One Bird at a Time

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In the spring a friend told me about a 100 Days of Creativity challenge she saw on Instagram. She mentioned it not in the context of posting anything, necessarily, but just in setting yourself a challenge like that, to do a creative thing every day for 100 days. I decided to take on the challenge by taking photographs of birds. Well, originally I decided my project would be that I would take one bird photograph per day, and then I would draw the bird, and then I would write something about it. Because if I’m going to plan a project, then I’m going to plan to do it times a thousand in a way that is almost guaranteed to fail. I realized before I started that that wasn’t a good idea (progress!) so I backed it down to one bird photograph per day. I don’t actually know how to photograph birds, and it turns out to be not at all like photographing dogs or horses.

Almost immediately I realized that I needed to set some other parameters.  First: it didn’t have to be a great photograph. It didn’t even have to be a good photograph. The point was that I was learning this, so any photograph at all was a step in the learning process. And just by the way, when you have a camera that you don’t know how to operate and it has a continuous shutter feature (I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called), you can take A LOT of bad photos in a very short amount of time.

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It took me about two days to realize that bird photography was going to be my gateway to meditation. I have written here before about my ambivalent relationship with yoga. My relationship with meditation is even more tenuous. I occasionally dabble in various forms of yoga, even if I grumble about it the whole time. I THINK about meditating. I don’t think I have actually ever even tried meditating, though I have almost downloaded a number of guided meditations and I have almost signed up for some meditation … classes? Is that a thing? Gatherings? Clearly, I haven’t done it.

And so the birds. The lessons started immediately. Once I got past “it’s ok to take bad photos,” I got to “look at all the things I don’t notice!” My first three weeks in the 100 days were dedicated to birds that showed up in the background (or sometimes foreground) while I was trying to focus on something else. And because I had no idea what I was doing with my camera, sometime the only in-focus bird was the one I didn’t realize was in the shot.

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One thing that is true, it turns out, is that there is a lot of standing around and waiting in bird photography. A lot of becoming really still. A lot of observation. While being still. And waiting. Really, these are not my strengths. I know – or at least I think I know – that part of meditation involves clearing your mind, and letting go of any distracting thoughts that come up. I’m sure my bird photography would improve faster if I were better at this.

Another thing that is true is that I started this project about six months after my oldest sister was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When I talked to her after she had the biopsy but before she got the results, she said “The best case scenario is that it’s the Jimmy Carter kind and I take a pill and I’m fine. The worst case scenario is that it’s the John McCain kind and I die.” The biopsy came back the John McCain kind, or more technically but no more correctly, glioblastoma. It’s not one of your more treatable cancers. The five year survival rate is extremely low, and life expectancy even with aggressive treatment is 11 to 14 months after the onset of symptoms.

My sister set out to learn everything she could about glioblastoma and treatment. She read articles and studies. She found and connected with long term survivors. She applied for clinical trials and got into one, planning an aggressive sequence of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Her goal was to live long enough for someone to find a cure. She died on May 27, 6 days after her 59th birthday and 13 days after her 37th wedding anniversary. Less than 9 months after her diagnosis.

I didn’t have much of a relationship with my sister in our adult lives. We weren’t particularly close as children, either – not in that “my sister is my best friend” way that I hear about sometimes. She was seven years older than me, which doesn’t sound like a lot now, but when I was 11 and she left home for college it was pretty significant. She was kind of like a big sister in a book. She was almost magically creative in areas ranging from decorating cakes to naming dolls and stuffed animals, to choreographing, directing, building sets and making costumes for, and starring in annual neighborhood productions of The Nutcracker, to inventing complex and time-consuming games that keep us all occupied for hours on end. She was also just a sister, with all the sqabbles and jealousies and meanness that go along with being siblings.

For the last four or so months of her life, my sister wasn’t recognizably my sister. That is one of the many, many horrors of glioblastoma – it eats away your conscious mind before it kills you. I did not spend days at her bedside. I am eternally grateful that her husband was able and willing to care for her because I could not and did not. I went to see her sometimes, or to stay with her for a few hours so her husband could get a break. I thought about her every day. I continue to think about her every day. I have probably spent more time thinking about my sister in the last 9 months than I did in the previous 40 years.

I was, I am still, stumped about why I am so, so sad. I am sad for my sister, because it is complete bullshit for a person to die of something like this at barely 59 years old, and because she studied so much about it that she knew exactly what would and did happen to her, and it must have been terrifying. I am sad – and mad – that she didn’t get another 20 or 30 or 40 years to do exactly whatever she wanted to do. I am also sad for me, because my sister died. I think the part of me that is most sad is the part of me that lived with her and experienced her as that magical, maddening, creative, crazy-making big sister. I’m little kid sad. It’s a big kind of sad.

And so I spent 56 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dying. And I spent 44 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dead.

One of my favorite books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the title of which comes from something her father once said to her brother when her brother was overwhelmed by everything he had to write about in a school paper on birds. Anne uses it as a metaphor for writing – you don’t have to know everything you are going to write in order to start writing. You just have to take it bird by bird, one thing at a time.

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Bird by bird is something I often thought of when I started my photography project. Every day there are many birds, and the more I move to try to capture them on film, the faster they fly away. It’s also been something I think of while I wait for the birds and thoughts and images and memories of my sister cross my mind. Some of my memories are things I have been told, or family legend, some words or a sentence or a moment recalled without context. Some of my memories are mine.

I remember my sister’s perfect penmanship that never stopped looking like the writing of a precocious 4th grader who had just learned cursive. I remember the three of us sisters in my middle sister’s bedroom (it was the biggest) singing songs from a falling apart book of old folk songs. I remember being on the outside of that bedroom door, furious and heartbroken that my sisters wouldn’t let me in on whatever they were doing. I remember running down to the corner to wait to see her walking home from the bus stop in the evening after her ballet classes, and walk the last block with her. I remember her fingernails digging into my arm when I said something as a joke that she didn’t find funny at all. I remember the two of us laughing and laughing over a drawer of our old childhood drawings and letters in our grandmother’s house. I remember watching my mother while she was dying, and I am shocked at how much my dying sister looks like her, when I had always thought she and I looked like our father.

One bird at a time, the thoughts and memories flit by. Some of them I am able to capture, and some I just have to let pass. Sometimes when I go outside I can hear the birds but I can’t see them. If I wait, they will begin to appear. It’s often not that they are hidden but that my eyes are just not able to see them until I settle into looking. Similarly, when I try to reach for memories of my sister I think they are few, but while I want for the birds to appear, they begin to flutter around me. Like the birds, what I see at first isn’t always all that is there. Like the birds, what I think is one thing sometimes turns out to be something else. Like the birds, my memories come and go as they want to. I hope they will keep showing up, and I hope I will keep remembering to look for them.

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Heart Chakra Pig

A few years ago I had the experience of doing something that I thought was following my dreams that turned out to be me trying to follow a lifetime of accumulated “shoulds.” Some were more obviously external – I “should” finish a college degree – and some were more internal – because I connect with animals in the particular way I do, I “should” be a vet or a vet tech.

What I did in the end was break my own heart many, many times over. And when my heart got that broken, all the careful construction I had done to keep myself together when I was falling apart just came undone.

Two things happened that brought me back to myself. One was simply that I went away – to the pure beauty of Telluride, Colorado, and the soul-soothing sounds of live music (my own personal religion) – and I looked up and saw mountains, and nature, and beauty, and I remembered who I was, inside my heart where it counts. The other was the pig I call the Last Straw Pig. Rose hates it when I say that I had reached the point of looking at a pig I was about to euthanize and really struggling with whether to inject the barbiturates into the pig’s ear or my own wrist, but it had gotten that bad. And I realized that I literally could not keep living doing what I was doing.

This pig represents that turning point in my life. He represents my dreams, and knowing when it’s ok to admit that something that I once dreamed of turned out not to be what I wanted or needed or could handle in my life. He represents admitting that my heart has to win out over my mind and I have to listen to the sound it makes when it breaks, and to feel what that feels like, and to act on it. He represents all the feelings I have tried to ignore in my life in favor of logic. He represents finally, finally walking away from a lifetime of worrying about “should” and just accepting what is. Including that pigs can be any color you want them to be, and that you never know what will lead you back to your own heart.

Watering the Horses

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About four weeks ago while watering the horses at feeding time, I dragged the hose to the end of its length to reach far enough to water Guinness. I stood there for about ten minutes, spraying him down. After a while it dawned on me that I didn’t need to wait for it to soak down to his roots, and if in fact it soaked all the way down to him that was quite a bit farther than it needed to go to water the grass seed I had just finished spreading on his grave.

We now have more horses below ground (five) on this property than above (three). Each of them has a grave site planted and tended slightly different from all the others. Three of them are outside of the pastures, and one is in a fenced area within a pasture. All of them are planted in flowers of different kinds, and each has a tree that volunteered on their grave, or somewhere else on our property that we transplanted. Those trees range in height from Cookie’s five foot maple (4 years ago) to Wy’s twenty-plus foot oak (18 years ago).

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Guinness was a horse’s horse, and he was Finn’s other half. We decided we wanted them to stay together, and for Guinness to be part of the horse landscape. So for the first time, we just covered a grave with grass seed and chopped hay to give it a chance to stay in one place and grow. For several days, the biggest challenge for the seed was that Finn kept rolling on Guinness. I don’t know if he liked the feel of the chopped hay, the fact that we were watering it so it was a nice cool spot, or if he just wanted to be close to his buddy. We will plant Guinness a shade tree in the fall, outside the fence so Finn can’t eat it.

Twice a day in the summer heat, we water the horses. They have hundred gallon troughs, but we don’t fill them all the way because that way we can keep adding a little water to keep it cool for them. We also offer to hose them off, so when they want, they get the sweat showered off. After doing the living horses, I dragged the hose to Guinness. We were in a bit of a drought – hard to believe, now that we’ve been getting flooded out for the past two weeks – and Guinness is buried at the top of the hill in the back field he shared (and still does) with Finn. That spot has the best view on the farm, but it is a lot of hoses away from the nearest water source.

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My family does not run to grave sites. My grandmother was cremated, and buried in a graveyard next to my grandfather who died long before I was born. But after that, all bets were off.

My father gave me custody of my mother’s ashes, with instructions to scatter them by the tree we planted for her on my property. I did that with some of her ashes, but before she died she told me that she would be sad if she never got back to New Hampshire, or to Rehoboth beach. She didn’t, so I got her both places posthumously. I took some of her ashes to Rehoboth, and scattered them in the ocean. My aunt buried some of her ashes in her garden in Virginia, and sent some to my uncle in New Hampshire, where he paddled them out to the middle of Squam Lake and scattered them in her favorite childhood place. It was only much later that my father remembered she had told him she wanted her ashes spread in Rock Creek Park, though as her best friend recalled it, what she actually said was “Fling ’em off the Calvert Street bridge,” which seems more likely.

It was my father’s ashes that we scattered in Rock Creek Park, in the end, in the creek itself. There’s something vaguely furtive about scattering ashes in public places, be it the ocean or Rock Creek, but probably no one would in fact arrest you for it. Still, it’s hard to be solemn and ceremonial while looking over your shoulder as if you’re handing off the money to the drug dealer and hoping no one notices.

My aunt was scattered in a few places, too. The day of her memorial service we scattered some of her ashes in her beloved Blue Ridge mountains, in one of the prettiest spots I know. I believe some went up to New England, and some were scattered in a memorial garden at a wildlife sanctuary in Virginia – a certain blessing to the animals there.

I wouldn’t want anyone stuck in a graveyard, and I certainly don’t want to end up in one myself, but I’m starting to understand their purpose. We have planted trees on our property in memory of people and animals who have died since we moved here. We celebrate our own version of Dia de los Muertos each November. Sometimes we clean up the memorial (human) and grave (animal) sites, and plant flowers, and sometimes we just light luminaria for each of them, but it’s a ceremony we hold dear.

Standing over Guinness’ grave twice each day, watering the grass seed and letting my mind wander, was a meditative exercise for me. It was also a transition time. I know there are sudden deaths, but with most of my animals and all of my relatives, dying has been a process, with a lot of activity and attention needed over a fairly long span of time. With Guinness, for example, he was sick for about six weeks. We tried everything we could think of to diagnose and treat him. Like any sick room, our feed shed was full of supplements and medicines when he died. I checked him, treated him, and tried to get him to eat four to six times a day, all the while watching him fade away. Throwing away the useless prescriptions is something I’ve done a few too many times now, but I’m sure I will do it again. Watering his grave was a way for me to keep tending to him while also gradually letting him go.

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