Monday, March 18, 2013

"A Poor Church, for the Poor"

On a trip to Rome in 2007, my daughters and I visited the Vatican museums. As besotted as I was and am by the splendor of icons and gilded lilies, of ancient works in marble and stone, ultimately the tour was to me both endless and embarrassing.  Inspecting the glut did nothing to renew my faith.   The new pontiff promises a break from that excess. “I’d like a poor church, for the poor,” says Pope Francis.  Even as lapsed as I am in my Catholic practice, I am hopeful for change.

Below, some photos from that tour taken by my daughter, Elizabeth Brown.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Is Your Cilantro Cranky?

I’m a new subscriber to an upscale, beautifully produced spirituality magazine, which features an intriguing spectrum of articles and interviews.  One Q & A piece highlights the work of an animal psychic, who, for a fairly significant hourly rate, claims she can talk with, say, an ailing bullmastiff or lethargic iguana and so share with its owner secret messages that apparently a woof or a hiss cannot.

This particular communicator goes one better, and insists that she also can speak with plants. “I had a conversation with cilantro,” she says, that has “ . . . this vibrant, playful, celebratory energy . . . that loves to interact with people as far as being eaten and celebrated.”


In my life and in my Reiki practice, I strive to discover and forge connections, to promote what unites rather than divides, to seek connections between mind and body, spirit and matter.  And I tend to subscribe to the notion of that an individual’s spiritual or religious beliefs are his or her own business, as long as no one tries to force them onto others or influence public policy. Though of course that happens each every day.

But talking cilantro? Difficult for me to suspend judgment there.

I talk to my dog, Gustav, all the time. He’s mighty fine company, and he clearly knows the words chicken, kitchen, water, walk, blanket, and a few simple commands. He regularly disregards those commands, but I’m fairly sure he understands them. And I talk to the crows, too, who come by in the morning to see what I might set out on the breakfast buffet. “Hello, crows!” I say, as they eye me from their high perch in the tall maples.

But neither bird nor dog has ever articulated a response. Not in English, anyway. And I would hope that, should I begin to hear detailed responses in my native tongue, my loving family would intervene and get me some help.

To each his own, I suppose.

Over the course of my Reiki education, I worked with several amazing women who brought enormous compassion and dedication to their practices. I learned much about the mind-body connection, and through those years and facing my own struggles, have found a path by which I hope to help others as I have been helped.

While I studied the Usui Reiki program to become a master teacher/practitioner, I have since rejected the symbolism and “attunements” required of that method. Those elements simply do not speak to me as a seeker or as a practitioner.  

If we accept the premise – which I do -- that we are able to connect with a healing force in the Universe, a force of strength and sustenance, why would we need foreign and essentially arbitrary symbols and rituals to access it?  What works for me now is a more intuitive form of practice, one that also incorporates simple, user-friendly visualization and meditation techniques.

While I believe in that force, what I offer in my practice requires no belief in a spiritual aspect.  Research indicates that touch aids healing, and that the mind and body do indeed work together.  I work with that, and don’t preach beyond it.

I don’t believe most Reiki practitioners do, either. I think most offer what we feel can best help others, and keep personal beliefs personal.

And I have no doubt that there are talented folks who love animals so much, have worked with them all their lives, are so familiar with the subtle cues of their moods and movements, that they can pick up what we who are less perceptive cannot.

The problem lies though in exaggerated claims that often dominate what is to me an important conversation. The promise of cures. The shouts of the snake oil hustlers. The cilantro communicators.   

I’ll leave you with that thought. I’ve got a couple of thirsty geraniums on the windowsill that need attention. You wouldn’t believe the catty stuff they’ve been saying about me.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why I Feed the Crows

     It began with good intentions, as so many obsessions do.
     Winter was on its way. The crow who came to the yard to pick at the cold ground beneath the hanging feeders wasn’t actually disabled. Though he dragged his left wing when he strode around, he could fly – to the fence, then to the maple, then to the line of trees along the river. 
     And he wasn’t alone. A pair of healthy crows kept him company, swooping down to join him in the search for fallen seed.
     But the poor crow’s plight worried me, despite the mild winter.  I bought bags of cracked corn and black sunflower seed and started tossing handfuls in the driveway. All three birds would converge to gobble up the meal, their black wings spread like widows’ shawls as they gracefully lighted upon the ground. They’d feast, fly away perhaps to cache their take, and return again until their ration was gone, chasing away the few mourning doves brazen enough to try to get in on the action.
     Feeding them became ritual, as vital as perking coffee and listening to Morning Edition on VPR.  The pleasure I found in watching the crows was something quite apart from witnessing the joyful twitting about of finches and sparrows. The smaller birds -- descending on the feeders sometimes by the dozen, perching on the iron posts awaiting their turn to nibble --entertained with their numbers and antics, their bright plumage and sweet songs.  Crows, however, are individuals to be reckoned with. They have gravitas.  They make their hulking presence known.
     But I got carried away. I became a little too zealous in my feeding. Leftover corn and seed remained in the drive too many nights. Returning home one evening, we saw several pairs of beady little eyeballs shining in the headlight’s beam.
     I didn’t take the first sighting seriously. I didn’t immediately suspend appropriations to the crows as a sane person surely would have.  Not long after, I saw several rats scampering about the driveway at high noon.
     The weeks that followed are still too painful to recount in detail. Suffice it to say that traps, poison, and prayer eventually prevailed.
     With no food around, though, the crows took off.  They’d launch the occasional reconnaissance, but wasted no time hanging about the yard.
     They didn’t need me, of course, not even in mid-winter. And they certainly don’t need me now that summer is here, and there are grubs galore, and road kill and refuse for the taking. But I need the crows.
     I’ve since planted a concrete column nearby to act as a platform feeder. Crows are cautious beings, and it took a while for them to decide that this was entirely acceptable.  In time they returned.
     Some of them have, that is. My crow with the hurt wing came back to the buffet, but soon left the scene. I’m convinced he’s visiting relatives in Kennebunk.  Other crows have taken his place. There’s one who knows I will deliver the goods if he caws long and loud outside the kitchen window. He’ll watch me from a branch just a few feet above my head, or retreat to the top of a skeletal cypress across the street, if he’s feeling vulnerable.
     A few young crows visit occasionally, and a matched pair with sleeker bodies and very, very long legs. They remind me of adolescent boys who’ve outgrown their pants.
      I’ve added a few offerings to their diet.  Peanuts, in and out of the shell, are a hit. They clean up on Kibbles and Bits, though they refuse to eat the pieces that look like skinny little twigs.  Of all the menu choices so far, the favorite is leftover pizza.
      Not content with one small square, the most frequent visitor will pile several on top of one another, forming a mozzarella triple decker; he grasps the sandwich in the vice-grip of his beak and flies off, perhaps to cache the bounty some distance away.
     In his fascinating new book, Gifts of the Crows, John Marzluff writes that crows, “ . . . cause us to briefly step away from our current technological, urban lifestyles to explore, understand, and appreciate nature. In so doing, they will continue to stir our souls and expand our minds.”
     I know when I feed the crows, I am in part seeking connection to a world that is largely lost.  Much as I enjoy the parade of the comely and cute in the bird world – the cherry bomb cardinal and his subtler mate, the cavalcade of dandy gold finches, the occasional red-breasted grosbeak – some ancient and mysterious aura seems to ride upon the wings of crows.
     For a few hypnotic moments, I’m transported to another time entirely, when we wore cloaks against the cold and built fires to keep the demons of the night at bay, when the wind in the trees was familiar music, and the phases of the moon vital knowledge.  Watching them from the safety and warmth of a modern kitchen sets my hungry imagination free.
     As I write this, a disgruntled grackle takes umbrage as one crow calmly eats his fill at the platform. From a droopy pine across the drive, the grackles scolds at length, then dive bombs at the monstrous bird’s long tail again and again. The crow merely shifts on his feet throughout the barrage, only once snapping back at the pest. Eventually, he stretches his wings lazily and flies off.
     The grackle immediately pursues, as if to brag to feathered friends watching from the sidelines, “Oh, yeah! I showed him!”
     For a few handfuls of corn and seed and kibble, I get a front row seat.

This column first appeared in The North Star Monthly in July 2012.  Woodcut, circa 1880 Yuki Yanagi Ni Karasu, Library of Congress.