resist it.

For all of the hundreds of varieties of plants I had kept, I had never tackled orchids because their care intimidated me. Gypsy and my good friend Barb make fun of me for saying that, as they have seen what I am capable of with plants, but even so, I had avoided orchids for nearly forty years.

So, having gained my first orchid, I needed, wanted to know more and so we jumped into the orchid society and were promptly swept into a world of flowers that made even my vivid imagination feel inadequate. There were varieties, colors, configurations and sizes of blooms that I still have trouble wrapping my brain around. We have seen blossoms ranging in size from as tiny as the head of a pin up to ones that hung ten or twelve inches in spread and looked like something from an alien landscape, we are thoroughly hooked!

Returning to yesterday, our orchid society regularly sends members to volunteer to help the Master Orchid grower at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Georgia Wahl, and realizing that offering to help would get me behind the curtain at one of my favorite places on earth, I jumped at the chance!

So, from 9:30 until 12:30 yesterday, I, along with three other members of the society worked on orchids for the upcoming Orchid and Tropical Bonsai show which will kick-off on January 14th. I won’t tell you what we did, because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it was an awesome, educational experience and we laughed a lot! This is something I notice among garden people, we seem to be more alive, more willing to let loose, be free and immerse ourselves in joy.

Working on the project put us back in the growing, working greenhouses where few members of the public ever are permitted to venture and I took full advantage, wandering during breaks to look at their vast and varied orchid collection, the leftover poinsettias from their winter show and greenhouse after greenhouse filled with thriving, beautiful and rare plants that had me very nearly needing a drool bib to keep my shirt clean.

For the life of me I cannot imagine why people don’t immerse themselves in the exquisite pursuit of life and attempt to cement their relationship with the rest of the life on the planet. Exploring the diversity of life in those long glass houses was like being gifted with three hours of summer, or a brief morning in some tropical Eden, where the very air was infused the Earth’s breath.

Do you keep plants, do you love them, and does their infinite variety interest you, fascinate you, draw your eye, heart and mind? Consider joining a garden club, buying a field guide and learning what grows around your neighborhood, or seeing what you can grow on that lonely little windowsill that seems perfect for something green.

I will leave you with some pictures that will give you a minor glance behind the curtain… Want to see it for yourself? Find a way in. You will be glad that you did… We green people are a lot of fun.

 

Looking down the length of the Orchid Greenhouses

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So many beautiful plants!

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A tiny dendrobium orchid with leaves smaller than a pencil eraser…

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Bridges

Bridges are sacred.

As a child, anytime we crossed a bridge on foot, and I mean anything that spanned water, my mother insisted on mindfulness. She talked of bridges being representatives of the three pathways. You were standing on a path, with a path above you (the sky) and a path below you (the water) and that was a powerful place to be, because in that spot, infinite possibilities, times three had access to you and allowed the gods, goddesses, the spirits and the universe itself to notice you and in her estimation, it was a good thing for me to be noticed by those things. Her? Not so much. She went out of her way to avoid being noticed.

Bridges had many forms, from ones that spanned mighty rivers like the Ohio down to simple logs that had fallen across tiny rills and brooks. I think perhaps it began as my mother’s influence but with me it developed into an addiction/obsession. Soon, any time we were out walking or exploring and we came across a bridge, especially small ones, handmade ones I needed to cross it, slowly, reverently and if time permitted, to clamber over it and explore it from below as well.

This came to pass more than it might have as my father had an interest in covered bridges and we would often drive hours to see them, photograph them, commit them to memory and I crossed them all.

I remember an incident that happened to us when I was just a small boy. We were on a wildflower hunt down along one of the streams that runs parallel to state route 30 in Beaver County Pennsylvania. It was early May, perhaps even late April. The toad trilliums and dutchman’s breeches were in bloom and dad was collecting saxifrage from the shale hillside to plant in one of his miniature landscapes at home. Mum was cataloging species and locations in one of her little notebooks and I was using a small net to catch Sculpins, crayfish and darters in the stream. We spent about three hours playing about in the woods and then gathered for sandwiches on one of the fallen logs that crisscrossed the bottomland.

Dad suggested we change locations and perhaps go up along Tank Farm Road to look for young sassafras saplings to harvest for tea, and we all rose, dusted ourselves off and began crossing the distance to our orange Datsun station wagon.

Just as we had begun to walk, a crack resounded across that small patch of forest that sounded like a rifle shot, only deeper and more resonant, like a small explosion had gone off underground right behind us. We turned toward the hillside in time to see one of the massive 100 foot tall London Plane trees leaning out toward us as it wrenched its roots free from the ground and began to fall. Its shadow found us first and my father, for the first time in my experience screamed, “Run!” and pushed my mother and I upstream while he turned and ran in the opposite direction.

We ran, tripping over the branches and stumbling through the leaves and stones until with a sound like a bomb going off behind us the huge tree struck the ground, burying part of its massive trunk deep into the spring mud.

We had narrowly escaped the assured death of the trunk but mother and I were caught by some of the branches and battered to the ground with scratches, bumps and scrapes. There was no sign of my dad.

The moments ticked by as we tried to get our wits about us, and then I, and soon my mother, began to call out for my father.

For what seemed like an eternity, but was in all truth, maybe two minutes, we got no response, just the deathly silent woods that was still shocked into a vacuum by the event that just occurred.

But then, just as I began to read panic in mum’s eyes, my father began to cough and sputter and then swear up a blue streak. In kind of a post traumatic haze, mum and I found this hysterically funny and laughed until our sides hurt.

One of the large branches had caught dad on the shoulder and had driven him face down in the mud, shattering his glasses, cutting his ear nearly free from his head at the top and knocking him out for several seconds. But he arose, bruised, bloody and grateful to be alive I think.

It took a few minutes for him to get his wits about him and for all of us to survey the scope of what had happened. The tree now lay, spanning the entire bottomland where we had been exploring and reached almost to where our car was parked in a gravel pull off along Route 30.

Mom and I started looking for an easy way to climb over the downed behemoth, but dad stopped us and called me over to the trunk and he said, “Lance, use one of those heavy branches and climb up on the trunk and then wait there for a second.”

I did as I was told by the voice coming to me from the other side of the tree. I sought out and found a good, stout limb and using my toes (I spent much of my childhood barefoot.) I climbed up the branch until I stood, rather proudly on top of this gigantic being.

I looked down at dad, a little shocked at how beaten up he looked, and worried about the amount of blood on the side of his face. But he paid it no mind and let me stand there for the length of several breaths, before saying, “Okay, now climb down this side and when you are on the ground, wait before you do anything else.”

And so again, I curled my toes and fingers around the wood and climbed down until my feet sank back into the forest mast.

I did not move, waiting to hear what my father might say, and for a minute there was nothing and then in a quiet, reverent voice he told me, “Unless man comes along and interferes, this tree will lay here for decades, it may be a part of this valley for a man’s lifetime, and in all that time, no other human being, no other creature will be able to say that they were the first one to cross it, except for you. This tree is your tree, it is our tree. It took blood from each of us and left us alive and now it will change this place and we were here to witness that and I am grateful for all of that.”

It took me by surprise, the significance of it and the mystical nature of it, coming from a devout atheist who thought of my mother’s paganism as quaint and superstitious but never disrespected it. His words had the ring of a Druid’s or a Zen monk’s, it spoke of us as part of nature, not in dominion over it and I couldn’t do anything but turn around, walk over and put my hands on “my tree.”

For almost a decade following that, whenever we decided to go out there, it was no longer the “wildflower haunt on 30”, it had become a trip to see “Lance’s tree.”

Over the years I walked the length of that tree, running along its trunk like some poor American Tarzan, I slept on it, ate my picnic lunches on the flat side of its trunk and carved little symbols in hidden places on it with my little Barlow pocket knife, purchased for me from Mellinger’s Nursery in North Lima Ohio.

It became a bridge for me, it was a day that I crossed over from being a human child to a creature that is a part of nature and as integral to her balance as the sharks in the oceans, the crows in the air or the bats, sleeping in the beams below the covered bridges.

Be mindful in your practice, be aware of the sacred in the everyday, cross bridges, both real and symbolic, it will help you find your way…

 

Be good to yourselves and each other until next time…

Walk the Earth ~ Meditation Part 2

Yesterday dawned chilly, with a dense fog that laid across the land, heavier in the valleys and woodlands and clung to the hillsides until mid-morning.

Today, the temperature is climbing steadily toward the low 70’s and by tomorrow night into Sunday, we are told to expect snow.

Welcome to November in Western Pennsylvania.

I embrace these changes, the constant flux is to me, an invitation, a calling from our mother to walk out into the world and breathe.

Yesterday morning I spent about thirty minutes wandering the fringes of the woods behind the local library, watching the fog ebb and flow from the trees like waves, gentle on a grey morning shore. I snapped off a tiny sassafras branch and drank in that most magical of scents as I marveled at the colors of the leaves laying in the still green grass and it reminded me of the lyrics of an old tune called October Song, written by Robin Williamson

“The fallen leaves that jewel the ground,

They know the art of dying,

And leave with joy their glad gold hearts,

In the scarlet shadows lying.”

~

This afternoon, after I have finished writing this and before Erych is due home, I will go out again, I am not sure where yet, perhaps the local park, where I will walk along next to the London plane trees and see if the geese have left any spectacular feathers for me to collect, but mostly I will just walk, gathering the day into my lungs and expelling all of the processed air, along with the poisons of worry, sadness and pressure that accumulates in the system while trapped inside, locked to the computer or to a phone.

 

We forget, I think that the earth has the power to heal us, that there are compounds in the soil, medicines in the plants and vitamins that enter our bodies from the very light of the sun itself. And so at times I walk, mindful, slowly observing, stopping, looking, touching, pausing to allow myself time to truly see what surrounds me and that is how I spend ten minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour.

One of the things I look forward to each year is the first snowfall that actually lays on the ground. There are a list of places that I love to go when that happens, magical stretches of railroad track, or forest paths, or small bridges where it is beautiful to just stand in rapt amazement of the undisturbed snow. But any street, field or parking lot will do, any place where you can have even a few moments to appreciate the beauty before it becomes marred by footprints or tire tracks.

I had a Kung-Fu instructor once that told me that if possible he liked to be walking through nature at the hour that the seasons shifted. Yuen Sifu did not mean on the hour of the Solstice or Equinox changes, but at the hour when there was the first truly warm day in spring when you can smell the soil breathing into the air, or on the evening when the first snow comes to lay on the ground and make the world winter. I have tried to follow his example and while I have not always been able to manage it, I still strive to be mindful enough to look for those moments.

So, what does all of this mean?

I began last week to speak to you about meditation, this is your lesson for this week, walking meditation disguised as observation and enjoyment of the outdoors.

I challenge you to go out, with no other agenda other than to move, breathe, observe and simply be present in the place where you walk. Find something, someplace green and go out and walk the earth, she is waiting for you.

His name is Luther

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His name is Luther.

I cannot have a dog.

I love him none the less.

On Sunday afternoon, Gypsy, our dear friend Barbara and I stopped in to a pet store not far from where we live. We were stopping mostly because we heard that they were carrying reptiles and I was interested in seeing the collection and if there was anything interesting.

We stopped by and visited the ferrets, I prefer to call them Weaselmonkeys. And we spent a few moments playing with the hand raised birds and marveling at the beautiful fish, and then as we wandered past the wall of enclosures containing dogs and cats for adoption, I was stalled in my tracks.

The information sheet on the window said that Luther had not had a very nice start to his life and had been chained in a yard for almost all of his three years and that he needed to be fattened up a bit and needed some tlc. But what I saw was a pair of huge brown eyes that practically screamed “Love me!”

We are unable to have a dog where we live, which is sometimes difficult for me, as I was raised around dogs, as a matter of fact, I was pretty much raised with a dog, a Siberian Husky named Tris that my dad bought the year before I was born and who was my brother through the first twelve years of my life.

My parents laughed for years about the fact that my first word wasn’t “Mama” or “Da” but “Tris.” said quickly, almost like a sneeze.

Tris shared my fondness and he watched over me, guarded me, even shared his dog biscuits with me, much to the horror of family friends. But my pediatrician said that it was fine and my parents let it go on. Dad would toss Tris a milkbone and Tris would crunch it up into manageable pieces and nudge a couple of them over my way.

We did everything together, played in the snow, swam in rivers, lakes and the ocean, we even slept out on the porch together on warm summer nights. Those that know me will readily tell you that I am at least as much dog as human and sadly, I even smell like wet dog when it rains, but that could just be because I am fuzzy.

I began my pursuit of deeper understanding of dogs not long after Tris’ death when I was twelve. I began reading every book on dog training and history that I could get my hands on and my father used my connections to get me into classes to learn dog training, classes where I was the youngest student by at least a decade.

By the time I was sixteen I was training dogs in the evenings after school, volunteering at two shelters and fostering dogs for a local rescue. I was convinced that there was an entire language that existed that if we could just learn to speak it, we could accomplish seemingly impossible things with dogs as partners, not servants or underlings.

Over the years I have never wavered in my love for our four legged brethren. I have attended seminars, programs, confirmation shows, including Westminster, obedience trials, and every other kind of competition that dogs can be involved in. I personally have had three titled dogs and have helped about a dozen others reach that status, but still, every time I encounter a dog, I learn.

On Sunday, Luther was my teacher.

Even though I did my best not to let him worm his way into my brain, I kept circling back to look at him, to see what lay behind those huge, liquid eyes. Eventually Gypsy and Barb joined me as I was watching him, curled up shivering. I knew the movement, it wasn’t cold, it was anxiety.

I was summoning up the strength to head for the car and put him from my mind when Barb said, “You gonna ask to pet him?” I started to shake my head when Gypsy added, “Yes, you are.”

Now one thing that I am very aware of is that Gypsy often knows what is better for me than I do myself and so with that thought in mind, I sought out one of the young ladies working there and asked if I could spend some time with him. She seemed delighted, even though I told her that I was unable to adopt at the time. She said, “He could use the company.”

And so we ended up in one of the small six by four foot cubicles with Barb sitting on the bench, Gypsy leaning over the door and me on the floor with forty pounds of wiggly pitbull in my lap.

Luther is underweight, shows signs of scarring around his neck from prolonged improper use of a collar and has a massive scar down his ribcage to his belly and another around his front leg that the clerk was unsure of the origin of. It was known that he had had little to no interaction before being taken from his owners and had not been properly cared for in much of his life.

Luther had every reason to be aloof, stand offish, angry or even sullen but he was none of those things. Luther was wiggly, silly, extremely gentle and completely open to being loved. He would gently relinquish his rope toy if you asked him, would not lunge at it if offered and even when he used his mouth to play, it was so soft and caring about it that it was touching.

He rolled on his back, lay quietly while I checked him for other injuries and gave his belly a good rub and scratch. I found that his tail was broken and healed crooked but it did not seem to bother him at all. He was thin, but otherwise healthy and outside of needing a good diet and a bath, he seemed in good hands.

For over an hour we sat with him, he played with each of us in turn and when a german shepherd across the aisle began to act up, Luther inserted himself between us and the dog and rumbled deep in his chest. It was not at aggressive fighting sound, it was a warning, “These are my people, be nice or you will be sorry.”

He was quick to learn, eager to please, sweet and easy going and would have made an excellent companion, working or possibly even therapy dog, and all of it after a lifetime of neglect and possible abuse.

I sat there, with my heart in little pieces, knowing, and I mean KNOWING that I had to leave there without him but wanting beyond want to take him home and give him the life he deserved to make up for those first three years. To reward his forgiveness of us as humans for how we treated him and have treated so many of his brothers and sisters and so many other species.

We humans have had dogs with us forever, they have evolved to fit our lifestyles, we have changed and modified them into thousands of shapes, sizes, duties and personalities. It is entirely possible that it was the domestication of wolves and their evolution into dogs that was responsible for us going from being strictly hunter gatherers to agricultural.

Dogs have been companions, guardians, heroes, friends, livestock protectors, and active members of our militaries and police forces, among a hundred other jobs. But the first and foremost accomplishment of dogs is loving us, unconditionally, even with all of our failings, even at our worst, our dogs have watched over us, comforted us and at some points, given us a reason to get out of bed in the morning when everything else in our lives was screaming to just, give, up…

As far as I know, Luther is still available, if you are interested in going to see him, let me know and I will tell you where he is. But it doesn’t have to be Luther, it just has to be something, someone who needs love. We have done a lot of harm in our time here, and we can begin healing it by being kind. Consider adopting a dog and showing him what we can really be like.

I would be most grateful…

And so would Luther.

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Sit for an Hour

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you are too busy, then you should sit for an hour. ~ Buddhist saying.

Do you meditate?

If not, why not?

If you do, has it made your life better?

I have meditated most of my life. I began meditating with my Aiki-jūjutsu Sensei before I was ten. I would arrive an hour before class and sweep the Dojo and dust if needed, then water the plants.

Takeda Sensei would then come out from his office and we would approach the Butsudan (Buddhist altar) and we would kneel before it and I would match my breathing to Sensei’s and for the next twenty minutes, I would wrestle with my thoughts, dragging them, sometimes kicking and screaming toward quiet.

I did not notice it at first, but it changed me. My parents both remarked on it within a couple of months of me beginning the practice. I became slower to anger, I lost much of my childhood anxiety and my happiness levels shot up to a place where I laughed more than anyone I knew.

Takeda-Sensei was not a purist, so we meditated while sitting, standing, walking, even while doing movements around the mat, his belief was that if you could truly focus on being there, in that moment, with minimal distractions, that you could overcome anything from anxiety to the strongest opponent.

I was about nine. And now, as I close in on 50, I am seeking to re-immerse myself into that world.

I have meditated, as I have said most of my life, but since a prolonged illness a few years ago, I have become lax and my practice has become spotty and inconsistent. I will be returning to it on Monday. Gypsy will be joining me and I am hoping we can bring Erych on board, because at 14, he needs the break and space that a quiet mind will give him.

Over my time practicing meditation I have had hundreds of discussions with people who just don’t get it at first and their arguments all reflect a fear of rigidity I think. But I tell them, as I will tell you, that as my Grand-da used to say about a completely different subject, “It isn’t about the kneeling…”

Let me begin with saying that meditation is a secular activity. Your religion or lack thereof has no bearing on your practice of meditation. Meditation appears under different names in almost all of the world’s religions and many of the techniques transcend them all.

Meditation also does not require complicated or painful contortions and in many cases, such things actually impede good practice.

Lastly the benefits of a meditation practice are not purely spiritual ones. In the last decade, modern science and medicine has begun seeing health improvements such as lowered blood pressure, improvements in breathing, lowered stress levels, improved heart rate, elimination of some digestive issues, and in some cases it has eliminated chronic headaches and other conditions that had been lifelong with people.

There is also evidence to suggest that meditation can improve clarity, memory, usable intelligence, cognition and lessen depression, and there are some remarkable results being shown in its effectiveness as a treatment for ADHD.

The latest studies are beginning to discover that consistent prolonged practice can also lessen or eliminate altogether symptoms of some inflammatory disorders and asthma, and lessen the felt effects of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.

Another new development is that meditation has shown to boost the immune system and science is currently not sure of the mechanics of it, but are sure that it is happening.

I will not load you down with links, but the information is out there. Look up MRI scans taken during meditation and you will be amazed by the changing landscape of the mind during practice.

Meditation can and has saved lives.

And while most people view meditation in the traditional idea of a shaved headed monk, sitting in lotus position, his saffron robes lying in perfect folds around him, there are in truth as many types of meditation as there are people seeking them.

Over the next couple of days, and perhaps weeks I will be discussing types of meditation from the simple on into the more complex, and also I will chronicle how my return to practice is going and what noticeable changes occur to myself, Gypsy or Ercyh.

I would like to challenge you, though challenge is a bit confrontational of a word to use, I would like you to join us in this. Try it, if only for a few minutes, once a day.

Find a comfortable place, free from distractions, sit with your feet on the floor and your hands on your lap, palms upward.

Inhale deeply through your nostrils, hold that breath for a count of three or five and then exhale until your lungs are empty. Breathe in again, hold it and release. For five minutes, focus on nothing but your breathing, the sound it makes, the feeling of the oxygen powering your system, the natural rhythm of your breath as it flows in and out of your lungs and each time you feel your thoughts drift elsewhere, gently guide them back to your next breath, and the one after that.

Set your timer for five minutes the first day, but make the timer quiet so as to not jar you out of the state of quiet.

Do this every day for a week, and if it begins to feel good to you, extend it to ten minutes, or five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening.

~

“If you have time to breathe you have time to meditate. You breathe when you walk. You breathe when you stand. You breathe when you lie down.” – Ajahn Amaro

End of Part 1

Take care of yourselves…

This is not a political post…

This is not a political blog.

This is not a political post.

It is a human one.

I have a warm cup of tea, the light is diffused through November clouds as the sky cries intermittently like many of those I care about are doing this morning. It is as if Autumn held its breath for today, and having felt the despair of its children, began to weep raindrops and dead leaves in sympathy to our sense of loss and betrayal.

During the countless invasions of their homeland in China, the members of Shaolin Monastery declared no allegiances to any political or national parties, choosing instead to care for the people, to live a life of mindful compassion. They chose to heal the sick, care for the wounded, feed the hungry and defend the weak. They made their bodies into savage weapons, not for their own glory, but for the singular purpose of protecting others.

They burned and buried the dead of wars that were not their own. They sacrificed their own comfort for the good of those around them, they put others first.

As I sit here, thinking of those that I see hurting, of those that I know are scared, and lost, as I feel, with my open heart the uncertainty that is smoldering in the underbrush, ready to burn down the forest, I think that I am ready.

Are you?

There was once an idea, an idea that our government was doing what was best for us, not just for our bank accounts, but truly to help us find our way to becoming better people. But as with most things, money became involved and where that raises its head, few can resist the thrill of stuffing their pockets at the exclusion of all else, both moral and ethical.

The loudest voices of the followers of Jesus have just voted that the love that he preached is secondary or even tertiary to the size of their wallets.

There was once an idea, it exists still, with some of us, that our fellow human beings deserve as much happiness as they can have without our interference. There is a thought that who you love, what color your skin is and what you have between your legs are of your concern and I will judge you simply on your behavior and how you treat others.

Perhaps we should rejoice, because the undiagnosed disease that was making us rot from the inside has come to the surface and we can begin, slowly to excise it, cut it away, and educate it out of existence. Perhaps we are better now, knowing the truth about those who have done this, knowing it about them instead of wondering, suspecting and denying, because now we know.

We are a bright, caring, clever tribe of compassionate, sharing, giving people. Over the next years we will need to leave our temples and fight for those whom we claim to love. And the truth is that our willingness to help will determine the reality of our convictions. Are you someone who just speaks of doing something, or will you leave the house and join the battle?

What will you risk to give someone else a chance at a good life?

I see many people posting that now that the election is over, we can just go back to the way things used to be, but I am sorry, for me that is impossible. I now have new knowledge, wisdom that has come through observance that has taught me who cares for the only thing that matters, which is their fellow man, and who does not. We saw them, we know who they are and where their hearts lie.

I am done, for the moment, talking to those who have chosen this, instead I speak directly to those who woke this morning to a world suddenly darker. You are the best of us, the women, those in the LGBTG community, those of a myriad of ethnic origins, you are what makes us great in our diversity, love and compassion and I for one will not let you down and will stand firmly between this threat and you.

This is no longer political, it is a human problem and we have watched as some of those closest to us have thrown us into the path of an oncoming train. But as this battle ends, we will rest a day, lick our wounds, lift each other up and beginning showing up for the fight wherever it breaks out.

I love you guys. I know that that is easy to say, but I love easily, and have my heart broken a lot, but you have always been there to stitch it back together again. We have learned in the last 24 hours, a very harsh lesson, and that is that there is a vast difference between what we believe is right and what many of our brothers and sisters want most. They are not our enemies, they are insignificant, we will show them how we take care of each other, how we stand up for each other and how much love we have, even in the face of such brutal disregard.

~

Let the night come, we are not afraid, for we, after all, are the light.