Daredevil Bird Flight

Spring 2019

There has been a juvenile junco doing daredevil flights from a neighbor’s porch on the second floor. In the two and a half years since living here, many birds have flown into the windows on the porch, but they don’t usually zip in from the east out to the forest in the west. Living on the first floor means that there is a porch above me. A new neighbor on the second floor and also next door, has birdfeeders out. Most of the time, the birds are flocked on their porch and my dog, Birdie,  and I have the joy of watching bird antics from our porch. There is one of the young’uns that loves to take a challenge.

The other day, I thought it was a juvenile mockingbird as it dove at my sleeping dog melted in a porch sunbeam. Birdie was as surprised as I was because if there’s sun, we are on the porch in the mornings. The dog looked at me clearly asking what had happened with a “what did I do wrong?” look on her face. She is such a sensitive soul. At the time, I laughed thinking that the young bird couldn’t tell that the dog was harmless even if it had a nest nearby.

Later, I saw several juvenile juncos that had tails similar to the mockingbird. Then, I tried to remember the last time I’ve seen a mockingbird, and it wasn’t on this side of the mountain. Maybe they are up at our elevation, I simply don’t remember seeing them. In my mind, the bird that startled my dog was the same little daredevil that had been zipping through the porch area.

There is a patio umbrella that came with the porch furniture. When the spring begins, I put the umbrella up. When I first moved here, I didn’t understand why since it is rather shady on my porch, but the umbrella is protection for when the visitors above forget that someone lives below. In these past few years, I’ve enjoyed watching the red squirrel and different birds check out the umbrella. Today, the umbrella caused an accident. Well, my movement of the umbrella caused an accident.

This winter was drearier than most even before COVID-19 became the constant news. There have been more rainy days than past winters. The rain even replaced the snow of previous winters. Somehow, snow isn’t as dreary as a constant rain to me. Even the dog, who doesn’t usually mind rain, is tired of rainy days. Some days it’s clear that Birdie thinks I can stop them. I see the plea in her eye to stop them. Needless to say, we both need more sunshine.

The dog is a pillow thief.

In the past couple of weeks, it has gotten warm enough that if there is no rain, the dog and I can sit on the porch. Birdie has even learned the word, “sunshine”. I can tell, for on the mornings where the sun is out, I call out to the dog hiding in the bed (she usually sleeps until 11:30), that there’s sunshine on the porch and she hops up joyfully to run outside. To the left, there’s a photo before hearing the words, “There’s sunshine on the porch.”

Here’s a photo after I have told her of sunshine on the porch.

When she gets too hot in her chair, she takes a break by moving to the floor in the sunbeam. If she gets really hot, she might take a break in the shade, or just steal my chair where it’s not so direct a beam.

Sitting in a corner across from the dog, I write of dreams from last night. The wind blows and makes it chillier so I tilt that umbrella away from me to allow the sun to warm my back. Next, I hear a fluttering of wings and look towards the area where the bird often flies through. Birdie heard it too and is looking. Then I see it, a bird on the mesh patio table.

I cry out, “Oh No” and wonder if the bird had slammed into the glass, but it would have been on the porch floor if that was the case. Instead, it was on the table just to the left of my meditation books. I rush to get gloves so that I can gently move the bird from the mesh table to a place where it can fly away if it comes back from being stunned. At least 50% of the birds have survived slamming into the glass.

Birdie is looking for the bird and trying to figure out what is going on. Luckily, I keep gardening gloves just inside the door so that I can grab them before the dog finds the bird. She is an excellent dog, but she has a strong hunter drive. She locates the bird on the underside of the table and I tell her to leave it. I wondered if the bird had tried to light on the table and gotten its foot caught.

Once, while riding bikes with my sister when we were kids, a sparrow was hanging upside down from a barb in a barbed-wire fence. It made us sad so I went to get the bird down to bury it. The sudden flutter of wings startled me because we thought the bird was dead. As soon as I freed its little foot, it flew away. I prayed that this little bird would fly away too.

As I freed this bird’s little feet, its chest heaved. The bird’s feet were not caught. I gently placed the bird at the foot of where I keep a St. Francis. I made sure its little wings wouldn’t get broken if it started suddenly. Then, I stepped away wondering if in just a moment it would take to flight. I could see its little chest still breathing. It tried to move. I was unsure of how to proceed. Lees McRae has a wildlife center, but do they have anyone there since COVID sent all students home? Then it was clear that the bird’s fate was up to what little I could do because even if they were open, in the past, my bird rescues meant taking the bird to a refuge. Though I have a trike now, I can’t make it more than two miles on the mountain.

I went to the bird and held my hands cupped over the bird’s body. I knew not to touch it with my hands but hoped that at least the warmth of my hands would keep it warm enough until it could come to from being stunned. Then, an adult junco lights on the porch watching me. With her right eye accusing me, I apologize aloud to the adult junco simultaneously figuring it was a mama bird watching her baby learn to fly. Then, all I could think to do was to kneel and pray to  G-d, to St. Francis, to help the bird to life. Then I told the bird to be strong by saying, “hang in there little birdy.”

Of course, that confused the dog since the words sounded the same. I told the dog she was a good girl, and then she knew that I was protecting the bird. She sat to my right knee attentively listening to me beg G-d for the bird to live and trying to encourage the bird to keep fighting. Do dogs pray? It sure felt like Birdie was praying with me. Though she may not know what prayer really means, she does know that I do the same thing for her when she is sick. She knew the bird was hurt. The bird then moved and I could tell because its little feet moved. I quickly moved my hand away, hoping it would stand, then fly away. It stretched out its right wing. Then, the dog and I watched as it took its last breath.

I bury the bird at the foot of the fern moss stump. Tomorrow we will offer sunflower seeds to the other birds as a memorial. The mother bird flew to a branch near the porch and I told her I was sorry. Another juvenile, a sister/brother/sibling stopped at the tree too. I said I was sorry to the sibling bird and my heart still grieves hours later.

 

 

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This Life I Have Been Given

There’s a song that has been coming back to me from long ago. It’s one my mom played on the piano and then my sister and I would take turns singing the verses. The title of the song is, “This Life” and it’s by Evie Tournquist. She was a contemporary gospel singer popular in the 70s when we were in high school.

 

A couple of weeks ago I asked mom to send me a copy of the music she has. I’ve looked for the Evie songbooks for years just to have copies of the songs I sang with my mom and sister. The music still speaks to me all these years later.

 

“This life I have been given is but a moment’s time. This life I have received it as a gift from [God’s] hand.”

 

Written in first person as one singing a song to God it is quiet, respectful, and full of heart. A lot of Evie’s songs were that way. As a trio of short women, we did also love the fun song she did called “I’m Only 4 foot eleven but I’m going to heaven and it makes me feel ten feet tall….” My theology has changed a lot since then so there are some of the contemporary gospel hymns I wouldn’t sing today because my understanding of God is more magnanimous.

Beech Mountain, NC 2018
©2017 JRobin Whitley

The song moves gently into my mind again today as I look through old pictures taken through the past thirteen years. Since my divorce, I’ve tried moving those thousand pictures of life with my wife to a safe keeping place. It’s been healing in many ways and of course, when I see pictures of our happiness and love it has been hard.

The pictures I am moving to the Flickr account today though, are ones I took on walks in forests. The walks were mostly in various places of the Nantahala Forest because it is so large, and Sylva is dead center of it. That place in the forest is one of the million reasons I loved living in Sylva.

 

Forests have always been exciting places for me. Exciting for the potential to see wildlife, but also to discover wildflowers, birds, nests, paths, and all the ways that nature changes in the forest. When I was in high school, we took one of those tests that gave you ideas about vocation in life. I always got Forest Ranger. As I look through my photos of today and get excited about new walks on Beech Mountain, I wonder if I missed my calling.

 

Seeing photo after photo of the wonder of the forest, I can see why I am so happy here. When my ex and I would vacation, we would only go an hour from the house staying in the mountains. The rivers and the trees were too peaceful to leave for the city or a harried trip on the interstate. Even now, when I want to go somewhere, it’s usually to explore this area. This month is dollar days at Grandfather Mountain. I’ve not been there in over twenty years. I can’t wait to see Birdie up on the top of those rocks looking down to the mountains below.

 

Linville Gorge is nearby and so are the caverns. I’ve truthfully no desire to see the caverns again. The last time I was there I realized being underground freaked me out a bit. Yet, I don’t have any photos of the

It felt like I was being watched. I looked up and saw this girl hoping Birdie wouldn’t see her. After we walked on, I also saw she had a fawn hidden behind a tree behind her.

trip I took in the 80s. Film cameras were too expensive, and I was one of the musicians singing in the mountains with Resort Area Ministry (R.A.M.) out of Boone. We all had just enough money to buy a ticket into the cavern. With my new digital cameras, would it take my mind off of the damp underground? The freaky bats that I don’t like (even though I know they are beneficial)? The water that could hold the Loch Ness Monster; even if it doesn’t have a water monster? Evidently, my sci-fi imagination goes a bit haywire in underground caverns.

 

A lot of the photos I uploaded today were photos I took of the forest floor. It is amazing at the life and

growth that occurs on the floor of the forest. First, the mosses begin to green up. Then there are sprigs of other plants. My friends already post pictures of trillium and trout lilies sprouting in Southern Appalachia. We have only a few greens here on Beech. Yet, I can’t wait to discover what they are and where they are.

 

Each day in a forest is an adventure because things are blooming. The frogs started singing last night. The night before the owls were hooting it up that it’s spring. Birds sing in the morning and the new red squirrel is already trying to tease Birdie. One of my new writer friends in the area posts regularly about the wonders she finds on her hikes. Lisa Creech Bledsoe is a great poet too and she sometimes posts her poetry as well. Check out her site at Appalachian Ground. Wonders await you in your own back yard or back forest. Take the time to look around at the ground around you. You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wonder

Wonder is a word with different meanings. I get caught up in word definitions. My mind gets caught up in words. My heart gets caught up in meaning, working together with my mind to parse out what this life is for me and how to live it best. Upon first recognition, wonder came to me in the form of questioning. Questions always swirl in my being as a divine koan whether or not it’s true.

I wonder what G-d has planned for me now? I had planned to preach over the weekend at the church where I had served as a pastor. Had worked to be careful and not over commit beforehand or afterward. My best-laid plans fell through of course. Life has a way of reminding us that we are not the ones in charge. Life itself is.

Rime Ice 2019

“Life has a way of reminding us…” That’s a phrase I remember writing in other reflections. Human beings are forgetful. We forget the important things of life all of the time. We forget to eat right or follow the instructions of the doctor. We forget this and that and before you know it, time slipped by. I was no longer young and invincible. Now it’s hard to believe that I thought I was ever invincible.

“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.” ~Frederick Buechner on Vocation

Standing to look out the door of my mountain home I pray about the days to come and what it means for me as a called person. In the past, I know I can say I was called to ministry. Through music, retreat leadership, word and sacrament, I followed that call. Even as I write I follow that call but in a different form. The standing still and quietly led me to be present in the moment. At that moment, the sun came out over the distant mountains and I was struck with wonder at its beauty.

Eureka! Wonder! That is my task in life. No. Wonder, that is my largest gift. Wonder comes to me as easily

2018 Foxglove (digitalis)

now as it did when I was a child. As a child, youth, teenager, I often got in trouble for taking too many photos of flowers, fields, and trees. Film was expensive then and mama always wanted me to have people

in pictures. She said she didn’t mind me taking pictures but it was expensive to develop them. So, please get photos of people if you are taking an entire roll of film; at least get some people in some of them.

I chuckle at the memory now. I don’t have many actual photographs of my adult life because I couldn’t afford to have that many developed. My vocation choices have always been those that have meaning, but that didn’t assure a healthy bank account. In those times when it did include money, I was mired in college or seminary debt. I don’t regret that either. There were plenty of times then when I wondered how I would survive. Now I wonder at the beauty of the long life I have had thus far.

Yesterday, days after I started this writing, the dog and I walked out in the fluffy, new snow. She pranced as we walked to the mailbox. I may have danced had the snow not been so slick. I have yet to dread it like so many others do. Nature continues to inspire and heal me. It’s no wonder I am filled with awe and struck by joy.

My dog, Birdie loves snow as much as me. 2019

Wonder can even be found in death. That lesson was taught to me while a chaplain at the Baptist Hospital in Columbia, SC. I was blessed with the opportunity to be present as many passed from this life to the next. Death caused me to wonder in a different way than life but I cannot say that it was a sad experience. Being at those deaths proved to me that there is more to us than this life.

Technical difficulties caused this post to take me longer to write than normal. In the days that passed between the beginning and the end, Mary Oliver died. She remains one of my favorite poets. She understood wonder in many ways. The first poem I ever heard of hers was quoted in a small mountain church. It makes for a perfect end to this reflection as the poet lives on in wonder.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

 

 

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Catching Up with Life – Practicing Faith

Beech Mountain, NC ©2018 JRobin Whitley

‘When the powers of nature are the focus of your awareness and your thoughts, you come near to spirit, near to the source of all life. This is why most people love to walk in the woods or by the sea: they come close to the original source, and it is healing just to be in its presence. It cleanses you, brings peace of mind, touches your heart and brings you home to your soul.’
~ Chris Luttichau

The past few weeks I’ve been out of town. I was only gone for two weeks and it’s summer so I wasn’t worried about my condo. The dog went with me, so no worries about that either. Yet, here it is a week later and I’m still catching up on getting my home back in shape.

While gone, nature didn’t stop being nature. The bills and emails all those things that make up “daily life” at home, still happened. I don’t have a personal secretary (though my dog Birdie thinks she is my boss). There’s no maid that comes to clean.

I left my condo clean and in order so that when we came back, we could just pick right up where we left. My hosts and family allowed me to wash my clothing too so that when I got back, all I had to do was unpack. Sounds perfect doesn’t it? We go on a trip, have fun, see family and come home and everything works out perfectly. We might as well laugh at ourselves when we think anything in life works out perfectly.

Murphy’s Law is something most of us are taught at an early age. Yet, even at this age, I remain the idealist. If I plan it, it is so or will be so. No, that’s not really working for me for those who may ask. It means to continue facing disappointments. I remain hopeful nonetheless. Not hopeful that the world will turn as I plan or that life will stop with disappointments. My hope is in something hard to describe. Many call it faith.

As I write, my heart and mind are aware of the many who no longer want to talk about God or the church. It’s understandable because as a lesbian,  there are those around me who still discuss my sinfulness. The irony of it all is how boring my life is when compared to most folks. That’s not to say we can’t be boring and commit sins. I just wonder how they know so much about the state of my soul.

Faith. We use the word willy-nilly at times in the Christian tradition. I say that because it’s one of those words all Christians are supposed to use. Perhaps we use it too quickly. One of my spiritual directors told me never to pray for patience or faith. We laughed about it because I had been praying for both. Why did she say what she did? Because in order to have patience, one has to learn to wait. In order to have faith, one must learn to endure trials.

Oddly enough, the writing that helped me embrace a more realistic way of looking at faith is Herman Hesse’s book, Siddhartha. If you’re curious, the link is an open source PDF for reading the book. I always prefer a real book rather than its electronic version. I like being able to hold it in my hand. That’s beside the point. What helped me look at my faith differently by reading the book happened BECAUSE it was outside of my tradition.

As I try to summarize what helped me in the book, I find that the BBC’s description of Buddhism best summarizes both the book and what I could see in Hesse’s writing:

“Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development. Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life and do not worship gods or deities.”

BBC Religions

 

This sentence, in particular, strikes me, “…Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life.” This blog started out with a quote about nature and it’s because I think the natural world is one that best teaches about the blessings of

A tree with prayer flags.

faith. A tree does what it does and it’s neither right nor wrong, but it just is a tree. The beauty of a tree reaching to the sky never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

Sometimes it seems that those of us who grew up in the church (and the South perhaps) think that if we have faith, nothing will go wrong in life. Some of the more fundamental Christian churches will preach that way. Perhaps it’s something that is the undercurrent in all of the churches in the South. I can’t speak for anywhere else.

Yet, we all know so many good people who have horrible things happen to them. Faith won’t make us be something else. Real faith as I now begin to see it means to accept what is and know that there’s a way through the trial. The way may not be fun and most likely won’t be pretty. When we have a community of loving and kind people, then we can have faith to get through the challenge.

In two or three weeks, life really threw me some curveballs. Nothing that means the end of the world for me, but there are trials with no clear way through. There are things happening to beloved family members and all I can do is be here and be me. I have no magic and I cannot take the pain of life away from them. It’s hard to watch someone you love suffer. My thoughts return to the tree. All we can do is remain a steadfast presence for those who need us.

Many of us know Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. I first heard of the book at some event in college. Some group was doing a skit of the story. I’ve read it and told the story many times throughout the years. I think of it when I walk among the wonderful trees in my neighborhood. There are many gifts the tree “gives” but the essence of the book throughout is the power of presence.

Faith does not try to make us something other than that which we are. As I talked with my priest about the challenges my family is facing right now, he said, “Just be you Robin. Just be you.” As my beloved aunt fades, my nephew and his wife walk through a dark valley, as my niece and her husband seek hope, I am helpless to DO anything. Yes, I can pray, but the larger part of praying is learning to BE PRESENT to the holy. Only once we are present can we know the act that is necessary.

Life is holy, sacred, and good. Yes, it can also be pernicious and in the worst of times, feel like hell. The power of presence is that our loving and kind presence can transform those hard times into gold. Not the gold we can sell, but the golden light of the soul. The light of the soul that comes from being present to yourself in life, being present to nature, being present to the Other.

 

 

 

 

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Thoughts on Being

Living alone on Beech Mountain is certainly a process of living in the now. One of the important practices in meditation is learning to just be present to the moment. Thoughts on being are prevalent in all religious traditions. NPR even has a great radio show called On Being with Krista Tippett. She interviews great speakers from around the world to talk about being.

In my experience, being can be challenging if it means I must sit still. Sitting still is a type of challenge for me since I am a wiggly person. Since getting older, I also move to try and deal with the pain that is constantly

Grayson – He was a very good cat!

present in my body. For the best example of what I mean by merely being, think of a cat.  I no longer have a cat, but our cat, Grayson was great at being. I often called him my Buddha cat. It always seemed that when I was having problems paying attention to “being” instead of “doing”, Grayson was sitting at the window merely observing the world as it passed by.

My wife was better at being still than I was. But, learning to be present to the moment, as meant here, is more than being still. Just as Grayson was able to be all cat in his “being”, our being means to be all you and for me, all me without trying to be someone else. It means being present to all that makes up the person you are (not who you want to be). The only person who can know if one is good at that type of being is the individual.

A new part of my “being” has been very hard for me to accept. It is accepting my physical limitations as I accept my physical illness and challenge. Yet, as I continued to push and try to be who I was in the past, those actions only caused more harm to my body, peace of mind, and relationships with others.

Being a spiritual person has meant that in my life, I paid more attention to the interior process than the body. Constantly working to train the mind, heart, and soul to be godly was my vocation. That vocation played out in music and church work. I also enjoyed softball, biking, and hiking. Though competitive, there was no interest in harming myself to win.

Because of being attuned to my body, I thought that meant I took care of my body. Though I did in many ways, one of the most acceptable ways to destroy one’s health is also one of the most rewarded ways of destroying health. Many call it work and for me, it turned into workaholism.

Growing up, I knew at an early age I was a lesbian, though I didn’t know the word for it yet. I only knew that my crushes were on girls and I dreamed of growing up to marry a woman. I did have crushes on a few boys and those were the ones I spoke of aloud. But in my childhood dreams, I was the boy and I always had a girlfriend. That wasn’t happening as a child, but it was a dream. I learned quickly that I had to find ways to divert attention from myself. Luckily for me, work did the trick. It was also a good thing that I had a good singing voice. As I began to sing at school and at church, it seemed to be a good cover.

Many will ask what this has to do with “being” and I’m getting there. During this same time, I had always been a religious kid too. I was merely interested in God and the Bible without understanding the religious condemnation at the time. All these years later, it’s become clear that some of my natural gifts combined with my physical and intellectual capacity for work empowered me to become my own wizard of oz. The only thing is it caused me harm.

Busy all the time means that someone is ignored. Always on the go means several things: not eating right, missing quality time with friends and family, waste of natural resources. Sometimes a body has to stop. Rest. Rest is the part that we Americans want to leave out of the equation for happiness. I don’t mean vacations that require more money, time, or travel. I mean sleeping. Unwinding. Reading. Being quiet. What many call unplugging. Yet, many of us are afraid of unplugging because in that place of solitude and stillness we come face to face with who we really ARE.

There are some things that can be changed about who I am. I can cut my hair, wear different clothes or makeup, ink my skin. Yet those are all exterior changes to the body. The body is a temple for the source of our being. The changes we can make to our body are merely adornments. Not taking time to rest or listen to our heart and mind can cause physiological changes. Those are not the ones we want or need. What does it mean to be you? What makes you afraid to be you? How are you creating smokescreens to divert YOUR attention away from who you really are?

 

One of the things this place on Beech Mountain is not a thing, but a place. I have a place where I can be quiet and simply BE. Even the little town below us has a sticker with the word on it.  This sacred place allows me to let the dust of the world settle and see what remains. Every time I can be patient with myself and have courage, these things remain: G_d, spirit, music. Another way of saying that for me is faith, hope, and love. I must also admit to myself in those moments that there is an essence of life that is uniquely Robin. G_d does not want that essence to change for Robin was created for a divine purpose whether others recognize it or not.

 

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Robin will be giving a talk about her book and the power of community on May 5th in Albemarle, NC. Please join the conversation at Second Street Sundries at 1:00 p.m.

PayPal.Me/RobinsRadio

 

 

 

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