Occasionally in life, one finds curious little detours, or signs… something we may not see unless we are paying attention.

I was walking through Capitol Hill, enjoying the late autumn gift of warmth and golden leaves. Although I wanted to get home after work, there was no hurry. Stopping for red lights on the crosswalk, sniffing the smell of leaves… it was a beautiful afternoon in November.

I crossed the street and sauntered on towards the Capitol, humming some nondescript song to myself. At that moment, my new friend made my acquaintance.

A big, fluffy, healthy squirrel jumped in front of me, perhaps five feet forward on my path. I’d walk a step or two, and it would look at me. Squirrel would tilt its head as if considering me, then sprint a step or two further along the sidewalk. It would then spin around to watch me catch up with it.

Many readers will recognize Chi’s natural foe in this scenario. It occurred to me as well. “Wow, Chi would be absolutely crazy to see this squirrel,” I thought. I giggled despite myself and chittered playfully at my new friend.

After about three times through this little chase-me-you-can’t-catch-me game, I allowed myself to think this was intentional on the squirrel’s part. The game became more interactive, first the squirrel bouncing a step or two, me following after. it was a dance. There was no rush in this game, and no place to go. It was charming.

Back and forth we continued, until we reached the edge of a fence. Squirrel and I regarded each other for a long moment. I bent over to smile at it, clicking my tongue at it. It chittered back, and then off it ran along the fence.

The smile on my face lingered the rest of the way along my route that afternoon.

People who practice nature magic — shamans and the like — would be quick to advise me to think about the qualities of that squirrel, for it had something to share with me.

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photo by Matt Archuleta

Squirrel’s Gifts Include ability to solve puzzles, resourcefulness, quick change of direction, storing for the future/planning ahead, balance in giving and receiving, power of rest during times of non-movement, warning, discovery, change avoiding danger by climbing to a higher place, action. 

The idea that there are obstacles which cant be overcome is not part of Squirrel’s outlook on life, nor is giving up. Squirrel is an almighty power animal to have any time when you feel you have reached a dead end in your life, or in a situation and ready to give up. We are shown that perseverance and the readiness to try different methods are the keys to success. — Ina Woolcott

That’s all well and good; yet it seemed to be the squirrel was encouraging me to play. And this too is a part of squirrel magic.

It is probably not by chance (but a synchronicity) that squirrels are found wherever humans live. Perhaps they are here to herald a message for us all, not to give up, not to get stressed and as mentioned before there IS time for everything in life. Don’t forget to play, no matter what age you are! 

Cast your eyes around and see if squirrel is playing just out of the corner of your eye. Maybe you can have some fun too. Just make sure Chi is nowhere close by!

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” — Shunryu Suzuki

In Taoism, there is also the idea, “to gain something, you must lose… to lose something, you must gain.” It is the way of the natural world, and indeed of all of us.

Natural disasters like we have recently seen in Colorado and in the Philippines illustrate this principle very well. People worked for decades — centuries perhaps – and it is all wiped away. Entire lifetimes are wiped away. In such extremes we see how flexible we must be, how willing to begin again with little warning. And, as life flows again, houses are rebuilt, roads rebuilt, water and electricity return. People rebuild their lives anew. And more than they realize, they return to the beginning.

During the week of the floods, I began my tai chi class. Some of you may recall that I was soaked to the skin when I arrived. As it happens, the students of that class are about to graduate. They have attained some minimal knowledge of the forms. On the evening he announced people would be graduating, my teacher idly mentioned to me almost as an afterthought, “You can always take the beginner’s class again.”

This was quite upsetting to me. Had I not practiced, learned, applied myself? My endurance, flexibility, all those things were so much better than 12 weeks earlier! I have attained something! My brain really circled and tightened around the idea that I was a failure or was lacking something. It continued circling for several days after. Peace? Well, not right then, for sure.

At roughly the same time, at the place where I work hard to bring cookies home to Chi, I was struggling to learn a new skill. I had to learn a new way of thinking about the work I had done and was about to do. It has been very difficult to retrain my brain. I was frustrated.

Last Saturday morning, I was getting my weekly massage and regaling my patient masseur with all of this. I wound up for the big finish with the tai chi instructor thinking I should stay behind and take another beginner class. I was indignant by that time, and not relaxing very much on the massage table. I beat my hand on the table and talked about failure, what was the point, was I really that bad? At one point, the massage therapist broke his silence and gently mentioned that it might not be because I was a failure. He was almost giggling by the time he pointed out that repeating the beginner sequence of movements will make them more ingrained and lead to a better practice. My brain hated that, insisting it knew enough already. I told my massage therapist that I would consider what he had said out of politeness more than conviction.

By the time I got back to tai chi class last week, I had decided I would follow my teacher’s advice. As I told him I’d stick around, the teacher looked genuinely pleased. It was only then that he conspiratorially whispered that he himself had taken the beginner’s class twice… in combination with the continuing class. You deepen your practice, he explained, and get into the continuing discipline as you go. Explained that way, it made sense. It was not a failure at all. Western mind likes to make us think if we don’t hurry through and be perfect at every endeavor, then we must be failures. This is a lie.

At the-place-where-I-earn-Chi’s-cookies, there also I got to return to the beginning, discussing ideas from the beginning and slowing down to reach true understanding.

All of this seeming setback had shown the possibility inherent in starting something new, and staying in an open, receptive, beginner’s mind throughout life.

For Chi’s part, he doesn’t have to actually catch the squirrel in the back yard. He chases it every day, trying to learn HOW to catch it. It’s not really about the outcome.

I look for places now to practice beginner’s mind. I am grateful I was allowed to see and experience it when so many rush around unseeing, consuming, accumulating, rushing. There IS another way.

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It’s a chilly October night containing spirits and mischief at every turn.

The towns rebuild; roads reopen; life shows glimmers of promise where the floods ravaged so many.

The leaves drift off the trees, just waiting for Chi and I to kick through them — which we do with great delight with every chance we get.

Chi is very happy, and the fur grows back over the little patch on his butt. The fur grows in every direction, just as you’d expect a pug’s hair to grow since pugs don’t have much of a sense of direction!

Even though nature begins to wind itself down for the winter, it’s a new beginning for many in Colorado… and for Chi.

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Photo of Chi by Matt Archuleta.

Be water, my friend. Water can crash, or it can flow. – Bruce Lee 

In Colorado, we have been rewarded with a glorious clear sky to view the entire full moon process since Wednesday night. It feels like the most bounteous gift.

I have been experiencing this moon at a very deep, primeval level due to the floods so near to me. The full moon indicates so very much when it comes to water and tides. While I was idly contemplating the things I have been birthing in my life, I was all too aware of the waters rushing down the South Platte, demolishing other plans for other people as the tide crested.

A few months ago, I wrote about the Taoist idea of staying low, being like water. At that time, I visualized a peaceful stream meandering around the countryside; or a river rapid, cutting and crashing to a waterfall. After the storms, I now see the destructive side of water much differently. Water in a reservoir can look peaceful and calm. When the reservoir is topped or compromised, that water, formerly held back and tamed, transforms into a driving wall that flattens and destroys. It is patient, but when it is time, it is anything but. This was also seen with the films of the tidal wave in Japan a few years ago. Nothing is spared.

This particular storm taught me about water in a couple of different ways. The night it began, I was attending my first tai’chi class. I had to catch a bus or two to get there, and walk a fair distance. It began to rain almost as soon as I left work. I discovered to my displeasure that I had forgotten my umbrella. I dodged the raindrops during the first part of the trip, but by the second transfer, the rain was coming down in torrents. Running 50 feet to hide under a tree left me drenched from head to toe.

At that time, I amused myself with the thought that I was learning a water discipline, after all. Tai’chi is known as a water form in the martial arts, along with wushu. It seemed somehow appropriate that the gods were soaking me through as some sort of bizarre hazing ritual.

By the third transfer, I discovered that it was rather fun being all wet. I tried to remember the last time I was wet from head to toe. I’m pretty sure I was 10 years old or younger. It was cleansing too – starting fresh.

When I finally opened the door of the Tai’chi center, I was practically giggling. An auspicious beginning, to be sure.

The following afternoon, I was bailing water out of my back yard. I was not enjoying the storm as much by then. And it was about this time that creeks and streams overflowed and took out hunks of road. Drainage systems clogged, and water began to overwhelm everything. Large reservoirs broke down; major highways collapsed… All from water.

Water is far more than bucolic babbling brooks. It will wear down anything in its path, given enough time. The Grand Canyon was made in exactly that way. Most of us don’t have an inkling of that kind of power. To witness it in action is humbling and terrifying.

The moon bears witness, aids and abets that power. Rolling water to shore with a churning surf, or pushing water down a hill or gradient, it controls the cycles of life we all know but seldom take the time to observe.

On this particular full moon, the harvest seems close… but for now, all we witness is the force of water.

It will be up to us to harvest what we can by the next full moon.

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I’m Chi.  You might remember me from the last time I snuck into my human’s office and wrote a letter to all of you. I’m back! I’m sorry I was gone so long. It’s not easy sneaking into her office a second time, you know. Plus, I’ve had a lot to contend with these past couple weeks… like my shaved butt.

Yeah, they shaved my butt. And I like it when people play with me, but that was not cool. Mom took me into the vet’s office one day when I thought we were just going out together someplace special. She left me there! Alone! I made sure I pouted at her for the whole time she walked away. Don’t tell her, but I saw my human looked kinda sad and scared. I don’t like to see her look that way.

So then, they took me back into this room and they poked me with something. It made me yelp, and then I got really sleepy. The last thing I remember is the nice lady in the white coat saying she was going to take my picture… I like pictures…

Then, everything was spinning. Spin, spin, kinda like when I chase my tail — only I couldn’t figure out which way was up. And then I woke up really thirsty and I was in a cage thing. I really wanted my humans a lot. I went back to sleep cause I couldn’t do much else.

behindbars

I guess I had stitches and things, and it hurt a lot for a while. I hated the big white pills and I spit them out cause it made my humans mad when I did that. Serves them right. Then maybe a week ago, they were talking to someone on the phone and Mom got really happy and squeezed me real tight and everyone got excited. I thought I was going to get some cheese or something. The humans did sneak me some banana. That was ok.

So ever since they have been telling people I am be-nighn, whatever that is. I’m a pug, not this other thing. I think they are confused. My dad looks at me and laughs and says I have a wart on my ass. Well, that’s rude….

You’d think my story was over, but nooooo. Then it started to rain. And it rained, and it rained, and it rained some more. You have to understand that I hate walking in the rain. It makes my big paddle feet wet. And I just don’t like it and I try to find the dry spot near the house or wherever I am so I don’t get wet. It was terrible. One day Mom came home after getting stranded without an umbrella and she was soaked to the skin. The next day she came home early with a bucket and threw water all down the driveway. I really appreciated that she wanted to get rid of the puddle of water so I didn’t have to get my paddles wet.

Later that night and the next day, my humans seemed very upset, and sad. I guess there was so much water that people could not get out and no buckets were enough. They had to get their paddles wet. I am so sad for them. They even told me about a story where a dog like me saved a man from going under the water. I really hope everyone is ok out there…

I better go for now. Bye bye and remember to keep your paddlefeet dry!

Photo disclaimer: Is this yours? Please let us know so we can give appropriate credit!

Always from the days of old men has it been this way

And none born can escape this thing.

–Miu Hsi, “Bearer’s Song”

 

Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans. This saying is not Taoist, but it’s still true. The morning dawned bright and warm, and all indications pointed to a fine day. We were in the vet’s office with Chi to make sure he had all his shots up to date. Chi was enjoying interacting with dogs and humans alike. The exam started off normally enough. Chi was healthy, happy. All these things we knew. The vet’s smile faded as she explored Chi.

The sun passed behind a cloud as soon as she uttered the word. It was just a bump, probably nothing. Chi was taken to the back area of the clinic. An aspiration was done. It’s nothing, we all said to each other.

Several days passed, and finally the results came. Mast cells in the blood — not good news. Words like surgery and excision were mentioned. Other words like incontinence, and worse, were also bandied about. More blood tests. Discussions about chest x-rays and paths of treatment… and when not to treat. Surgery was scheduled and it was decided an x-ray would be taken before anything was actually done. If the cancer had spread, we wanted Chi to live a happy rest of his life with us. It was decided that I should take him in and take care of the paperwork and the front-end stuff, and my husband would pick him up after the surgery in the afternoon.

The morning of the surgery, Chi was unusually affectionate, nuzzling my shoulder and offering kisses. The vet met me on the way in, and grinned down at Chi. “Wild man,” she called him. She disappeared behind a door, and soon the vet tech was weighing the pug, and going over instructions. I signed the forms and handed Chi’s leash over to her. I will never forget Chi’s eyes watching me as I left the clinic and headed for the car.

About 30 minutes after I left, my cell phone rang. The x ray had been done. Nothing had spread. Even so, I went about the day’s business on autopilot. Keeping routine and living in the moment were some of the best Lessons Chi had taught me, and I worked them.  I couldn’t relax until he was safely out of surgery. Around noon, it was all over. The vet reported Chi was awake and resting comfortably.

Chi, in essence, had a cancerous bump on his ass. It appears they got it all, and very early. Life has never been so good.

Chi, for his part, milked the occasion as much as he could. The vet techs spoke of his eyes following them back and forth when he came out of anesthesia. He could not really lift his head, but his eyes followed them and he made a game attempt to beg for treats. “I’m so pitiful,” his eyes told us as he walked unsteadily back into the house. With a deep sigh he sank onto the cushions of the loveseat and promptly fell asleep.

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Chi also has built a relationship with the neighbors to the west of us. Well, not with the humans, not really… with the dog.

When we first moved into our home, there was an elderly couple living next door. They eventually packed up and moved away, and the house was vacant for a time. Early one summer, a new family moved in. Young, hard-working, the type of people who rise early in the morning and return home, then do it all over again. A few months after they arrived, they came home one day with a visitor. This visitor liked to bark. A lot. Other neighbors would occasionally walk by, looking for the source of the noise. Some of them didn’t look very happy.

Chi, Jake and I decided to go check it out one day. A wooden fence blocked the yard from view. Through a space in the vats I saw a gangly-looking pit bull, perhaps a year old. It was well-groomed, well cared for, but it was left alone in the backyard. I felt bad for the pup, and made it a part of the daily routine to throw treats over the fence and coo at the young pittie. I also knew socializing the animal was important, especially if it was to be left alone for a certain amount of time.

I let Chi and Jake out to play a lot during that summer. Food, toys, various items made their way over the fence. One day when I went out, a new dog toy had come from the opposite direction. It was all in good fun, and everyone was bonding.

Chi developed something of a crush on his new friend. He’d bounce out the door and run directly over to the fence. Jake, being an old curmudgeon, would banter and harass and bark at the young one across the way. Not Chi. Chi would lay down on a cool brick in the shade, and try to look under the fence and play with the dog.

One day near the end of summer, we were throwing sticks in the backyard and noticed a hole in the fence. I leaned over to examine the hole and started to laugh. The pittie was standing there, tail wagging, clearly admiring his handiwork in chewing off half of the wood beam. The dog didn’t count on the chain-link fence on our side, but still, he had applied himself and wanted everyone to see his accomplishment.

By the end of that week, the entire beam was worked loose and finally fell off. The neighbors quickly hammered a replacement up onto the fence. The replacement was gnawed loose within days. Chi would be very excited during these times.  He wanted to play! My husband and I started discussing building some kind of latched gate for the pittie. The beams of wood hammered up to fill the gap in the fence became wider, still old wood, but wider. The pittie was determined to chew through them all.

Finally, one day when all the leaves were falling off the trees and autumn was giving way to winter, a thicker, bigger, newer beam of wood was hammered into place.  Chi’s new friend has not been able to chew through this one — yet. They still meet at the fence, and treats and toys go back and forth.

But Chi has yet to get his pit bull friend over for a sleepover. He can dream…

that side of the fence

Experience is a riverbed,
Its source hidden, forever flowing:
Its entrance, the root of the world,
The Way moves within it:
Draw upon it; it will not run dry.

— Tao te Ching adaptation by Peter Merel

Chi has a thing for the neighbor over the back fence.  It may have always been so. The neighbor is a kindly old man, rather like the Sage in the stories. He spends endless hours in his yard perfecting the grass, the beautiful flowers. Each tree is cared for and pruned with exquisite attention.

This care extends to Chi. As long as I can remember, the man has called Chi to come to him; preening, mugging, cajoling, teasing. And, as long as I can remember, Chi has had nothing to do with it. Chi runs to the fence like a sentry, barking, hairs standing at attention.  The dance goes back and forth between the two.

I’ve tried to help the old man. Surely, this man would have a treat for Chi. I greet the man, tell Chi the man is a friend. I tap my foot and look annoyed. I yell at our poor pugalicious. Normally, any of these things would stop Chi in mid-bark.  Not this situation; not this neighbor; not this day.

This ritual was playing itself out for the umpteenth time last weekend when a new thought emerged. Maybe this dance, this back-and-forth, was exactly the point. Both seem to enjoy it, no matter how noisy or frustrating it might appear to outsiders. It perfectly illustrates the endless spin of yin and yang, both circling, one sharp, one gentle, The play IS the point.

And, once again, I find Chi teaching me. Humans talk on and on about living life. But those damned rules sometimes stop us from experience. Don’t bark, don’t trample the flowers, don’t be rude, don’t, don’t, don’t.

Getting to the root, the essence of life, IS life. And sometimes, it’s loud and messy.

OUTSIDE VOICES, EVERYONE!

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Hilarious!

Betty Generic

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It may sound romantic, but in search of that elusive metaphor, poets can be somewhat  “eccentric.”

  1. If you date a poet everyone will think you are the jerk they are writing about.
  2. You will be the jerk they are writing about.
  3. They have an unnatural affection for book stores and office supply stores.
  4. They have deep conversations with Animals, Clouds, and Grecian Urns.
  5. Excessive use of  “poetry hands.”
  6. Excessive abuse of  “poetic licence.”
  7. Excessive use of  “melancholy.”
  8. Excessive use of  “dramatic emphasis.”
  9. They collect obscure words that have not been in circulation for at least 100 years or more.
  10. They insert these antediluvian words into conversations just to rebel.
  11. They think children’s books are sublime.
  12. They refuse to care where the remote is.
  13. All of their furniture are positioned around windows, for them to stare out for hours at a time.
  14. Your parents will think they are possessed.
  15. They are possessed.
  16. You…

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Photo by Rick Harris.

Photo by Rick Harris.

“… I’m afraid a boat

so small would sink

with the weight

of all my sorrow.”

Li Qingzhao, “Spring at Wu-Ling”

Sometimes we must walk through life as solitary creatures. We may have companions, but, in essence, we are born alone, and die alone… with the exception of the Divine, if you believe in such.

This week just past was one of those times. A cherished friend passed away unexpectedly last Monday evening or Tuesday morning. Funny my choice of topic last time. One could almost infer I knew something was about to happen, but I did not. Maybe it would have been easier if I had.

Chi was always by my side, for he could feel things were “off” somehow, and would curl up on the back of the sofa by my head, or at my side, or somewhere nearby. Even so, this was one of those journeys I felt I had to take alone.

Loss is never easy. In this case it was an invitation to look deeply into the things that make life tick. Friends, small pleasures, moments caught in shards of glass within time. And it was a good chance to practice the Lessons of Chi. I took many walks along shaded, tree-lined parks and sidewalks. I wrote love letters. I sat and reflected on my friend and the ephemeral, fragile nature of this life we lead. I prayed; I cried; I spoke with this one who had finally moved beyond the veil. I played sad songs – mostly for me, not for my friend. I shared many hugs with other friends and acquaintances doing much the same thing. We spoke about our friend and realized, as we shared, that maybe we were all linked more closely than we realized. Complete strangers came to share their thoughts, love, prayers, and energy.

As we walked through the process together, we realized our small boats were, in reality, not so small. There are a lot of boats out there, all sinking under the weight of so much grief. And yet, if you join boats, the boat gets progressively larger and more buoyant.

This event of loss became something much larger, and more life-affirming. We all have this chance to pilot our ship, be it a rowboat, a canoe, a yacht, a cruise liner, or speedboat. It’s up to each of us to make it count.

I am grateful for all who reached out in ways large or small. I am grateful to be sharing this experience of life with each of you. Let us choose to enjoy this grand tour, wherever it leads.