The only promise Life makes is this: Things will change. And when they do, we can try something new. We will still be we. But we will be different. We might not fit together as well as we once did, or maybe we’ll fit together even better. And then there’s always the trick of just digging in our heels and trying to keep everything the same, which just might work. Each of us has choices that are only ours to make.
Sometimes I feel a bright tingling in my bones, and other times, a sinking dread. Maybe my stem cells are trying to tell me something – whether to reach out or play dead. Embedded as I am in the blanket of life that enfolds our world, I roll over and feel my neighbors shifting. All sorts of urges provoke me to move – hunger, longing, self-defense, curiosity. It’s hard to know when any of them are justified. But it’s easy to sense that all creatures are co-evolving.
The old-timey Quaker use of the phrase “The Seed” is bound up in my mind most closely with Isaac Penington: “[Sink] down to the seed which God sows in the heart; and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee . . .” (1661) Penington warns us not to get too excited when we think we’ve caught a glimpse of Truth: “Now, thus having met with the true way . . . I cannot be silent . . . but am necessitated to testify of it to others; and this is it – to retire inwardly and wait to feel . . . something of [God’s] holy Spirit and power . . . And then, as the mind is joined in this, [something] is received, some true life, some true light . . . [and] abiding in this . . . is safe. But it is easy erring from this, [hard] abiding with it and not going before its leadings.” (1667) Penington also reminds us that we cannot find the Life in isolation. He says God requires Friends to “meet together to worship him . . . [Friends] dare not forsake the assembling of themselves together . . . [The] life of the whole [is] felt in every vessel . . . [and] the warmth of life in each vessel doth not only warm the particular, but they are like a heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, inasmuch as a great strength, freshness, and vigor of life flows in all.” (Date unknown.)
Each moment is a hinge that can open or close. Each creature is an experiment in extending life beyond the here and now – through creativity, self-sacrifice, or some combination of the two.
Micro-organisms, frozen for tens of thousands of years in the Arctic tundra, are thawing back into life. It’s a miracle – and it’s a latent disaster.
American Cliff Swallows, after their ancestors bred for tens of millions of years on the natural cliffs of canyons, foothills, and river valleys, have expanded their nesting grounds in recent decades to include many insect-rich lands near concrete buildings, bridges, and other human-made structures, which serve easily as substitutes for cliffs. In 2013, Charles and Mary Brown published their study of Cliff Swallows that breed in Keith County, Nebraska. These birds build their nests on highway bridges and overpasses, and in box-like concrete culverts that pass under roads and railroad tracks. The Browns meticulously documented the wingspans of these birds throughout a period of thirty years – both living birds and roadkill. (The title of their study: “Where has all the road kill gone?”) Their findings were threefold: First, that the number of roadkills per year decreased steadily over thirty years, even though the overall population of the breeding birds increased during those same years. Second, the mean wingspan of the roadkill birds increased significantly over the years. Third, the mean wingspan of the overall population decreased significantly over the years.
I imagine myself as a long-winged old bird, loving my slow, peaceful glides over hill and dale. And I imagine my regret that my offspring really never do enjoy those placid outings as much as I do. And I imagine my offspring, pirouetting in their graceful, giddy spirals, sharing with each other their worries about their slow old mom, who’s bound to get herself hit by a truck any day now.
Each of us has choices to make, and each of us has to live with conditions over which we have no say. We can take some comfort in knowing that that the Life that animates all these forms around us will continue to animate infinite forms throughout all time. ~~~