Sunday, September 29, 2013

Season of the Owl

I awoke very early this morning, from a combination of aches, pains, and troubled dreams.  Wandering through my house, I could hear very faintly the call of an owl, and despite the cold and the fact that I was wearing only pajamas,  I wandered out onto the back stoop to listen for them.

It was 4:30 A.M. The stars were bright overhead, wearing their winter constellations, with Orion high to the south.  A quarter moon burned to the east, like fire and ice all at once.  My feet were wet with dew, and the hard, roughcast concrete chilled me where I sat, gazing up at the sky.  For a few minutes, the last of the autumn crickets were all I could hear: no cars, no wind, no human noises at all.

Then, off in the blackened woods to my north and east came the territorial call of a Barred Owl, far clearer and louder than it had been indoors.

Silence.  More silence, and then the call again.

Barred Owl, Wing-Chi Poon
And after another few moments, the call came once more... and was answered, with a much nearer owl, so clear and close and loud that it was hard to believe the sound came from the tiny body of an owl, and not a much larger animal.

I lingered for quite a while, listening hard, but, though I heard the calls of the more distant of the owls, the nearer, freakishly alien-sounding voice of the closer owl did not call again.  So I went back into my house, went to sleep, and dreamed.

I dreamed I was a widow, the most terrible of all dreams to me.  Though the aches and pains that had awakened me were with me still, the crushing pain of grief was much, much greater.

Why do owls call out in the autumn?  Their season of mating is over, the owlets have grown up and flown away... and in the small hours of the night, there are no daytime birds to mob them.  Are they responding to the coming winter, the season of death, and calling out for it?  Or are they calling out to one another still, pair of owls protecting their territory, making their presence known to ward off invaders who would threaten that pair and their life together?

Autumn and winter are the season of the owl, at least at night, and when I cannot sleep.  And I am middle-aged, with the aches and pains of my oncoming menopause to keep me awake at night.  I cannot hide from my mortality, and I cannot hide from my fears, because the Season of the Owl is coming, and my voice may not be enough, when I call out in the night, to protect what I love most, and keep it with me, warm and safe in the time of cold.

The stars are lovely overhead.  And if the owls are harbingers of death, they are also measures of the overwhelming nature of love.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What's Twenty Minutes?

So I get to thinking, "I should go to a nice retreat at Woolman Hill," and I notice one coming up on deepening worship.

"Great!" I think to myself.  "I should try that!"

And so I read the brochure.  And it reads in part, "What do you do to nurture your spirit? How regular are you in this practice?  If you are attending the retreat, please practice a spiritually nurturing activity for 20 minutes or more each day. If you do not find the time to do so, without judging yourself, notice what was a greater priority."

And so now I'm grumpy.  Because that so-reasonable sounding commitment, of building in a 20 minute daily spiritual practice, is just laughably out of reach for me at the moment.  I would LOVE to have a whole uninterrrupted 20 minutes a day for spiritual practice. But I am coming to understand that there are times I am not going to get it.

There are two kinds of professions in the world, as far as I can make out: those where you can pee anytime you feel like it, and those where you can't.  Teaching is one of the ones where you can't--you have to wait until your prep block rolls around, however long that takes. 

Peeing is pretty basic.  When you have to plan ahead for your next potty break, and it is enough hours that you don't get to drink a full cup of morning coffee, you have a time-management fiasco of a working life.

Which is to say that I can get a little sensitive to issues of scheduling.

Now, I get that this says "without judging yourself," to notice what gets in the way of setting aside twenty minutes a day for spiritual practice.  But it sure feels like there's a judgy thing going on with the whole "notice what was a greater priority" instruction.  I mean, I obviously do have more than twenty minutes a day when I'm not teaching (or peeing).

What is a "higher priority" in my life than a daily spiritual practice?  What are the daily activities that take up more of my time than I have free for practice?  Well, aside from things like working, sleeping, showering, and cooking--necessities--there's just a few: Facebook, television, and reading pulp novels.

When I list them that way, it really does sound like I ought to simply limit those activities, and then I'd be free to build in a more robust personal spiritual practice, right?  And isn't the implication that whatever activities crowd out that twenty minute time slot need to be weighed against the importance of a spiritual life, and if they are not equally profound, I should cut them?

But I don't buy it.  Setting aside the fact that some of that time is already pretty limited (like TV watching, which is limited to a single episode of a DVD, watched over dinner) it is also true that my time wasters are, on some level, actually vitally important to me.

The more I think about it, the more I'm clear that any attempt to cut out the "junk food" in order to build in more time for a nourishing spiritual practice would backfire utterly.  Because before I can soar, I need to stand still.  Before I open myself to Spirit, I have to have time being me, ordinary, in my own body and in my own life.

You see, I can't do that while I'm teaching. Teaching--at least for me--requires being fully and wholly present, other-focused and other-centered, for about as long at a stretch as is even possible.  Not only does peeing have to wait when I'm managing a classroom of two or ten or twenty teenagers, so does ordinary reflectiveness on my life outside the classroom. 

Now, that's not a complaint (well, except for the part about not getting to pee when I need to) but it is the truth.  Teaching uses me up, takes me from myself until I am too empty of energy and too full of detail (lesson planning, student needs, changing schedules and demands and reactions) to be able to hear anything from Spirit but my own wishful thinking projected out into the void.  When I'm done with a day of teaching... I'm done.

I cannot go straight from the classroom to the cathedral and to a different kind of self-forgetfulness.  I need to go first to being... self-centered, at least a little.  An ordinary, slightly self-absorbed, pop-culture-consuming, You-Tube-viewing, blogroll-skimming, middle-aged woman with a weight problem and a headache.

I used to tell my Wiccan students, "To transcend the self, first you have to have a self."  It turns out that this is as true in terms of daily life as in terms of developmental stages.  Each day, after being other-centered long enough, I need to rest for a time in the "merely creaturely," as early Quakers might have said.

They'd have disapproved of setting aside time to be merely creaturely, though. 

Be that as it may, I've come to understand I need it.  I get kind of nuts without it.  So I eat pizza, go on Facebook, read sci fi and fantasy novels... and, when I have a little bit of myself back again, I slip in tiny little scraps of spiritual practice around the edges.

Tiny scraps...  There are very few twenty minute blocks of time in my life for spiritual practice.  But, if I set aside my frantic feeling that there ought to be more time than there is, I can begin to see I do have some regular patterns.  For instance:

On my morning commute, I often listen to the news.  I listen to the news in the morning to wake me up, and in the afternoon to entertain me.  But on either drive, there is a stretch of road--roughly half the length of the commute--that I consider too beautiful to allow to roll past me while I am distracted by the radio.  When I get to that stretch of road, the radio goes off.

Sometimes I think about people I'm worried about... sometimes about things I'd like to write about. Sometimes I pray.  But I always try to be awake for it, even if it is only ten minutes at a time.

Then too, on Facebook (that ultimate time-waster) when people share news of trouble or sadness in their lives, I frequently stop right then and there and hold them in silent prayer.  That practice might last for no more than a minute at a time... but it happens a lot, when I think about it.

When I am able to sit down quietly over a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning, or when I see a deer, or a flock of wild turkeys, or a heron along my commute, I reach out in my mind and heart for the sense, the texture, of the sacred in a busy world--like reaching out for my husband's hand in the dark, before we slip into sleep on a day that has been too busy to spend time gazing into one another's eyes.

Some wise person once advised us to "Pray without ceasing."  I do not think it reflects a deficiency in how I order my life--a life which is actually filled with Spirit, brimming with it and guided by it, to the best of my ability to accept guidance at least.  But in my case, if I did not in some sense pray without ceasing--weaving Spirit into a thousand tiny crevices in my life--I would never find the time to pray at all.

Twenty minute practice?  I really don't have time for that.  Maybe I'll just have to settle for every-minute practice.

Maybe that isn't such a hardship after all.
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