Except As We Have Loved

Suddenly, March feels like March in the Santa Cruz mountains. For this moment, anyway, the weather is very much what we generally expect from March in these parts; cool and unpredictable, sprinkled with rain showers, even hail, high clouds and shafts of sun and brisk gusts of wind. Wildflowers begin to bloom; lupine first. At night, foxes bark raspily in the woods, and coyotes yip and yammer in packs along the ridges. In the creeks and springs and puddles, frogs croak and sing. Newts shimmy in still pools, past clusters of gelatinous eggs attached to underwater sticks. I surprised a lizard yesterday, sleeping soundly in the center of a cluster of dry mule grass, insulated from the cold wind, warmed both by the sun on the blades and the soft warmth of their slow decomposition, a perfect, safe lizard nest, until I came along to "clean up" the garden.

The hummingbirds have begun their mating displays in the yard; the males swooping impossibly fast, a sheer vertical drop and a trilling, thrilling reverse-course upward is what attracts the emerald, black, and rust-colored ladies. The morning air after rain is full of the songs of other migratory birds who have found their way here, a raucous, global chatter of bird-language. I marvel each year at the feats their flyweight bodies perform, their unerring magnetic navigation, the tiny sinews and muscle of their bodies beating through the unforgiving air. The smallness of seeds and insects that sustain them, the vastness of miles they travel. They way they sing, and sing, and sing, the way their language is music, to our ears, anyway. Sometimes amidst their chatter, I want to drop to my knees, even on the wet ground, and just listen, wet knees and all, to the sounds of life on this planet, persisting in beauty, still, despite everything. This attention is medicine; not the kind that ends war or pollution or cancer or grief, but the kind that gives us strength to go on, fortifies the heart for whatever we must face. We're all in need of this medicine, even when our lives are sweet and good; it's the kind of tonic that persists in the heart and can be drawn against when the balance shifts, as it always, eventually does.

The birds gather bits of fluff and fur and spiderwebs, dry grass, small sticks, and build hidden nests in the trees. Their eggs are small, delicate miracles of devotion, the hatchlings naked and helpless and hungry in the cold. They will be tended, they will be fed, they will grow feathers and learn to fly, most of them. They will be pursued and hunted, they will escape or be eaten, and they will be hunters themselves, of seed, insects, and worms. The ravenous, complex, beautiful circles of life go on all around us. Kneeling, listening, walking, eating, loving, dreaming, on the spinning planet, we can feel and hear and taste them, all around us.

It's the same thing I write about every week, I know. The weather, the balance, the world. The flavors and the things to savor, the wounds and the blessings, the singing birds. Breakfast, the garden, the small rituals of attention that ripple out and intersect with the world around us. The news this week has been grim, as the world watches war unfolding in the streets of yet another country. It's been eye-opening, too, to interrogate the outpouring of support for Ukraine as contrasted with our support, or lack thereof, for other war-torn nations and peoples. How clearly we can see our own reflection in the faces of one another influences the degree to which we feel empathy for them. This kind of attention that I write about almost weekly expands our scope of perception, allows us to comprehend and to feel the similarities and inherent worth of all living beings, not just those who most resemble ourselves. It is a worthy practice, never finished, but worthy all the same.

When the son of dear friends was lost at sea last year, I returned to a favorite poem of mine by Mary Oliver. The last lines haunted me, as I went about my days, wrote my silly little words, pulled weeds in my garden. Carrying the sorrow of their loss in my heart, while others went about their lives without knowing the same grief, I felt highly attuned to the way we can only care about what is specifically known or beloved to us. "I do not say that it is not a fault," Oliver wrote of this tendency. But she viewed it with grace, even as she strove through her poetry and her lived experience, to illustrate, over and over, her view of "the principle of things"; this connected oneness, between all souls and lifeforms, is a theme that resonates through all of her prodigious output.

The challenge that we are faced with, in this interconnected world, is to recognize this connection and act accordingly, with as much grace and compassion for ourselves and all living things as we can muster. Attention and mindfulness broadens our awareness of this connection, so that we can meet the challenge posed in this poem, to expand our sense of interconnectedness so that there is no distant land in our hearts. This poem seemed fitting to share here today, while the news bleeds on the television screen, while the memory of a recent (tiny) snowfall on our highest ridge tops still lingers, while the birds are singing in the treetops and my knees are muddy as I kneel on the cold sweet ground of home and and bring my attention, over and over, to the present.
By Jessica Tunis

Beyond The Snow Belt
Over the local stations, one by one,
Announcers list disasters like dark poems
That always happen in the skull of winter.
But once again the storm has passed us by:
Lovely and moderate, the snow lies down
While shouting children hurry back to play,
And scarved and smiling citizens once more
Sweep down their easy paths of pride and welcome.

And what else might we do? Let us be truthful.
Two counties north the storm has taken lives.
Two counties north, to us, is far away, -
A land of trees, a wing upon a map,
A wild place never visited, - so we
Forget with ease each far mortality.

Peacefully from our frozen yards we watch
Our children running on the mild white hills.
This is the landscape that we understand, -
And till the principle of things takes root,
How shall examples move us from our calm?
I do not say that is not a fault.
I only say, except as we have loved,
All news arrives as from a distant land.

-Mary Oliver