Thursday, April 19, 2012

Light, Compassion, & a Cow Called Christina: Rita Reynolds

The one essential thing is that we strive to have light in ourselves. Our strivings will be recognized by others, and when people have light in themselves, it will shine out from them. Then we get to know each other as we walk together in darkness, without needing our hands over each other’s faces, or to intrude into each other’s hearts.
        --Albert Schweitzer, Memoirs of Childhood and Youth.


 Some folks would’ve considered Rita Reynolds’s hero an odd one for a young girl to choose. But she admired Albert Schweitzer and his humanitarian work so much, her grandmother gave her all his books, knowing how much they would mean to her. “I was going to go and work for him,” recalls Reynolds, the editor of laJoie, a quarterly journal based in Batesville, Virginia. She laughs a little. “He didn’t know it, but I was going to. And when I graduated high school in 1965, that was the year he died. And I was so mad at him.” She adds more seriously, “I think I was born subscribing to his philosophy of reverence for life, and I never veered from it.”

That reverence shines through both laJoie and Reynolds’s books -- Blessing the Bridge: What Animals Teach Us About Dying, Death, and Beyond (NewSage Press) and Ask the Cow: A Gentle Guide to Finding Peace (PublishingWorks, Inc.). The quarterly focuses less on animal-rights issues and more on “the deeper issues of caring for animals. And how we grow. It’s a mutual give-and-take with animals, and I think it’s true of everything in nature. We can learn a lot from nature if we are just observant and willing to believe that we are not above the animals. Of course, the buzz word now is ‘interconnected’ – but it’s true – we are all interconnected.”

 The journal takes its name from the French word for “joy.” Both she and co-founder Mary K. Birkholz of the Caring for Creatures Foundation(CFC) in Palmyra, Virginia wanted to emphasize “the joy they [animals] bring us, even in their passing – the healing and the joy.” Each poem, each story, each essay works on what Reynolds calls “a heart level.” Some of the pieces are so metaphysical, they read like excerpts from one of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s books; others, like Ziporah Hildebrandt’s essay on the death of her beloved cat, Asphodel, speak to us in more down-to-earth terms about the lessons “given by love” and the animals who let us into their lives. Yes, some of the contributors are professional writers and editors. But the list also includes wildlife rehabilitators; an education and pet-therapy director; a WWII vet reminiscing about the Manchester terrier he adopted in Holland back in 1945; and “people down the road.”

“We decided not to limit it to professional writers,” explains Reynolds, who has degrees in broadcasting and journalism. “I very seldom edit except for grammar and punctuation. I try even to leave it in the colloquial.” And sometimes – as in the case of the aforementioned folks down the road from her farm – the submissions have come in written in pen or pencil.

 For Reynolds, writing on a heart level comes as naturally as breathing. She was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother “who were not only well-read but both deeply curious, spiritually and mystically speaking. They encouraged both my sister and me to explore different philosophical and belief systems, taking from each what made intuitive sense to us and applying what we discovered, and related to, in our own lives.” The girls learned that “all ways of seeing things, no matter what the culture or time, came down to one thing: respect and reverence for life.” Ergo, the Schweitzer books.

 That being the case, it’s not surprising that a grown-up Reynolds has made her farm in Batesville, Virginia a sanctuary for all kinds of creatures over the years -- cats, dogs, rabbits, ducks, goats, donkeys, chickens, a rooster named Cezanne (“he was destined for soup”), two orphaned field mice found in a grain sack, and a box turtle who took up residence in her rose garden. And the star of the Animals’ Peace Garden, Christina the Cow, a.k.a. Ol’ Bucket-Head. (More about her later.)

“I established one rule early on,” Reynolds writes in Blessing the Bridge. “Whatever creature in need appears here, stays for life; no one is turned away. And by some magical accounting, no more animals have arrived than could be cared for at one time. Yet hardly has one died than another suddenly arrives on the front lawn. Or an animal becomes known to me through someone in such a way that there is no doubt the animal should be with me at the sanctuary.”

Inevitably, that sanctuary also became a hospice. Reynolds has approached this sad, hard work with characteristic compassion and an open mind. Early on, she says, she realized that she “had to change my own attitude toward death if I were to continue the work. I could fear the process and withdraw from it, or embrace it – see it in a different light and, in effect, then bless the process….I also saw death as the bridge between worlds, our three-dimensional existence here and all that lies ‘beyond’ – hard to put a place to it, actually.”

Blessing the Bridge grew out of her work with dying animals. Each animal or bird profiled in the book left her with some insight, teaching her that with them, as with humans, there was no one-size-fits-all answer. There was Sally, the border collie who did a slow fade to black when her beagle buddy, Parsley, disappeared; Patches, the “Halloween cat” who taught her the importance of seeing an “animal’s soul safely on his or her journey”; and “a floppy-eared, black-and-tan dog named Waggy” who appeared to Reynolds thirteen months after her death, her “black coat glisten[ing], her ears flopped over as they had in life…the image of perfect health and joy…watching me intently. A momentary vision, she was there and gone.”

 Whatever the story, compassion is always the subtext, its gold illuminating the eloquent text. More than anything else, Reynolds has learned that you go into this kind of work knowing that your heart will be broken wide-open: indeed, it is the only way that those spiritual insights can take root. “Direct involvement through participation with an animal or person definitely changes you, if you leave the heart open for possibilities. If one simply endures the loss and then shuts the heart down because the pain of grief is so large, then that touch with Mystery will be missed, and the resulting joy will not be discovered.” It is a hard-won joy but a joy nonetheless.

Blessing the Bridge was updated a little over a year ago. The new edition contains a section of prayers and blessings “and the story of Miso, my little donkey, and what happened when I said a prayer over him just before he was euthanized.” She has also woven in accounts of experiences that she has had with other animals since the first edition came out in 2001. Many of them deal with animals who appeared to her after their deaths, as Waggy did. She could not, of course, fit all of them into the new edition, and “a couple of my favorite animals/experiences” got left out. “I guess I need to write another book!”

Ask the Cow is as spiritual a book as its predecessor, but the feel of it is very different. There’s a playful whimsicality about Reynolds’s conversations with Christina/Ol’ Bucket-Head… dialogues that can best be summed up as one part Lewis Carroll, one part C. S. Lewis, and one part Henry David Thoreau. In the book, the russet-and-white cow takes it upon herself to guide her human along numerous philosophical bends in the roads.  Topics include “honoring the inner child – or inner calf, depending on one’s view point”; Schweitzer (“Knew him when he was at Lambarene – during my last life, of course,” Her Cowness informs Reynolds. “I was his favorite cat. We inspired each other, actually.”); getting unstuck; aging or “olding”; and that daemon called loss that we all wrestle with. 

And then there’s Christina’s cosmic junk drawer.

 The junk drawer’s invisible to everybody except to Christina because, as she explains, “it pertains to me, in ‘my kitchen’ where I ‘cook up’ my reality moment by moment….You know how it is: ‘Stuff happens,’ and when it does, one’s truth tends to get buried in the pile. So I have my junk drawer where I can place all my ‘stuff’ that troubles me, and then find a tool in that same drawer to correct it so that I can reconnect with my truth.” Among the tools that she has collected: a screwdriver for fixing her insecurity; a pair of three-D glasses “for seeing past illusion to the truth of the matter”; rubber bands “for when I feel scattered, too many things to do in too little time”; and a box of birthday candles to remind her that she is always, always worth celebrating.

 “’Junk Drawer’ arrived on paper the way all of the writings with Christina do,” Reynolds reminisces. “I often stand in front of, or next to, her and ask what we will write about that day.” Usually, her co-writer just chews her cud, but at some point, “maybe a title or first few words will pop into my head and once I put them to paper, I am off and running. The rest just flows through me onto the keyboard.” She used to play the piano the same way, she says: she’d keep the music in front of her but never refer to it, “just let the energy flow through my fingers onto the keyboard. It is a remarkable feeling of energy surging out into words or music.”

 So, what’s in her cosmic junk drawer? “Too much stuff!” Reynolds exclaims. “But also in that drawer are too many angels to count, much unwritten poetry, and many essays and stories, even a novel. These are what I feel I can do. Then there are the things I want to do but, in reality, may not get to.” Among the latter is building a cabin that she can retreat to.

“I have an ongoing serious case of Thoreau,”  the writer confesses. She appreciates technology but is very much in love with the idea of having “a small cabin by a lake or stream in the peace of the woods, full of animals. How perfect for me! Just give me a woodstove, a bed to sleep on, a writing table, and map, and I’d be happy.”

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gary's Ghost

For  Gary, who gave "Sketch People" its name -- and for the photographer he might've become --

Mostly, I remember the boxes.  They kept coming for days – weeks, it seemed to me then – after my brother died.  All of them had “Airman Gary Scott Banks” scrawled on their sides in black misshapen letters.  Inside were Gary’s neatly mounted black-&-white photos, negatives, and camera equipment.  Photography magazines.  Clothes.  Nineteen years of life crammed into a bunch of boxes…I couldn’t get over it, any more than I could understand how they’d been able to fit my brother, skinny as he was, into that narrow flag-shrouded coffin.

I was almost 15 when Gary was killed in a car accident out in Idaho.  A few days later, I was back in school, writing poetry and  drawing pictures during geometry.  I took long walks in the field behind my parents’ house.  I read and played with my beloved three-legged Siamese, Christy.  And all the while, I felt cut off from the world around me.  I was grieving, and I didn’t want to be.  So I buried that grief even deeper than they had buried my brother.  Like Christy, who had learned to get about gracefully on three legs after having been hit by a car, I learned to move about as though I was still whole.

I wasn’t, of course.  And because, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I would not stop for grief, grief stopped for me.  Frequently.  Politely, like a well-mannered guest waiting for me to finish what I was doing so that it could say what needed to be said.  It showed up in all sorts of ways.  In driver’s ed. a year later, I’d freeze behind the wheel; and all the instructor’s advice and all my father’s kind, patient after-school instruction could not banish the tall, skinny curly-haired ghost who sat beside me in the car.  Then came the day that all the driver’s ed. students were supposed to watch footage of a fatal traffic accident.  There would be a short film about driving safety first, the instructors informed us, followed by the main feature, “Mechanized Death”: we were to watch at least 10 minutes of it before making the decision to walk.

I spent the last few minutes of the first flick staring at my feet. The micro-second the lights went down a second time, my sneakers hit the floor.  It helped that several of my friends decided to join me in flight:  there were too many of us for the instructor to catch us all at once, and all of us except one made it successfully to another floor.

When I went off to college, Gary went with me in a different way.  I brought his camera with me.  He had been a photographer; I would, I told myself, be a photojournalist.  I never did become a great photographer, but I felt a little closer to him when I was outside trying to capture images with his camera.

Over time, his presence faded.  I overcame my fear enough to get my license.  But there were moments when I looked into a mirror or at a snapshot of myself and saw his face staring back at me.  People who had known him back in school would meet me and say, “You look like him…”

But I still found it hard to talk about the boy whose face I shared.  “I lost my brother,” Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn writes in her book The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age, “and because of my family’s inability to find a way to cope and to attempt to heal, I lost the grief.  I stuffed it into that back closet…And because of that I lost my brother even in the way I might have kept him.”

Then one night, when I was out with Tim, the man I would later marry, someone asked me how many brothers I had.

“Two,” I replied.

“You have three brothers,” Tim corrected me quietly.  He knew Gary’s story. 

He was right, of course, but I didn’t want to let that ghost out of the closet I had so carefully blockaded.  And not just the ghost but all of the baggage that came with it, including the additional strain on my father’s heart that had eventually killed him.  The way that Gary’s death had broken apart the charmed circle of our childhood.

It has taken me a long time to find my brother again.  I came across an old photo of Gary not long ago.  In it, he is sitting atop a fallen tree trunk on a mountain, staring off to the side.  He is wearing his characteristic scowl, slightly toned down.  He looks fit, thoughtful, and at peace among the rocks and trees he loved photographing.  In it, I see someone who shared my love of nature.  Whom I might have even been able to work with some day, my words and his pictures coming together to tell a story.

It’s just a pipedream, of course.  I don’t know the person my brother would’ve become, and I will always regret the not knowing.  But I’ve learned to let grief in – to honor the loss.  A photo Gary took of my cat Alexander snoozing by a toy airplane…looking as though he’d just thwacked it down with a paw a la King Kong…now hangs in my living room.  The onyx horse-head bookends he gave me before he left home hold up some treasured books on the shelves of the secretary where I write.  And some days, I take my camera out into the yard and photograph the trees or the way the sunlight spills through their branches.

The break in the circle is healed, and so am I.  By befriending Gary’s ghost, I have my third brother back again.