Violet Catches blesses Greta Thunberg. Photo taken at Takini School, Howes, SD

It was around 9:30 at night when I woke up Aussie. “Come on, Auss, let’s go fill up the bird feeders.”


“I know, but they’re pretty empty and I don’t like seeing them empty first thing in the morning and going out, so let’s do it now.”

“You go, I’m sleeping.”

The poet Laura Fargas wrote: “The heart wants something to be kind to, even if only a fish to sprinkle crumbs on the water for, once or twice a day.”

My once or twice a day happened last night, just a crescent moon waxing to the west. Five birdfeeders hang under the trees in back. The snow brightens things up considerably, but I’ve never been comfortable in the dark.

Some people love to walk at night. They’re not concerned by uneven terrain, by the frozen slush currently lining the driveway or the ice on the paved roads, they just lace up their boots and go. I, on the other hand, reach for my phone flashlight after just two steps.

Last night I, too, put boots and jacket on, and went out without the phone. Walked a little up the slope and picked up two empty feeders, back to the garage holding two cars and an aluminum barrel with black sunflower seeds, filled them up, and retraced my steps. Kwan-Yin stood off to the side, gazing impassively, wearing a small yarmulke of snow on her head.

The other three bird feeders hang on the other side of the house, in the shadows. I can’t walk over there without recalling the enormous black bear I saw contemplating me from the other side of the fence one day. Sleeping the winter off, I reminded myself last night, walking up in the snow to fetch two feeders, back down, and around to the last one which was in perfect darkness.

In Riddley Walker, novelist Russell Hoban relates his own Eden story: A long time ago there were a man and a woman. One day a black dog came. The man and woman watched how the dog looked at the night, and in doing so, got the First Teachings. They couldn’t get the First Teachings by staring into the night themselves; they couldn’t see it as the dog did. So they did the next best thing, looking at the dog’s eyes as the dog stared into the night, and thus obtained the First Teachings.

Zen is about doing things yourself. You can’t awaken to the oneness of life for anybody else and no one else can give you that realization, you can only realize the one body yourself. But I often think of how it has helped me to look at other beings’ eyes as they contemplate the world.

I always liked to look into the eyes of Violet Catches, a Lakota elder, whenever we were in South Dakota together. I think of her as the medicine woman of our retreats. It seemed to me that wherever she looked, deep intelligence stared out at deep intelligence, contemplating all aspects of itself, including pain and suffering.

Obstacles were everywhere—especially with her old station wagon. February was the month of our preparatory meetings, and several of us from the Northeast would fly out to Rapid City to meet with Lakota elders, and the phone calls would come in: “The muffler of my car fell on the highway so I’ll be a few hours late,” she’d say, or “The transmission went today and I have to find somebody to fix it.”

Don’t ask me why we’d gather in South Dakota in temperatures that at times were around -30, but we did, and Violet, either driving alone or with a few grandchildren in tow over hundreds of frigid miles, would call: “There’s a big noise coming out of the engine, I have to get the car fixed.”

When she finally arrived she’d laugh apologetically, look us in the eyes, and it was compassion looking out at compassion. I’ve never met anyone quite like her, and at the same time she’s the least obtrusive person I’ve ever known, part and parcel of things, no fighting anywhere, no resistance. At times she’d admit sheepishly to bad decisions or misdoings, certain regrets—“Now I think I shouldn’t have said that”—and then make wholehearted apologies. Life for her is full of things going right, wrong, and every which way sideways, and still so seamlessly intelligent.

Why did I think of Violet Catches from Cheyenne River Reservation as I fetched that last feeder in the dark? Brought all three back to the garage, filled them up, and went back out again for the last time in the cold. I knew the birds would be huddled around the feeders by the time I got up next morning, three and even four at each one.

I went round the bend to hang the last one and felt that I disappeared into the dark. It took a while to find the tiny protuberance on the branch from which the feeder hung. I turned back and saw two glints in that black yard, Aussie’s eyes. She had finally come out and followed me, eyes looking into the night.

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