November remembrances: Guided from darkness to light by those who have gone before us

My November column for The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom:

With November comes the descent into the cold and darkness of the forthcoming winter. After an extended period of warmth and sunshine it is difficult to see the barren trees and lifeless gardens. Birds are flying south and chipmunks are scurrying about, gathering nuts for the winter before setting into hibernation. Nighttime exceeds the daylight hours; many of us will only see the morning sun as we head into work only to be greeted by darkness when we go home. The world around us is preparing for winter sleep. November feels like death.

Artur Rydzewski, “Cranes migration,” Flickr Creative Commons

Darkness into light

Yet, come December 21, the trend changes. After the shortest day of the year, daylight begins to increase. Ice, snow and cold engulf us and yet, each day is a little longer. The silence of January is replaced by birdsong in February. By March 21, we are celebrating the coming of spring.

Nature is a sign of God’s promise to those who believe in Him. Each year the seasonal cycle reminds us that even as we descend into darkness, we emerge again into the light.

Du Ende, “Dusk,” Flickr Creative Commons

Pondering heaven

The Church has designated this month of November as a time to pray for our beloved dead. It can be a difficult and somber time as we are reminded of our grief. Yet at the same time, it is a time of hope, the recent Feast of All Saints being the perfect example. We celebrate those saints, known and unknown, who have gone before us and who intercede for us. The readings from the day’s liturgy help us to focus on the glory that awaits us if we continue to persevere. Although no living person has seen heaven, still, it is enjoyable to ponder on the mystery even as a clear picture eludes us. Our hope is based upon the promise that we will rise, as did Christ, in a glorified body, freed forever from suffering and sorrow. Sainthood is the eventual end, and beginning, for all believers.

Moving through our season of darkness

November reminds us that all must pass through the winter of suffering and death first, along with the purification of Purgatory. There is no way to avoid these winters even if we are fortunate enough to die in our sleep. We are aware of the aging of our bodies with all its aches and pains. The mind becomes dulled and emotions are magnified. Disease exacts great suffering. We lose family and friends to death and feel increasingly isolated as our world becomes smaller. Those who care for aging loved ones suffer as well, often feeling powerless in the relentless march towards the inevitable. Clinging to the hope given to us by God becomes the existential challenge. Truly there is martyrdom in aging.

Billie Greenwood,
“In the Winter of My Life, I Bloomed,” Flickr Creative Commons

It is a journey from death to life even as Christ suffered on the cross and died. He endured the agonies of mind, heart and body. He also rose to life again in a glorified body. While many of us will need to go through a period of purification after we die in order to prepare for sainthood, we can find comfort in the fact that many living souls are praying for us and holding us close to their hearts. Springtime will come.

Remembering those who have gone before us

November reminds us of the importance of remembering loved ones who have died. We can actively pray for them and help them through their journey of Purgatory. They can know the comfort of our companionship through their suffering.

Remembering those in our midst

November also reminds us of the need to draw close to our suffering elderly. As difficult as it can be to confront aging and the dying process, there is a profound sacredness in offering our love and care. They are going before us, acting as our guides. Those who cling to the hope of God’s love demonstrate how to let go of life while remaining engaged in it, entering into the unknown of death with courage and grace. No lesson is more important.

November is a month of grey skies and blustery winds. It is also a month to ponder the greatest of all mysteries – life, death, and resurrection. As we pray for those living and those gone on before us, let us embrace these mysteries in all that we do.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA; photo by Susan Bailey

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Another great discovery right under my nose!

Remember when I posted about discovering a little piece of heaven across the street from my house? After living there for twelve years?

Looks like I’ve found another treasure in my town. Continue reading “Another great discovery right under my nose!”

On the journey to harmony–Thoreau, the Sound Map and opening up the inner eye

In my quest for a harmonious life I understand the need to be still. Certain tools help in that effort:

  • Reading, to organize my thoughts.
  • Praying, to tap into my soul, drawing me closer to God.
  • Time spent outdoors, especially in the Spring, to quiet myself.

Achieving mindfulness

The landscape is slowly coming to life here in New England and when I see signs of Spring, I think of Henry David Thoreau. His intimate knowledge of the outdoors came from a sense of mindfulness–no detail missed his watchful eye. He took the time to be still and observe. And in following that simple maxim, the world revealed itself to him.

roses-640

New book on Thoreau

I recently reviewed a book on my Louisa May Alcott blog by Corinne Hosfeld Smith (certified tour guide of the Thoreau birthplace and author of Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey) called Henry David Thoreau for Kids:

thoreau for kids

Demanding writer

I welcomed this book because while I have always appreciated Thoreau’s message, I find his his works difficult to get through. The writing is dense, demanding your full attention. Many of us suffered through high school and college English classes with his classic Walden. And yet, that message of a different way of living got through to me even though I could not begin to digest all the words.

Making Thoreau concrete

What I loved about Henry David Thoreau for Kids were the twenty-one activities geared for middle school students that help you live out his ideas. Many of these activities are just as engaging for adults.

I was intrigued by the exercise which encouraged the participant to sit outdoors for thirty minutes in total silence, waiting for wildlife to appear. Sure enough, after a few moments birds and other creatures come close for observation. I was eager to try this exercise in my quest to be still.

pansies-640

Helpful tool

Stillness, however, does not come easily in this busy world so I was grateful that Smith recommended another exercise to help me focus–creating a sound map.

Sitting in my lawn chair, I sketched the area you see here in my notebook and every time I heard a sound from nature, I drew an “x” where I thought I heard it and wrote down what it was. As you can see, I heard quite a bit!

panoramic photo (uses first and third photo)2-720

From listening to observing

In the listening, I began to appreciate the visual imagery around me.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Stillness opens the inner eye

Stillness and mindfulness are hard to achieve in this high tech, multi-tasking, noisy world. Patience and due diligence are rewarded however with the opening of the inner eye, that which sees beauty and truth around us and eventually, within us. It’s a simple truth really: the wonder of life and how it was created, and how we are lucky to be alive despite all the challenges.

Houghton MS Am 1506 (4)-Cranch
Houghton MS Am 1506 (4)-Cranch

A compatriot of Thoreau’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote of the transparent eyeball, an expression for which he was mocked. Wikipedia explains it this way:

 “The transparent eyeball is a philosophical metaphor originated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transparent eyeball is a representation of an eye that is absorbent rather than reflective, and therefore takes in all that nature has to offer.”

Emerson experienced an epiphany that day–the discovery of the ability to read between the lines in the world around him, and come to an understanding of a deeper existence within him.

Once that eye is opened …

… you never want it to close. All of a sudden, the smallest things become lovely, compelling, even exciting. Once I became mindful of what surrounded me in the natural world, I couldn’t get enough of it, especially when it came to bird watching and kayaking.

And once I made a commitment to pay attention to what was there inside of me, allowing myself to to be drawn closer to my Creator, I find I can’t get enough of that either.

Silence is becoming an elixir.

I understand from the great mystics that you can learn to be quiet and still even in the midst of noise and chaos. Wouldn’t that be something! Somehow I think a bunch of people with that kind of inner harmony could truly change the world for the good. Think about it.

harmony1

Your time of stillness

Try spending thirty minutes in the woods, in a field or by a pond this Spring. Create your own sound map and share it here. Let’s compare notes and find out how we are doing on our journey to harmony.

You can find out more about Henry David Thoreau for Kids here, and read about the author, Corinne Hosfeld Smith, here.

Click to Tweet & ShareOn the journey to harmony–Thoreau, the Sound Map and opening up the inner eye http://wp.me/p2D9hg-1IH

em space

 

 

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Read my other blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion

 

 

 

How do our fine-feathered friends withstand the snow and cold?

We just got hit with a couple of back-to-back snowstorms, bringing back painful memories of last winter here in the Northeast (four feet of snow!). I love to feed the birds and have often wondered how they survive blizzard-like conditions.

Just to show how wonderful creation can be, here is a very informative article about how birds survive storms. They may appear to be small and helpless, but obviously their Creator has equipped them well for survival.

Bryce Mullet Winter Robin
Bryce Mullet Winter Robin, Flickr Creative Commons

Here’s a tease:

With threats of a monster blizzard barreling towards the Northeast this weekend, many people are stocking up on supplies and planning movie marathons. But how will the birds survive the storm? The answer is threefold: Location, preparation, and adaptation.

Shelter in Place

When bad weather hits, birds generally seek shelter in microhabitats, such as inside a thick hedge, or on the downwind side of a tree—in this case, being petite has its advantages. Hunkering down in these spots can protect them from wind, rain, and even cold (it’s warmer closer to the ground). Birds that nest in cavities, including woodpeckers, bluebirds, and chickadees, can also hide out in their tree holes.

Click here to continue reading.

If you’ve never fed birds before in the winter, give it a try! You can be surprised with some amazing visitors:

bluebird on suet-640
Rare February visit of the Eastern Bluebird (5 of them came to the feeders!)

As you can imagine, this made me quite late for work! 🙂 God’s creation is a wonderful thing.

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Finding light and life in the midst of January stillness and cold

My January column for the Catholic Free Press

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The long Christmas break (along with the mild weather) is over and reality comes back with a thud. The prospect of a long winter ahead is daunting especially with memories of the epic snowfall amounts of last year still haunting many of us.

I once anticipated January with dread. Winter can be dark, oppressive and confining: the arctic air and biting winds… the deep snows burying the landscape … ice covering the streets and sidewalks … darkness that greets us when we rise and meets us at the end of each work day.

January is a quiet month. Birds don’t come to the feeder; their songs no longer greet me in the morning. Crickets and locusts have gone silent at night.

January was a month without life.

outermost-houseThen I read Henry Beston’s classic, The Outermost House. Beston chronicles a year of his life spent in solitude in an isolated one bedroom cottage which he built and christened the Fo’castle. Built in 1925, the 20 ft. x 16 ft. cottage was located at the edge of Coast Guard Beach in Eastham (now part of the Cape Cod National Seashore). Named a National Literary Landmark in 1964, it was washed out to sea by the Blizzard of ’78.

Originally planning to spent two weeks at the cottage, Beston was so taken with the “beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea … that [he] could not go.” During that year he wrote of the change of seasons and its effect upon his surroundings: the birds, animals, and insects; vegetation; the sand and the waves; the stars in the night sky. His prose is poetic, painting vivid pictures of color and texture. He describes the chaos and despair aroused by a devastating blizzard which nearly washed away his cottage, putting his life in peril. Yet even in the bleakest of settings, Beston’s writing inspires wonder and awe.

The Outermost House changed my perception of January because of Beston’s descriptions of arctic birds migrating down from the north, resting on the beach in the dead of winter. That description lifted me out of my own small circumstance and reminded me that life still goes on around me.

Brian Gratwicke Arctic tern, Flickr Creative Commons
Brian Gratwicke Arctic tern, Flickr Creative Commons

There was not only life, but light in the darkness: “Light came slowly into the world, coming not so much from the east as from some vague, general nowhere – a light that did not grow brighter but only increased in quantity.” It reminded me that by the end of January, the sky becomes pink again by the time I leave the office. The days are growing longer and the light, brighter.

January is not unlike time spent in the womb, waiting to be born. The caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly within the confines of the cocoon and breaks through into the sunlight. The baby, its delicate features forming nine months inside the dark, protective womb of its mother, emerges into the light at birth.

We just celebrated the coming of such a baby who brought his eternal Light into the world. His Light pierces the darkness and brings new life.

Ivan Saracino Christ's nativity, Flickr Creative Commons
Ivan Saracino Christ’s nativity, Flickr Creative Commons

So, rather than give in to the melancholy that can come with the conclusion of Christmas and the reality of winter, I seek instead to embrace this Light. It may be cold, snowy and dark outside but within, that Light will increase in brightness and quantity as I take advantage of the quiet of January to bask in it.

The arctic birds are returning to the Outer Cape. The days are growing longer. In the repose of January it is time to partake of the Light of Christ.

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Fun Facts Friday: Dr. Seuss and historical women books; feral cat success story; fun in the mud; kayak adventures; singing for the Pope

Books

This book cover image released by Random House shows "What Pet Should I Get," by Dr. Seuss. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Random House
This book cover image released by Random House shows “What Pet Should I Get,” by Dr. Seuss. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Random House

“What Pet Should I Get?”, a recently discovered Dr. Seuss work, is on sale starting July 28.

Apparently. Dr. Seuss’ wife discovered a carton with manuscripts in the attic. AND, this book is just the beginning!

How cool is that???

historical novels

Novels About Real-Life Women Are Saving Forgotten History

Some fascinating women in history are explored through these interesting historical fiction novels.

Cats

people for happier cats

People for Happier Cats – Compassionate Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) Pilot for Feral Cats

This is an amazing initiative by Tinykittens.com with a feral colony of cats. The first experiment, that of trapping a pregnant feral so that she could give birth in in a warm and safe place resulted in her four kittens being totally socialized and adopted out to loving families while the mother cat was returned to the colony where she would be the happiest.

forest kittens

Nature/Education

fun in the mud

Fun in the mud: Children benefit from exposure to nature

How many of us remember making mud pies? Hiking in the woods? Splashing in a stream? Observing birds and butterflies? Every kid needs to experience the outdoors and this program offers some amazing options.

Kayaking

kayaking through the caves

Kayaking Through the Apostle Island Sea Caves

Check out this video of a kayak trip through the Sea Caves of Apostle Island – heavenly!

veterans kayaking

War veterans say kayaking helps them cope with combat trauma

As an avid kayaker familiar with its therapeutic benefits, I can see how this would be a tremendous benefit to our vets.

Music

As you all seemed to enjoy the video I posted of Sarah Hart singing “Praying from a Broken Heart” so I thought I’d share this:
October 26, 2013 – Sarah Hart singing in St. Peter’s Square for Pope Francis and a crowd of 150,000; Sarah meeting the Pope at the end of the video

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Taking a moment to just … be …

Last Sunday was a stressful day. It was one of many.

Sometimes life travels too fast. The plate becomes full to overflowing. Carrying a load of worry and frustration can become oppressive.

Time to off load my burden … time to take out the kayak. Continue reading “Taking a moment to just … be …”

Remember doing this as a kid?

Click to Tweet & ShareRemember doing this as a kid? http://wp.me/p2D9hg-hp

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A quintessential New England autumn in Concord, Massachusetts

Autumn in New England this year has been positively spectacular. In central Massachusetts where I live, the color is peaking this week. I haven’t seen such brilliant reds, yellows and oranges in years. Driving down the Massachusetts Turnpike every morning greeted by the rolling hills of fiery colors tucked among still-green trees starts starts off my day just right.

This is autumn to me.

A Massachusetts autumn to me is not complete without a visit to my beloved Concord. Transcendentalism flowered here for a time in the mid 19th century represented by such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller. Nathaniel Hawthorne also called Concord his home although he did not subscribe to  Transcendentalism.

Little Women was written in Louisa’s bedroom – the physical setting for the book was Orchard House.

One of the most beloved books in children’s literature, Little Women, was written by the daughter of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May. I have been studying Louisa on and off all my life and since 2010, consider myself a full-time student. I blog regularly about her on Louisa May Alcott is My Passion.

Last Saturday I spent some time at the Concord Free Public Library in their Special Collections room pouring over the diary of Louisa’s oldest sister Anna (aka, Meg in Little Women). The bright sun and cool, crisp air beckoned and I took the walk that Louisa and so many other famous authors walked, down historic Lexington Road, to her home (the setting for Little Women), Orchard House.

Between the gorgeous day and beautiful trees, the lovely antique homes and the history I pondered while walking … you can perhaps appreciate why being in Concord in autumn is a mystical experience for me.

Enjoy this virtual tour and I hope someday you can visit this special place too. If you have visited, share a comment about your experience. We’d love to hear!

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Click to Tweet & Share: Concord in autumn … mystical… join me for a virtual tour of fiery leaves, antique homes & extraordinary history http://wp.me/p2D9hg-gm

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God weaves His tales through the natural world

I believe in God. And I can see evidence of His existence and care for humanity, told through the stories He has left for me to find.

The more I immerse myself in God, the more these stories come to life. I’d like to show you what I saw yesterday during my lunchtime walk.

It’s October. Cool air and gray rainy days are becoming more frequent. Today a soft rain fell, covering the land in a shimmering mist.

The leaves are peaking here in Massachusetts, turning vivid shades of red, orange and yellow. They flash their colors for all to see only to fall to the ground.

Off in the distance I saw a tree, its fallen leaves creating a colorful circle around the trunk.

I started to think: leaves derive their sustenance
from the tree. Once the leaves fall, they will shrivel
up and die.

God was telling me a story.

“I am the tree,” He says, “and each of you are leaves. If you remain connected to the tree, you will flourish. If you decide to fall away, you will die.”

Reflecting on that thought (not unlike John 15:5 when Jesus calls Himself the vine and we the branches), I began examining the leaves on the ground.

Some were still supple and beautifully adorned, just waiting to be admired. Others were brown and dry despite the mist.

And it occurred to me: we, like these leaves, may fall away from our Source of Life and flourish for a time but eventually, the color will fade and life will ebb away until we too are brown and dry.

Even a leaf covered with raindrops cannot survive forever on its own.  The drops will evaporate and the leaf will wither. It needs the tree to live.

Thus the story of the vital relationship between God and humanity, told through His creation.

And there is more to this story.

No healthy tree bears only one leaf. Healthy trees are covered with leaves providing the traveler with relief from the heat under shady branches.

God did not intend for us to be alone. Without each other, we also wither and die.

He means for us to be a community, just like He as a Trinitarian God, forms the perfect community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

A seamless circle of love, continuous and unbroken for all eternity. Perfect love, perfect harmony and we are invited to join.

And unlike leaves which are temporal, dressed in their best colors for a brief moment before fading and dying, we can become perfected as the image of God we were meant to be.

So long as we stay connected to the tree.

What story is God sharing with you today?

Click to Tweet & Share: God weaves His tales through the natural world. He told me one today, how about you? http://wp.me/p2D9hg-fU

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