What the Catbird Heard – Part I


Photo courtesy Audubon.org

“Mackenzie, why are you lying on your back with your head up against that tree?” her grandfather wondered, surprised to find his little girl alone just off the trail in the back of the Nature Center.

“I don’t know, Grampy. I sat down, then fell back, and when I opened my eyes and looked up, I couldn’t stop. It’s too beautiful. I feel dizzy, as if I am spinning upward and out of control.”

“Let me see. I’ll lie down beside you and we can both look up!”

“Do you feel the sky pulling you, Grampy? Do you wish you were that tree?”

Her grandfather smiled, warmed by her active imagination and capacity for love. “I think I know what you mean, Kenzie. Down here I can feel the tree soaring, defying gravity. If I were younger, I’d want to climb up its branches and see how high I could go, how long they’d support me.”

“Don’t talk, Grampy. Just listen. We can climb later.”

“Do you love me, Grampy?” his granddaughter suddenly asked, the morning’s stillness broken only by the steady hum of the insects coming to life in the spring.

“Oh, Kenzie, of course I do! Why would you ask?”

“Well, Mommy and Daddy say they love me. And Grammy of course. And I always say I love them back, but it’s hard to know what we mean when we say we love someone.”

The berries along the garden fence suddenly looked a deeper red. “I think we mean that we care deeply about that person,” her grandfather answered. “It’s a way of saying that we want to be with that person, that he or she makes us feel happy or more alive.”

“But, Grampy, how can we be more alive than we are?” Mackenzie wondered. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Her grandfather laughed, realizing how inadequate words can be to explain what really matters. “Well, there’s a difference between being able to walk and talk and eat, and being able to transform someone or something.”

“Transform”? Mackenzie asked, puzzled by a word so unfamiliar to her.

“Change them. Make them better. Help them to feel inspired, able to do anything. It’s how you feel when you look up from the bottom of that tree,” her grandfather replied.

“I like that feeling, Grampy, but I’m not sure I love the tree.”

“In a way, I think you do, Kenzie. I think you are a loving person, which means you give something of yourself to the people, and even things, around you. You give some of your light or energy or trust.” Her grandfather stepped away from the tree, as if to give himself more space.

“I don’t feel as though I’m giving anything, Grampy. I feel people are always giving me something instead.”

“That’s a big part of love, Kenzie. You give, but feel as though you get more in return.”

“What about when you’re bad, Grampy? Sometimes I get really mad at Mommy. Once I even bit her I was so angry. And Mommy sent me to my room when I spit at her one time. Did she stop loving me then?”

“No, Kenzie, believe it or not she didn’t. She may have been hurt or disappointed or angry, but in some ways her love actually grew stronger.”

“Stronger? How can that be?”

“Because the anger isn’t important. It fades away. What stays is the exchange of feeling, the communication, the realization that nothing can break the connection that exists between you.”

“Is it always that way, Grampy? My friend Abby said that her daddy was leaving her mommy and wouldn’t be living with them. Abby didn’t know whether she had been bad and her daddy didn’t love her anymore.”

“Oh, that’s so sad, Mackenzie. I’m sure Abby’s dad still loves her, but sometimes love becomes complicated between adults. Sometimes people change, and the trust is broken. Love can be very painful.”

“Will that ever happen to Daddy and Mommy, Grampy? I don’t ever want to lose them.”

“No, Kenzie, I think they are like me and Grammy. We disagree, and sometimes fight to the point where we won’t talk, but you know the feeling of being pulled up that tree and into the sky? You know the excitement you feel when you look up? That’s what we always come back to. That love doesn’t end.”

“But, Grampy, is all love the same? You’re married and love Grammy. Do you feel the same about her as you do about me? I’m just a little girl. Who will ever want to marry me?”

“It’s different, Kenzie, but equally wonderful. As for who will want to marry you, I think they’ll be lined up for miles!”

“I don’t even like boys, Grampy. They’re dirty and they fight all the time and throw acorns at me.”

“More proof that they like you already! Boys have a funny way of expressing themselves.”

“Grampy, boys are gross! I don’t care how they express themselves; there’s no way I will ever love any of them. I think you should marry me, and we can have our own family. And Grammy can live with us, too!”

“I’m flattered that you would ask me, Kenzie, but wait until you’re a little older and see if you change your mind. I think you may see those boys differently. Love sometimes grows in mysterious places.”

“Grampy, I like mysterious places, but for now I think I want to climb this tree. Will you lift me up?”

“I’ve got ten fingers waiting for you, little girl. Hold on!”






After the Storm: Mindfulness

P1090580I hear the term mindfulness being bandied about in the media more and more these days, perhaps a clear indicator that, as a movement, the practice will soon be passé. It seems the word refers to everything from Buddhist meditative practices and health club Yoga exercises to smart phone apps that help to regulate blood pressure or breathing. Trendy among movie stars and athletes, mindfulness is even more so among businesses that strive to create a culture of creativity, self-empowerment, and dynamic energy among their workers. The idea is that people become more productive and fulfilled the more centered and attentive they are in their daily lives.

For me, mindfulness is best thought of as nothing more than a reminder that we need to slow down and pay attention. Pay attention to what we think and feel, how we respond to the people and events in our lives, and to our environment, particularly the natural world. It’s about presence, keeping things simple, developing a sense of calm or certainty. As David Hochman reported in the New York Times recently, “the desire is rampant for ‘non-doing’… What the culture is craving is a sense of ease and reflection, of not needing to be stimulated or entertained or going after something constantly. Nobody’s kicking out technology, but we have to regain our connection to others and to nature or else everybody loses.”

Enter Stony Brook. People come to Stony Brook for many reasons, but what they gain more than anything else is a measure of mindfulness. To that end, the day after one of our most recent snow storms I decided to venture out to the observation deck on the island with the goal of opening myself up to non-doing. After several hours of staring at the computer and answering phone calls and listening to day-campers screech, I sought refuge in solitude and trusted to the beneficence of the Sanctuary’s grounds.

I was not disappointed. Though I didn’t necessarily achieve some Zen state of mind, what I re-discovered is that the more life slows down, the more there is to see. The more one limits his field of view, the more it expands to reveal its essence. I was literally assaulted by colors and sounds. Snow that was at once brilliant white became furrowed with gray and then shimmered in ice blue. A deck railing of weathered pine, indistinct from the background trees, glowed with a neon blue swatch over drug-laced graffiti. Trees that appeared simply brown or black revealed swirls of green moss and blotches of lichen, patches of beige and knots of dark purple. P1090581

Looking closer, I saw a litany of storied romances carved into the rail. Ethan and Nancy together for keeps. RLB’s love for KAC lasting forever. A tree trunk’s gnarly bole suddenly revealed itself to be an ancient birdhouse, long abandoned it seemed for a more comfortable home. Tufts of loosestrife burst forth from the ice as if the ancient headdress of a mythical goddess below. A single beech leaf encased in alabaster snow seemed more a wall hanging than an accident of Nature, other leaves strewn haphazardly along the trail perhaps by Hansel and Gretel to find their way home. P1090578

And in the background a steady and subdued rush of wind or hum of traffic or roar of a locomotive. It was never clear the source. Nor did the sound ever diminish except when punctuated by the incessant chirp of a lonely titmouse, looking for its mate or simply re-asserting its presence. And overlooking it all a sentinel water tower in the distance, stolid blue with snow-capped top, determined to fulfill its duty regardless of the chaos at its feet.

Then all at once the cold air numbed my fingers, and spits of snow in the air flew in my face, perhaps urging me to follow the well-beaten track back to the Nature Center where, interestingly, I was eager for human contact, energized now for the daily routine, more open to humor and the warmth of indoors. Mindfulness? Inner peace? Self-awareness? Had I achieved any of it? I didn’t know. Nor did it matter. It was time well-spent.