Spiritual Journey: Seeled

seel: close (a person’s eyes); prevent (someone) from seeing. —Dictionary.com

seel: to close the eyes of (a bird, such as a hawk) by drawing threads through the eyelids. —Merriam-Webster.com

A Spiritual Journey Thursday reflection

Over Thanksgiving break from school, I read a book about a family of twelve children, six of whom (all boys) were diagnosed with schizophrenia: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family. I expected to learn more about the disorder, how it manifests as a distorted, alternate reality, affecting a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I expected to learn about the part genetics play (six siblings!). I expected loads of medical research and new scientific insights…more than anything, I expected to be moved by the story.

I did. I was.

In a word: Devastating.

I never expected to learn a haunting little detail about falconry.

Originating in ancient times as a form of hunting, it became a sport and status symbol of the nobility in medieval Europe. A pastime of the Galvin family in Hidden Valley Road, falconry involves trapping a bird and training it to be completely dependent on the bidding of the falconer by “seeling” its eyes—stitching its eyelids closed.

Young Don and Mimi, parents of four boys at the time, trapped their first bird of prey, a red-tailed hawk. They consulted the local zoologist for guidance on training. He said, “Now sew the eyelids together”:

Stabler explained that [falcons’] eyelids protect them as they dive at speeds upwards of two hundred miles per hour. But in order to train a falcon the way Henry VIII’s falconers did it, the bird’s eyelids should be temporarily sewn shut. With no visual distractions, a falcon can be made dependent on the will of the falconer—the sound of his voice, the touch of his hands. The zoologist cautioned Mimi: Be careful the stitches aren’t too tight or too loose, and that the needle never pricks the hawk’s eyes. There seemed to be any number of ways to make hash of the bird…Mimi went to work on the edge of each eyelid, one after the other…Stabler complimented Mimi on her work. “Now,” he said, “you have to keep it on the fist for forty-eight hours”…At the end of those forty-eight hours, Mimi and Don had successfully domesticated a hawk. They felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. This was about embracing the wild, natural world and also about bringing it under one’s control. Taming these birds could be brutal and punishing. But with consistency and devotion and discipline, it was unbelievably rewarding.

Not unlike, they often thought, the parenting of a child.

For me, the fleeting sense of wonder is outweighed by horror on reading these lines… for suffering of the bird, for the foreshadowed suffering of these parents, these children.

The image will not leave my mind. I think about what a falcon symbolizes. Among many things, freedom. Which was taken away, here.

Also wisdom.

The most famous book of wisdom and suffering happens to mention a falcon. In Job 28, the title character continues a speech around the question “Where is wisdom?” Job marvels at the precious resources hidden in the earth and humans’ ability to extract them through mining. Human industry brings silver, gold, iron, copper, sapphires from the depths to the light.

Job speaks of the hidden way to such treasures:

That path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it (28:7).

The metaphor is for wisdom, how elusive it is to mankind, and that its value is far above any earthly riches: “Man does not know its worth” (v. 13). The word “hidden” is referenced or alluded to over and over; wisdom can’t be seen even by the creatures with the keenest eyesight, birds of the air. Wisdom comes only from God (v. 28).

A song also plays in my mind, this line from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind”: How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Hidden wisdom, hidden treasure. Hidden Valley Road. Hidden suffering, to an unimaginable degree…

I can’t help but think, as the year 2020 comes to a close, how those numbers stand for perfect vision—and the irony of so much we never saw coming.

Moving forward, let us seek wisdom, above all. Let us not be guilty of seeling our own eyes—or our hearts—to suffering beyond our own. Let us see.

Most of all, Dear God, don’t let us perpetuate more of it.

Photo: el7bara. CC BY

Quotation: Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, 2020, p. 5-6.

Written with gratitude for my Spiritual Journey family. See more at A Word Edgewise – thank you, Linda, for hosting.

Wisdom before peace

Many years ago, I attended a public event and found, right there at my destined seat, a little silver ring bearing the word SAPIENTIA.

Latin for “wisdom.”

I cannot remember the event itself, or even the location … only that, as the ring had no traceable owner, it came home with me. A bit of metaphysical metaphorica: If you find wisdom, hang onto it.

This past week I sorted through some old things in my jewelry box and rediscovered the ring.

It’s somewhat tarnished but still glinted in the light when I picked it up. Cool little circle in my hand. It seemed to say: If ever there is a time for wisdom, it’s now.

Consider this definition of wisdom (also known as sapience) from Wikipedia:

The ability to think and act using knowledge, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is associated with attributes such as unbiased judgment, compassion, experiential self-knowledge, self-transcendence, and non-attachment, and virtues such as ethics and benevolence.

Meditate on those words a while, in light of recent weeks—as reeling, wounded, protesting America looks inward at its egregious wrongs of police brutality and racism, as more and more voices are raised for solidarity and reform, as people weep and pray for peace. We cannot act accordingly, cannot begin to heal and repair, if we do not think. We cannot advocate for justice and make concerted change if we are not deeply aware of what we think and how it affects our relationships with each other. We cannot obtain knowledge and understanding between us without hard conversations and self-examinations to find bias we didn’t know was there, like a cancerous lump that only grows and festers until it’s removed. Else all of society suffers. We don’t often think of wisdom as a matter of the heart; we don’t typically see it as the wrapping of real compassion and benevolence… not just in our distribution of these, but in allowing ourselves to receive them. Our wellness as a whole relies on our individual willingness to be healed. It begins with listening. In desiring better ways of seeing as the road to better ways of being. Reform is a long process… but with wisdom, it is possible.

Lastly, while wisdom plays an integral part in the relatively new field of positive psychology (what makes human life meaningful and worth living, seeking individual and societal well-being), it also has ancient spiritual roots. In the many religions of the world, wisdom is tied to balance, goodness, the future, seeing things for what they are, a knowledge and fear of God. My Sapientia ring carries the image of a descending dove; in Christian iconography, that represents the Holy Spirit. Long before Christianity, a dove represented… peace.

We pray for peace, as we cry out against injustice. As we advocate for systemic reforms, as we educate ourselves about ourselves. Yes, we have a long way to go, but we have begun.

Let us first seek wisdom.

Only a minute

Hourglass

Hand drawn romantic design hourglass. jl71077CC BY

Every so often, this poem comes to mind.

I first heard it years ago, when a young co-worker recited it from memory. Listening to her mellifluous voice, rising and falling in all the right places, I thought, How profound.

I’ve used it with students for interpretation, for inferring, for fluency practice, for the pleasing rhythm.

Mostly I just mull the truth of it, in its utter simplicity.

Especially the last two lines.

I’ve only just a minute,

Only sixty seconds in it.

Forced upon me, can’t refuse it,

Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,

But it’s up to me to use it.

I must suffer if I lose it,

Give an account if I abuse it,

Just a tiny little minute,

But eternity is in it.

Attributed to Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

You’ll bring your own interpretations, images, minutes to this.

I think of all the stories that hang in the balance of a minute. In the wavering. In the choosing. There’s always that minute before the accident, before the attack, before the kiss of human or substance, before the choice that cannot be unmade is made. In a minute, lives are created, lives are destroyed. Fortunes gained, fortunes lost. The young, often consumed with this minute, blinded by now, cannot see forward; the old, bearing the weight of all their minutes, look back, see them all too clearly, and sigh.

We do not choose our minutes. We cannot save them or store them. We can only seize them, endure them, waste them, invest them, or pay for them. A choice lies inside each minute, always, even when there seems no choice.

I think of the ripple effect of one minute’s choice, how it never affects just one person but countless others, spanning families, communities, cities, nations, maybe generation after generation. For better, for worse.

I see the news. I read. I hear people’s stories, every day. We live our stories, we make them, every single minute, by our choices, actions, reactions. In some minutes I pause, recalibrate, celebrate, breathe a prayer of gratitude. In other minutes I sink under the anesthesia of why.

Only a minute, come and gone, and we are changed, whether imperceptibly or instantly, forever.

And that line whispers to me, once more. It’s never far away, really.

Just a tiny little minute, but eternity is in it.

First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

Granddaddy and I are walking around “the horn.” I am puzzling over why he calls this path “the horn.” When he says it, I know he means the journey from his house down the gravel road past the formidable, fairy-tale-dark woods with a tiny cemetery in the clearing, past unpainted houses in various stages of falling down, to the narrow paved highway and on around to the other side of this gravel road where, in a tiny screened-porch house, an old widow woman dips snuff, on past Grandma’s homeplace where her disabled brother lives alone and grows sunflowers that loom over my head, always turning their faces toward the sun, which is now obscured. It rained earlier in the day, breaking the blazing summer heat. The thirsty ground drank its fill; the rest of the blessed rain hangs invisible in the air, as heavy and warm as bathwater, and drips amongst the trees, where the birds are chattering against a background of crickets who think it’s night again, along with cicadas buzzing in such numbers that the earth vibrates with the sound. Granddaddy and I are on the last leg of “the horn,” passing his garden, a steaming, lush, leafy paradise that looks to me like an artist painted it with watercolors. We walk by the ditch bank where his scuppernong vines drape the trellis he built, past the line of pink crape myrtles curving along the edge of the yard, back to the sidewalk in front of the house where we started.

Granddaddy stops to get the newspaper from the box and I go on ahead— 

“Granddaddy!” I shout, for he’s hard of hearing, although Grandma says he hears what he wants to. “What is this?”

There on the damp sidewalk, headed toward the house, are three long worms, side by side. They are tan like earthworms, but many times longer than any earthworm I’ve ever seen. Maybe a foot long. Their skinny bodies undulate like snakes; they glide over the cement holding up their big, almost-triangular heads. 

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I ain’t never seen anything like them before.”

I’m stunned. Granddaddy has farmed all of his life, except for the years he worked at the shipyard. He knows everything about the outdoor world, has told many stories of the things he’s seen, like a fully-formed tree growing underground when he had to dig a well once. If he doesn’t know what these worms are, they are strange indeed.

I look up at his pleasant, wrinkled face, shielded by his ever-present cap. His crinkly blue eyes are thoughtful. I wonder if he’ll kill these alien creatures, chop them up with the hoe like he does the copperhead who dares enter his realm.

But he pats my back: “Let’s get on in the house, hear.” 

And so we do. I don’t see where these three hammer-headed worms go, and I never see them or anything like them again.

The worms resurfaced in my memory recently; I’d almost forgotten them. If the Internet had been around at the time, Granddaddy and I could have learned within seconds that these were land planarians—toxic predatory monsters that destroy the ecology of a garden by feeding solely on earthworms, the great garden benefactors that aerate the soil and add rich nutrients. Planarians aren’t native to the United States; they hail from Asia, so a remaining part of the puzzle is how they ended up in the far reaches of rural, coastal North Carolina.

This story isn’t really about the planarians, however. It’s about my grandfather, infinitely wise despite having quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. A man who used the phrase “the horn” which I have just now learned is a mathematical synonym for a cornicular angle, which, yes, describes the country path we walked (new question: How did he know?).  My grandfather saw something he’d never seen before, these three worms. He analyzed them carefully. He let them live, not knowing they could do harm to his garden. Which ended up being the best choice, for if he’d smashed them or chopped them up, every piece would have grown into a new planarian. He would have thereby ensured the destruction of his garden and its bounty, which benefited his whole family. He would have, essentially, spread the poison.

The lesson I take away from this long-ago surreal encounter is First, do no harm. In pretty much any situation. Analyze. Evaluate. Proceed with caution and discernment. Consider long-range ramifications; if they cannot be known at the moment, forbear. Poison is often invisible; be wary of tapping into it, spreading it.

Point to ponder: What are the planarians of your own life and work? What threatens to destroy what’s valuable? To answer that, you must define the garden, the earthworm, and their relationship. I speak as an educator. As a wise old farmer’s granddaughter. For me, metaphorically, the garden is not humanity itself, but something which springs forth from the human spirit—organic, beautiful, beneficial. In a sense, teaching (or writing, as I clearly do that also; think about your own work and how it applies here) is about being the earthworm, aerating the growing ground, devoting yourself to developing the richness and nutrients needed for the collective good of those who follow, that they might also produce that which is beautiful and beneficial. Harm comes in the form of anything that would limit, stunt, or destroy this exploratory, creative, thriving growth process. Planarians attack and destroy their own kind for their own benefit. We don’t always know them when we first see them, for they resemble that which is good.  Not everything has a noticeably triangular head. Watch, analyze, evaluate, discern over time. Avoid blindly buying into the toxicity, the very thing that counteracts and defeats all your best efforts, and multiplying it.

First, do no harm.

But I’m not a teacher

Encourage

He’d saved his own money to buy me a Christmas present. He told his dad he wanted to go to the bookstore, so his dad took him.

He bought me a picture instead of a book and watched with great pride as the clerk wrapped it.

“I got it for my mom,” he told the clerk.

“Oh, she’ll love it!”

He clasped it to his heart all the way home.

He burst into the house, calling, “Mom! Mom! I got you a present!”

His dad said, “Son, just put it under the tree. It’s for Christmas.”

“I want to give it to her now!”

“All right,” I said,  sitting down on the couch. My little boy scrambled up beside me. “I’ll go ahead and open it, if that’s what you want.”

He watched my every move as I unwrapped the paper and pulled out the matted picture bearing the quote: A teacher in wisdom and kindness helps children learn to do exactly what they thought could not be done.

I didn’t know what to say for a moment.

“It’s beautiful, honey,” I said, hugging him. “Thank you so much.”

“Do you love it, Mom?”

“I do … but I’m not a teacher.”

My son surveyed me with huge dark eyes that seemed far older than his six years: “Oh yes you are, Mom.”

At the time, I wasn’t even a college graduate. Teaching wasn’t on my radar. Thirteen years, a degree, and another baby later, I actually became a teacher. In all of those education courses that required me to describe my educational philosophy, I wrote: A teacher is an encourager, recalling that solemn little face, those big eyes, the absolute conviction shining in them. Children, sometimes, are the greatest of sages, the most profound of prophets.

Three more years, and the boy graduated college himself with a degree in history. “What am I going to do for a job?” he asked one afternoon, a slight hint of anxiety in his voice.

“Teach,” I answered, smiling.

He didn’t smile back. “But I’m not a teacher.”

“Oh yes you are, Son.”

Before the summer ended, he had a job teaching social studies at his old high school. When he went to set up his classroom, he cleaned out the cabinets and found old tests – including his own.

He also became a soccer coach, taking his team to the championships and winning regional Coach of the Year this past season.

We didn’t seek teaching; it found us. We’ve done exactly what we thought could not be done – we do it every day, all over again.

And every day is new, if not easy; every day offers wisdom, beckons kindness, invites us to believe in others, in ourselves, every moment a chance to create, to reinvent, to overcome. It can be done.

Encourage one another.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer