My Heart’s Owls

I am no less under the thrall of owls than were the Ancients, no less than are the New Agers and Halloween Trick or Treaters of modern times. More than any other bird, they perch motionlessly, or near motionlessly, on a limb near the house and peer at the ground below for rodents or the unwitting small bird. Or they raise their eyes to peer at me, unblinking and unfazed, or so it would appear.

First to impress her power and stamina upon me was a barred owl. She arrived one Sunday morning and took as her launch a myrtle limb from whence she kept an eye peeled for a rat that regularly made the journey to and from our railroad-tie compost box. All day the owl watched—and I watched her, checking to see if she’d snagged that sneaky rat. Interestingly, I was all for the owl, not being fond of rats visiting my compost box, let alone our house. But she still hadn’t left her post by the time we packed up to return to the city.

First barred owl

First barred owl

When we arrived the next weekend, I hurried straight from the car over to the limb where she’d waited so patiently, and sure enough there was a bolus of rat bones and fur below the limb and a large splat of white shit on the limb. Apparently, she’d not only had more patience for the rat to appear than the rat had for her to disappear but she’d also had the extra patience to digest it right where she’d slain and ate it.

Then, because owls have a way of appearing out of nowhere then disappearing for months on end, I didn’t see or hear an owl for nearly a year till one early morning I heard crows cawing scoldingly and robins chirping angrily from the time I woke till sunset that day. Here’s the story, in a simple narrative poem:

Great Horned Owl

Crows, cawing,
wake me up early.
I shut the window,
go back to sleep.

Crows, cawing, make me
close the sliding glass door
as we eat our breakfast
and drink our coffee.

Maybe there’s an eagle perched
in the spruce, out of sight.
Maybe it’s just a young crow
who’s over-flown its boundaries.

Maybe it’s a murder,
a congregation or congress
of crows. But the robins are chirping too:
Maybe the crows have found a robin’s nest!

I step outside, sidle roundabout into the woods
till I stand beneath the spruce, look up,
see an enormous owl with ears,
perched unfazed on a low thick limb.

Chickadees, towhees, a solo wren
have joined in the melee
at their respective elevations
in the crabapple tree below.

The owl has seen me, stares at me hard,
and as he does is caught off guard
by a charging crow and flaps
over to a limb on the alder tree.

And there, all day,
crows and sometimes robins
yell and swoop at what I now identify
as a Great Horned Owl.

I watch it blink its wide yellow eyes,
its pupils contract amidst sunlit leaves.
The big bird stares at me but never flinches,
impervious to the flak from other birds.

Only night will get those crows
off that poor owl’s back, when crows
return to their regular roost and the owl
starts hunting in the dark

for rats and shrews,
perhaps a sleeping crow,
though tonight this owl will have to hunt
without a good day’s snooze.

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

Great horned owl piercing me with its stare

My mother died on July 5th, 2011. On the eve of what would have been her 81st birthday, lo and behold a barred owl landed and perched till after dark on the three-man stone my father and I—he with a broken collar bone and I with tendonitis and bursitis in a shoulder joint—in other words with two arms between the two of us—hauled up from the beach and set on a mound on the south side of the house as, what turned out for me, a memorial to my mother that I’ve come to call the Mother Stone—or the Mom-olith. I’ve heard many stories about birds appearing at moments of death, funerals, and memorials. Now when I look at that shapely green stone, not only can I not help but think of my mother but also can I not help but re-envision that barred owl perched there so long that evening, looking at me. The next day, her birthday, Fran picked flowers that I placed on top of the stone, I said a few words, and then I spread a small urn of her ashes that my father had prepared for me for the occasion, around the base of the stone.

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Barred owl warming the Mother Stone

Then, during the winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13, we had major “irruptions” of snowy owls from the arctic tundra to the wide-open grassy areas of Protection Point. The first year, there were seven owls, the second year eight. They stayed from November to April, hunting for and devouring any small rodent that resembled their main prey in the arctic, the lemming. Theory has it that the older, bigger owls force these younger owls out of their birthright feeding grounds due to increasing numbers of owls and therefore decreased numbers of lemmings. So the younger birds fly south in search of similar hunting grounds. They perch on the drift logs stranded up in the grass and doze during the day in plain sight, making them a much-sought-out photographic subject. Tens of thousands of photographers, tourists, and nature pilgrims have worn whole systems of new trails through those tundra-like meadows. Fran and I were amongst those many seekers of an owl sighting. As many as eight times each year, we took yogis, photographers, birders, friends, family, and the “bird-curious” out toward the end of that long sand-accreted point. What great, weighty, mythical birds snowy owls are! Here are a couple poems inspired by their mystery and magnificence:

Snowy Owl

I do not want to make you
any wiser than you are.
But to stop and stare,
astonished by your size,
your snowy elegance,
your golden blinking eyes
(with what solidity
you perch upon a snag
overlooking winter seas!)
is to experience the love
of timelessness, to join
the wise in motionlessness
and mute austerity.

I bask in seeing and being seen by you,
being ransacked of all my pretensions
by your otherworldly purity
and penetrating gaze.

I stand for minutes richer than hours,
minutes enriching, adding to, my years.
I clothe myself in your downy feathers,
I breathe in the coolness of your soul,
I don the precious gems of your eyes
and through you see myself, as animal.

On strong wide wings you veer away
as I glide back down the beach,
clad in my new white robe,
the whole world glittering gold.

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Snowy owl on Protection Point

Birders Flock

How reassured I feel
in a world where I find myself
standing amidst a whole flock
of birders, their giant lenses,
like tremendous beaks,
mounted on stork’s legs
of tripods, zooming in on
a single sleepy snowy owl
perched unimpressed
on a dune-grass drift-log,
their cameras chirping away,
clacking countless photos,
mesmerized for hours
in finger-freezing weather.
Now this gives me hope.

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Snowy owl with Mount Rainier in background

Owl’s, because they’re often huge, have large eyes, and can appear human and wise, and because they generally hunt and hoot at night and seem to show up at auspicious times, are said to be mysterious, prophetic, meaningful birds. Owls were sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena, as a symbol of status, intelligence, and wealth. For the Egyptians, Celtics, and Hindus, owls were guardians of the underworld, protectors of the dead, rulers of the night, seer of souls. Owls have been honored as keepers of spirits who have passed from one plane to another, accompanying spirits to the underworld. As a result, owls have acquired a negative association with death (images of owls are a common sight at Halloween time, or All Souls Day). For Americans First Peoples, they were associated with wisdom and foresight and were keepers of sacred knowledge and forecasters of the weather. West African and Aboriginal Australian cultures saw the owl as a messenger of secrets, kin to sorcerers, mystics, and medicine people. In medieval Europe, they were thought to be priestesses and wizards in disguise. Their appearance announced change or death (or a life change). In general, they helped see that which was hidden from the view of others.

Interestingly, I never quite feel the same when I’m in the presence of an owl. Owls have abilities that far exceed any I can boast of: They can fly, of course, and can fly so stealthily that they cannot be heard by the unsuspecting small critter. They can see at night better than I can see during the day, and they are infinitely more patient than I am in their work to satisfy their needs. It’s this patience that sustains an owl’s life, a generally overlooked example I strive to emulate.

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Freedom of the Heart

Driving from Aberdeen to Olympia here in Washington State, I see a sign in a field beside the highway that reads, “If you give up your liberty for security, you will lose both your security and liberty.” The owner of the field has erected this baseline libertarian view for all to see, read, and contemplate. While I vote democrat, this is a sentiment with which I have to agree. But I’m not concerned with this dichotomy at just the political, digital, and corporeal levels; I’m also curious about how it applies to the heart.

P1050867

Libertarian sign beside highway (Grays Harbor, Washington)

The sign no doubt refers to politics in the United States of America. The supreme example took place when, within minutes after two commercial jets flew into New York City’s Twin Towers, no one in the country but the military could leave the ground for days. Due to the fact that Americans had no idea if the attacks were over, most Americans did not grumble too much about not being able to fly or carry on business as usual. Another, more controversial example is the Patriot Act. The idea here is that, in order to protect us from attack, the government has to monitor or curtail the movements of a few suspicious people, which then enables the government to keep a closer eye on the citizenry at large and suppress dissent in general. Then along comes a “transparency patriot” like Edward Snowden, who revealed recently how the government is collecting innocent law-abiding citizens’ phone calls. It seems that countering security with liberty is an ever-shifting (and shifty) business.

Wire house allows small birds to feed freely and securely

Small birds free to feed securely…

The paradox of freedom and security applies in other realms and at other levels of our existence in this country as well. Corporations are gathering megalithic quantities of personal information in order to invade our lives with incessant hard sells. I find this kind of assault as problematic as the governmental kind. Freedom (privacy, in this case) and security is an issue in cyberspace as much as it is in our airspace. Information about American citizens can easily be viewed, gathered, and used to target our pocketbooks, bank accounts, and credit cards (the question comes to mind whether the government might find reason to access the data that corporations and associations have collected about us). The only way to avoid being so vulnerable is by never accessing the Internet, which means never owning or using a computer, which in this day and age amounts to living in a cave. Privacy is at a premium in a world in which we share our identities, credit card numbers, and purchasing habits. Using computers online requires we set up accounts, use passwords to access them, and then keep these passwords close to our chests like poker cards so no one steals our identity or money. And there are frequent breeches of security in which citizens’ information is compromised, the most recent incident being the so-called Heartbleed bug.

Seeds hiding from snow

Seeds hiding from snow (Cle Elum, Washington, February 2014)

Then there are our physical selves—our bodies. There are government regulations, state laws, religious tenets, and corporate policies that control or seek to control what we can and can’t (or must) do with our bodies. Abortion, women in the work force, death with dignity, same-sex marriage, and drug testing are common examples. Some chauvinist churches require that married women not work outside the house. Various religious sects, political organizations, and cities work to make abortion illegal. Some companies require that all employees submit to drug urine tests. Hospitals keep some brain-dead patients alive against the will of the family while medical bills drive caregivers to bankruptcy.

Sayulita, Mexico, December 2013

Heart outside its ribcage (Sayulita, Mexico, December 2013)

But how does the concern with liberty and security apply to our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives? Is there a corollary? What do we hold hidden deep within our hearts? With what password can we access the soul? What do we too willingly or carelessly share about our selves? Is there a healthy balance of freedom and security in what we reveal about ourselves to our friends, family, and colleagues? Or is the goal to be so free as to have nothing left to get off our chests? How much passion can we get away with in expressing our love, interests, views, and beliefs? What do we risk by expressing our feelings? Are we at an advantage in this competitive world by not revealing our tips and insights? Should we be glib or taciturn, open or closed? Is the ego all about finding the advantage in the game of life, or is it about baring our soft underbelly in order to be loved—or both? And if the ego is all about winning, getting ahead, or being loved, then what role does the superego play? Does the superego seek enlightenment? Does the superego seek to rise above such concerns as security and freedom, a duality that otherwise tears us apart? Or is the battle between freedom and security the very conflict that keeps us alive—that keeps the whole human enterprise up and running? Do we have any idea how much we are the products of our parents’ ways or of society’s expectations? Do we have any sense of how little we’ve shaped how free and secure we are or might want to be?

Full moon screened

Full moon partially screened (Sayulita, December 2013)

Such a basic human conflict is inevitably complicated and brings up endless questions, should we be so brave as to pursue them, but more often than not we don’t actually think about this issue as an issue. Instead, we act as circumstance, intuition, and habit lead us to act. We grope along in a kind of darkness when it comes to how free or secure we are or should be. Yet how we approach freedom and security in the political, digital, and physical world might well provide clues as to how to approach freedom and security in our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives. We could conclude that there is no freedom without security, but the sign in the field suggests that if we give up our heart’s liberty for security, we could lose both our heart’s security and liberty.

Why Wrenzai Loves Haiku

Those seeking enlightenment should not need or want to write. This was a conflict for the great Japanese haiku master Basho, as he was a serious Zen aspirant. Writing, let alone writing poetry, is viewed as a kind of “attachment.” But to borrow from a well known Zen koan, one can stay on top of a 100-foot pole for only so long and, as enlightened, must shinny back down to teach and provide guidance. And if writing and sharing haiku and related forms involves teaching the Way and providing guidance, then why not? Certainly, the following haiku, by another famous Japanese haiku poet, Kobayashi Issa, teaches and guides (my version):

dewdrop world

Wrenzai loves haiku (there’s no grammatical distinction between plural and singular in Japanese). He loves reading, writing, and reliving haiku. But how can one love a few words, such a small form, a sub-sub-genre so far removed from the mainstream of American culture that it seems beside the point—so tiny and immaterial it comes and goes as fleetingly as a chickadee and costs nothing in cash? I’m reminded of a tiny image I wrote a few years back:

just one seed

We pay so much lip service to “being in the moment” and getting back to nature,” yet we get caught up so easily in the work-a-day world, in getting ahead, in ruing and glorying in the past, in the “blocks and binds” of the city that these two universal values fall by the wayside. Writing haiku is all about being in the moment and getting back to nature, as I may have succeeded in expressing in this “fishing” haiku:

trout strikes

Writing haiku aligns us with the present, brings us deep into the now. We begin to notice what daily we overlook, the small things, the tiny creatures—instances and events as meaningful in their context as our actions are in ours. I experienced this haiku moment a few months back:

pill bug

Writing haiku sharpens our eyes, ears, and attention, much as taking pictures does. We begin to see the interfaces and cruxes of creatures and rock-hard earth, how we survive and even live with gravity, birth, work, love, and death—all packed into a few words or syllables. In other words, the universe is found in a cup of tea. But sometimes we look too hard and see our own minds looking back, instead:

see shell

There are many myths and misconceptions about haiku. While counting syllables is a good way to get started, in the end the syllables matter less than capturing the vast in the minute in a moment’s seeing or connecting, the juxtaposition of the infinite and the finite (and it generally takes fewer syllables to say in English what it takes in Japanese). Writing haiku often involves a realization, as in Zen or other meditative practice. And the most successful haiku manage to evoke that realization in the reader (the irony in the following haiku is that the word “haiku” consists of three syllables in Japanese).

irony is

Traditionally speaking, a successful haiku is likely to manifest certain aesthetic traits: 1) contraction, brevity, reduction to essential, understatement; 2) caesura, interjection, interruption, juxtaposition; 3) novelty, freshness, the new, invention; 4) mysteriousness, the ineffable; and 5) deep appreciation of beauty and deep melancholy because beauty is fleeting (“The Aesthetic Coordinates of Haiku,” Dietmar Tauchnar, Frogpond, Vol. 36:3). The most famous haiku ever, inscribed by Matsuo Basho, is successful for all of these reasons (also my version):

old pond

Thus we are taken so deep into a moment we’re left to flail helplessly and happily even in the mere reading of a haiku. For Wrenzai, the love is in the magic and the discovery. Being attuned to the possibility of writing haiku is a kind of yoga of the moment’s literary spirit, as the mind’s eye stretches to see and relate.