Life’s little brown jobs

I love being at home. It’s not that anything remarkable happens there. It’s that a succession of unremarkable moments, when truly inhabited, turn out to be quite beautiful.

Rae bird feederRae side view

When I have time around my actions to feel the rhythm of the day unfolding, I also have time to observe the details of my life in a way that lets me see how incredible all of this is, and that some sort of “I” in me feels privileged to be aware of it.

Just like the little brown jobs or LBJs my bird-watching friends talk about (nod to A_Span and MRM III) — the hard-to-distinguish (especially female) birds of the perching passerine family, such as sparrows or wrens, whose similarities can make their various species hard for humans to accurately identify — the moments of my days at home are small, hardly varying on the surface, but full of song.

Take today. I’m talking like someone knowledgeable about birds, but I know almost nothing. However, thanks to Bob at Gilligalou Bird Inc. in Almonte, ON, I know more today than I did yesterday. Tuesday on my way to meet a friend for lunch I stopped in at Gilligalou to ask how to put suet into the feeder I had bought the other week at the co-op. You’d think it was easy, but at my first go, I felt totally inept. Bob interrupted his own lunch to answer my 15 minutes of questions about what birds eat, and to explain the importance of small to large seeds, nuts, and mealworms, and some of the best ways to provide these.


He told me about Gilligalou’s specially formulated blends, with no filler, that give wild birds optimal selection and nutrition; showed me various styles of feeder; talked about habitat; and reassured me that I’m not being a bad citizen if my feeders go for a few days without being filled. The birds will come back, but they will establish a habit of eating at my house to the extent that I provide them with a reliable food supply, water, cover, and nesting opportunities.

So today I spent a fun and messy half hIMG_20160106_133307our with seed and suet. First, I filled my old feeder – left behind by the home’s previous owners – with seed for the perchers and the ground feeders.


Next I crammed two types of suet – a peanut blend, and a mealworm blend – into the different holes of the wooden IMG_20160106_133422hanging feeder I bought the other week at the co-op. It’s the first time I’ve held a mealworm, and although they made me jump for a second, I’m most intrigued.

Next step: a proper feeder with rails for the ground-feeding birds, since there is nowhere for them to land on the seed feeder I have now. In the meantime, I’m trusting they will continue to gather the big seeds from the snow where they fall as the smaller birds eat. And after that: well, I have dreams, but I’ll be happy with life’s LBJs.


17 January, 2016 – Update: This week’s visitors include chickadees, juncos, a multitude of posturing jays, a male house finch, downy woodpeckers, and a discriminating cardinal.

Me and Mrs. Jones

My vehicles have names.

What’s a vehicle? Anything with wheels, that I take to go on adventures. Car (Vivi, Mattie), bicycle (Genny, Francie, Gary)…


It’s only since moving to my little two acres, with a big patch of cleared greenery to mow, and a Greenworks battery-powered mower to do it with, that I’ve started thinking of my lawnmower as a vehicle with whom I have adventures.

But I haven’t known what to call this companion. Until the other day, heading out to mow for the fourth or fifth time in a week, and realizing that I was looking forward to it, I thought, “the lawnmower and I have a bit of a thing going on”.

Almonte lawnmower Me and Mrs. Jones

Mrs. Jones, waiting for a battery change

So let me tell you  about today’s adventures, mine and Mrs, Jones’.

We avoided the usual batch of smartly hopping frogs, crickets, cicadas, spiders, and moths. We did not avoid the desiccated wild cat poop but as it was dried, no matter. (No photo, you can picture it yourself.) We cut down a goodly number of nascent wild parsnips but they were not in flower so we’re simply keeping them at bay, not spreading them around, according to what the provincial ministry of the environment’s website tells me.

Almonte Greenworks Me and Mrs. Jones

Mrs. Jones with her bustle


We collected grass clippings for the compost – this is heavy work, and pushing Mrs. Jones and her bustle full of long grass along the sloped lawn makes me think I can cancel my gym membership.



IMG_20150919_172846We found an egg, broken open, with remains inside.


We found wild catnip, which I harvested for Hazel and Mabel.

For the goIMG_20150919_173333od of us both, I wrestled and snipped out several stands of wild raspberries, which Mrs. Jones finds impassable. Wild raspberries have whip-like, pliable stems, up to ten feet long, that start new roots when their tips reach the ground. They may not look like much in the photo, but they also have wickedly clever thorns that hook and slice human skin and foam rubber handles with equal ease.IMG_20150921_165042

We picked six domesticated raspberries, the whole harvest from the plants sweetie transferred this Spring from the city house. I fed these to sweetie.

We left a few wildflowers here and there to brighten the lawn.

And just before the rain, we found a patch of lemon-scented moss with a teeming colony of winged ants, that reminded me of Coalescent, by Stephen Baxter.

So what does it matter, these adventures Mrs. Jones and I have together?

I’m surprised at how much I like mowing the lawn. I tend toward non-intervention, wanting to leave things to themselves. My brother says I used to protest shovelling because it ruined theIMG_20150921_153304 smooth look of the snow. But to some extent, mowing must be done, and it’s a physically exerting but intellectually easy job, one I understand. I know when I’ve done it well, and I know when it’s finished. Mrs. Jones is like a horse who knows the path, and I can almost just follow along. I’m outside, I’m moving, I’m getting to know the world around me, and I can hear myself think. I can hear the birds, I can hear the sheep, and the mower doesn’t scare them off. I can take a break over the rail fence to nuzzle Alpha, the elderly horse who boards with the sheep.

Alone with my thoughts, yet interacting with my environment, mowing is not quite a meditation, but a way of coming alive. My friends say, get a ride-on mower. But I’ve got my thing with Mrs. Jones.

How I’ve failed at meditation

I’ve been failing at meditation for a solid twenty years.

Alright. I suspect it isn’t possible to ‘fail’ at meditation, but I have walked away, frustrated, over and over again.

Conversely, of course, that means I have come back ‘to the mat’ over and over again. Something in me has persisted in believing that there would be value in this practice. And along the way, without realising, I have learned two decades’ worth of practical lessons about the process of meditation.

What I’ve learned about meditation

I have learned that I do not need to stop my thoughts or still my mind. I just need to keep noticing that I am thinking. Giving my mind something else to do, like watching my breath, or counting, or moving, helps it stay focused. Sometimes.

In the same vein, I have learned that a person can meditate anywhere, under any circumstance. I have learned that yoga or a body scan can be meditation. I have learned that my massage work can be meditation. I have learned that sitting cross-legged on my sofa with the fleece throw wrapped around me and the small cat on my lap is my natural setting: this is how meditation works best for me. (Small cat plus big cat on my lap is a rare bonus feature.)

I have learned that the days when my mind gnaws relentlessly on a problem, or solution, or fantasy I’m weaving, are just as much ‘meditation’, and just as valid, as the days where I have a clear instant of absolute awareness and peace. I have not failed just because my mind has wandered. That is what the mind does. I have learned that I can always, always intentionally choose an instant of awareness and peace. I have learned that usually, I will forget to do so.

I have learned that what I’ve wanted from meditation has been exactly what has stood in my way. Once I stopped wanting anything at all except to do it, it became impossible to fail.

And once it became impossible to fail, I stopped needing to walk away.

What I’ve gained from meditation

Then, I started reaping amazing benefits. Immobilising panic attacks: vanished. Caught in my own delusions: well, of course I am, and usually I can’t tell, yet I have learned to doubt my own story about how right and justified I am in any situation. Happier, more at ease in the world, less afraid of engagement, more able Ellen and chickadeeto focus on others, more genuine, perhaps a little kinder: these states have crept up on me and made my daily life more enjoyable. Cranky, judgemental, short-tempered, overwhelmed: thank you, yes, these persist and keep me humble.

Summing up what meditation has given me so far is simple: the ability to recognise myself as the default centre of My Universe, but not the centre of The Universe; and the ability to step aside from any experience (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) and to see that it is only one of the choices open to me in this moment. There is space between me, and my reactions. Awareness and peace are always available.

How I learned to meditate

Encouraged by Leo Babauta’s assertion that the smallest increment possible builds the greatest success over time, I started by sitting down in my meditation spot. Every day. Bum on the cushion.

Then, using Apple’s Do Nothing for Two Minutes, I let myself be lulled into stillness for 120 seconds, day after day.

It felt good. I wanted more. As the days went on, I wrote down very realistic goals for increasing my meditation time; they were so modest, I easily exceeded them, which made me feel successful and made it easier to continue.

I haven’t missed a day in a year and a half, and it is not effortful to keep this habit going. Some days it is a long practice, sometimes short; sometimes focused, sometimes sleepy; sometimes filled with tears, and sometimes with incredible peace.


It is always good for me, and for the world. Because of meditation, it becomes possible for me to take my best, clearest self out and about, which creates a better environment for everyone around me.

Can you fail at meditation?

If you don’t already meditate, but you think you might like to, here’s what I recommend. Sit yourself down, close your eyes, and take a slow breath. Follow it in, follow it out. Don’t try to do it right, just do it. Every day. Pick a trigger (right before your morning coffee; right before reading in bed; while riding the bus to work) to make it easy to remember. After seven days, make it two breaths. You can’t fail.

A few resources

(Photo of Abbot of Watkungtaphao in Phu Soidao Waterfall from Wikipedia; all other photos (c) Ellen Symons)