Fog Hollow Art Studio
Lessons from Baby Ducks
I am often asked the question, “What does a chaplain do?” Well, I am not sure what my counterparts do, but in my years in this capacity, I have been know to take an
unconventional approach to nurturing and supporting the spirit, to maximizing the quality of the life I am honored and privileged to companion. So it was not out of the
Pennsylvania. Nature was one of the elements of her spirit. In her lifetime she had traveled the world, experiencing and painting the wonders of nature beyond the
quiet sanctuary she now occupied. I call it a sanctuary because it was a treetop sort of space she had deliberately created. From her lofty perch in a room with lots of
windows and skylights, she could be among the trees she loved and watch birds flying to and from branches to feeders just outside her windows. And it was in this
sanctuary where together we watched the changes and wonders of each season savored their beauty and witnessed the awe and wisdom they offered. So it made
perfect sense to visit with a baby duck. Bird, nature, spring… and I happened to have a few, because, with the first sign of the lacy canopy of emerging leaves, and the
smell of the damp spring earth, something stirs in me and reminds me of the hope the season holds, and every spring since my grown children were very small, baby
animals were welcomed on our little farm.
My patient knew there was something up as the duck’s loud peeping could be heard even before I had climbed the stairs. The cruelty of a debilitating and unkind
disease had rendered her unable to move independently, speech was difficult, but when I entered the room her smile was radiant and her eyes were filled with hope.
For a moment she could move away from her illness and visit the essence of spring, revisit past joys, and witness the hope of a new season. The little duckling, just
being a duck, nestled in the curve of her neck; it’s softness and warmth welcome and savored. For a while we sat together and watched and, ourselves; enjoyed just
being. And in those quiet moments we shared awareness - that this gentle, brand new life, even in its newness and innocence, held valuable lessons of wisdom for
us about journeying through life. They were there for us to discover together.
With birds, before birth, a tiny tooth called an egg tooth forms at the tip of their beak and they instinctively know to use that little tooth to peck away at the shell of the egg,
in a perfect circle and it is always at the wide end of the egg, and they peck and rest, and peck until the circle is complete. And I know they never doubt that they did the
job well, pecking thought that egg. They don’t experience anxiety saying, “Hmm, did I do that right?” And they instinctively know they need to rest, to take quiet time in
the struggle to accomplish their birth. They know they will need all the energy they can store to face the world and its challenges. All animals seem to know without
question, anxiety, or fear, know with acceptance, that life is what it is. It seems they have the acceptance we struggle to find. As my patient and I reflected we realized
that to make its way through birth, and life’s challenges, and eventually its own passing, this duckling would need to draw from its resources contained even before
birth, in that tiny egg – courage, trust, determination, and hope. This little baby duck had all these within, and we do too. We have to look inward to find them and trust
that they are there. We have become so enmeshed in the cacophony of sound and activity in our lives, that we sometimes lose sight of what we hold within us to
make our way through the challenges of living. Animals seem to have an advantage over humans. They can just be. And humans think too much. As you came
together this afternoon, you drove here with thoughts – perhaps anticipation, anxiety, fear about what to expect from this time together. We are here just to be, to share
a reverence for the loved ones we honor.
That baby duck, in its purity and innocence had no idea what its simple presence might offer its world, or what would be discovered or shared that day in the sun-filled
room or what might be passed on to others some future day. It was just being a duckling. Just trusting its instincts every step of its journey. Just being, but perhaps
more aware than we of the gentle gifts of living it held within. I gently encourage you today to tuck these lessons from baby ducks somewhere in your heart. Trust that
you have within you what you need, rest when you need to, and just be.
The Wisdom of Trees
They stand among us, in countless numbers, erect and bent, swaying and still, offering shelter, and shade, and nurture. As I write, the beautiful deciduous trees of our New England
landscape are preparing themselves to endure the challenging winter months ahead. Through my life, there have been few more appropriate examples of hope and grace than the
quiet, steadfast, and perseverant tree. Through their quiet dignity, trees offer fine examples of the characteristics in ourselves that sustain us as we cope with the struggles of life.
We can grow when we pay quiet, deliberate and close attention to their examples and we can glean from them, the wonder and richness that can nurture our souls. And so, here we
begin a journey through the seasons in a year of a tree. On that journey we can enhance our awareness of the beautiful parallels we share with trees. There is comfort and
strength, and there is enduring hope in that awareness.
In spring, which seems so far away from this October day, the stirring of life in a tree offers such richness and hope. There is wonder in spring when the first rust colored fringe laces
the highest branches of many varieties of trees. The leaf buds that formed before winter just begin to whisper the hope of spring. If you watch their progress, the lacey buds quietly
turn to perfect tiny green leaves. Tiny new life emerges and with it, new hope in each day, much as new human life. And there is joy and hope as all of nature follows suit, and new
Then summer offers the wealth and richness of growth in the new leaf. Its edges expand and the leaf reaches maturity. People have growing edges as well. The places where we
need to seek out wisdom and find our way through life are where our growing edges live. We learn to crawl, then to walk, and then to run. We discover our own nature and life takes
it course. On the branches of trees, as each individual leaf expands its edges, in its uniqueness it holds a place of its own on its branch, there to live out its life on the tree. But even
in its uniqueness, as with humans, it is part of a larger community. Each single leaf has a purpose of sustaining the tree and assuring its life source. And as with humans, every
leaf needs the others, for one leaf alone cannot sustain its tree. As the breezes of summer blow through the branches, the tree moves to its rhythm, but if you look carefully you will
see that each leaf blows in its own rhythm – an individual and unique entity. And, although we also are a part of a larger community, we need as well to celebrate and honor our own
uniqueness and individuality.
Fall comes and each leaf, in its own time, prepares for the end of its purpose in the course of its life. Throughout its growth it has endured through sunrises and sunsets, through
storms and strong winds, and it has achieved its earth purpose of sustaining the tree. In that process it has also achieved profound beauty as it has been transformed into the
glorious and spectacular colors of the season, offering inspiration and beauty to its world. The fall produces the reward of fruit from the tree in the form of acorns, apples, seedlings
– and all contain within them, everything they need to sustain life through all kinds of challenges and struggles. Humans follow a parallel course of growth, wisdom and maturity.
People also have within them, every thing they need to sustain life through its challenges.
And now, on the threshold of the season when it appears that the tree stands, still and dormant, bleak in the cold of winter, it appears that there is little going on. The flow of
nutritional resources has slowed in this season and the tree’s branches have lost the leaves that offered nutrients through summer. It seems odd that their bare and unprotected
branches will sustain the harshness of freezing rain and snow without the lovely blanket of the leaves. But, this is the most powerful time for the tree. And it is when we must trust
most in the wisdom of trees – in their darkest hours. They have endured for millions of years, just as mankind has, and theirs and man’s endurance has much to do with what goes
on beyond the world’s view.
The roots of a tree grow deep downward into darker places, inward into the earth, to find the nourishment they need in order to provide growth to the strong trunk and to produce the
glorious new leaves of spring, to endure beyond struggle, courageously searching for what is vital to survival. And in so doing, they also create the anchor of strength that holds
them steadfast when strong winds challenge them to remain upright. There, deep within the earth, even in winter much is happening with the tree. It seems to be the hardest work
of the tree – the unseen, unnoticed, and gracious winter work. It is necessary work, going deep into darker places, in order to grow upward toward the sun and sky. We human
beings must do the same. Because that is how and where growth and nurture transpire.
Gratitude for the wisdom of trees is a precious gift. My hope for you is that you will be inspired and encouraged by the example of the tree and that each time you look at one, sit
beneath one, or witness the splendor of its autumn color, its silhouette against a gray winter sky, or its grace as it bends with breeze or harsh wind, you will be reminded of its
wisdom of the unique and rich qualities within yourself. My hope is that you will trust in your own goodness and strength and believe that you, like the acorn of an oak, or the seeds
of a maple, have everything you need already within you, to sustain whatever storm you are called on to endure.
The Courage to Hope
I sat with a woman awhile back. Her name was Anna. She was a woman who had known sorrow and loss of profound proportion by almost anyone’s standard. She had lost two
sons to the Viet Nam war, a third, and her only remaining child, to a drunk driver. I was visiting her that day because she had just lost her husband of 57 years after caring for him
for twelve years with Alzheimer’s disease.
It was a beautiful April afternoon, the red fringe of swamp maple lacing the sky with its promise of spring. This woman was 81 and the lines of age and challenge spoke volumes
of her journey through all those years – of her beginnings and through the trials of her life. Her eyes were a soft powder blue and her hair pure white like fresh snow. She sat on a
porch swing in her garden with her old dog beside her and her slender gnarled fingers stroked the dog’s graying muzzle as she spoke. Four journals sat on the garden table near
“When each of my boys died, I wept seemingly endless tears. And when I thought I had wept the last one, I wandered aimlessly through this house, room after room, day after day.
And more tears came as I looked at my life and anguished over the truth of it. I could not mother anymore, my arms were empty, I grieved the loss of what never was, of what could
never be, of grandchildren I could have loved, of celebrations I would never have. And with the death of each of my boys, one by one, my heart broke over and over and I dreaded
sleep and waking up to face each new day without each one of them. I was angry beyond words that they could each be taken from me.
And, after the boys died, I thought that if Ned died before me I would need to go too. All that I knew that made my life purposeful would be gone when that day came. And now, it
has come, and it has passed. At first when Ned died, every night I’d wake up several times from fitful sleep and reach to feel the warmth that was no longer there and I was angry
all over again that he left me and that I was still here to go on so completely alone.
And then I was sitting in my kitchen by the window one day and I realized something. All through my life, every day, with every experience I was blessed to have, good and bad, I
was making memories and all this time I have tucked them away in my heart. And all the years since my boys died I had been looking at my memories with sadness and regret.
But that day in my kitchen I realized that, had I not ever had my boys or Ned, I would not have had anything. I wouldn’t even have had my memories. And I realized that each of my
boys, and now my husband lived lives that were purposeful and rich with goodness and courage and laughter, – their lives were worth something. I owed them each the honor of
memory. And I decided to honor the richness of each one and their gift of that richness to me through visiting my memories of each of them. And I went out that very day and
bought these four journals. And every day since, I write a memory in each one. And you know what? The memories give me joy and laughter, and sadness sometimes, but all I
know is that I am keeping them all close to me in my heart by doing this every day and I am honoring the purposefulness and meaning of their lives. Now each day I wake up to a
new day with hope and I look forward to remembering my boys and Ned. Love doesn’t die and memories don’t either. They don’t know clock time. Filling the pages has become a
testament to the wealth of the lives of each of these men I’ve cherished and the daily process of writing a memory of each of them has become a welcome part of the rhythm of my
life. Oh sure – I would give anything in this world to have even one of them here with me, to have the hugs, to share with them the spats, the tears of joy and sorrow. I don’t have
those things – it’s just the way it turned out. One of the most important things I have learned through all of this is that the key to getting from one end of life to the other is in being
able to accept that life just is what it is.” And she turned her head toward her garden, her hand reached out and lovingly and gently patted the four journals beside her, and she
said, “Life isn’t what you expect it to be. But in having gratitude for what it is and for what has been, good and bad – we are able to continue to live it and to remember it and we
continue to learn and to grow from all of it.”