Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lifestyle Changes OR: How my Kitchen Sink and my Gall Bladder are Conspiring to Save the World

I am a typical American in so many ways. I battle a waistline that bulges as a result of my ready access to so many edible goodies. And I produce more than my share of carbon and other waste, as a result of my ready access to so many consumer goodies. Both my body and my carbon footprint suffer the effects of that American disease, affluenza.

I'm not especially good at battling either one.

I've gained weight over the years. Right now, it's probably about what it was when I was pregnant with my daughter years ago; certainly, I'm not the sylph I was in high school.

As for my carbon footprint, it's pretty porky, too. I'm not quite as "fat" a polluter as the average American, who outgasses a hefty 20 tonnes of carbon a year. But my annual contribution of 15 tonnes a year to global warming is certainly higher than the average for other industrial nations, of 11 tonnes, let alone the current worldwide average of 4 tonnes per year.

And that's not even considering the amount of unrecyclable plastic waste, recyclable plastic waste that "downcycles", toxic chemicals, and contributions to environmental atrocities like mountain-top removal mining that I'm contributing to, directly and indirectly.

I'm going to get depressed in a minute... and that won't help anybody. So, let me share some good news with you first:

My gall bladder has decided it doesn't love me any more.

Yes--this is good news. And I promise not to turn this entry into a long whine about my aches and pains: no "organ recital"--cross my heart.

It took some time for me to figure out what was going on. I started to have pain. Several times a day. And enough to wake me up at night. It hurt, and I didn't like it.

I'll leave out the medical sleuthing that led me to suspect it was my gall bladder. I will say that my feelings were hurt by the idea: I associate gall bladder problems with fat middle-aged people. I kind of resented looking the truth in the eye.

My body thought I was fat. And was unhappy enough about it to give me those nasty little twinges and aches.

Bodies don't lie. Even if we offer to take them out for an ice cream sundae.

My doctor shared my suspicion and ordered the usual tests. But in the month between the initial visit and the revisit to discuss the results, I decided to act like it was my gall bladder, even if we didn't know for sure. What makes gall bladders unhappy? High fat foods and eating too much. What makes gall bladders happy? The kind of foods we all know we should be eating: lots of fruits and veggies, not a lot of processed crap, more fiber, and less fat. And less generally.

So I tried it. Really tried it this time, because every time I got sloppy or lazy, my body would wake me up at 3 AM for a little motivation session. My body got very good at plain speaking, and I got better and better at listening. And after a while, my body stopped giving me a hard time, because I stopped giving it a hard time, and yielded to the hard truth:

I can't eat like a fat, happy American any more.

No more the slices of pizza, dripping with mozzarella; no more the chocolate bars and brownies; no more the salt-and-pepper potato chips (my irresistible toxin of choice).

Pain has been a great teacher.

By the time I saw my doctor again, my weight had dropped noticeably, but, best of all, I was almost symptom free. It took me about a month, but when I finally understood where my pain was coming from, changing my lifestyle was nowhere near the struggle I would have predicted it would be. At this point, the weight loss is slowing, as I figure out ways of controlling my fat intake without being hungry all the time. But it has not stopped. It probably won't stop until I reach a weight my body--not my brain--thinks is acceptable.

I'm cool with that.

So, here's the environmental angle. (I told you I'd get there eventually.)

Having made one set of lifestyle changes has made me much more aware of others I need to make. Not only is my energy use and consumerism a lot like my pre-gall-bladder-diet in being loaded with "fat", but the strategies I used to create change in my body should also be helpful in my relationship with the earth. Dramatic changes are hard to sustain... unless you build them in. Losing weight turned out to be easier than I'd thought it could be... once I'd made the changes to my day-to-day life that supported it.

A little negative reinforcement to keep me faithful was helpful, too. Happily, increased energy costs are doing a nice job with this in the area of carbon footprint.

So the stage is set to make some changes.

Here's where I make some shameful admissions. While Peter and I do a lot of things that are reasonably good for the earth--we keep our thermostat low in the wintertime, recycle everything that comes into our house that can be recycled, eat very little meat, and so forth--we also do some not-so nice things. For instance:
  • We wash our dishes in a dishwasher. Just two of us and the dogs, and we use a dishwasher.
  • We use an electric clothes dryer. Even in the summertime.
My teacher friends, who are probably as close to "normal" Americans as anyone I know, would probably raise their eyebrows up to their hairlines at the thought of these activities being shameful. But it's not a group of normal Americans I'm writing this blog for. I'm writing to a dual audience, Quakers and Pagans, both known for the passion of their environmentalism.

And I'm writing about things I know full well are significant sources of pollution, and, worst of all, unnecessary. Very few people can claim to actually need dishwashers or electric clothes dryers. It's just that, like salt and pepper potato chips, they're handy, quick, and appealing.

So we're trying an experiment, Peter and I. We're washing the dishes by hand.


I know that those of you who, like us, got addicted to this appliance are thinking to yourselves that the energy savings are not likely to be earth-shattering. And I know that those of you who are working to eliminate all plastic waste from your lives are likely thinking that this is a very minor gesture.

The point I'm trying to make here is that small changes sometimes make good levers for larger ones. Once I began counting grams of fat and reducing portion sizes, I began looking for ways to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and to increase my fiber intake, too. And each discovery of a convenient way to sustain one change seemed to lead to another way to initiate another change. Thus far, the changes in my diet have been both surprisingly easy to sustain and, from the point of view of my body, effective.

And in the Chapin-Bishop household, effective environmental change begins with the dishwasher. Let me walk you through the steps:

First of all--why we use a dishwasher. It's a habit, of course: that's the most obvious and probably even the most important reason.

But also, we have a tiny galley kitchen, that (literally) used to be a closet. There is just barely room for the sink and one under-counter cabinet (or, in our case, a dishwasher) to the left of the fridge on one side, and the stove and another under-counter cabinet, with one wall unit, on the other. Two people can fit into our kitchen only if they are very, very good friends, and there is no way to set up a traditional dishwashing sink, with counterspace on either side (for dirty and clean dishes, accordingly).

We got the dishwasher around 1993 or so, when we were living in a group household with 5 adults and a child. Another two adults--Peter's parents--were in residence for probably a month or so every year, and we hosted many coven and Pagan community events that drew a record of 23 people at one time. Add to that the hours a day of elder care and taking care of a young child that were part of our household routines, and a dishwasher seemed to us to make sense. So we got one, and we've used it ever since.

Now, Mt. Toby is a relatively large meeting. We often have fifty or more people staying for hospitality after meeting for worship, and the annual Thanksgiving dinner is probably even more. And there is no sign of a dishwasher in that kitchen. Though it can be awkward making sure that there are enough volunteers, there usually are enough hands to make the work speed by pretty quickly.

And the message is loud and clear: we, as a community, don't think we need to waste the energy and resources that dishwashers consume.

I have felt embarrassed about using ours for some time now.

But, though it was my gall bladder that pushed me over the edge, it was the dishwashing station at Woolman Hill that showed me the way to make a change.

In October, Woolman Hill conference center hosted the FUM General Board. There were somewhere between forty and sixty people there, for a full sit-down dinner, and Peter and I had volunteered to help host. In addition to bringing food, I wound up doing a stint in the kitchen afterwards, washing dishes at the i-Pod of dishwashing stations. By which I mean, this hand-washing station has a design that is so user-friendly and carefully thought out as to make legions of converts. Irritations I'd never really thought about, like the way that the counter
under the dish drainer always becomes sodden, or the chronic lack of space in the drainer, were addressed.

Washing up for the General Board was far easier than it had any right to be. And, since I am a good American, I immediately began thinking in technological terms about how to address my problem: my desire to go low-tech with dishwashing, in a tiny kitchen.

Peter, it turns out, had been as impressed with the triple-decker dish-drainer as I had been, and agreed that--come summer, when the demands of his hectic teaching schedule abated--he'd make one for us. And my brain began to scheme, in the way brains have. And then, when my gall-bladder demonstrated that lifestyle changes were easer to reach than I'd thought, I began working on a series of lifestyle changes that might make us a little less piggish in our use of resources.

We do not have our triple-decker dish drainer yet. Peter's school ended only last week--mine only ended yesterday. But, for the past month, our only use of the dishwasher has been as... a double-decker dish drainer.

It's not as elegant as Woolman Hill's, I must say.

However, it has allowed us to test the theory that, properly configured, we can make a dishwashing station that will be as convenient to use as our dishwasher, and a good deal more energy efficient. We've discarded the sink-stoppers of my youth (do those things ever work?) for plastic tubs in each sink, found scrubbers we like, and kept up with the dishes just fine. In fact, though it's inconvenient to have to bend over to remove the clean dishes from our dishwasher-cum-drainer, it's actually begun to seem a little bit easier than using the dishwasher. It was always such a project to arrange the dishes so they would all get clean, and my favorite mug was always dirty and waiting for the next wash, and so on.

Even before installing the triple-decker over our countertop, I am ready to declare Project Hand-Washing a success. What's more, it was successful at our busiest, tiredest time of the school year, suggesting that this lifestyle change is sustainable.

Which means I can take the dishwasher out, and proceed to Step Two.

Step Two involves laundry.

Laundry is another big energy piggy in our house, because of that electric clothes drier. We use the drier because our washer is in the basement, and the basement, while dry enough to allow clothes to dry eventually, generally imparts to them a delightful aroma of heating oil and mildew. Not Very Nice.

What's more, our yard is tiny. There is nowhere for a clothesline to go. So indoor drying is really the only alternative to a clothes drier--but the washer is in the basement, which is at the end of not one but two narrow and twisting flights of stairs from our part of the duplex in which we live. Not only does this mean that carrying the wet clothes up the stairs would be a huge project, but it has also always meant that Peter, who does not have the back problems I do, has been stuck doing the laundry all on his lonesome.

And whatever my feelings are on the energy waste of electric driers, it's pretty clear to me that those of us blessed with mates who are willing to do all the laundry, every single week, are ungrateful and pettish little monsters, if we turn around and preach at them about how it gets done!

The only way to ethically reform our laundry drying system, I believe, is for me to be doing at least half the work. (More would be better--I owe this guy for about fifteen years worth of sorting, toting, and folding!)

And for that to happen, the washing machine needs to be on the same floor we live on.

Like, maybe in the vacancy in our kitchen where the dishwasher used to be? Maybe one of those nice, energy efficient front loaders?

Wish me luck. Peter says he's willing to consider it. And I've got a few ideas for space-efficient clothes drying racks, too.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lifting Rocks

I spent most of today's meeting for worship lifting rocks.

That may not sound very much like worship, or very much like fun, but, in fact, it was both. Here's how it went:

Very often, when I enter the meeting room at Mt. Toby, I pause a moment just inside the door, and let the richness of the waiting silence rise up in me. For just a moment, I like to savor the sense of standing at the edge of the sacred precinct, the temenos.

Our meeting room is plain. Some members complain about the slight musty smell from the carpet. (It's kind of a guilty secret of mine that I almost like that smell; it is such a reminder of the basement rec rooms of my youth that I immediately feel six years old when I smell it.) Others complain that, surrounded by so much beautiful farmland, our windows are placed too high to see through.

I, however, love our meeting room with a deep and perhaps idolatrous love--entirely in character for a Pagan Quaker. And part of what I love about it is the way our benches are arranged, not in the manner of a Quaker meeting house of old, with most benches facing one direction and only a one or two rows of "facing benches" looking back in the opposite direction. Instead, our benches face the center, in a blunted square, or octagon.

It is quite easy for me to accept this shape, so close to the circles I came to love when I became a Pagan.

And today, as I entered the meeting room, as I paused at the threshold, I felt rising up in me with the quiet of Quaker worship the memory of the many times I have paused at the outskirts of another temenos--the stone circle my friends and I once built on land in Vermont.

Kirk and Black Lake and I decided to build that stone circle one summer about twenty years ago, now. We set aside a hot June day for our labors, got permission from Kirk's dad, who still owned the land, and whose greatest concern was fire. We agreed to carefully watch any fires we set to burn scrap lumber or dead wood that had accumulated in the future sacred grove, and we set to work: pulling out raspberry canes and raking up sharp twigs, clearing away clutter and debris, and encouraging the grass to grow.

And we hauled rocks. Sitting in worship today, I remembered the feel of the rough stones, rounded by glaciers or squarely split away from the slate beneath Kirk's land. I remembered how dry the air was, and how dry and bruised and roughened my hands became. We stood one massive stone beside a half-buried glacial erratic the size of a calf: the standing stone to mark North in our circle, next to the altar we would use for rituals there.

We built cairns to mark the four quarters, and made them level and flat to hold mason jar candle-lanterns to illuminate the circle in the dark.

We built a fire-pit, and watched it carefully as we burned away scrap wood from a childhood fort that time had disassembled for us, and reclined, sipping water from bottles, resting our bruised and dirty hands and bodies, smelling the sweet smell of woodsmoke in a pine forest.

I have seldom felt greater joy and love in community than I did on that day, as Kirk, Black Lake, and I shared the joy of creating a worship-place together.

Maybe it was not on that day, but it would have been soon afterwards that I began the practice, on approaching the circle, of pausing outside the edge. Two saplings marked, for me, the doorway into the home of the goddess and the god. And in my going out or my coming in, I would pause, face the altar, and curtsy.

Those stones were only stones, and those trees were only trees. But if you could dive deep within the most ordinary of stones, reach into the heart of the most ordinary of trees, you would find something gold and shining, living at the core. You would find God, in whatever form you can see Her, smiling lovingly out at you. And that is why I paused, and that is why I always curtsied.

God doesn't go away if we forget to pause. But we may forget to find Her. If we do not pause at the edge of the sacred circle, how will we remember, when we have left it, that we never do leave it, after all?

So I would pause, as I often do at meeting. (Though at Mt. Toby, I do not curtsy. Not outwardly, at least.)

And today, at meeting, as each person came into the room, I felt such a joy and a delight in their presence. Every entrance was a deepening of the sense of being home, in the sacred circle; every person came bearing another stone to build the temple.

And, at rise of meeting, when we shook one another's hands, I could feel in the texture of skin against skin the vivid sense memory of those rocks I lifted, so many years ago.

How good it is, to build the temple with your friends.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Growing Together in the Light: Spontaneous Thanks

One of my favorite bloggers, though his posts are not so frequent as I might wish, is Will T., of Growing Together in the Light.  Today, scrolling randomly through the lists of places my visitors came from on their way to my blog, I encountered a link to a post of Will's I hadn't read before, from 2006.

I haven't anything to add to it, or any insightful comment or anecdote to carry it into some new territory.  But I feel that I must quote it here, because it is so beautiful and so true: 
… I felt that we had dropped down until we had come into the gathered silence of the Meeting for Worship that has been going on since before the world was formed and which will continue on until after the world has ended. The world is being held, will always be held, has always been held, in this worship. I was blessed to step into this worship briefly but it is still going on. 

Now, even though I cannot usually feel it, and sometimes I forget, I know that the world is being held in this worship. All of our sorrow, pain, joy and gladness is being held in this silence. The pain of the war in Iraq and the war in Darfur and all of the other wars going on today are being held. All the hunger and disease and injustice and also our ecstasies and joys and celebrations; our weddings, our births, our dancings, our running and our singing, all of it to the heights and depths is being held. 

Everything that we are and know is only a thin skim on the surface of the earth and it is all being held in such a depth that we cannot comprehend or imagine how deeply and completely we are held.

This deep silence can be seen as the River of Life that flows from the throne of God. It flows deep under everything and nourishes and heals all that is.
Reading Will's words, something in me unclenches, and I remember too.  What could be better news?  It's not that everything will be all right.

It's that everything already is.

Would I feel it if I were in pain, in sorrow, or in struggle?  I hope so.  I might not be strong enough to remember.  I hope I would be, though.  Because I do know, really that it is true.

Thanks, Will, for writing this.  

Read the whole post, y'all.  Like so much else Will writes, it's good.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The God With Arms

There was a lot that was rich today in our meeting for worship, and I am tempted to try to transliterate it all onto the page of this blog. But I don't think I could capture the life of the messages, and that's not really what I think I need to write about tonight, anyway. Instead, I want to write about something that rose for me that was entirely personal: an encounter with the god with arms.

Liz Opp at The Good Raised Up recently picked up the thread of my Quaker Pagan identity posts from this month, and used them to reflect on the process of transitioning from one spiritual identity to another. In responding to her post, trying to reflect once again on what it is in Paganism that makes me continue to identify as Pagan as well as Quaker, I think I implied that I do so primarily out of loyalty to Pagans as a people.

I think I implied it because I have wondered it--is this my only real reason for staying?

I don't often write here of my relationships with the gods of Paganism. When I do refer to them, I usually do so in the past tense. Are those relationships, then, a thing of the past tense? Surely the gods should be as important to me as the people of the Pagan community, if I am in fact Pagan.

I don't think I've wanted to let myself think about that one very closely.

Part of the reason, of course, that I do not write much about Pagan gods is that most of my regular worship comes in the context of my Quaker meeting. And, though Peter might disagree, it has not been my experience that Quaker meeting lends itself to communion with the Pagan gods and goddesses. What I experience in Quaker meeting is something different, as a rule.

My most meaningful experiences of Pagan worship have usually taken the form of dreams and trance journeys. Under Peter's influence, I've done trance journey work to a recording of a drum; before I was with Peter, I was as likely to depend on my own breath for the rhythm that would drive my journey. Standard-issue Harneresque stuff, at least in some ways. I won't bore anyone with technique, since I think technique is what matters least.

But of all the things that have meant something important to me in Paganism, direct encounters with the gods, in the course of dreams or trance work, have been the most important. And every now and then, without trance work, I'll have a sense of one of them--of Rosie, the aspect of the Goddess I relate to most often, or of Herne, horned god of the hunt--close to me. With inward hearing and with inward vision I will glimpse them, and hear what they have to say, in the split second before they are gone.

I had one of those flashes today in meeting for worship, and it's comforted me a lot.

Our worship today had a strong universalist thread winding through several messages. J.H. rose at one point, and shared the story of a Friend she knew through her work with the GLBT Affairs committee, whose life had been a ruin of addictions and unhappiness until the day he heard a voice, which said to him something like, "Hi--I'm Jesus. It doesn't have to be like this. Come home." And he did--as he put it, he went into those arms, and he told his hearers, "Don't hold this against me, please. At that point, I needed a god with arms."

J.H. finished her message by reflecting on how often she has needed a god with arms, and sat down.

And right then, I heard a voice in my inward ear, and felt as though Herne were sitting right behind me on the bench. I felt his strong, brown arms enfold me, and I heard his voice say to me, "When you need a god with arms, I will be that god."

I've been struggling with a concern that my time as Herne's daughter was over and done. That perhaps, when I offered him my loyalty and my love so many years ago, he had not accepted it--or that he had passed me along to that Other God that speaks in the silence. And, though I love that Other God, I love Herne, too.

I know that the courage to let go of the familiar--whether it be a spiritual label, a job, a home, or a vision of myself--is one of the things Herne loves about me. This I know: he'd rather see me follow another god than lose that integrity. If that were where the path led, I suspect he would be quite stern with me, in expecting me to follow it. I could not be faithful to him any other way.

But apparently, that is not required, at least for the moment. And now I know this, too: when I need a god with arms, his will be there for me. And that eases my mind.

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