Do you disturb the peace, or perpetuate it?

  “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”–Thich Nhat Hanh

The tail twitches and crouching ensues. Hips raised, ears flattened, the tail twitches more rapidly.

“LJ, stop!”

He remains immobile and continues his focus.

“LJAAAY,” said with slow emphasis on the A-sound.

A look is tossed over his lowered shoulders, signaling he doesn’t feel like listening.

Hand reaches for the spray bottle, and John, my husband, walks towards LJ, trigger aimed.  That is all it took. LJ, our solidly black cat, takes off in an attempt to avoid being squirted, but he’s not to be conquered.  Not yet. 

He circles back around the dining room table and reenters the same room through another entry point as if we can not see him.  Meanwhile, the desire of his pouncing antics, Tippi (Tail), our 14 year old gray cat, with the exceptions of tuxedo white on her chest and tufts of white on the tips of her paws and tail, sits peacefully undisturbed.  The only sign that she is aware of his shenagings is the very slow whishing of her tail along the top of the carpet.

LJ prepares to pounce once more; however, John rapidly squirts water in LJ’s direction.  Although John isn’t trying to precisely hit LJ, the sound and sight of the water sends LJ scuttingly out of the room.

Tippi looks towards where the water missed its target, turns her head back to its original position as her body sighs towards the floor in a perfect cat loaf.  Her tail encircles her body once more.

Throughout LJ’s attack, Tippi remained peaceful, never hissing or spewing.  While her tail signaled her awareness, she did not otherwise bring attention to LJ’s negativity.  Instead, she chose to remain at peace with it.  Vigilant, but non-reactive.  

John and I have watched this play out repeatedly, yet no matter how many times LJ attempts to attack Tippi Tail, she rarely responds out of anger. To be sure, Tippi will occasionally respond if he corners her. Mostly, though, she remains peaceful and at ease.  

LJ is a bit younger than Tippi and has not moved from the self-absorbed stage of life.  He wants to be the center of attention on his terms.  If the humans in his home, family members or visitors, aren’t paying attention to him, he finds ways to draw attention to himself.

For example, if Tippi decides to sit with one of us, due to her arthritis, we find ways to offer her assistance to climb up beside us, such as slightly lowering the reclining portion of a chair or couch.  As she tries to lift herself up to position, LJ will haughtily cross the room and attempt to “beat” her to the desired person.  If we move a step stool near the bay window, in order to assist Tippi’s assent to the cat beds in the window, LJ will try to block her attempts in order to claim the bay window area for himself.

Nonetheless, Tippi Tail finds ways to persist with grace and equanimity.  Her peace remains (mostly) unflappable.  Neither does she appear to hate LJ, nor does she appear to be jealous of his presence.  Instead, she seems to understand with a sense of compassion and patience that he can’t help what is inside him–his tendencies to compete, invade, dominate and exploit perceived weakness.  

Due to her serene perseverance, there reigns an unspoken peace between the two cats . . . most moments.  The more peaceful and tolerant Tippi becomes, the more LJ is learning to become that way.  It has taken years, but there are times I will wake up in the morning to find both cats sleeping at the foot of the bed–not necessarily near each other–but in the same approximate area. Furthermore, it is not unusual during cold days to find both of them soaking up the morning sun in the same room and within the same area, albeit, not touching each other.  

Sometimes, upon waking, I am surprised to discover, after I turn on the bedroom lamp, that both LJ and Tippi Tail had been peacefully sleeping at the foot of the bed.

Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote that, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” When LJ sees Tippi with one of us, he suffers jealousy because he perceives that she is getting all the attention and love.  If he sees that Tippi wants to be in one of the cat beds in the bay window, he suffers fear because he is afraid there isn’t enough secure space for him in the sunlight to cozy for a nap.  

While they both lived their early lives as stray cats, it is possible that something happened in LJ’s past that causes him to remain stunted and insecure.  Then, again, due to the fact, Tippi is older, and lived with us longer; perhaps, she feels solidly secure with her position in our family.  It could also be that she remembers a time when she was the younger cat in the house, competitively trying to exploit the weakness of one of our former cats, in order to gain our attention.  Possibly, she has simply outgrown those impulsive years. 

Whatever the reason(s), Tippi seems to understand that within LJ are potential seeds of love, compassion, playfulness and peace.  However, she also appears to sense that LJ is dominated by seeds of willfulness, anger, fear, and insecurity.  Due to age, circumstances, and/or experience, she is mindful of these seeds both within herself and within LJ.  Therefore, it often appears that she uses this insight to mindfully choose her actions–modeling peaceful behaviors, and only fighting back in order to keep from getting hurt when he corners her.  

Of course, I have personified my cats in order to make a point. To live in peace and harmony with others, we must recognize that all humans have similar needs/desires:  food, water and shelter, safety, esteem/value, love/belonging and so forth.  There is often fear and/or a feeling of lack when humans sense one of these is missing.  Additionally, everyone has the potential to develop and foster seeds of insight, self-awareness, and self-control, but not everyone focuses on developing these, much less developing them at similar rates.  

As the story of Tippi and LJ illustrates, it is important to be aware of our own insecurities, fears, and impulses in order to exercise self-control.  Recognizing our own proclivities with compassion and understanding, allows us to offer that same consideration and empathy for others.  

While this is never easy, and it takes practice, by learning to be less-reactive and modeling more appropriate ways of speaking, engaging, and responding to others, the more we can reduce conflict.  Of course, this is not to say we passively agree or accept all behavior and actions; rather, it is important to recognize that not every word, action, and deed with which we disagree needs a response.  Furthermore, if a response is required, how much more productive and beneficial they can be when given with considered insight/thought, self-control, and discipline   

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all learn to do what Tippi does with LJ– pursue patience, tolerance, and think before acting.  

The more Tippi practices patience and tolerance with him, the more LJ is becoming more at peace with her.

Like a Prayer

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

“Ms. Hill, don’t you like doing healthy stuff like hiking and running?”

The 6th grader looked at me with sincerity written across his face.  He was in my homeroom, the group of students with whom I start and end the school day.  By this point in the school year, I have come to know most of the students in this group fairly well, and this particular young man, in spite of his energetic youthfulness, has an uncommonly thoughtful side.  

The group of boys with whom he was talking and joking around at the end of the day, all turned to look at me.  I affirmed that I did indeed like both of those activities, but that I also enjoyed walking or simply being outside equally as much.

Nodding, seemingly with understanding, the same young man further inquired, prodding as to why I liked being outside.  After pausing to gather my thoughts, I explained that it made me feel happy, at peace, and connected to God. 

“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?” 

Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case, a 6th grader . . . 

Then, in typical middle-school fashion, the young man’s conversation quickly pivoted back to his buddies, so I returned to my routine end-of-the day tasks.  However, his words remained with me.  In fact, his words have often returned to me on a number of occasions for the past several weeks, especially during moments when I am out-of-doors. 

Scanning through photos of my recent trip to the Blueridge Parkway as well as past out-of-doors experiences, it is clearly evident from the large number of nature-centric images that I relish time spent outside.  From images of wispy cloud billows to leaf-scattered earthen trails; from layers of cerulean blue mountainous peaks to emerald green moss dressing up a boulder, and a great many variations in between, I have collected hundreds of images of Mother Earth. Nonetheless, my fondness of nature is so much more than taking photographs.

Time spent outside is like pouring soothing salve over my weathered soul.  One deep inhalation of fresh air, and I can instantly feel more calm and grounded.  In fact, I have an overall sense of vigor, not just in my body, but in my mind and soul when I am outside in the natural world.  It is as if my whole being comes alive.  

Therefore, it was no surprise for me to learn that numerous research bodies and scientific communities corroborate my personal experiences with nature.  As I scanned through several research pieces published by well-respected groups such as the American Psychological Association, Yale School of  the Environment, Harvard Health, and Scientific Reports, to name a few, there were some variations as to what defines “nature” and how long one needs to spend time in nature to reap the benefits; however, all pointed to the fact that spending time out-of-doors is overall beneficial to good health and mental well being.  Some of the commonly cited perks of spending time in nature include: improved mood, increased cognitive and memory function, reduced stress levels, improved mental health, boosted immune system, and overall reduction of blood pressure and heart rates.  

While I whole-heartedly appreciate and welcome ALL of those benefits, it has been my experience that there are also other, more ethereal, benefits of spending time in nature.  I find that when I bear witness to the brilliant rise of the sun, gaze upward as sunlight dapples through a canopy of leafy green, or catch sight of sunbeams streaming across dark silhouettes of towering tree trunks, naked in their winter respite, I feel a sense of awe and wonder.  The wide array of colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and the symmetry rivals great artists of our time–our world is a marvel!

The more I observe nature, the more curious and inquisitive I become.  How did all of this happen?  How do I, a person so small and insignificant in the face of all this wonder, fit into the grand scheme of the great I AM?  How am I to comprehend Divine Providence and this wondrous creation called earth?  I have no answers, nor do I feel a need for answers.  Rather I am in a state of being–being appreciative and feeling adoration for the great playground that is nature. After all, we are called human beings.

Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of science and ironically attributed to have invented the essay form, is quoted as once stating that God wrote two books: The Scripture and “a second book called creation.”  Time spent with the “second book” offers me tangible, first hand reminders of the greatness of our Creator.  Standing in the presence of a lofty range of mountains, floating across a lakeshore rippling with life, strolling through the rhythmical edge of ocean tide waters, or simply jogging alongside streams and trees on an earthen park trail, my heart and soul are at ease.  There are no timelines, no demands for my attention, no to-do lists, or looming deadlines.  Instead, there is a softness that envelops my soul, a well-worn quilt of comfort, that is available to all.

I suppose my student said it best after all. Spending time in the majesty of nature opens my heart and mind, allowing me to feel as if I have been gathered into an embrace by a loved one happy to see me once more as God’s peace settles over me.  My spirit is more serene, and I feel as if I am part of something larger than myself.  Something so large, I cannot fathom it, but it is something like a prayer.  

Becoming

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”–Robert Louis Stevenson

Standing on the crest of a small hill, my senses were heightened.  I could feel the weight and seemingly taste the moisture in the air. Scents of earth, rain, and floral encompassed me.  Dewy variations of pink, red, and coral stood out in contrast to the overcast dawn. Meanwhile, the unmistakable melody of creekwater rushing over rock, bed, and banks provided additional ambiance to the unfolding morning. There could be no mistaking it, this was a brief interlude before the showers once more resumed.

Down the hill I trotted, past the pristine rows of roses and on towards my companion for the next hour or so, Four Pole Creek, or “Four,” as I have come to think of it.  

“The more I run, the more I want to run, and the more I live a life conditioned and influenced and fashioned by running.  And the more I run, the more I am certain I am heading for my real goal:  to become the person I am.”–George Sheehan

Hello Friend.  My heavens, but you are swollen today, full as a tick bug, as my Papaw used to say, from the feast of overnight rain.  It’s good to see you looking lively today.  Your rhythmic song will be a welcome distraction from the noise in my mind.  

You see, a stunning new realization has recently taken root in my mind.  It whispers conspiratorially to me that I have reached a point in my life in which the years ahead are more likely to be less than the years I have lived.  What am I to do with this information, I ask you?  It is such a staggering revelation.

What’s more, my aqueous friend, the image reflected in my bathroom mirror no longer matches the image in my head.  There are these white hairs at my left temple and even more sprinkled throughout the parting of my hair.  Likewise, there are lines, especially when I smile, that run from the top of my cheekbone down towards my jaw line!   Tiny versions of those lines romp across the top of my lip, corners of my eyes, and all along my forehead.  How am I to be with this?

It seems I am not the only one changing.  I keep running across pictures from previous years in which family and friends look different.  They look incredibly young in those pictures–like unfledged, inexperienced youth.  I don’t recall that image.  In my mind, they are ever the responsible, mature, and wise people who never age, but remain frozen in time–never too young or old. 

Oh, and Four, there are all of these nagging aches and pains.  They niggle me awake during the night or flare up in the middle of work.  Sometimes, I down right hurt all over, and I can’t determine the cause.  However, I can tough out these minor hurts.  I can.  It’s the suffering of my loved ones that trouble me more.

I see my loved ones injured, battle-scarred, aging, and/or struggling.  You see, I want to help, to make them better, to help them feel whole again.  Even more than their ailing physical beings, I want to offer peace to the emotional wars waging within their minds and hearts.  I try.  I do try to help in small ways, but I am not a doctor–I don’t even play one on TV.  Thus, at times, I feel limited in what I can do to ease their burdens, pains, and sorrows.  

Still, it encourages me to see you full of vitality.  For a couple of weeks, you have been waning.  Your shallow flow lacked its usual energy and zip.  It is good to see your waters revived once more.

By the way, did you take care of the terrapin that I sent your way recently?  It was headed away from the safety of boundaries of your banks towards the traffic rolling alongside you.  I picked it up, even though it seemed offended by my action, and placed it carefully within your borders.  Hopefully, you were able to redirect its journey to safer ground.

As I was taking this picture, a couple days later, I was able to catch this image of a walnut falling into the water from the tree above.

Back to my original point, Four.  Have you any thoughts, ideas, or insight you can offer?  It seems as if your soundscape is whispering commentary.  Perhaps, if I quiet my head, I will hear it. 

“Life is a lively process of becoming.”–Douglas MacArthur

Four, I can’t help but notice that you have more riffles, rapids, and runs today. It’s nature’s way of breathing oxygen into your waters.  In return, your waters can give support to the life in, below, and around you.  

Earlier in the week, your waters were different.  They slowly glided from one pool to another. Of course, it was quite hot outside.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the number of neighborhood dogs splashing around or sitting in the cool shallows of those pools.  You remain ever the friend to the creatures in need, no matter levels and speed of your waters. 

 I have to ask though, do you ever hurt? Do pollutants irritate you?  What about those pesky people trying to reconfigure earth around you in order to build in the name of progress? Does that cause you pain as the drainage of rainwater and groundwater shift, ultimately influencing the levels and speed of your flow?  Do you mourn for your former self or for the forested neighbors that must have once lined your banks?  Regardless of those things for which you cannot control, it seems to me that you keep going, keep giving, keep supporting life to those in need of water.

Your waters are gathered from different sources. There are times, like today, when your waters are swift, becoming deep and darkened with the mud of debris, rocks, and earth.  Other times, like this past week, your waters are nearly still as you become shallow and more clear.  No matter what you are becoming, though, Dear Four, you remain ever Four Pole Creek, part of the Ohio River Watershed that feeds into the grand Mississippi River, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along the way, some of your water is evaporated into the air, cooled, condensed, and eventually returned to the earth–molecule by sweet molecule–a single droplet that is all part of the larger body of creation.

Four, in spite of your continuous changes, from the levels of your water, to the shapes you take; from the color of your waters, to the speed at which it flows; and from the lives that your waters support, to the beauty you offer the landscape, you are constantly evolving, ever changing, and continuously becoming.  Yet, you remain a creek, one creek in the great cycle of water.

“By being yourself, you put something wonderful into this world that was not there before.”–Edwin Elliot

Like you, Four, I am changing, and so is the life around me.  Some of my loved ones have flowed on to their heavenly shores, while many others remain bound to the earthly waters of life.  Like you, no matter my shape, my hurts, the gray at my temples, the lines of my face, or the pace at which I move . . . I am still me.  I will remain me–becoming, evolving, and adapting to the changes within and all around.

One day, I will dance among the ether of your molecules.  Together, joined by those who slipped ahead, we will become part of the Great cycle–the ever more and ever was. 

Thank you, Four.  Your song returned me to the hill of roses.  Back to where I started.  This running cycle is complete.  You were a fine companion.