This Wild and Blessed Life

by Maria Theresa Maggi on January 19, 2020

If there is a chance to spot wildlife in the midst of other people, I’m rarely, if ever, the first to notice, and often the last to do so. But sometimes when I’m alone, I get visited in ways that delight. Last week I had an astounding encounter, one unparalleled in my life, at least that I can recall.

It was dusk, nearing dark, and Cotton and I had started out a little later than usual. We were taking a short cut to the mail box bank along a little street I used to call “The Avenue of the Finches,” because there used to be a woman (may she rest in peace) who lived on it that kept her bird feeders full, and in the Spring the male finches turned their bright yellow would amass in large groups in the high trees around her house, awaiting the food. They’d literally flock to it, but if the dogs and I rounded the corner, they would all fly up into the branches again and wait for us to pass. No one feeds them regularly now, so I cherish that memory as one of my golden ones.

This evening I was on task in some sort of mundane way, wanting to get the mailboxes for some reason I no longer remember. Maybe I just wanted to get there and let Cotton play in the field beyond them before it got too dark, or to get to the beach before it got too dark to see if he could run down there for a few minutes.

Cotton’s nature is to look around, and to be engaged by what he sees; he is the only dog I’ve ever known who looks up in the sky at an airplane. This can be annoying when I want him to stay on task with me, and  this evening when he sharply turned around was no different. I tugged a little on the leash, turning to where he was lagging behind, and said, “let’s go, together,” but when I turned back in the direction we were heading I saw the reason for his distraction. A very large dark gray bird had swooped low to the side of us and flew up into the branches of a large pine on an empty lot that is essentially a forest.  I gasped. I looked up at it and there was this amazing owl, large, and not unlike the pastel above of the Spotted Owl I drew several years ago.

“You’re so beautiful!” I told it over and over again, as Cotton and I stood and looked up at it. We couldn’t have been 10 feet away. The owl continued to gaze at us calmly, only occasionally swiveling its head to the side or the back to look for the prey she must have been stalking. We stood for a long time looking at each other. I was in wonder. There was no display, just a quiet interest and presence. Finally, it was us who had to turn to go as it was getting quite dark. The owl remained where she was as we walked away, seemingly in no hurry to return to the hunt.

Down at the beach a neighbor who used to work in the forest thought it sounded too large to be a spotted owl, that it was most likely a barred owl, which are now more commonly seen than the native spotted owls. No matter which kind it was, I marveled all night at this one of a kind encounter.

As I walked away I recalled the Native American belief that the owl can signify the release of a soul through death. The image from the film Thunder Heart of an owl visiting the FBI agent who was uncovering the murders of Native American activists committed by his colleagues on the Lakota Sioux Reservation came to me. I’d taught this movie in a college class as a compelling twist on the hero’s journey, and for a moment I wondered if this visit was a harbinger of a death in my circle. And I wondered who that I knew had died. But in the moment I couldn’t think of any way it applied. Nevertheless, just on its own as an encounter I knew it was one of a kind for me, and I treasured it, not needing to jump to any symbolic resonance to add to that treasure.

A day or so passed. A friend reached out to me about an astrological reading. Then I saw on social media that she was also mourning the suicide of a friend she had kept in touch with on social media, wishing she had known more and could have done more to help. There were no details mentioned that would place this friend of hers in time or location. It didn’t occur to me that we might know her in common as I expressed my sympathy and support.

As the week unfolded, I came to understand that the friend who posted about losing a friend to suicide was writing of our dear mutual friend Jessica, a young woman we had both met through the Moscow Food Co-op many years ago. My heart was broken. I loved her too. Yet another day later, the sun finally came out here for a while, and I went in the yard to sit in it and be quiet, feeling warmth on my face and listening to the sounds in the trees around my yard. The day a couple of days before when Cotton and I saw that large and beautiful barred owl dip before us in the street and then up into a tree behind us came back to me. Sitting in the sun to calm my own soul, the connection that the owl may have carried an aspect of Jessica’s soul came to me. We were friendly over the years. and I was at times a mother figure to her, or a sister vegan, or a person who shared her quirky sense of humor and love of fresh flowers, gardens and vegetables. I’d been to her house and she to mine, a definition of friendship I was once given by a nine year old who’s perspective I trust completely.

For those few days, I had visualized her surrounded by fragrant flowers and fruits of the season, delighted that they all come to thank her for her love for them, and also carried by angels/beings of light to where she can heal and be comforted, surrounding her with the energy of love. I feel deeply she is being cared for in this way beyond the veil but it doesn’t dismiss the grief, the loss, the sadness, that was there something more I should have known, done, understood? And just the utter sadness that she was in so much pain.

I first met Jessica over a decade ago, when she first worked at in the produce section of the Moscow Food Co-op, before it moved to its present permanent location. She might have been 19.  One of our first conversations I remember was me complementing her on her tiny little ponytails sticking up at the top of her head and teasing her that she reminded me of a pixie. This made her eyes twinkle merrily, and our relationship blossomed from there, mostly as she stocked produce and I shopped for it. But Jessica had many talents; she was an amazing seamstress: she designed her own clothes and for a time she patched jeans and jackets in unique ways for others as well, starting an offbeat mending business. She did cross stitch that was both skillful, pretty and wickedly witty and on the edge. She lived in a truly tiny house a few blocks from my own, built long before tiny houses came into fashion, and I remember fondly the time she gave Romeo and me a tour.  She tiled her own shower, with a small pieces of tile remnants in beautiful bright colors. She was central enough to my life in Moscow over the years to have appeared in two of my blog posts:Pomegranate: To Spank or Not To Spank, and October Scrapbook. In both these posts, though nameless, she appears as a young but wise friend, who comforts, supports and advises.

On the issue of whether or not it’s best to “spank” a pomegranate to get the seeds out:

“I mentioned my failure to spank to one of my favorite people who works in the produce department at the co-op and she said, “Oh, it’s so easy!! Let me show you.” And she took me and Romeo and  a pomegranate into the produce kitchen and I watched as she scored the edges of each half and then expertly tapped all the seeds out by simply hitting the fruit with the back of the paring knife. I was impressed, and resolved to try again.

But the same thing happened. I actually wanted to feel the shape of those lovely three dimensional star tips full of seeds spread themselves slowly in my fingers and hands. I wanted to do what my hands knew how to do. I must have helped my Dad do this more than I actually remember. I know I was very impressed with his patience and dedication. I think we sat there together working the seeds out. We were the only two in the family that had the patience for it.

It’s not surprising that a woman who calls her blog Plant-Based Slow Motion Miracle would decide she’d rather not spank the seeds out of her pomegranate. I decided it might be a matter of whether you are a person who rips open your presents, or one, like me, who carefully unties the ribbon and unfolds the paper. Mike liked that distinction. And so did my friend at the co-op. She went even further. She said there’s really no need to do it that way, especially if you’re just going to eat one pomegranate. And that when she went to visit her Mom over the holiday she had had the same trouble with it I had. Maybe she’s also a person who opens her presents slowly.

To find the past alive in my hands is something worth going slow for. But if you’d like to learn to spank, you have my blessing. And Mike’s. And that of my friend at the Co-op. However you mine the aril-jewels from the fruit, I hope you enjoy the pomegranates that may come your way in this life. They are truly treasure buried in a fruit. They’ll soon be gone for the rest of the year. But until they are, I’m savoring each slow picked delicious gem.”

What I love most about this passage when I reread it is the image of Romeo and I following Jessica into the produce kitchen at the Co-op. I can see Romeo standing attentively and politely beside me as Jessica worked her magic on the pomegranate, watching what I was watching. And I giggle to remember it was a day the produce manager was not in, and Jessica was alone on a shift, and that she had not seen any reason why Romeo could not just come on in with us, something the produce manager might not have agreed with. To remember this now, it shines from the past with the light of love–and the knowledge that these two beloveds were there with me in that moment, and neither one of them is here now. Like seeing the owl, the memory itself is a treasure beyond compare.

The second mention of Jessica, though not by name, came in a post called October Scrapbook, in which I confess and mourn the death of a little mouse I had tried for days to catch humanely, only to have it escape once I finally caught it, and surprise me so terribly that I instinctively stepped on it rather than let it run back into my kitchen:

“There is nothing in what follows I am proud of.  Startled,  my adrenaline already running high, I screamed bloody murder. The mouse, though he was at the threshold of the open door he had been longing for, went the opposite way. (Alas, perhaps  it was the peppermint oil around the edges to keep his friends from joining him that sent him in the wrong direction.) I tried to herd him out with the bag, my feet, anything, screaming continuously, unable to stop. The neighbors, if any were home, must have thought I was being murdered. (When I confessed this to a younger vegan friend of mine here in town she said practically, “No, Maria, they probably thought you had seen a mouse. It’s what most of us do when we see one.” Bless her heart.)”

When Jessica said this, she looked at me with a kind wisdom well beyond her years, and just a touch of “oh come on, don’t be so dramatic.” We were sitting on the back deck of my little house on Van Buren Street six years ago, before I knew I would move to Portland. Or maybe I did know. We certainly did know that Jessica was leaving to travel across country and take up a farm internship in New England. She had come to visit me and we had promised to keep in touch as friends on Facebook. I think it might have been the last time I saw her in person, almost six years ago now. That she could truly comfort me about something I felt so utterly humanly flawed about, is something I will always be deeply grateful to her for. She just didn’t go to the place I feared other vegans would go if I told them about what a hypocrite I was when push came to shove. The fact that I was even able to write October Scrapbook with the candor I was able to muster is in part due to Jessica’s response when I told her what had happened. With those simple words, she saved me from becoming paralyzed in self-blame. I found the strength to shoulder the blame and forgive the utter imperfection as part of life, and to leave a record of that paradox in my blog post.

One of the many sadnesses over the loss of her now is that we had drifted away in the separate directions our lives required and so I wasn’t there to say the right thing to her, if I even could have. Those of us who remain must go through those motions of wondering what else we could have done, said, tried to know better in order to avoid such a sorrowful outcome. And yet, as Jessica herself would have advised, it isn’t in our hands to be superhuman like that.

My usual practice when I write a blog post with a friend in it is to change their names, or tweak them a little, to protect privacy, or because I’m doing that sneaky writer thing of writing about my experience with them without them knowing that’s what I’m doing. I like to think that if Jessica were here and knew I was writing about her with her real name, that she’d arch one eyebrow and show me the twinkle in her eye I loved so much, just like the day she invited both Romeo and I into the produce kitchen. I’d also like to think she’d be honored I felt she might have visited me in the form of the owl that day at dusk, and that I shared one of the pastels I’m most proud of as a reminder of that visit. Thank you for your life, Jessica. Mine was blessed to have crossed with yours over my years in Moscow and a little bit beyond. May your soul move with quiet grace toward a greater peace, with the certain knowledge you will be loved forever.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Angie January 20, 2020 at 9:28 am

I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your memories of Jessica with us; she sounds like a wonderfully unique individual. May she rest in peace now.

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2 Maria Theresa Maggi January 20, 2020 at 10:00 am

Thank you for reading and for your kind words, Angie.

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3 Jen January 21, 2020 at 6:36 am

Hi Maria,
I’ve been reading your beautiful words for the last few years but haven’t had the courage to ever comment before. I just wanted you to know how sorry I am for your loss and I appreciate you sharing not only your memories of Jessica but also how having her in your life made a lasting impact on you. It’s so easy to forget that no matter how small, insignificant and invisible we may feel, a kind word, a shared laugh, letting another human know that we see them and understand how they are feeling can and does have an impact. Thanks again for sharing this…and all the parts of your life you share on your blog. You are a true story teller and I am always captivated from the first few words, right through to the end of your posts 🙂

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4 Maria Theresa Maggi January 21, 2020 at 9:49 am

Thank you for this beautiful comment, Jen, which brought tears to my eyes. I so appreciate knowing you’re out there reading in such an attentive and supportive way. I treasure your kind words. xo

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5 Veronica January 28, 2020 at 10:10 am

This is such a lovely and sweet dedication to a life lost too soon. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. xo

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6 Maria Theresa Maggi January 31, 2020 at 9:44 am

Thank you so much, Veronica–I really appreciate it. xoxo

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7 Colleen February 15, 2020 at 10:26 am

Thank you for this. It helps so much with loss, grief and moving forward in all our imperfection. It is incredibly hard to assimilate and work through our mistakes. So hard, that most of the time most of us block those things off until they become a deep, unconscious shame that ironically causes us to behave worse instead of better. She helped you negotiate that and you helped us. Those of the Jewish faith will often say “May her memory be a blessing” as comfort in loss. Her memory IS a blessing to you and, through your writing, us. Thank you and please extend my gratitude to her when next you touch the essence of your memory of her.

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8 Maria Theresa Maggi February 17, 2020 at 9:47 am

Thank you so much, Colleen. This is so profoundly true for me, and so beautifully said. I do hope Jessica’s memory will be a blessing for everyone who reads this post. Much love to you for saying it this way, and for just being you!

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9 Deborah Harris February 15, 2020 at 6:29 pm

I’m glad to have known Jessica too, albeit ‘only’ through your words…
I was touched my her wisdom: “It isn’t in our hands to be superhuman like that”
I find solace in that and hope it continues to guide you also, dear Maria xo

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10 Maria Theresa Maggi February 17, 2020 at 9:51 am

Thanks so much for this kind comment Deborah! It IS very comforting. xo

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