What the Catbird Heard – Part III

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“Sterling, what are you holding in your hand?!”

“It’s a squirrel, Grampy! I have it by its tail. I found it by Dinosaur Rock.” The young boy stood proudly on the path, having found his very own treasure.

“Sterling, put that down! It’s dead. It’s covered with disease and filth!”

“No, it’s not, Grampy. It looks clean and its fur feels soft. Look, you can hold it by its tail! It must be sleeping.”

“Sterling, it’s not sleeping. It’s dead. Put it down before Grammy sees you and has a fit. I want you to go inside the Nature Center and wash your hands. Right now.”

Sterling was surprised by his grandfather’s quick words, even as a dragonfly distracted him momentarily. “What if it isn’t dead, though, Grampy? I could take it to school or keep it in a box as a pet.”

“Sterling, when animals die, they get stiff like that. It’s called rigor mortis. We have to bury him.”

Rigor mortis? Grampy. What is that? I’ve never heard those words.” Sterling laughed at the silly sound the words made.

“It means ‘stiffness of death,’ I think,” his grandfather replied. “It’s Latin. When someone dies, medical examiners try to determine when rigor mortis sets in so that they know approximately when the person died.”

“People get stiff, too, Grampy? Not just animals? Why would we have to know the time? Isn’t it enough to know that someone died?” Suddenly there were so many questions.

“People are animals, too, Sterling,” his grandfather said simply, wending his way through a flock of geese.

“Gross, Grampy! We can’t be. We don’t live outside and eat berries and worms. We have houses with beds and tvs and microwaves and showers.” The birds chattered noisily now, the summer sun now peeking through the trees.

“Well, animals have houses, too, Sterling, and they may not have the same conveniences as we do, but they bathe and sleep and eat pretty much like people.”

“Grampy, if animals are like people, why don’t they talk like us?”

“I think they do talk to us, Sterling, but their language is different and we don’t always know what they’re saying. Sometimes I think they just talk among themselves. Birds are like that. And chipmunks and squirrels. They almost seem to be laughing at us.”

“Why, Grampy? What’s so funny about us?”

“I’m not saying they really are laughing, Sterling, but if they were it might be because we don’t have our priorities straight, at least in their minds.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Grampy. What are ‘priorities’?” His grandfather used such big words.

“The things we care about the most, Sterling. Animals must think all we care about is running off to work or school, driving to malls and supermarkets, talking into funny looking cell phones or plugging strange boxes into our eyes and ears. They must wonder at the endless line of people who stop off at our homes to cut our lawns or fix our pools or install appliances or even cook for us. They might wonder whose home it is!”

“Well, I think animals are the ones who are silly, Grampy. They don’t do anything but eat or sing or jump from tree to tree. All they seem to do is play.”

“I think that’s why they laugh at us, Sterling. We don’t play, at least enough. We work, just like they do, to eat or to find shelter, but for them it’s play. For us, it’s a job. We complain about having to do it.”

“Do you think animals don’t complain, Grampy?”

“I don’t know, Sterling, but it looks as though they don’t. They seem to have a gift for enjoying the present moment. It’s the one thing that most people seek, but can’t seem to find in their lives.”

Sterling thought about that for a moment and then said, “Do you think I work too much, Grampy.  Mommy tells me I have to stop playing sometimes and to come in to do my work. Can I tell her you said I don’t have to?”

“No, Sterling, sometimes you do have to come in to do your work, but what the animals seem to know is that there’s really no difference. Both are required to live. Both bring us joy and satisfaction. That’s their secret. That’s what they sing to themselves each day.”

“But I complain sometimes, Grampy. I don’t always want to go to school or help with the chores or clean my room.”

“Especially clean your room, from what I can see, Sterling!” His grandfather laughed.

“Does that mean I don’t have the gift of the moment, Grampy? I love presents.”

“I know you do. No, you have the gift. You’re curious. You ask questions. You’ll talk to anyone who wants to listen. You’re never bored. You’ll call me at night to go outside to see the moon. I think the animals could take a lesson from you!” His grandfather’s eyes glistened slightly now. The ducks frolicked wildly, perhaps in response to their early morning spectators.

“I wish I could teach this squirrel how to come back to life, Grampy. His stiffness scares me. It makes me think there’s never enough time for play, or the work we have to do.”

“You haven’t put that animal down yet? Sterling, we need to get a shovel. There should be a proper burial. I think your squirrel friend has taught you an important lesson today. We ought to be thankful for that.”

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What the Catbird Heard – Part I

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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!”

 

 

 

 

All Along the Watchtower

“There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief

No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” (Bob Dylan)

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Our children are watching… (Bill Knowlton photo)

All politics aside, I find the recent spate of reports about fake news, deliberate misinformation, distortion of facts, refusal to distinguish between truth and lies, etc. upsetting and demoralizing. The feeling is akin to a curtain being pulled behind which we discover, as does Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that the god-like wizard (in this case our experts, our authorities, even our government) is in fact a mere man creating smoke-and-mirror illusions of strength and wisdom and power. Perhaps more accurately  our refusal to seek a higher standard recalls “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in which no one dares to say the truth fearing they will be declared “unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent.”

The sad truth is that there no longer seems to be a consensus about what is real or factual. Substance appears to have little meaning any more. Everything seems to rest on opinion or bias, point of view or perspective. If a narrative conforms to an existing belief, it is accepted as gospel. If it challenges that belief, it is declared false, fake, part of a conspiracy. We live in a “post-truth” world in which facts don’t matter when shaping public opinion. Appeals to emotion and personal belief have far more sway.

Perhaps, as some suggest, this has always been the case. Megan Garber makes a good argument for that idea in her Atlantic article “The Image in the Age of Pseudo-Reality.” Garber examines Daniel Boorstin’s thesis that we live in (and have for a long time) a P.T. Barnum world in which people not only can be fooled, but want to be fooled. “We don’t quite know what reality is anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care,” says Garber.

“The image, the stereotype, the ad, the manufactured spectacle, the cheerful lie … these are, (Garber says), all of a piece. They are evidence of Americans’ constitutional comfort with illusions—not just in our cultural creations, but in our everyday lives. Deceptions are our water: They are everywhere, around us and within us, palpably yet also, too often, invisibly.”

That idea is reinforced by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg in their insightful Salon article about redeeming civic virtue in an era of looking for simplistic answers through an imaginary past. They argue that “our political mythology is stuck on the constant longing for an earlier-imagined simplicity, a return to fairness by stripping away barriers of bureaucracy. In America, people have always demanded simple answers, as if “simple” was inherently virtuous.” Exacerbating this tendency, they say, is the fact that:

“Educated opinion is distorted today as never before: modern media sensationalism, commercial sponsorship of every conceivable space, Internet tunnel vision, fake news. Fame has become an end in itself, counted in Twitter followers, YouTube viewers and the like. And then there’s the ongoing addiction to reality TV, where outright humiliation is tolerated so long as it insures the image-conscious(ness) of enduring popularity.”

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Beyond the bluster and noise… (Bill Knowlton photo)

In effect, if image is more important than substance, popularity more valued than reflection or vigorous debate, bluster and noise more credible than intelligence or open-mindedness, pettiness and self-aggrandizement more common than empathy and a willingness to sacrifice, then we have little chance of meaningful discussions and little hope of mustering the discipline necessary to effect change.

Nico Lang says as much in his Salon article comparing fake news to modern propaganda. He recalls a recent speech given by President Obama in which he says, “If we are not serious about the facts and what’s true and what’s not, particularly in the social media era when so many get information from sound bites and snippets off their phone, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

Words matter. Actions have consequences. And everyday people need to be held accountable for their decision-making as much as politicians and civic leaders, educators and professionals of every stripe. Charles Taylor echoes this idea in the Boston Globe when he says, “There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know.” He adds, “No one is too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed not to be held morally accountable for their choices.”

Scientists like Donald Hoffman of U Cal Irvine may give credence to the existential crisis into which we have fallen by telling us that “the world presented to us is nothing like reality…” Our perceptions fool us into thinking that “the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” They may declare boldly, as does Julie Shaw in Scientific American that “I don’t believe in facts,” that our job as scientists is to “collect evidence that supports or does not support our predictions… but at no point have we proved anything… our findings are wrong, almost by necessity.”

But they also give us a path to dealing with our angst. “Let’s make it our job as a society,” Shaw says, “to encourage each other to find replicable and falsifiable evidence to support our views, and to logically argue our positions.” Beyond that stance, I would argue, we need to educate our children in the subtleties of propaganda, the increasingly sophisticated tactics of advertising, and the perils of online “sourcing.” We need to teach them how to conduct research and evaluate reliable resources, how to structure a reasoned argument and listen with an open mind to viewpoints different from their own.

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“If we are alive, let us go about our business” (Thoreau-Bill Knowlton photo)

I would suggest, too, that old and young would do well to become re-acquainted with Thoreau’s Walden, particularly “Where I Lived and What I Lived for.” Nowhere will we find a more sage and prescient prescription for what ails us today. Essentially Thoreau argues for simplicity, saying that “our lives are frittered away by detail.” He argues for pace and proportion, saying we think it essential “that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour… but whether we live like baboons or like men is a little uncertain.” He argues for presence and living in the moment rather than waking from a half-hour’s nap after dinner only to worry about “what’s the news?”

“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths,” he tells us, “while reality is fabulous.” As for facts, if we stood face to face with one, he says, we would “see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing (us) through the heart and marrow… Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” For Thoreau, that reality lay in “living as deliberately as Nature,” beyond the “mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe…”

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What we seek is right before our eyes…

For us, reality may become clearer in a moment of quiet, the tranquility of a walk, the smile of a loved one: the satisfaction that comes with a job well done, the release of self-discovery, the excitement of pursuing an unfamiliar path. Something simple and focused that allows us to breathe, something that forces us into the present moment. Whatever takes us out of ourselves will at the same time take us within. “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,” says Thoreau. “…petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality.” We create our own lives, Thoreau would remind us. We can change what we know to be untrue or doesn’t work or isn’t acceptable. We do not have to depend upon others for the formula. Our instincts and intellect will guide us along the right path.

 

 

 

Truth in the present moment

“Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and never will be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.” (Thoreau, Walden)

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Bill Knowlton’s photo is stunning. When I view it, I think of a universe of shimmering waves, some of which coalesce before our eyes as animal or vegetable or human forms, but which ultimately are little more than electrons floating through a space-time continuum. We think in terms of a material world, but all matter is energy. And in this photo it’s as if the mallard swims simultaneously between two realms of particle and wave, its path detectable only by a trail of azure blue refraction. There are no dualities: no life and death, no up and down, no past and present. Only now. All is one quantum consciousness, here visible in the form of heavenly white feathers supporting a head of emerald green and a beak of ancient gold.

Striking, too, is the sense of peace, of quiet, of tranquility conveyed in this image. That the mallard could glide through his life with such utter grace and purpose, seemingly unaffected by anything but his being, inspires us to do the same. For all the motion that is apparent here, an impressive aura of silence fills the space, perhaps equivalent to, or a reminder of, the steady movement of the planets and stars. Is it possible that we leave a similar blue plume through the vacuum, the glowing trace of our lives in our wake?

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The sharp contrast in this second image reminds me that the sanctity and beauty of life is more complicated than a smooth glide upon still water. There will be tumult. There will be change. No journey is complete without a struggle. The merganser standing firm upon the nest box entrance knows the course. Her eyes are steady, her feet braced, her cinnamon crest defiant in the wind. Breeding season awaits. Winter still leaves a trace of rime upon the wood frame she now inhabits, the specter of black ice that drove her to leave for open water a mere memory. She knows she will leave again if need be, that she will have to share her space with species who lay unfamiliar eggs. But spring will come with all its promises. There will be fish enough for all and warmth and summer rain.

Note: Photos are courtesy of Bill Knowlton. See more of his images taken at Stony Brook here: http://www.billknowlton.com/Birds/StonyBrook