Welcome to the second issue of The Hearthling, a weekly newsletter exploring what a hearthling is and how to be one. This week, an impromptu funeral for the thirty-year-old remains of a rat.
In the beginning, I am telling this story to myself.
I want to see differently: how can we humans live in a more balanced and reciprocal, more aware and in tune, more humble and imaginative, more creative and animated, more vibrant and less controlled, more loving and less afraid relationship to the ‘everything else’ that was not made by humans and of which we are one sometimes beautiful part?
Two buttons and a funeral
I could have been planning a rat bracelet funeral for weeks. It felt like there were many decisions to make: something to say, a place, some clarity of purpose.
In the same manner that I knew the bracelet was the starting point of The Hearthling, it occurred to me on Wednesday that it was time – right now – for a burial. In preparation, I photographed the bracelet and its white box.
I wanted to bury something meaningful inside the box, next to the rat’s remains. An offering, a wish, a seed, a fare to cross the river Styx. But my logical mind had no answer for what that might be. Meaningful to whom? What am I hoping for? What am I doing? As thoughts do, one suddenly came to mind: a 1975 penny. Walking to find the penny brought to my mind a box upstairs in my closet that held, after recent tidying, my life’s accumulation of sentimental items. At the remembrance of this other box, my body gave a signal: yes, that is the right place to look. The signal felt almost like tears, and electrical. I spent a few minutes – five? – rummaging through and placed two pennies, an old piece of bandage, and two thin strips of paper into the small box to be buried.
I took the box and the skin outside with a small trowel. I started to dig under the fig tree that we planted when we moved here. Celeste figs – the softest, most delicious figs I have ever tasted. Close to the surface there was a tangle of roots. Thick roots. Long, elastic roots. I dug down just deep enough to bury the skin and the box, taking care not to break roots. I covered everything with soil and leaf mulch and then with a pile of small, round stones, some that had been painted by my children and labelled with words like “beets.”
Rather than burying the bracelet inside the box, I placed them side by side. I wanted the skin in direct contact with the soil. It’s been waiting 30 years in drawers, never worn, rarely seen, and it was time for that bit of life to return to motion – to be non-static, unfrozen.
And then I came inside. I wanted to read something aloud over the stones — but what? I looked through a collection of poems but nothing felt right. And then I opened Blue Horses by Mary Oliver. I marked three poems and then it was time to collect the kids from school.
Later in the afternoon I brought my book outside. A mother and her son were getting into their car across from my fig tree, I sat on the ground and waited. I opened the book and began reading softly. A neighbor walked by with her dog. Facing my house, my back to the road, I continued to read almost in a whisper. The dog paused, still and silent, as if he were listening, as if he were joining in. I sat, closer to the ground than my usual standing posture, looking towards my lemon tree and all of the new spring growth. I read quietly, but not silently. I felt uncomfortable at the thought of being observed. Who is this woman, sitting in her front yard, furtively whispering poems (to a rat bracelet)?
The dog and his walker moved on. I continued to read. I thought about when I am buried. I thought about people who talk to their plants and how it is said the plants grow better that way. The world looked green and smelled like lilac. I heard the wind move. I felt: a part of it all.
Hitched to everything else in the universe
I woke up this morning (Thursday) full of thinking. On Wednesday, I didn’t understand what I was doing. On Thursday morning, it made more sense. On Thursday morning I recognized that the two strips of now-buried paper were also bracelets. That the coins represent gifts from my parents and grandparents: a connection to where I come from, what has made me. The bracelets represent what comes after me, what will remain, how I care for that. The bandage is me knowing of myself: you can keep going, you will to keep going.
I saw how I cannot know in advance. That things make sense backwards. We can’t assign categories to what hasn’t happened yet, we can’t rationalize life until we have experienced it, that is where leaping and maybe faith in what is unpredictable come in.
I saw that what I feel toward the rat is connection. I eat animals. Animals will eat me. I exchange with life to live. My regret, if that is the right word, is the times I have not seen life as life. That often I have not noticed with respect the life that is supporting and enriching mine. Exchange of life energy feels acceptable to me, but sometimes I have chosen to be comfortable with situations and exchanges that are out of balance.
I felt sadness for the life that the rat must have led. I thought of meat, how it is raised in our world. I thought of consciousness. I thought about our methods for learning about and teaching about the living world.
I wondered how burying things of significance near to where you live might change you. If your ancestors were lying in some ground nearby, would you spray it with Roundup or cut down all the trees?
I noticed how I feel seeing those stones, a spot newly made sacred. I thought about how my instinct constructed the sacredness, not my logic.
I continue to think about the intelligent rats of the future — the continuum of life, the place of humans in that continuum.
And I thought about Llonio Son of Llonwen. I hope we will meet him here soon.
What Frodo thought he was going to do
“I hope that you may find some other better keeper soon. But in the meanwhile it seems that I am a danger, a danger to all that live near me. I cannot keep the Ring and stay here. I ought to leave Bag End, leave the Shire, leave everything and go away.”
The first step is not a decision to cast the Ring into the fire on Mount Doom. The first step is to lift your foot, to lose your balance, to leave knowing.
What I read quietly to life
I’m Not the River
I’m not the river
that powerful presence.
And I’m not the black oak tree
which is patience personified.
And I’m not redbird
who is a brief life heartily enjoyed.
Nor am I mud nor rock nor sand
which is holding everything together.
No, I am none of these meaningful things, not yet.
— Mary Oliver, Blue Horses
The occasion concluded with a few words I wrote last fall:
I brought a red leaf to my desk this morning
it’s lobes like the tongues of a flame
and I asked it, you, to
a tree lets go and releases to be fed
you begin a new life
as something else
and also still part of the all that is.
Show me how.