Friday, July 8, 2011

Seeking and Being Found

Last week a friend and I took a long walk through the Washington Arboretum in the early evening. As we descended a path toward a pond, we saw a group of people clustered near the western edge of the pond. Four were standing on the small dock, looking through the lenses of their cameras. A woman and her two small children were watching from the side. “It’s owls!” the woman said as we approached. We slowly and quietly made our way to the dock and looked up. There, directly in front of us, on a tree limb six feet away and only a little higher than our heads were two barred owls. They were sitting side by side, still. I had often heard the owls calling in the arboretum, and once glimpsed one high in a cedar tree, but I had never seen two together and at such close range.

We watched them for about ten minutes then headed on our way. Not far away, as we ascended another path, my friend Kelly put her hand on my arm to stop me. I stopped and followed her eyes. There, on a tree limb, almost within our reach, was a single barred owl. It stared at us with its dark brown eyes. We were transfixed. The markings on its face and the stillness it exuded made it seem as if it were wearing a mask, a thin, symbolic boundary between this world and another, which we could almost feel just on the other side. Or the face/mask was a point of meeting between the two worlds.

Sitka, my Siberian husky, was with us. She walked ahead on the path, and the owl turned its neck to follow her. When she reached the end of her leash and returned, the owl turned its head to follow her back to us.

We stared at the owl and the owl at us in silence, reluctant to leave. A crow flew into the tree and settled itself above the owl, cawing loudly to harass the predator away from its nest. The owl was unmoved. We broke away and continued our walk.

The next day, at about the same time, I took Sitka back to the arboretum, hoping to catch sight of the owls again. As I entered the woodland forest area, I heard two owls calling to each other. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? That stirred me. I was sure to come across at least one owl. They called several more times. I revisited the dock on the pond. No owls. I climbed the path where Kelly and I had encountered the single owl. No owl there either. Sitka and I began wandering the pathways and byways, going through denser and denser woods, always looking up, ever hopeful. At the end of two hours, I had seen nothing. Tired, disappointed, I headed home.

Walking home I realized that this is often the way it goes when one is seeking. When one sets one’s heart on a goal or destination, that goal or destination eludes one. And when one least expects it, that is when one is given a gift, a gift altogether too wonderful to be anticipated by us of such limited experience. All at once, out of no-where, wonder erupts in our everyday world, interrupts our ordinary perception. In the middle of our busy lives, we are “surprised by joy,” as the famous title of C. S. Lewis’s book has it.

We seek and seek and do not find. Perhaps because when we are seeking it is our ego, our wants, our desires that are leading us, and they narrow our vision so we cannot see the world, only what we hope for. Nevertheless, we must seek. How else prepare ourselves to receive unexpected gifts?

When we are not seeking, when we are being, our eyes open wide to the world, to all that exists beyond the narrow confines of our limited selves. It is then that we are found.

Seeking and not finding. Not seeking and being found.

In that dance the life of the spirit is lived.