Like SO many other “lasts” during the approximate six months I’d been told were my last to live, I REALLY thought my previous entry in this brief Dear Owl series of posts — an imagined correspondence with the Barred Owl that lives in the woods adjacent to my house — was going to be the, um, last one.
But then, this past weekend, for the first time in a while, I heard the call of the owl Saturday night, and Sunday I happened upon my wildlife photographer friend Fred in his natural habitat (a brewery🤣), and Fred just happens to take particularly excellent photos of owls.
Photo by Fred Sears
Surprise, surprise! I’m not dead yet!
Yeah, I know I told you in my last letter, way back in October 2020, that I’d be passing away sometime around the beginning of 2021, but believe me, no one’s more surprised or, frankly, as baffled by the fact that I’m still here as I am.
Since many of us humans like to spout all kinds of aphorisms about the preciousness of life and the appropriateness of celebrating every day as a priceless gift, you’d think these bonus days, weeks, and months I’ve had have been one big non-stop party. And yet, while I have indeed had many beautiful, joyful moments with family and friends, particularly on those sunny summer day outings, it turns out that it has not really been all that different than life usually is, a mysterious journey of ups and downs, only, when your body is becoming more and more disabled by this thing I have, ALS, it’s just a different set of ups and downs.
Anyway, when I heard your Hoo, Hoo, Hoo-Hoo the other night, I thought of you, perched out there in a tree somewhere, watching for movement down below, working in partnership with our two cats to keep the rodent population down, and I figured I might as well drop you a line, because, honestly, I was having no luck at all coming up with anything else to write. 🤪
Based on the little I’ve learned online, I think your owlets are able to fly short distances by now, they’re due to leave the nest for good in a month or two, and I can’t help wondering how you experience that process. Will you enjoy, even for a while, no longer having to hunt for you and the owlets, always having to tear your prey into small pieces and feed your young? Will you miss them when they’re gone? Do you even recognize them if, sometime later, you cross paths in the forest? Of course, you breed more often than we humans do, 2-3 eggs at a time, but I did read that female Barred Owls take breaks and don’t lay eggs every third year, so you must feel some sense of relief, right?
I ask, because my own offspring, my 23-year-old son, living with us for now and until I pass, is on the verge of striking out on his own, though he’ll naturally stick around a while longer to grieve, for a time, with his mom. And even if I wasn’t going to die for many more years, it was always going to be painful when he leaves home. Of course, this pain is nothing in comparison to the agony of childbirth, which I was also spared, and so whenever I think about my son leaving the nest I think mostly of his mother doing the real work of birthing him, first into our lives, then out into the world at large.
And none of the quips we make to minimize or explain away this pain of parenting…
- Sarcastic: It was all there in the job description!
- Pseudo-intellectual: If it didn’t hurt we wouldn’t appreciate it as much.
- Buddhist: Life is suffering.
…help in any real way.
But Owl, my friend, even though that third item, this Buddhist idea that life is suffering, doesn’t seem to, by itself, actually relieve any suffering, this Buddhism spiritual practice thingy that some humans came up with, well, it really does offer some helpful ideas, and there’s one story in particular that I heard recently that brings me quite a bit of relief when I think about it:
In 1968, Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki-roshi had just concluded a lecture to a gathering of his students and asked if anyone had any questions.
One student, David Chadwick, who some 30 years later would write a seminal biography of Suzuki, asked the first question:
“Suzuki Roshi, I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” I said, “and I really love them, and they’re very inspiring, and I know that what you’re talking about is actually very clear and simple. But I must admit I just don’t understand. I love it, but I feel like I could listen to you for a thousand years and still not get it. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”
Everyone laughed. He laughed. What a ludicrous question. I don’t think any of us expected him to answer it. He was not a man you could pin down, and he didn’t like to give his students something definite to cling to. He had often said not to have “some idea” of what Buddhism was.
But Suzuki did answer. He looked at me and said,
I mean, I can accept that suffering is an inextricable element of life, and I can also see how not accepting it as inextricable, and instead expecting, or striving for, a suffering-free existence will only cause more suffering, but I find it much more helpful and hopeful to focus on impermanence, on the fact that everything changes, which seems to suggest that even suffering will pass, that my ALS will run its course and when I die my suffering will end; my wife and son will grieve, their grief will subside, and they will get on with their lives; my son will move out of our house, his mom will grieve anew, he will suffer through new challenges of living wholly independently, and all this too will pass.
I imagine, Owl, whether it’s true or not, that you already know all of this stuff. After all, amongst us humans, many see owls as symbols of wisdom.
But, I just needed something to ruminate on and write about, so thanks, as always, for indulging me. I had no idea where this letter to you would lead me, but I’m really pleased with where I landed.
My thoughts remain with you, particularly as you prepare for the upcoming empty nest, a change that you of course knew was coming and inevitable.