GIRL ON FIRE, A NOVEL – PROLOGUE

 

PROLOGUE

 

 

When she first plunged into that dark womb, she could still hear them – singing through the stars to her. She was a sphere of throbbing light, radiating. Silver sparks flew off her and filled the cave of her new home. The imprint of her life was already graven, she could see it unfurl before her, helpless now to change anything. But still she trusted, even as the black wetness smeared her being, even as the heaving rains of Ireland crowded round that vessel carrying her. She tasted her first bite of loneliness. This mother walking through the world with her in tow; all she could do was follow. And still they sang, messengers from her true home, filling the void with beauty, with a soft light if she could just keep her attention on it. 

 

Voices rose and fell beyond the walls of her room, heavy, hard syllables she could barely understand. It seemed a strange language, devoid of the brimming heart of love she knew she was. How had she ended up here? Had she chosen this? 

 

Sometimes she felt a light tapping outside the mother’s body. 

 

“She’s there, Missus!”

“I heard her move!”

 

Yes, she was restless, rocking her tiny limbs in the gray fluid, to ease the new feelings passing through her. From where did they come? Whose were they? Foreign they felt, and she an alien sprouting arms and legs in this new country. Who was the mother to her? Or she to the mother?

 

Sometimes it felt hard to breathe – a kind of smoke billowing around the tissues of her home. She imbibed slight breaths and followed the mother’s movements, the singing floating from further off, she who had never known distance or time. 

 

Let love be my home, she thought, let all that unfolds melt into that. She consoled herself, made it her mission to always hold close the truth that was her familiar. To let this life wash through her like a pure river, and breathe, simply breathe. 

 

Never forget who you are, they sang to her from afar.

 

And as she inched painfully through that barrier of flesh into another kind of darkness, she made her covenant.

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FORGET-ME-NOTS When the Chaplain at Mary’s Woods Retirement

FORGET-ME-NOTS

When the Chaplain at Mary’s Woods Retirement Community invited me to do some grief processing with the residents, I jumped. Even though it’s a seven hour drive from Mt. Shasta where I now reside, I had to do it. Having taught spiritual writing for almost thirty years, I’ve been blessed to work in schools, universities, prisons, hospitals, libraries. All rewarding but the elderly, by far, afford the greatest pleasure to commune with.

Mary, the resident Chaplain, had organized a Grief Retreat for any residents who wished to participate. She served a delicious lunch for all who came, upwards of thirty people. I sat in the back of the sunlit room and watched as each person entered, some on canes, some in wheelchairs, many walking cautiously, gracefully to find their place at the table.

The retreat began with a small ceremony. Mary poured water, representing tears, into a large bowl. She raised her arm in blessing over it and invited each of us to do likewise. At the table next to me, a tiny woman valiantly stretched out her arm at a right angle to her body, even as her head and shoulders began to slump. Almost asleep, head cradled in her chest, her hand remained, loyally offered to the chalice of tears.

I glanced at each person, wondering how much effort it might have required to get dressed that morning and if someone had helped comb their hair. Earlier, I had met a woman in the bathroom who commented on my lace dress and smiled as we were both wearing lace and cardigans in the same color.

“Lace is IN this year,” she had shared enthusiastically, a fact I hadn’t been aware of, not so concerned with trends these days myself. But it warmed my heart to consider a woman in her 80’s still pondering the vicissitudes of fashion.

Mary handed out journals with Forget Me Nots on the covers, and spoke of the importance of grieving. She shared how grief never goes away, that it can be buried indefinitely and one day, bubble up and surprise you. She spoke of the stages of grief, of the healing power of tears. The Pastoral Counselor, Jon, sang a song of worship, accompanied by his guitar. An  employee spoke of her own shock at losing her father suddenly and how she had painstakingly learned to cope with her sorrow.

A power point presentation ensued and everyone listened with what appeared to be great interest. I was impressed, feeling a little of the traditional post-prandial fatigue myself.

I hadn’t realized before how the residents didn’t all know each other. It was a little like grade school in that way – each of them arriving in a new place with strange people, attempting to forge friendships with some.

When Mary suggested we pray for a woman who had recently died, someone gasped. How to keep everyone apprised of death and loss in a community of 450?

And with an average age of 80, most residents had lost or would lose those to whom they were close and often without warning.

Death was not the only challenge to be grappled with here: consider also loss of home, family, a history in the world, sometimes independence, often health. My heart melted into a hive of honey for these sweet beings, embarking on or setting into a new and likely final life here.

Luckily for them, Mary’s Woods is an exquisitely appointed residence, adjacent to Marylhurst College in Lake Oswego, lush grounds running all the way down to the river. The buildings are light and attractive. Flowers abound, trees in full flower, and yet it was unavoidably apparent in this setting how what flowers eventually dies.

After a piano piece by Jon, which everyone sang along to, I was invited to the microphone. Looking out at the sea of beautiful faces, almost like angels,

I was overcome with compassion. It was all I could do not to race around and hug each one, to try to fill whatever space had been hollowed out of them.

I was grateful, once again, for the near death experience I was offered thirteen years ago in my native Ireland, following a profound accident. When huge logs flying off a speeding lumber truck cracked me over the head, I went hurtling through the air and into oblivion. I remember a moment of skimming through the sky like a rag doll, freed of gravity, a body spun out of the orbit of earth.

Suddenly I was floating, whatever this I was – it was not located in space but seemed to be everywhere – and it felt free and saturated in LOVE. I could see the broken woman on the sidewalk, blood spewing out of her head, and everyone racing in circles, crying, screaming, calling ambulances.

But I had no concern for that body. In fact, I was puzzled that anyone at all was upset. From where I existed, every single moment seemed imbued, permeated, overflowing with an indescribably joyful love. Nothing was out of place in any way. This scene  – and every scene in the entire universe – was playing itself out in utter perfection. Why oh why couldn’t they see that?

I told my attentive audience about the magnetic pull of love I had experienced, an exquisite tide sweeping me into the arms of God. I spoke of how excruciating it was for me to be informed, not in words but through a deep knowing, that my work on earth was not done. I had to come back again and learn to embrace the heartbreak of being in a shattered body, weighted down by gravity and duality.

I tried to convey how it must have been for those loved ones of theirs who had passed on, how they perhaps could not resist the allure of God’s boundless love, an ecstasy far beyond human understanding. I offered how they too were in for a treat, how death, as I had been shown, is the most glorious, liberating, exquisite gift imaginable.

It is those who are left behind, however, who have a challenge. I spoke of the poet Lisel Mueller who only began writing poetry in her late 40s, following the death of her mother. She could not believe that the world would go on, that flowers would keep blooming on that momentous summer day, and she wrote, “So I placed my grief/ in the mouth of language/ the only place/ that would grieve with me.”

Sighs of knowing ushered through the room.

Then I shared with them a poem by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, written after the death of his beloved mother.

IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER

I do not think of you lying in the wet clay

Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see

You walking down a lane among the poplars

On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday –

You meet me and you say:

‘Don’t forget to see about the cattle – ‘

Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland

Of green oats in June,

So full of repose, so rich with life –

And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after

The bargains are all made and we can walk

Together through the shops and stalls and markets

Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,

For it is a harvest evening now and we

Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight

And you smile up at us  – eternally.

When I looked up from the poem, I found a sea of faces softened by flowing  tears and heaving chests. A charm of women and men who had lived long enough to lose much of what they loved. I saw firsthand the power of poetry to evoke deep emotion, long held memories. It was a stunning sight, the room flooded with love, as if one heart had broken open and rivers of eternal grief were now flowing in divine harmony.

Then I led them in a gentle guided meditation, suggesting they imagine a beloved they had lost and conjure a happy memory of that person. Having taught writing for decades, I was used to people who didn’t consider themselves to be writers balking at the undertaking. But these brave beings  picked up their pens and wrote unabashedly in their newly acquired Forget Me Not Journals.

One of the most moving aspects of teaching writing is observing a person with his or head bowed to the page and pouring out the contents of a delicate yet indomitable heart. Watching these debilitated, wounded, physically compromised people taking to it so passionately was an inspiration.

As I wandered the room, offering encouragement to some, suggestions to others, one woman sat stone-faced, her Forget Me Not Journal closed on the table before her. When I asked her if I could somehow help, she shook her head, looking away, “This is very difficult for me.”

So I stroked her back softly and told her how courageous she was to be here and perhaps a seed would be planted for later blossoming. She reminded me of my own mother, thin, brittle, terrified of revealing the unspoken pain of ages. I wanted to fold this woman into my arms, swaddle her like a baby in gentleness. I learned later that her husband had died just days before.

The woman who was enamored of lace also sat unmoving. I realized that she was from a foreign country, how writing in a new tongue could be intimidating. I told her how Lisel Mueller was German and wrote in English, her second language, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Everyone else was ready to share.

One woman had lost her father in a fishing accident. A retired nun said she had not felt her mother so deeply since she’d last seen her on her death bed. Another’s mother had died when she was only twelve but here, seventy five years later, she could still recall that afternoon sitting in the attic while her mother sewed, the slant of light through the window celestial.

A delightful man, his body almost doubled over in pain, shared how his father had often left home to commune with God and would disappear for hours, not to be found by anyone. The woman next to him, apparently his wife, offered to share verbally her memory of her son who had died when he was 50.

“I remember him best when he played his drums in his room,” she said, a tear sliding down her face. Afterwards, I hugged them both, one under each arm, these tender, fragile beings who had endured so much. I learned how their son’s daughter had died soon afterwards in a freak hiking accident. I assured them as sincerely as I could how both father and daughter were immersed in an unending ocean of love now, how they could not be in a better place, and how they would want us to be happy in this brief, mysterious, tumultuous life of ours.

After our writing and sharing session, Mary asked me to help distribute little pots. We were going to plant Forget Me Not seeds and water them, in remembrance of those who had passed on. All of us briefly became gardeners in the field of Love where there is no separation.

Several people said they knew why I had to come back to life, to share this gift that had revealed the deeper truth to me and now to others. And I, who had for a long time wished to go back to that place of peace and profound love again, now felt awed and glad for that long, sometimes torturous journey back into this world. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, as the song Desiderata goes, it is still a beautiful world.

Mary, our chaplain, broke down in tears as she concluded the ceremony, her tender heart moved deeply by the poignancy of it all.

On that miraculous afternoon, it was as if the bittersweetness of our humanhood could, for a moment, merge with our divine nature, the unique threads of our lives stranded together into one seamless, gorgeous whole.

Next morning, before I left, I raced down a steep hill to the river and at the bottom, met an elderly resident, black sunglasses shading his face, a large hat protecting his head from the rare Portland sun. He smiled at me, said he was bracing himself for the ascent.

I had seen him much earlier that morning, heading out slowly towards Marylhurst College and here he was now, close to completing his daily circuit. He told me he goes every morning for his Senior Coffee at McDonald’s.

“65 cents!” He beamed at me. “People tease me that I don’t go to Starbucks but where can you get a better deal than this?”

I nodded in agreement, relishing this man’s precious indulgence as much as he obviously was. He shared that he had lost his wife several years previously, that his daughter in Lake Oswego had guided him to Mary’s Woods. Far from being depressed, he seemed a beam of bright light, a warmth radiating from his very centre.

Bob, he said, was his name as I introduced myself, and as we parted, we shared a warm hug.

“Ana,” he said with gravity, “I will remember you.”

Just as I will cherish the treasure of each of those vulnerable souls who shared for a brief moment the supreme gift of their heart.

On the drive home to Shasta next day, I had to pull the car over onto a byroad and weep, tears of ancient, collective grief pouring off me like a river undammed as it transmuted into the pure gold of undying love.

A Charm Of Neighbors

A Charm of Neighbors

 

ImageMaybe because it’s the month of  Valentine, my neighbors lately have been arriving in pairs.

 

 

 

Let’s start with Banjo. Well, actually, his ‘dad’ told me he used to be Banjo but since he lost a leg in a bear trap, he is now known as Tripod. I prefer Banjo for it suits his sleek black hair and wild eyes – he has a bit of gypsy in him, no doubt.

 

For some unidentified reason, my mailbox is situated a block and a half away and whenever I walk up there to see what charms might be in wait for me, Banjo heaves himself off his front porch and races towards me. It always lifts my heart to see him bounding a mile a minute in my direction, his three legs working double duty.

 

But my friend is shy. Perhaps he was abused as a pup. When I lean into him and gently stretch my hand towards him, he instinctively recoils. A sharp, jarring movement as if he’s been on the receiving end of violence and hasn’t forgotten it. Watching and feeling that terror always makes me wince too.

 

Slowly, he has warmed up enough to stand next to my leg and occasionally will rub against my knee. It has taken months to win his confidence.

 

So it was a true treat the other day, when I was sitting in the garden imbibing the winter sun, and he came romping through the snow, a large, sinewy dog alongside him. His skinny consort had no fear and raced right up to me, laying his head in my lap.

 

Hiii, I sang to him in delight. Welcome, sweetheart. I’m honored to meet you.

 

But oh, Banjo was having none of it. I was HIS pal and without a shred of hesitation, he nudged his companion out of the way, and placed his soft head under my hand. I leaned in oh-so slowly and stroked his dark locks. His head was lowered as he drank in the love I’d been longing to share with him, as if he was scared to look up, as if he could not fully trust this might be a kind hand reining down on him.

 

For almost fifteen minutes, he stood next to me on his three good legs, head bowed, as my fingers ran the length of him. We drank each other in for the first time, all the brutality of the past washing away. His trembling flesh eventually settled and a peace sweeter than trickled honey ushered through us.

 

Meanwhile, Banjo’s cohort was off sniffing weeds, unperturbed, doing dog things while my new love was letting me tend to the deep bruise in his beautiful soul.

 

I don’t know if he’ll come close again but those minutes of injured bodies melding in a marriage of trust and even love healed us both.  Something deep inside each of us had softened the blows of our past and lured us more fully into the perfect present.

 

 

 

Although it is still February and snow has been draping the land intermittently, a chill still in the air, it doesn’t seem to have deterred the twin hummingbirds. Sitting at the outdoor table one morning this week, they flew in, landing on the pot of sweet pea seeds I planted last fall. They sunned themselves there, their chests a brilliant sheen of shades, rich purple, shimmering emerald. The crown jewels of the avian kingdom in all their royal splendor come for an early visit. I watched in awe as they milked the sun, hopping from one side of the flower pot to the other, then settling a while, before spiraling skywards in an acrobatic duet of love and delight. Oracles of spring dancing on my doorstep.’

 

 

 

It must have been the following morning that I was in the garage talking on the phone to a friend when out of nowhere appeared two birds. They were flapping madly against the window, trying to get back to the freedom of air again. But my car was filling most of the space and they didn’t turn round to find the wide opening of the garage door. The light through the window appeared to be their only escape. But they kept thudding against the glass, helpless.

 

As I hung up the phone, one of the pair somehow did a U Turn and found his way out. The other was a mad flight of feathers billowing against the glass, flying up off the tiny ledge and back down, racing from one corner of the window to the other. Something told me to approach extremely slowly. Taking tiny, gentle baby steps in the bird’s direction, I began to sing to him. A soft tune I was conjuring as I went, and it had a single lyric, that of my beloved Ramana, the Indian sage to whom birds and animals flocked regularly.

 

“Ramanaaaaa.  Ramanaaaa.” I sang quietly, a faint whisper as I moved closer. “Ramana-ah….”

 

Still the bird flapped but less frantically. I didn’t try to speak, to tell him I loved him and he was safe. Instead I poured that thought into my song, composed specially for this tiny creature of the air.

 

I let him feel my palm against his back, tenderly, for a moment before cupping his chattering body between my hands. “Ramanaaaa,” I kept singing the magic word. And amazingly – or not – he came to rest and just sat in my hands as if they were a tree branch. Like this, we came together, Ramana our bridge, as he drank in the kindness and love of that Holy Word. We were a hymn there together in that dark garage, two bodies become one.

 

I thought of the legend of St. Kevin of Ireland who raised his arms out one morning to the heavens and a bird’s egg landed in his palm. He stayed in that position, afraid to move, until the egg hatched and a little bird rose like a phoenix out of its shell.

 

Now Ramana was singing through this little bird’s being and he relaxed. We could have been a statue ourselves with only a light song swirling round us, right next to the open door.

 

And when he was ready, calm and secure, the little creature flew off to his natural home, a whiff of warm, gorgeous air in his wake.

 

This entry was posted on April 3, 2013. 2 Comments

Sacrament

 

This mysterious life of ours is always a miracle but sometimes an extra special magic offers itself.  Earlier this week, I was walking towards the garage when I saw a lovely little bird sitting on the glistening snow. We’d had a profound storm over the holidays and the snow was piled feet high in the garden. The bird – oh, he was lovely! A yellow and blue head and an almost mossy tummy – was perched on the mounds of white like a king, so majestic he seemed. He was looking around, drinking in the beauty, the flitting light between gray clouds. I wondered if he was wounded and was just working out a path through the icy white towards him when an avalanche of snow cascaded off the garage roof. One more foot forward and I would have been smothered myself but I was spared that. Only what had become of the bird? Surely he’d been buried alive. I caught my breath, wondering what my next move should be, when I caught sight of him, still upright, next to the garage wall. The falling snow must have somehow propelled him backwards – and I was stunned to find him in the exact same position, yet a dozen feet away from where he had been. He wasn’t moving, though, and I sadly sang him a soft lament and some songs of love on his journey to wherever his beautiful essence would convey him.

 

For a couple of days, I would sing to him or blow kisses as I passed through the garage. The snow was really too deep to wade through and there wasn’t a bare patch of earth in which to lay him to rest.

 

So imagine my surprise when, several days later, I was standing outside the sliding glass door, imbibing the gorgeous white dress covering the garden, and I saw him move his head. It felt like a resurrection, an unexpected return to the land of the living. He was swinging his head this way and that and I called out to him in delight, O, my little beauty, you’re still with us! How wonderful!

 

And he turned his colorful head towards me and – oh, imagine this! – starting walking on his little claws, step by cautious step, directly towards me. I kept singing to him, inviting  him over, feeling he would stop before he got too close.

 

But no, on he trundled, this brave, little creature, all the way across the garden, straight into my arms. I stroked his wet fur oh-so gently. He seemed clear and fearless. He had a goal, a destination, and it – for some miraculous reason – appeared to me. And now he had reached it, he just nuzzled up to me and imbibed all the love pouring out of my heart and hands. Oh, how heavenly it was to comb my fingers through the mop of his mossy feathers. He looked me straight in the eye, like a sage or a Master. It was a symphony of love and magic, one of those moments when time stops and all is harmonious in the world – animal and man merged into one sacred heart of communion. I offered him some seed but he wasn’t interested. Affection was all he cared for now, before he turned right and worked a careful path into a cocoon of snow and settled there.

 

I don’t know how long it took before he finally eased out of that magnificent body of his but one thing I am certain of is that I was the last person to see him before he died, that I was the graced one chosen to help usher him out of his garment of birdhood, and that we shared a love that transcended this human realm.

I sang him a warm lullaby that night as I lay down to sleep, feeling the enormity of his spirit – boundless now, freed of boundaries, of need. And I will cherish our rare and wondrous marriage in my heart for the rest of my days.

 

This entry was posted on February 9, 2013. 3 Comments

Mt. Shasta The Magician

 

Living in Mt. Shasta is to be seduced into a vortex of sheer, surprising and sometimes intense magic. Ask anyone who is intimate with this holy mountain if they have not experienced first hand the fire of this seemingly inanimate land mass. Alluringly beautiful – shawled in radiant snow all winter, rimmed in red rock and luminous conifers all summer – Shasta is the blazing inferno that renders ash of egoic attachments. It’s just a matter of time and perhaps individual destiny as to when and how ferociously the flames ignite and take hold.

 

An exquisite metaphor – nature mirroring life – has swept through these past weeks: several immense forest fires south of here, and as close as McCloud, have disseminated a shawl of smoke across the entire landscape. One wakes each morning to the scent of burning, the usually crisp and clear air dulled and sullied, the outline of Castle Crags and the mountain herself mere figments of mist in the distance. The sheer blue sky one has become accustomed to has turned a sullen shade of gray. The perfect reflection for one’s internal burning. It’s like roiling in the belly of Shiva, that fearsome Destroyer of Illusion.

 

This town has long attracted those with spiritual proclivities, and there is a quiet acceptance among most residents of the interior fire that seems fueled by the deceptively calm mountain. I have heard many tales of people driving through, whose car breaks down and they are forced to remain here, and often do, for good.

 

Just yesterday, I hiked through the smoke with friends to the gorgeous Squaw Meadows at 8,000 feet, where wildflowers lit up the land in a rainbow of hues, oblivious to the thick air. On the way, we met a man with a small box suspended by twine around his neck. It rested against his chest, and the fabric ‘lid’ flew up on a wave of wind to reveal a tiny bird nestled inside. Leaning close, we saw a minuscule raven, sheeny black with tiny yellow fluff billowing on her chest and head.

 

“This is Holy,” the man, who seemed to have materialized out of another world, informed us. “She showed up at a table where I was having breakfast one morning. Injured. She was a gift.”

 

He hefted Holy out of the tiny box so we could peer at her tiny, char-colored feathers, her piercing beak. “Soon she’ll be ready to fly off,” he said, before leaving us.

 

Only on Mt. Shasta, my friends and I agreed, could such a fertile metaphor present itself.

 

On the return journey, after dipping our hot bodies in the crystal waters of Squaw Spring, we stopped to rest and saw a woman frantically waving and screaming at us in the distance. I recognized her orange teeshirt. We had crossed paths with her and her husband and two young girls earlier. But now there was only the woman with the elder girl in tow. She had a towel draped over her head in an apparent attempt to stave off the unrelenting burn of the sun.

 

“We’re lost!” She yelled as she approached. “My husband and daughter are gone. We’ve been walking back and forth for hours.”

 

I offered her some water, which she drank as if she’d been in the desert for months, which she had. I pulled a jar of tuna from my pack and some grapes, and the daughter tucked into them with a raw passion.

 

We were close to Hummingbird Spring, an oasis of green amidst the heaps of dusty volcanic rock. An aquifer gushed fresh mountain water straight out of the earth. It had fertilized the surrounding area in a verdant panorama of lush emerald grasses, jeweled with a glitter of Shasta lilies and starflowers. We refilled our water jugs and mother and child swallowed long and hard, liquid streaming down their chins and fingers.

 

My friend loaned the woman her phone and she called her husband for a pick-up at the upper parking lot, to which we led the way.

 

“Now we can see how beautiful it is here,” the woman, still shouting with excitement or anxiety, kept saying, as she scurried behind us. “Before, it was just scary.”

 

I wondered how she and her daughter would remember their visit to this powerful mountain – if they would find the gift in their adventure or if they would only recall the fear. It just confirmed what I know deep down to be true: that we are always, completely taken care of. Lost from our true, divine selves, we can wander in a humbling haze of doubt, but we are always being held, and eventually are found. Or, more accurately, in surrendering our grip on control, ultimately, we find ourselves.

 

I was just glad that, as fate would have it, I was in the right place at the right time to offer some assistance. Driving slowly back to town, I tucked in a pocket of my heart the warm assurance that even in my apparent moments of floundering, Holy Mountain is working her secret magic. And that fire – inferno or dim candle – also sheds light, especially where it seems absent.

 

I could have sworn the sky seemed clearer this morning, the air more fresh, the spirit lighter. But the raven, just like Holy Mountain, is renowned as a trickster, so I simply inhaled deeply, gratefully and leaned into the day.

 

 

This entry was posted on September 6, 2012. 2 Comments