The weather is lousy outside, with sleet coating the roads and trees and windows, and a foot of snow on the way. At least, that’s what I’ve been hearing on the local news – the foot of snow that is. The sleet I can see with my very own eyes. I can hear it, too, peppering the windows when the wind picks up – first from one side of the house and then the other. Like a kid home from school on a snow day, I stand at the window surveying the backyard where everything is all covered with white or dripping with icicles. Absent is the usual activity of squirrels dutifully checking on their stashes of nuts, and rabbits hopping tentatively about as if they’ve only so much energy to spare, and starlings flitting en masse from lawn to tree to who knows where. They all seem to have simply disappeared. The squirrels I know are up there in their leafy nests, huddled together, swaying with the wind. And the rabbits I know are down in their grass-lined burrows, as the world grows quieter and quieter with each new layer of ice crystals that falls across their entrance. The starlings are more of a mystery, though, at least to me. They just seem to have faded away into the nooks and crannies of the world – amongst the leaf litter that collects under the bushes, or in the abandoned nests of other birds, or in any secluded hollow they could find – there to abide until the storm has passed.
I think of them all - the rabbits and squirrels and starlings - calmly abiding out there in the frigid cold, hunkered down in places that are becoming more and more encased in ice with each passing moment. There is great wisdom in their abiding. I know that first hand now, but only after many years of living. There is great trust in their abiding – more trust than I can usually muster. As they huddle in their chosen places, with whatever tiny collection of food they might have assembled, or none at all, they abide with innate trust that the storm will eventually abate, and it will do so before their strength runs out. They know that because they are of this world and so they fear not that the world might conjure up a storm too furious, or too long-lasting for them to survive. They know they simply have to abide. And so they wait, without any anxious fretting, or contingency planning, or cursing of their circumstances, or pining for a day when spring will come and food will be aplenty and living will be easy. No, they simply settle into calm abiding.
Calm abiding isn’t easy for us humans to do. We’re so filled with ideas about what is fair and what should be. We’re so used to setting our own agendas and deciding what is right for us. We’re so socialized to struggle with and fight against anything that we decide is not in our best interest. After all, that’s what strong people do, right? They stick up for themselves. They make things happen the way they think that things should happen. Yes, that’s the way we usually live our lives – until, that is, we can’t. And that’s the part that we seem to forget.
“You’ll be tougher than boiled owl by the time you make it across Wyoming,” the old woman said as she rang up my can of soda and bag of chips somewhere in the middle of the hundred miles of a whole lot of nothing in between Shoshoni and Casper. Yeah, that’s right, I thought, rather enjoying the prospect of being tougher than boiled owl. I’d already made it over the mountains all right, and the hundred mile ride through rattlesnake country was going pretty well. How bad could the Great Plains be after all of that? Of course, it wasn’t but two days later that I collapsed, dehydrated and exhausted and on the verge of heatstroke. And as I recovered in the welcome shade of a highway overpass – vowing to roll out my sleeping bag right then and there if I had to, regardless of whether it fit into my plans or not – I realized that what the old woman meant by being “tougher than boiled owl” wasn’t at all about any prideful sense of achievement. It was about learning to abide. Yes, and by the time I was done crossing Nebraska I'd learned without a shred of a doubt that you do what you can and you do what you must and above all else you learn to abide.
So, when the storms of life rage – when the cold settles in all around you and the winds of annihilation howl – remember those rabbits and squirrels and starlings out there, calmly abiding. Sure enough, listen to whatever anger and fear and bewilderment you might be feeling, but just keep breathing all the same, for those feelings are like the wind that roars outside while you are safe and warm in the burrow of your breath. Breathe in and let it fill you up. Accept its gift with gratitude. Breathe out and trust that another will arrive to sustain you, for you are of this world and the world still has a place for you. Breathe in and let if fill you up. Breathe out and settle into stillness. The storms of life may rage, but you are alive and calmly abiding.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank
Frozen Forest photograph courtesy Evgeni Dinev via: