Reflections on ravens: curiosity, creativity, and cultural messenger.

Songs about blackbirds and ravens (note: these are different species): 
Blackbird by The Beatles (rock)
Blackbird Song by Lee DeWyze (ballad/blues)
Raven Song by Elephant Revival (folk)
Blackbird by Nina Simone (blues)
The Raven by Alan Parsons Project (electronic rock pop based on Edgar Alan Poe’s work)
Hear Me O God, Nor Hide Thy Face (Christian choral music)
How Many Are Your Works (Christian hymn)



How sweetly did they float upon the wings
Of silence, through the empty-vaulted night
At every fall smoothing the raven down
Of darkness till it smil’d.
— John Milton
 
The Raven (excerpt) — Edgar Allen Poe

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door —
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door —
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore —
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.” …

“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Cultural Quips about Ravens 

Did ever raven sing so like a lark, That gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise? — William Shakespeare

For out of black soul’s night have stirred dawn’s cold gleam, morning’s singing bird. Let black day die, let black flag fall, let raven call, let new day dawn of black reborn. — George Woodcock Honestly, all crows are not ravens. — Munia Khan

The raven spread out its glossy wings and departed like hope. — Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Ravens are at home everywhere. They only have one enemy: humans. — Bernd Heinrich

Death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as ravens claws. — Jim Morrison

Does wisdom perhaps appear on the earth as a raven which is inspired by the smell of carrion? — Friedrich Nietzsche

My love, she’s like some raven / At my window with a broken wing. — Bob Dylan

Needless to say, urgings by ravens are ignored at one’s peril.  — James D. Doss

But the black raven, the bird over the fated men, will tell, will say to the eagle, how he succeeded at the meal, when he with the wolf plundered the slaughtered ones.  — The Beowulf Poet

For this reason, the lean wolf in the wold / rejoiced, and the dark raven, a bird greedy for slaughter. — Cynewulf

It is said that when Raven created the first world, he made everything perfect, a world full of happiness and beauty, without pain, suffering, or ugliness. But Raven grew bored with this perfect world and started reshaping things. — Catharine Feher-Elston

One raven does not peck out another’s eyes. — Danish proverb

Censure acquits the raven, but pursues the dove. — Juvenal

The cry of a young raven is nothing but the natural cry of a creature, but your cry, if it be sincere, is the result of a work of grace in your heart. — Charles Spurgeon

Ravens are the birds I’ll miss most when I die. If only the darkness into which we must look were composed of the black light of their limber intelligence. If only we did not have to die at all. Instead, become ravens. — Louise Erdrich

Commentary on Elijah and the Ravens

Elijah had enough, but it did not always come to him in the nicest way; for I do not imagine that the ravens knew how to get bread and meat always cut into nicest shape. Perhaps they snatched a rough bit of meat here, and perhaps a crust of bread there, and it came in all sorts of ugly pieces, but still, there it was, and it was enough. “Beggars are not to be choosers,” we say, and certainly pensioners on God’s bounty ought not pick holes and find fault with the Lords providing. Whatever God gives thee be grateful for, for if too proud to take from the raven’s mouth, it will be well for thee to go without, until shine hunger consume thy pride. God promises his people enough, but not more than enough, and even that enough may not come to us in the way we should choose. — Charles Spurgeon

God knows what you need, and he knows when you need it, and he will make sure you have it in time. As he sent the ravens to Elijah, he can command all heaven to come to your aid … God lets those things happen to move us from self-sufficiency to God-sufficiency. From self-reliance to God-reliance. From trusting in our own ability to trusting in him alone. … You should plan ahead. That’s biblical. You should plan ahead but you shouldn’t worry ahead. There’s a big difference … we would have been less surprised if God had used a robin redbreast or a meadowlark or a turtle dove to bring the food. But that is not how God works. He routinely chooses the despised things of the world in order to confound the mighty, and he uses the foolish to bring the strong down to nothing. As you look at the course of life, you may think that God is going to use some rich uncle or a wealthy friend to help you out. But experience shows how unlikely that is. He is much more likely to meet your needs through the ravens of the earth that fly to your need when you least expect them. — Ray Pritchard

Raven and the First Men —Bill Reid, qadasgu qligawaay clan (Haida Origins Story)
 Haida stories tell of how the first people emerged from a gigantic clamshell on the beach of Rose Spit. They got out with the help of Raven, the most powerful creature from myth time. Raven was wandering on the beach, when he heard some noise coming from a clamshell. He looked more closely and saw that it was full of little human creatures. They clearly looked terrified by Raven and the great big world outside the shell.

“So the Raven leaned his great head close to the shell, and with the smooth trickster’s tongue, that had got him out of so many misadventures, in his troubled and troublesome existence, he coaxed and cajoled and coerced the little creatures to come out and play in his wonderful, shiny, new world.” 


Fable: Fox and Raven
by Phaedrus
Retold by Rohini Chowdhury

Once, the Raven saw a piece of cheese in a window, and grabbing it in his beak, flew off quickly to a nearby tree, there to savour it and eat it in peace.

Now the Fox, who was passing by, was very fond of cheese, and when she saw the cheese in the Raven’s beak, she determined to have it for herself. Going up to the foot of the tree, she called up to the Raven, ‘Oh my dear friend, how wonderful you look today! You are the handsomest bird I have ever seen. Oh the shine of your feathers, the regal grace with which you hold you hold your head! Your voice must be as beautiful as you! If only I could hear you sing…’ and the Fox sighed, as though with longing.

The Raven was deeply flattered. No one had called him handsome before, or wanted to hear him sing! Surely he could please this kind Fox and sing a little song for her! Taking a deep breathe, he opened his beak…and let fall the piece of cheese. The first caw was not even out of his throat when the Fox had snapped up the piece of cheese and run off through the woods with it!

Acknowledging the challenges of these times: responding to loss & trauma

Your hearts are troubled,
and it is no sacrilege to let them be so …
— Maren Tirabassi

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow.
Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.
― C.S. Lewis

Your name is upon my tongue
your image is in my sight
your memory is in my heart
where can I send these words that I write ?
— Rumi

Naming Change and Loss: Recently, our community has experienced deep challenges, traumas and losses. These are events that occur beyond the pandemic’s complexities, or are exacerbated because of them. These range from life-limiting diagnoses and deaths to accidents and mental health crises. They may also include other life-altering changes, such as major shifts in relationship status, safety and wellbeing, shelter/housing, vocation/livelihood, and/or economic viability.

Some of these circumstances are reversible. Some are permanent and irrevocable. And heartbreaking.

We have been working on hope and resilience for months now. Coping. Managing. Not just surviving, but thriving at times. Reinventing ourselves. Being creative. Optimistic. Yes, and we’re good at it. We keep rising up and responding.

Today … let us, just for a moment, bear witness to the great sorrows that have also shaken us in the past several weeks, or in the last 24 hours. This message is to acknowledge wherever you may find yourself in this reality, in this time. Below are a few offerings. They presume to make things right or better. They don’t pretend to fix or explain anything. They simply articulate something about where we find ourselves. Just for now, let us be present to the truth and pain of these times, as well as the energetic ‘recovery and reopening and renewal’ strategies we implement.

Let us say here, too, that no words by any person, even those who have also known great suffering, are equal to all the realities that are happening among us. Accept whatever grace or support you may find in these words, put down what isn’t helpful or relevant to your situation. Know these are offered with love, but what we truly mean to offer is our presence in your life.  — Rev Gail Pomeroy Doktor

Songs:
Seasons of Love from the musical RENT
I Will Remember You by Sarah McLachlan
Holes in the Night Sky by the Smith Fraser Duo
Let It Be by The Beatles
Candle in the Wind by Elton John
What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
Stars by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel
Holes in the Floor of Heaven by Steve Wariner
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? performed by Carole King & James Taylor

Blessing for the Brokenhearted (excerpt) — Jan Richardson
Let us agree for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.
Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound,
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still …

For Grief (excerpt)— John O’Donohue 

When you lose
someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you
gets fragile,
Your thoughts
make your eyes unsure
… words have no confidence.
Your heart has
grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss
has wounded others too,
No one knows what
has been taken from you
When the silence
of absence deepens.

… There are days
when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.

Days when you have
your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle
of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain
faithful to itself.
More than you,
it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form
of your departed;
And, when the work
of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul
where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.

Musings on Grief, Loss & Sudden Change

This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing… Bodies are so messy and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says “We think we’re humans having spiritual experiences, but we’re really spirits having human experiences,” I (a) think it’s true and (b) want to ram the car. — Anne Lamott

The Abyss of Grief (full essay here): Suddenly, the sacred fire I have been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss … So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face … Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water. … This was the sacred emptiness … And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back. But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.” I didn’t do it right away, nor was I able to sustain it when I did manage a breath of surrender. But gradually I learned to soften into the pain and yield to my suffering … I became acutely aware of my connectedness … everywhere … who had lost  … who were, at this very moment, hearing the impossible news … Grief strips us. According to the mystics, this is good news. … Few among us would ever opt for the narrow gate of grief, even if it were guaranteed to lead us to God. But if our most profound losses—the death of a loved one, the ending of a marriage or a career, catastrophic disease or alienation from community—bring us to our knees before that threshold, we might as well enter … — Mirabai Starr for the Center for Action and Contemplation

Resources

  • Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. This is a book available through the library or White Birch Books (place an order); it’s also a community-building resource through their website. Resources for grief due to death, domestic violence/trauma/abuse and other challenges.
  • Resources from the Forgiveness Project: some resources for the process and journey of forgiveness – forgiveness toolkit.
  • Guided Meditation for encountering grief: Joan Halifax

DON’T HESITATE — Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and
Unexpectedly feel joy,
Don’t hesitate.
Give in to it.
There are plenty
Of lives and whole towns
Destroyed or about to be.
We are not wise,
And not very often kind.
And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left.
Perhaps this is its way
Of fighting back, that sometimes
Something happens
Better than all the riches
Or power in the world.
It could be anything,
But very likely
You notice it in the instant
When love begins.
Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is,
Don’t be afraid
Of its plenty.
Joy is not made
To be a crumb.

ANTIDOTES to FEAR of DEATH
— Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Kindness (excerpt)
— Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know
what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted
and carefully saved …
… You must see how
this could be you,
… someone who journeyed
through the night with plans
and the simple breath
that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

The Peace of Wild Things
— Wendell Berry

When despair for the world
Grows in me
And I wake in the night
At the least sound
In fear of what my life
And my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down
Where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water,
And the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives
With forethought of grief.
I come into the presence
Of still water.
And I feel above me
The day-blind stars
Waiting with their light.
For a time
I rest in the grace
Of the world,
And am free.

Excerpt from writings by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Contrary to the general assumption, the first days of grief are not the worst. The immediate reaction is usually shock and numbing disbelief. One has undergone an amputation. After shock comes acute early grief which is a kind of “condensed presence” — almost a form of possession. One still feels the lost limb down to the nerve endings. It is as if the intensity of grief fused the distance between you and the dead. Or perhaps, in reality, part of one dies. Like Orpheus, one tries to follow the dead on the beginning of their journey. But one cannot, like Orpheus, go all the way, and after a long journey one comes back. If one is lucky, one is reborn. Some people die and are reborn many times in their lives. For others the ground is too barren and the time too short for rebirth. Part of the process is the growth of a new relationship with the dead, that “véritable ami mort” Saint-Exupéry speaks of. Like all gestation, it is a slow dark wordless process. While it is taking place one is painfully vulnerable. One must guard and protect the new life growing within– like a child.

One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”–“Get her away” –“Change the scene”–“Bring in people to cheer her up”–“Don’t let her sit and mourn” [when it is mourning one needs]). On the other hand, there is the temptation to self-pity or glorification of grief. “I will instruct my sorrows to be proud,”  Constance cries in a magnificent speech in Shakespeare’s King John.  Despite her words, there is not aristocracy of grief. Grief is a great leveler. There is no highroad out.

Courage is a first step, but simply to bear the blow bravely is not enough. Stoicism is courageous, but it is only a halfway house on the long road. It is a shield, permissible for a short time only. In the end, one has to discard shields and remain open and vulnerable. Otherwise, scar tissue will seal off the wound and no growth will follow. To grow, to be reborn, one must remain vulnerable– open to love but also hideously open to the possibility of more suffering.

More Musings

Most of us do as well as possible, and some of it works okay, and we try to release that which doesn’t and which is never going to. … Making so much of it work is the grace of it; and not being able to make it work is double grace. Grace squared. — Anne Lamott

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves the for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. — Joan Didion, Year of Magical Thinking

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

— Maya Angelou

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