Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I had just finished an early spring trail run. The walkway leading back to the parking lot was warm from the sun, and so I took my time stretching there.  From all directions sounded the happy racket of birdsong.  I closed my eyes, leaned out over my extended legs and listened. Eventually I picked out the voices of two crows calling to each other. Sitting up and squinting in the sun, I looked for them.  

The two crows were perched high in two towering linden trees about fifty yards apart. They called to each other in a distinctive pattern. The first crow let out a single "caw" which the second crow answered with a double caw. The exchange went on in this manner for a few minutes. Whenever Crow 2 delayed responding, Crow 1 would call repeatedly until Crow 2 answered.  After a while Crow 1 began to make a doubled caw that sounded almost like "papa" or "uh-oh," which Crow 2 answered with a single caw, and an occasional nasal honk.

Now many agree that crows have a language. The patterns of their calls vary from region to region, which indicates that their communication patterns are learned and not purely instinctual. That's not surprising considering that young crows spend several years with their parents: the longer this period of dependence lasts in any species, the more the young are learning.  And crows are well known for their spectacularly adaptive intelligence. (See the links below for some great examples.)

Less discussed are their strong social bonds; I've read of crows having funerals for dead members of their rook, gathering at the spot where the bird was killed, sitting in silence for a few minutes, then flying off.
So as a lazy breeze blew and I stretched my hamstrings, I wondered... were these two birds mates? Or parent and child? It almost sounded as if Crow 1 kept calling just to hear back from Crow 2. I'm no expert, but I imagine that crow language isn't symbolic like ours. I didn't think they were talking about anything.  It seemed to me that they were just delighting in each others' -- and their own -- voices. It seemed to me that they simply enjoyed knowing they were there for each other.

It made me think of all the ways we use language. In our word-glutted world we can become so caught up in the symbolic aspects of language that it's easy to lose sight of the fundamental relational function. We gather and give information. We debate. We critique. We expound. We judge and denounce. We promote and advertise. We shock and overpower, seduce, deflect, deny, acquiesce. So much of what we talk about is elsewhere. So much of what is said is a struggle to possess the past or define the future. So much of what we do with language is about manipulating desire and securing power, popularity or security.

I know we cannot -- and should not -- turn off the supernova of kaleidoscopic possibilities that symbolic language gives us. But there's something to be said for being able to speak more easily of the present in the present. In the moment there is always an opportunity to simply connect. To be more fully here in heart, body and mind. Imagine developing the use of language in that state. What comes to mind? How might we speak to one another if we were better able to use this kind of "present" tense?


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"I" Need a New Word

New words are constantly coming into our language -- "bromance," robocall," "sexting," etc. --  so I'd like to order one if I may: a new term for "I."

Why do we need a new word for "I"?  Well... a budding meditation practice is teaching me that meditation is not about forcing the chattering mind to sit still... it's about identifying with an awareness beyond the incessant mental talk: a different "I."

A simple analogy borrowed from Richard Moss' The Mandala of Being may be helpful here. Think of thoughts as kites. They rise, soar, flutter, dive... We fly these kites, but they are not our selves.  Try picturing some thought of your own as a kite. Then try to follow the string from the kite slowly down into your self. You may find that you arrive at a kind of quiet presence.  The goal in this type of meditation is not to reject or judge thoughts (kites) but to identify oneself with that sense of presence. But in English we have only one word for the first person: when we say "I," it's not necessarily clear if we're speaking from a deep awareness... or from a swooping kite.

Terms for transcendent consciousness abound. Soul. Higher Self. Spirit. Universal Mind. Cosmic Consciousness. Etc.  But all of these, grammatically speaking, are objects; we stand outside them when we name them. Where is the subject? The "I" that can act and assert its living presence? The alternative to the "I" of chatter and kites? English has no such term.

Our language retains a vestigial familiar second person ("thou"). It was once used in situations of intimacy and informality. Its presence in translations of the Bible adds a solemn aura -- hinting at an intimate relationship with the divine. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had an intimate form of the first person, an "I" that affirms our potential to live more peacefully? An "I" that resonated so sweetly that it had to be sung?

If I can hang up on a robocall because I'm watching a bromance on TV and sexting someone during the commercials, why can't I say "I" and mean something much, much more?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Inaugural Blog: Renaissance Evolution

Being a "Renaissance woman" presents challenges... there have been many times when my multiple pursuits have seemed to compete with one another: why start a stained glass project or even think about my novel when I have a dissertation to write -- shouldn't I channel all the creative energy into one project? Why expend all this energy running long distances and pushing my limits when my children need me -- shouldn't I just run for fitness and forget about marathoning so I can spend an extra hour or two a day with Ian and Lilah?

I've found myself wondering if there isn't some sacrifice I should make in one area in order to accomplish something meaningful in another. It would make sense, wouldn't it? Life would be linear and logical, right? 

But here's where the composition teacher in me picks up her red pen and says: Yo! "Accomplish something meaningful?" Really?! Let's try on a different verb... how about "experience something meaningful"...? 

Linearity and logic are fine for math and argumentation, but not for living... not for feeling the fullness of being in a given moment. Isn't that what happiness is? Not something to be pursued (sorry, founding fathers!) but something to be grown?

I restarted a long-neglected meditation practice recently. The awareness I'm cultivating hints that all of these various activities in which I've been engaging are actually part of a coherent something-or-other. As I learn to be more fully present, these seemingly separate strands of experience prove to be intricately connected.....