The Tenderness of Tooth and Claw
The Tenderness of Tooth and Claw
Anyone who knows and loves a cat understands the affection
demonstrated by teeth and claws. It begins when they are kittens, with play, with rolling over and belly-rubbing, or vigorous spine-rubbing. At some point in these activities the kitten will take your hand into her teeth, just holding, not breaking flesh –
or he will extend claws just enough for a slight prick, not a scratch, not breaking skin.
If you don’t know cats, this can be a threat. But if you leave your hand, you are accepting affection
and deepening your bond in play.
MaCushla, my one-and-a-half- year-old tortoiseshell kitten, teaches me this lesson every day. Like every one of her breed, she is feisty, playful and often defiant;
life comes mostly on her terms (is this another lesson?) but she is also tender and loving, and her teeth and claws just prick me into paying attention. I need it. Often I am doing one thing and thinking of another, or doing two or three things at once.
MaCushla teaches me, every day, that tenderness is present when I am in THIS moment, and when all the weight of the world is reduced to this single, attention-getting, tooth and claw invitation.
Seven Hummingbirds: the Weight of Being
The Weight of Being
“After we die, we weigh 21 grams less. This is the weight of wakefulness, light as seven hummingbirds. Who then, are these grieving angels? Certainly care is one, and wonder is another, and our irrepressible want
to hold and be held. And two unnamed, just to respect the Mystery and to honor how much we’ll never know.” (Mark Nepo in Things that join the Sea and Sky, p.64)
Moving swiftly into my seventieth decade, I am more and more conscious
- not of what I know - but of what I don’t know. This after a lifetime of study and four degrees and voracious reading. It has all led me to this threshold: of realizing how much I don’t know, and really - have never known. Or perhaps it was that
my pursuit of knowing was only on the one track - the path of mind-knowing. Now that is a help to getting along in a world that worships the mind, but seventy shows that it is far from everything. Very far. And as eldering progresses, it becomes less and less
on the scale of ultimate importance.
Mark Nepo’s “grieving angels” - the 21 grams of weight loss after death - these become more and more significant as age increases. Caring and being cared for - as he says; wondering at all
we have missed in the small sphere of our lives; and the deepening of longing - just wanting to hold and be held, to be sinking into relationship - these feather away at death, for we no longer need them.
In medieval medicine, 21 grams is said
to be the weight of the soul, and thus when the soul leaves the body, the body weighs 21 grams less. This has been written about very precisely in many esoteric texts. In those times the soul was much thought of, explored, sought, honored even more than the
body. The two were even posited as enemies by many misguided and narrow-minded spiritual traditions.
Nepo’s reflection brings these two dimensions into new relationship. What is it our bodies carry while alive that disappears 21 grams worth
after death? Other names for it could be personal history, weighty sorrows, guilt or rejected grace. There could be 21 grams worth of love, now moving into another sphere outside the body. Or it could be 21 grams worth of everything that moved us through our
lives, nothing good, nothing bad, just aliveness that now leaves the physical plane to rejoin the unimaginable that age after age has tried to give words and shape to. I call it Mystery. And I love the vision of seven hummingbirds rising from my body at the
moment of death, taking me home to the unimaginable gathering of Mystery.
For Uncle Vince
Three weeks ago my last living Uncle - youngest of my Dad's brothers at 86 - died suddenly in a sudden fire that destroyed his home. Blessedly, he died of smoke inhalation before the fire reached him. This poem emerged three days after this shocking
event for our family. He is last on the left of this photo of Peddigrew men...
For Uncle Vince: Reunion
This day last week you were out in your garage
car ready for the winter. At least,
I imagine it so - that precious garage attached
to your house where you always were when we
went to visit, you working until the last minute, then
wiping your hands clean and taking off your
blue greasy coverall as you got ready to come
into the house for a cup of tea, already prepared
by Aunt Bernice. The two of you
were seldom apart, always ready for your eight
children and their spouses and your grandkids,
ready for whenever and whatever they brought:
news, food, difficulties, illness, celebrations,
the need to move away, accidents and joys,
When she died two years ago, you were bereft.
It didn’t ease.
You told me as much, the awful grinding
unending pain of it -
every time we spoke. At 86, you were determined
to stay in the big house, and did, continuing the
routines that wove you both together, inseparable
even in death. So
when you went to bed on Monday night
you were no doubt noticing the empty side of the bed,
staying on your own side, wrapped in the emptiness.
Still, you slept. You didn’t notice when the smoke started
its willowy way,
feathery strands of white emerging
like a magician’s trick through the walls. You didn’t notice
when it tenderly reached your nostrils and throat, quietly
entering the last breaths of your good lungs, and softening,
your breathing until it stopped altogether. So then
you couldn’t notice when the flames burst from the walls,
and quickly destroyed a lifetime of memories and
all the growing - of love, of children, of age, of memory, -
notice. Thanks be to God for that.
We all loved you, Uncle Vince, last of my father’s four brothers.
We loved your quiet presence, mostly talking only when
spoken to. And then - a story would burst out, into the conversation.
We loved your ability to dance, a skill my own father
never learned, and how you stayed so present to us all
into this 86th year.
You left us as you lived: quietly, suddenly, present in ways
we didn’t always know - and
yet - there you were. You left us
as you’d wished, and - without the fire’s shock - we know
you are where you wish to be. All I see today is
Yesterday, one of the last glorious autumn days we have been having in the Algonquin Highlands this late in October, my companion Joan and I decided to paddle
the kayaks down the river for the last time this year before storing them for the winter.
The day was truly glorious, warm as summer, bright with sunshine, with a breeze that kept it really
just right. Silence was a thick presence with all the cottagers gone home since the Thanksgiving weekend. Many ducks let us pass, and the Blue Heron who lives on this river made a few appearances. Drifting as much as possible was like a holiday or a rest.
Paddling up the river from Halls Lake – often a chore for me – was little more effort than drifting downward, and this was a surprise. I was paddling with much more effort than going
down the river, but it was neither difficult nor too much. I enjoyed it tremendously. About halfway up, I spoke this aloud to Joan. “Do you remember,” she said, “that first summer here – that you couldn’t paddle up at all and
we had to tie your boat to mine so that I could bring us both back up?”
I did, of course, remember. And I was only fifty-five years old. Today as I recount this, I am seventy, and obviously
in much better physical shape than when I was fifty-five. What has brought this about? I can truly reflect on the physical demands of this life at SoulWinds, with many tasks both winter and summer. I can credit Joan’s teaching and encouragement on what
we eat and how faithful we must be to exercise and rest, grumbling as I am, some (but not all) of the time. I am deeply fed by the silence, by the presence of trees and the river, and the daily presence of our own animals, dog and cat. And by the early mornings
of pure dark silence in which I intentionally and gratefully begin my day with a winter fire or a summer vigilance, waiting for light to arrive.
When we first moved here and I told my niece
Kathy that I was paddling canoes and kayaks, heating with wood and doing other outdoor tasks to keep the place going, she exclaimed “but Aunt Brenda! You are in your fifties and you’re supposed to be slowing down!!!” I laughed at that, knowing
I had capacities yet to be discovered. I must tell her soon about paddling the river so much more easily at seventy, and see what she says! With me, time seems to have flipped over backwards, and I am stronger and wiser at seventy than I ever was at fifty-five!
A Ballet of Webs
At this time of year - late September to mid-October, moisture and morning light of a turning sun reveal countless spider webs among the trees and grasses, every one of them different, every one a creation of the spider who made it.
along most mornings, my eyes suddenly see them. First they are not there, and then they are there. I step forward and back a few times, recognizing that I am stepping between worlds and how easy it is to do so. Each one is entirely different than the first.
A slow turning and a hundred more come into view as the sun opens curtains onto a ballet of webs. Heart stopping.
One early morning decades ago my brother Keith and I were driving from his cabin on the Hodge’s Line (just outside St. John’s,
NL) in early fall when a long, high side of the highway was suddenly revealed by the sun to be covered with webs. I had him stop the car and we climbed the hill to delicately step among them, and marvel at the shapes and forms, all different, and the delicate
lacework of the spiders. He was as full of awe as I was that morning, and said he would never have seen them except that I pointed them out.
That moment burns in memory, especially as he is no longer present in his body.
webs witness to me the webs of relationship that weave among us all, if - turning- we look to see. If we do, with tender deliberation, we will see. We will see the delicate threads of different connections. We will see a weaving of thick bonds or thin ones,
some literally “hanging by a thread.” We will see where the energy of our heart is dragging or soaring, celebrating or sorrowing.
Don’t be fooled by the delicacy of webs...
A Heart's Mirror
A Heart’s Mirror
In the space of three weeks I have listened to two different people in two different countries speaking about the inner life
of a magnificent tree, saying - in effect - that this tree has begun its dying. One was in Ireland, the second around the corner from where I live.
All I could see was the trees’ magnificence:
fifty feet tall (or more), full reaching limbs overflowing with leaves, one - all green - in Ireland two weeks ago, the second this morning, leaves all gold, in a neighbour’s yard.
second one has been a source of admiration ever since moving here fifteen years ago, and especially in the fall. Its leaves turn gold, with hints of blended crimson spreading outward. This morning, on the way back from the usual walk, two hydro trucks were
parked close to it, assessing it. We stopped to ask about it. “Yes”, said the tree expert, “it has to come down. Its insides are dying, some of it hollow. We have been watching it for a few years.” The next morning, coming back from
the walk it was down, trunk in chunks, the dark dissolving core exposed. Still a beautiful tree.
The first tree was three weeks ago in the large beautiful backyard of the Presentation Sisters’
house in Monasterevin, an hour outside Dublin, a house where Gerard Manley Hopkins used to spend summer holidays in its early years, before the sisters bought it. The huge tree was in a back corner of the yard. They too had brought in tree experts who assessed
its age as well over 200 years old - which means it was young when their foundress, Nano Nagle, first brought the Presentation Sisters into being. Their current leader, Mary Deane, keenly told us how important is the presence of this tree. “It might
stand there for another 40-50 years,” they told us, “but it is hollowing inside. Perhaps it arose with us and will die with us. So we truly treasure this tree and will tend it to its end, as we are doing with ourselves.”
Looking more closely at these trees and all trees now, I stand in awe of the gifts standing all around us, the unknown hidden gifts that are right before our eyes every day, filled with layers of meaning and knowing and relationship. No matter where we are,
no matter how affected we might be with the news of the world, no matter how much illness and sadness and ill will inhabit the close-in spaces of our days, the trees stand. The weather changes. Night and day follow each other. Moon moves through her cycles.
And we, each and all, follow and rise and fall. The question is: do we do so with anger or grace? Do we flow or fight? Do we hold on or let go?
And can we stand before a tree, especially an old tree, and listen, finding a mirror, seeing a companion of the heart?
introducing "Glimpses of Grace"
This page will contain short pieces of my writing seeing connections between outer encounters and inner light, or what I know as "grace"; i.e., surprising insights or connections beyond the ordinary capacities of the mind (though sometimes the mind
is a doorway, but only a doorway.)