photo by Demetra Penner

When I came around the corner, and the pavement was still wet with rain, and the sun had not yet risen, and the sky was grey anyways, I saw the small, tufted body of an owl, lying light on the shoulder. I stopped the car and went to her. I went to her, but I did not know what to do. A few feathers stirred listlessly in the wind. Her cheek was to the ground. Her eyes stared out like golden orbs, dimly reflecting the last moments of her life. I had not been the one to kill her — though in my own car, had I been driving twenty minutes earlier, I could have been. I stooped in the dull, early-morning light, waiting, and then I left.

Too often, I do not know what to do. Death makes a humble request for ritual, and I drive away, fumbling blindly for a response more appropriate than abandonment, until my hope for an answer wanes, and so too does my grasping. I can see, with grace, my good intention: to mourn, which is not merely to take on a shroud of sadness, but to recognize my kinship with both the owl and death. That is, perhaps, enough. Ever since I was a child I have felt compelled to do more, but I have never known what more to do. When I was young, I felt it strongly even for the smallest creature, fallen from its nest or crushed on the pavement. Now, I feel it only faintly when I pass the corpses of crows, and skunks, and even the deer, who are all so common on our highway shoulders. But the owl brought me back all the way. I had watched her, or her likeness, only two days before, hunting from the tops of telephone poles a little ways north — a harbinger of death, yet without malice. She ignored me, rapt as she was in her concentrated gaze, the games she played with the field mice and the voles scurrying through the tall grasses. Death served her as she met the ground, and when I found her two days later, Death had served her once again.

Is good intention sufficient? This is what arrests me. Meaning well and doing the right thing are not always in accord, but I do believe that meaning well is a good starting point, even if it also can feel shaky. Death makes a humble request for ritual, and I fumble because I have never been taught a ritual for mourning, nor have I been taught to trust my instincts in a world where ritual has been claimed by every belief structure and where the apparent rigidity of these rituals feels immutably esoteric. I want only to acknowledge the oneness that inherently exists between myself and the owl, and that now so evidently exists between the owl and Death, and that therefore must also exist between myself and Death. Am I allowed?

I watch my breath like the slow, graceful wingbeats of a great, distant bird. With gentle pulses, it rises and falls, and though I could take control over its rhythm, I know of nothing more pure than to watch it flow, caught on the wind of a will unto itself. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

The following morning I slowed my car even before I came around the corner. She was there, unmoved in the dull light. Her feathers stirred as they had the morning before. Her eyes, a little clouded now, stared out. In the day and the night since I left her, there must have been a thousand cars that passed by, every one of them a recurring nightmare, an echo of the death she did not escape. I think of all the other creatures I see lying dead on the side of the road, some of them ignored for days or weeks. An owl is rare, but the skunks, the raccoons, the deer, and so many others, are barely worth a thought as we pass them by. Manitoba highways kill ten thousand deer per year. Their deaths peak in the fall, but if averaged out over the year this equals about twenty-seven per day, or more than one per hour. We all share an equal part in these deaths; even those of us who are not motorists depend on motorists for everything from our groceries to the electricity that runs through our houses. All that separated me from the person who killed the owl was a mere twenty minutes.

I lifted her body from the coarse, damp gravel. I carried her into the forest and found between the birch a pair of cedars grown across one another. Her mother, inept at building nests, would have laid her in a crook such as this. I did not know how to arrange her, but I placed her there and sat for awhile on the ground beneath, questioning myself steadily even as the cedar smoke rose to meet her body. There are those who would have known what to do according to the tenets of their faith. There must be a teaching somewhere on the funeral rites of raptors. I was dimly aware that I might have even had some legal obligation to report the fallen owl, so that authorities could procure her and pass her along to those who had the right to her body. Maybe my handling of the bird was offensive, or even illegal. Too often, I do not know what to do. I breathe slowly, knowing that even around my breath, religions have formed and that from them have been born doctrines to govern the way I inhale and the way I exhale. I do my best. 

Breath is a gift. I know this. It can be both automatic and equally yielding to my control. I can hold my breath. I can expand it. I can change its pace. But while I sleep, it continues to move. When my awareness shifts to other things, it finds a rhythm unto itself, which is the meaning of the word automatic: “to act of itself”. But who is the self of the breath? It cannot be my conscious mind; my conscious mind can be otherwise occupied and my breath remain unfazed, perhaps even more free to act of itself. Breath, far more than the “me” I’ve constructed in my conscious mind, is essential for life. Regarded in the expanded, inclusive sense of a collective that we all belong to, breath must then be like the umbilical cord that connects our stray, meandering minds back to the source. It belongs to all of us, regardless of the rituals and the doctrines we ascribe to. No one is excluded, so long as we live.

I grew up within the high, rigid walls of doctrine, but was never taught how to breathe. For many years, I was certain of things. I thought I knew what was right and wrong. And I thought I knew, at any given moment, where I was on the spectrum between right and wrong. I knew what sin was. I knew about salvation and the carefully constructed wall of stone that had been built to demarcate the saved from the lost. I knew the commandments and the stories and what was meant by these things. I knew truth and God. I was desperate to know truth and God. I was desperate to dwell within the walls that marked me among the saved. Years passed like this, and with growing unease, I realized that behind such walls, I would never find peace. Imaginary as they were, they alleged to separate me from far too much life, and so long as I believed in them, my breath would be constrained and cut off.

Walls are not wrong, but peace resides within them only when the gates remain open, and when we remember that every brick has been set in place by our own collective imagination. Though we are the architects and the gatekeepers, our control is utter illusion. Watch the next time a slight breeze picks up, how every brick will tremble, and many be lifted from their place, and some dissolve. Our doctrines are like this. Rather than chasing after the dust with desperation, we can watch with curiosity as our fleeting ideas fall apart and later transform into new ones, equally as fallible and equally as true. This is not always easy. It is not abnormal to experience deep tremors within your sense of being as ideas once clung to as irrefutable truth begin to fall away.

I watch my breath, like the slow wingbeats of a great, distant bird. It is intrinsically and irrevocably attuned to life. Expanding and contracting with ever-shifting attempts at equilibrium, it must contend not only with changes in the environment, and changes in the body’s degree of physical exertion, but with the near-constant manipulations of my thinking mind. It is when my neuroses come into play that the great, distant bird is often no longer free to fly of its own accord. Tiny threads of constrictive tension begin to limit its movement. My shoulders, in response to my brain’s insistence that things are not as they should be, begin to rise and move forward; my abdomen curls inward; my breath becomes shallow and incomplete. I may believe that because I am not consciously manipulating my breath, I am allowing it to move of its own will. However, its will is physically hampered by my contracted posture, and my anxious thoughts are implying subversive lies that my breath can not tell from truth. My breath shortens, as in this bedlam of false beliefs, I wonder if there is anything left to believe in.

When faith absconds for lack of my clutching to it, and I have no one to look to less fallible than I, what is left to govern my conviction? My heart, a pulsing thing, my mind, astray, and my will, enfeebled by the maelstrom of currents; I am lost. I carry the body of an animal into the woods with apprehension, and so too I carry my heart. Though my will wavers and my mind panics, though I rely at times on the will of my breath rather than my will to breathe, still, I exist. Where there could be nothing, instead there is me. 

I draw a circle around my anxious mind, and from it trace a line back to the feeling that I do not know what to do. Within this feeling, every time, are the beliefs that things are not as they should be and that I should be able to fix them. Implicit in every anxious thought, is the belief that I should be in control of that which I am not. Sometimes, an anxious thought overwhelms me, and I am not able to untangle myself from it directly. I can try and think my way out of anxiety, but I must do so within the context of an anxious mind, where good intentions are easily subsumed by the spread of worry. This is not an easy task. But if peace is the goal, then there is another way. Anxiety can restrict our breathing, but being free of anxiety is not a prerequisite for the liberation of our breath. At any moment, we can give our breath permission to resume its will to live. We can allow our attention to follow the rise and fall of the wind that passes through us and see how, by loosening our attempts at control and allowing our posture to become fully receptive, we can experience peace in any moment. The part of us that was expressing anxiety still needs to be heard, but when we approach it with the expansiveness of calm breath, it is far more inclined to become calm also, and to express its concern in a more helpful way so that wounds can be healed without spreading out into other parts of our psyche.

Our wounds are varied and some are changing, but most have been recurring since the earliest years of our lives. When we were still very young, and only just beginning to hear whispers that we live in a world where others are separate from ourselves, we gathered in our minds a menagerie of false beliefs. We said, I am better than others. I will never be safe. I need more. I am a disappointment. I do not know love. No one understands me. I am alone. We fell into dialogue with the many-faced illusion of separation, which designates imagined places on imagined hierarchies to divide the powerful from the weak, the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the bad, the saved from the unsaved, and the worthy from the unworthy. And these imagined hierarchies were so widely spoken of, so well established in the collective consciousness we were born into, that we believed in them as assuredly as a fish believes in water. We were born into a collective wound, and this wound, this false belief in separation, has been continually goading us on toward endless attempts at control. Believing in separation, we strive to manipulate ourselves, our environment, and the people around us so that we can secure a preferable position. We might reach it, but the voices do not go away. So we take our manipulations further, ever seeking greater control, more power, more influence, & more applause.

Do you remember the little boy, with his mind full of whispers? Do you remember the little girl first beginning to believe she was not good enough? Day after day, for the many years since our childhood, the same words have been running through our heads. They drive our actions too often. Too often they govern our lives. We wander about from day to day, so lost in the ambitions of our minds, the implicit belief that some will be saved and some will not, and the fear that we will be among the latter; we become blind to our unity. Take a deep breath. Find a posture that is receptive and relaxed, and then fill your lungs.  Certain particles of the air you just breathed, were once present in the lungs of Ghandi. There are also those that were once present in the lungs of Donald Trump. We share breath with our lovers and our friends, with our families, with strangers and with enemies. It unifies us. Like the cells of a single body receiving blood from the same heart, our lungs draw on the same global reserve of air. No matter our gender, orientation, age, ethnicity, creeds, or political beliefs, we all belong. No one is excluded.

Walls are not wrong, but let them be fluid, and let the gates stay open. And if the vertiginous sway of the bricks surrounding you begins to feel unsafe, leave for awhile. Take a walk in the forests and the open fields, where the pristine lawlessness of the undisturbed wild, makes void the toiling of your desperate mind. Let your breath become like the wingbeats of a great, distant bird, untethered and calm, rising and falling in accordance to its own will, the will of Life. Go where there is nothing for you to control and let that space expand, infinitely.



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