Monday, December 28, 2009

Writing Cheerfully on the Web

We're number six! We're number six!

The anthology of Quaker bloggers, Writing Cheerfully on the Web (featuring, among others, yours truly!) made the top ten best-sellers this year at Quaker Books!

OK. Technically, that's way too many exclamation points. I would never let one of my writing students get away with that many exclamation points in a row.

But we're excited around here, and we don't care who knows it! And, if you haven't done so already, how about celebrating the New Year with us by picking up a copy of this (Extreme Bias Alert!) massively magnificent book?

"Topical and thought provoking writing from all the best Quaker Bloggers." (And I quote.)

We're number six! w00t!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fire in the Webs

It's still quite difficult to blog; I'm used to sitting down for two or three hours when the writing fit is on me, and my spine objects to anything over ten minutes. So I'll keep this short and sweet...

I celebrated my Solstice with a day off from my job--and I'm so glad I am openly requesting religious holidays at last. On my day off, I watched the sun come up through the line of white pines at the edge of the former pasture (now woodlot) behind our house. Then I put on hiking boots with cleats, and using a ski pole in lieu of my cane, I made the rounds of our quince and apple trees, with a libation of hard cider.

That afternoon, I wandered three miles along woods roads and the ridge path, out to the pine tree with the bee hive in it. I didn't offer the bees anything--as far as I could see or hear, they were all asleep--but as I turned to hike home again, I noticed the oddest thing:

Spiderwebs.

It was perhaps twenty degrees outside, with brilliant sun, warm against the trunks of the oaks and hemlocks. I noticed small birds, chickadees and other nimble things, hopping up and down the ridges of bark, and even hanging from the undersides of branches, pecking at invisible somethings. Insects? Spiders?

In any case, there they were, improbably enough: glinting in hair-thin lines of fire, dozens upon dozens of fine threads of spiderweb, running through the branches of the understory. If I turned my head even a fraction of a degree to the right or left, they were so fine they disappeared entirely. Only with the help of the blazing sunlight could I see them at all.

Spiders, alert, awake, and spinning their webs on the shortest day of the year.

When I returned home, I did some research online, and learned that, indeed, there are several species of spider that do awaken and even clamber about on the surface of the snow in the dead of winter. And some web spinning species, unthinkably, hatch out in early winter, living on what little they can find until the spring returns.

One site claimed that to find a spiderweb on Christmas Day is good luck. I have decided that finding the webs of infinitesimally small spiders at midwinter is more than good luck: it is a sign of the stubbornness and persistence of life. As much as the return of the sun, the inventiveness and intrepidity of even the smallest of lives is something to admire, and try to find in ourselves.

Bright blessings, all.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Season of the Deer

The nearness of Yule has a different feel to it this year, our first year living by the woods again.

Since my back injury, I have spent a lot of time walking in those woods, alone, or with Peter and our dogs. Pain pills help; the heating pad and orthopedic chair help more; however, the only thing that really banishes the pain for any length of time is walking, particularly outdoors. I love the woods and walking in any case, but I've really been putting on the miles this year.

One thing I figured out a couple of weeks ago, when I found a spent shell along the trail, is that I'm not alone in these woods even when I am unaccompanied. It's hunting season, and these woods are wild enough and deep enough that they are in regular use by hunters.

On a practical level, that means that I'm back to wearing special Pagan garb again: in this case, a blaze orange women's hunting vest. (It has marvelous pockets, intended for game birds, which are waterproof and easy to clean: perfect for whatever trash I may find along the trail. Very 21st Century Druid.)

On a spiritual level, that means I am more aware of the season of the god than ever.

Last weekend, I set out early on Saturday morning for a "proper walk"--a long one, on the wilder trails. I had just reached the limit of the old farm's land, when I heard the sharp, barking report of a gun. A few minutes later, I heard two more shots echo off the hillsides.

They made me catch my breath. "Did you kill the god today?" I heard an inner voice asking.

The horned god is the god who rejoices in the strength and potency of the young stag in summer, and who embraces the lust, both for breeding and for life, in the autumn rut.

And he is also the meat in the pot, the life that dies to feed the people--and the new life, silent and half-formed, hidden in the womb.

At Christmas time, Christians celebrate the birth of their god who dies for the love of his people. At Yuletide, I can hear the crack of the guns, as our god, the Lord of the Animals, dies for love, too. Every hunter, Pagan or cowan, who kills the deer and eats his flesh participates in that oldest of mysteries: life that dies so that life can live.

I've known that for a very long time. But I haven't connected it with Yule before. I haven't needed to take personal precautions against a stray bullet myself before. This time of year, the danger in the woods is quite real--more so for the antlered deer than for me, but I can feel it, like a chill wind blowing through the bare branches of the trees.

It's an old mystery, made sharp, fresh, and real, by the echoing sound of the guns.

In a few days, the main deer season will end, though muzzle-loaders will be permitted to hunt until the end of December. And in a less than two weeks, the waning of the year will end, and the sun will begin its long journey back to us. As the sun returns, the new life in the bellies of the pregnant does will also grow, and the wise old stags whose antlers have been shed will bed down with the herd as the Old Man of the Woods, watching over the new life to come.

The god dies and the god is reborn, over and over and over again.
Photo Credit: Jerry Segraves
The tragedy is how easily we forget what is given to us. The tragedy is that we forget that each life, of deer or fellow human, is at one and the same time a vessel of the god, and a poor fellow-mortal, like ourselves, longing to live, longing to feel the returning sun on our faces.
It's the season of sacrifice, of the sacrifice that comes before the return of the light.

The least we can do is be grateful, and be aware. Try not to forget what you owe to the Lord of Life. (That would be... everything, boys and girls. All we have, all we are, is on loan to us. Nothing more.)












Sunday, December 06, 2009

Waylaid by a Dragon

Illustration credit: Mikael Häggström
Have you ever noticed how much the shape of a human spine resembles a dragon, with the head at the base of the spine, and the tail at the neck?

I have. I have had reason to.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may be wondering: what happened to it?

The Dragon happened to it, in the form of a post-influenza inflammation of either the sacroiliac joint or the L5 S1 disc, depending on which doctor you prefer to ask. And while I have had my share of back pain in the past, this is really my first encounter with chronic and serious pain.

I have not been able to sit for more than a few minutes at a time for about a month now.

When I sit still, or try to sleep more than a few hours, The Dragon gets me, with fiery breath and claws, and sharp electric teeth, up and down my leg from ankle to hip. I have come to dread my inner Dragon, my spine that will not tolerate stillness or rest.

I have been back at work for a little more than a week, but the 25-minute commute is often a real test of endurance. Once there (or, for that matter, at home, once out of bed) I have been forced to stay on my feet continuously. I can stand still for a limited amount of time--say, ten or fifteen minutes--before the pain becomes serious.

And I can walk.

Thank goodness, I can walk. Up at 4:30 AM, up at 4:00 AM, up at 3:00 AM, I can walk off the pain of lying still for too long. During the day, I can walk off the pain of standing at my desk, trying to work. At school, I pace endless circles in my classroom, like a caged lion.

But the best times are in the woods.

I don't know why, but the time I have spent walking through the woods, cane in hand, have been the best times of all for pain control. I've walked the woods in moonlight, in rain, and in sleet. I've walked my woods on sunny afternoons and on nights almost too dark to see the path at all, at sunset and at moonrise. The woods have been my good, good friends. Even more than my NSAIDs and my heating pad, walking in the woods has eased my pain; sometimes The Dragon drowses, and sometimes she is actually lulled entirely asleep when I walk my woods.

But walking in the woods or lying on my couch, one thing I have not been able to do is write. Not write properly, developing an idea and letting it run. Peter has made me a standing desk, and I greatly appreciate it. I've been able to get at least most of the grading and planning I need to do for school done at that desk. But it isn't truly comfortable, and it doesn't encourage letting ideas wash up, one upon the other, like waves on a beach.

Or like a long, reflective blog post.

But here I am again. Though it looks as though real recovery is going to take a while, I was blessed this week by the arrival of something called a Lafuma Zero Gravity chair. It's ugly--like a long, drawn out beach chair in its looks--but it's amazing: a chair that reclines with a gentle nudge, and is upright with a gentle tug.

I am typing these words on my laptop computer, on a lap desk, on a lap that has been tilted back far enough that The Dragon that gnaws my bones when I attempt to sit is still asleep.

For the first time in almost a month, I can sit--because the moment I feel discomfort, with a motion, I can lie down.

The first time I sat in this chair, I wept. Tears of sweet, sweet relief.

Kircher: Flying Dragon
I am sure that, as my friend Mike suggests, The Dragon will wind up having things to teach me. Asking for help has never been my forte, for instance--and I'm certainly getting practice at it. Meanwhile, however, I'm grateful to be able to take some parts of this experience sitting down, at least from time to time.

And, for the next little while, I'm going to play it by ear when it comes to this blog. I may wind up
blogging less often than normal, or perhaps microblogging while I'm standing up. Or maybe I'll wind up able to make enough use of this chair to continue to think out loud here, for the readers of QPR.

For the moment, I'm satisfied to have arrived at at least a momentary truce with The Dragon that Eats my Bones.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Defense of Marriage

Note: This guest post was written by David R. Forman, a longtime friend of Peter's and mine, whose wife Leslie died earlier this year. Like David, as someone who has felt the blessings of a good marriage, I am outraged at the notion of denying the love of any class of people as a "defense" of my own marriage. Like David, I am dismayed that the voters of Maine were unable to see in equality, not an affront to marriage, but the strongest defense of love possible.

My imagination is beggared. I cannot understand how a subgroup of our citizen’s rights could be put to a popular vote in the first place. Should Jews be allowed to marry? Should post-menopausal women be allowed to marry? Should people who have once been divorced be allowed to marry? But given that such a vote was taken, I am at an utter loss to see how people could vote to strip their neighbors of the right to marry, in a country supposedly based on the idea that all are created equal.

I have no rhetoric to sway those who live in hate and call it love. To those whose chief concern is to keeping things as they always were I might gently point out that they aren’t, and can’t be, and that this won’t help.

I want words to help people see why this matters to me so much. I know my words are weak, but I will write them anyway, because it is all that I can do.

To say what marriage rights mean to me, I have to talk about my own marriage. But even before that, I need to say that I am a child of divorce, and that when I was eleven years old my parents’ separation hurt me. My inability to understand it created anger between my father and I, and my mother’s struggles with men confused me about how to be a man and still grow up to be a good person. From her suffering and mine, I vowed to do better. If I married at all I would marry wisely, would place that marriage at the center of my values, and would not inflict on any children what had been inflicted on me.

And so that’s what I tried to do. I took my time. In my early adulthood I didn’t just drift from sex to commitment. Despite how beautiful she was and how much fun we had together, I broke up with a girlfriend whom I couldn’t marry, knowing it wouldn’t work because we were so different, including a difference in our religions. We stayed friends.

There’s so much more to say, but my whole life story isn’t the point. It turns out that two years later we were living together and five years later we were married. It turns out that marriage is hard, but that long friendship, mutual respect and good communication help. It turns out that she gave birth to twins, and that parenthood made it even harder and brought us even closer together both at the same time. It turns out that being married to her helped me to live with the tough parts of myself, to grow up, and to ‘make something of myself’. Love is a mystery, and marriage can be a very, very good thing. It turns out that this year, at age 48, after a three-year struggle, cancer took my beautiful wife Leslie away from me.

I am no longer a whole person. My teenage children will not get to finish their childhood in that warm, functional, intact family I worked so hard to give to them. How does it help my grief to take this away from someone else? How does it ‘protect’ my marriage?

For the people who want to “save” marriage – how much work are you doing to see that people marry the right partner in the first place, that they really understand the commitments they are making? Where are you when they become irritable, when they grow into habits of not talking to each other, when they cheat on each other? How many divorces have you prevented today? Yes, I know, that’s very complicated work. So complicated that some of your prominent leaders, the “pro-marriage” senators and the “promise keepers” have sullied their marriages and broken their promises, and none of you knew the first thing about how to defend or protect those “traditional” marriages.

Leslie and I lived in Quebec— the first Canadian province to establish marriage equality. When I was in graduate school, we lived in Iowa. In her last years we moved to Connecticut. The fact that our neighbors could or couldn’t marry did not weaken our marriage, nor save it. The way to save our marriage would have been to take all that money spent on anti-gay television ads, and give it instead to cancer research. All that money gathered on collection plates, by people who say they value marriage and they value life. Used not to save my marriage but to prevent someone else’s.

My children are strong, creative, loving people, largely of course, due to the excellent mothering they received. They have been my greatest comfort, and the reason I still have a future at all. I hope that they succeed where I couldn’t. If anyone has a crack at growing up to make a family that surrounds their children with love, from birth all the way to adulthood—I’d bet on them. Without knowing what their sexual orientations are, I ask you, “Will you let them try?”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Loss

Photo Credit: David Hawgood
I was talking to my grown daughter on the phone the other day. I told her that one of the unhappy things about getting older is that loss becomes just part of the scenery of life. I told her that I'd spent years of my life learning not to sweat the small stuff, the losses and frustrations that don't really matter, only to arrive at a time in my life that's filled with losses that do matter.

Live long enough, and loss, real loss, is inevitable, after all. We know it, but we live in the happy illusion in our youth that it is not so, that death and disease are the aberrations. Middle age knows they are the rule, and that soon or late they come for everyone we love.

But, I told her, there's an up side, too. The older I get, the better able to weather grief I seem to become. It turns out that in this, as in so many things, practice helps. Grief is a skill that grows better with use, if we dare to trust it--to feel it, acknowledge it, and keep walking.

I'm stronger now than I was at twenty, and I know it. I told my daughter so.

"Mom," she said, "Um... that's kind of dark."

I guess maybe it is.

Here's what I know:
I lost a friend this week. My good friend Abby has died, and I can't quite piece that knowledge together in my head. I don't get it, about death. Not yet. (I guess that means I'm still young enough that it does seem like an aberration to me after all.)

I understand grief, though. And watching Abby's wife Janet walk this valley is breaking my heart. No courage, no generosity of spirit, no warmth of heart takes away the pure, high, keening pain of Janet's loss. She speaks of it sometimes, bows down and weeps from it sometimes, but mostly, she keeps walking. And it is breaking my heart to watch her.

Here's what else I know: when your life brims over with pain and sadness--the real kind that can't be fixed with an attitude adjustment--you gotta go out and grow a bigger life. In fact, all of us, all the time, should be growing our lives as wide as our hearts can hold, so that, wherever there is grief, there will be some ghost of joy and gratitude to bear it company.

Be large. Love many. Give your time, give your energy, and above all else, give your empathy and enter in to all the joys and sorrows that there are in your friends' lives. Drink deep from the cup of life, especially when it is bitter, from motives of pure self-interest. Because in times of loss, it's all you've got to keep you going.

Don't tell me about the littleness of your life. Live large. When loss comes to you, too, it will give you something to hold on to.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Red in Tooth and Claw

When Nora, Peter's grandmother, lived with us, our household was the nucleus of an active local Pagan community. Over time, dementia eroded more and more of Nora's ability to retain anything she learned about in the present, so she wound up discovering again and again that she was living in a family of Pagans.

Over and over, we would have made some reference to our Paganism, and Nora, having forgotten about it for the time being, would ask us to explain again what it was we believed. We would explain, yet again, about all of life being sacred to us, and nature being the source of our inspiration.

Each time we did this, we would reach the point in our discussion where she would protest, quoting the line from Tennyson about "Nature, red in tooth and claw." Nevertheless, we would insist that that was where we looked for the holy, and eventually, she would exclaim (just as she had the time before that): "Well, then, you're all heathens!"

When we agreed with her, she would nod with satisfaction at having figured us out, and add, "Well. That's all right then."

I'm still a "heathen." But Nora had a point. Nature is red in tooth and claw. And it certainly can be challenging to accept.

How can the world be good, and have such suffering within it? How can we believe in the presence of anything compassionate, loving, or engaged with us humans in the slightest, given the hard realities of hunger, disease, old age, and death? How can it possibly be that "love [is] Creation's final law" when so much of the world is such a mess?

One way of answering the question is simply to dismiss the world as fallen and flawed. I don't need to remind my Pagan readers that this has been the traditional approach of Christianity. If we accept that the world is not sacred, is rather broken and corrupt, then the apparent lack of love we find in its daily tragedies and deformities becomes unsurprising.

But how, as a Pagan, do I reconcile an unfallen creation with the state of the world?

Oh, I can dither for a little while, focusing on human choices to live out of balance with the natural world. But however I frame it, whether I choose to ignore the way that humans are very much a part of nature or to accept it; whether I choose to see humans as fallen or no; I ultimately have to admit that the natural world has a lot of things in it that repel, disgust, and horrify me.

HIV. Stillbirths. Heartworms and tapeworms and parasitic wasps. It ain't all fluffy bunnies and sunsets, that's for sure.

OK. I realize this a kind of grandiose way of leading up to it. But the fact is, I got bitten by a tick yesterday.

Two ticks, in fact. Despite the recent frost, despite taking all the normal precautions, I got bitten by two ticks, and one of them has absolutely left some kind of infection behind it. Hopefully not Lyme disease, because, honestly, that's all I need in my life right now.

Photo credit: Tomfy
Ticks. Ugh. (Shuddering)

I hate ticks.

For years now, I've suffered from recurrent nightmares about a variety of worms, bugs, planarians, and macroscopic amoebae colonizing my body. My nightmares are like the standard Bug Larvae Under the Skin scene in a certain type of horror movie, only better lit. My dreams not only terrify me, they make me wake up in a cold sweat, feeling like I want to take a shower inside my body as well as outside it.

Oh. I'm also an arachnophobe. Got some great dreams about spiders, too. So, given my fear of parasites and my fear of spiders, ticks completely freak me out.

Did I mention? I hate ticks.

Here's the thing. Though it took me a few minutes after the shuddering, flinching, ghastly process of getting the damn things pulled off me to remember it, I got those ticks in the course of an incredibly beautiful walk in our woods.

It was twilight, or even a little past it, and the woods were fading into murk, but the leaves of the hornbeams, which have all turned a brilliant, cheddar-cheese yellow, stood out like a dream against the gloom. Because the hornbeams are all saplings of about the same age, the effect was of a cloud of yellow lights, almost like paper lanterns, hovering ten feet above the forest floor. High, high up, the more mature maple trees glowed, too, in orange and pale yellow and still a bit of green, and everywhere black tree limbs and the green-black of hemlock branches framed the night.

Peter and I walked through a night that was almost silent, except for the tiny, reedy voices of night birds, and the distant sighing of traffic. We wrapped ourselves in the wonder of grey stones, brown, tea-smelling leaves underfoot, and paths now easier to see than in the hurly-burly of summer growth.

We found the chestnuts--the saplings left behind, still insistently trying to grow and overcome the lethal blight that has destroyed their kind. And I got to see for myself just what shade of yellow chestnut leaves turn in the dark night of a New England fall.

And it was totally worth it. Horrible as the mere thought of a tick makes me feel, let alone actually finding them, heads sunk into my skin, they are just the price of admission for belonging to a real, living ecosystem.

Not just the forest, but I myself am a part of this ecosystem. Ticks? Who am I kidding. I've long since been colonized by mites and viruses, bacteria and fungi of all sorts. I am myself an ecosystem, a forest, a jungle. Ticks, and the Lyme bacteria I fear they hold, are just more passengers on an already crowded vessel--my body.

We are not truly separate from one another. There are no safe, clean, reliable places in any living system.

The very cells of my body, whose metabolism allows me life, may one day mutiny against my rule, and kill me. But without that possibility, I die now, this moment. Life evolves. Life is opportunistic. Life sees a chance and it takes it, whether it means colonizing the body of a caterpillar, chasing down and eating a rabbit, or a blood meal from a human host. Life kills, and life is dying every day.

Because that's what life is.

I've always frowned on those people who claim to love kittens, but have no use for cats. The nature of a mature cat is always there, latent within the kitten. There are no kittens without cats, and if we could, somehow, freeze young cats forever at the age they are "cutest," we would not have done them honor, but destroyed something essential to who they are. We need, instead, to love them whole--kitten and cat--or not at all.

When I say I want to embrace life, I must acknowledge that that means I must embrace death. When I say I love my woods, I must own that my woods include white-footed mice, white-tailed deer, and the ticks that prey on them and on me.

None of us are our Mother's favorite children. And all of us are.

We must embrace the whole of the wheel of life, not just the parts we think we love. Because there isn't any such thing as life without death, woods without parasites, or love without loss. It's all one at the root.

Photo credit: Thompson Greg, US Fish and Wildlife Service
I still feel disgusted and horrified by the sight of a tick on my body. But I know: the tick joins me to the deer, to the forest. To the trees.

It's worth it. That's what Paganism is, I think. It's looking Nora in the eye, and saying, Yes. Red in tooth and claw.

And worth it.

I know no better world, and ask for none.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

There is Always Joy

To A. This isn't written for you. You don't need to take care of me over this one; this is written for myself, and it is how I cope. I love you forever.

I remember when I was small, not understanding why the adults around me were so serious. Everyone talked about how hard life was, and I thought that was a sign of how ridiculous adults could be.

That says a lot for how good a job the adults around me did, on the whole, caring for me as a child, and what a happy childhood I really had.

But I also remember when I learned for the first time about death.

I was about eight years old. My parents had been away for the weekend, and they'd left us overnight with our babysitter's family, which had been all right except for the fact that the sheets all smelled funny and, in the middle of the night, the world was very gray and I was very homesick.

But when they picked me and my younger brother up in the morning, about halfway home from the babysitter's, they broke the news to us. Probably my parents had spent some time carefully working out how to let us know, in the way that would produce the least trauma: our friends' Hal and Mark's father was dead.

Hal and Mark were our best friends: Hal was a year younger than I was, and Mark was three years older. They lived right across the street from us, and we were in and out of each others' houses and yards all the time. I probably knew the inside of their house better than I knew my own.

I laughed. Literally--I laughed out loud, because I knew perfectly well that my parents were lying to us.

People you know don't die. Not real people. Not real people's fathers.

Somehow, I learned he had died of a heart attack. I learned (or did I just imagine?) that he'd died in the kitchen, that he had fallen to the kitchen floor, and died.

I can no longer remember anything else about that kitchen. But I remember the damn floor. I suppose I never looked at it the same way again.

That kitchen floor was the beginning of my learning curve.

So here I am, forty-nine, almost fifty, and I'm still learning. I no longer laugh at the lessons.

Some leave memories I cherish, though it would be hard to explain why to anyone else:

I remember getting a phone call just after I'd settled in to bed one night when I was in my thirties, mom of a young child, still living in Vermont. My closest friend and coven-mate called to tell me his mom had died, and would I please come over with his other friends and keep him company?

We played Trivial Pursuit until the small hours of the morning. Nobody really kept score; it was just a way of being there without being... too much there. It was right at the time.

I remember being with my mother when her own mother was dying in a nursing home in Maine. We slept in more wrong-smelling sheets--Peter and I in the guest bedroom, my mom in my grandmother's own bed. Shortly after I woke up from a nightmare in the deep of the night, the phone rang. My mom answered it, and I was with her when she took the call.

She and I stayed up until the sun rose, she wrapped in a quilt made by her grandmother that she'd taken from a box at the foot of the bed. She may have shared it with me at times... I have no idea what we talked about, but I vividly remember the sight of her long, slender bare foot, pink with cold, peeking out from under the blanket.

And I remember the sound of that silence--like the sound you get when you brush the rough surface of porcelain with a finger. The sound of grief in the air, potent and without words.

I am so grateful to have been with my mother that night, for the intimacy of the grief she let me see and share with her. I'm more grateful that I had that memory within me when, last year, after my mother's near-fatal accident, I sat beside her hospital bed in Maine.

I remember my father, on that nightmarish trip last November. There is something surreal and outside of time about the inside of a hospital at night anyway, even without the fear of bereavement and the terrible quiet beeps and hissings of an ICU around you.

I remember taking my father's hand, after a brief visit to my mother's room. She--my amazing, bionic, athletic and unstoppable mom, stopped by the impact of that car, surrounded by metal and machinery, her knuckles suddenly seeming impossibly large in hands suddenly much, much too thin. She sent us away at one point, to keep us from seeing her pain when they had to move her.

I'm not sure it helped my dad not to be there. He had her pain in his bones at that point, ground into him where it was cold and unchallengeable.

When I took his hand, and we walked down the hallway to the little waiting area off the ICU, I felt a very, very fine tremor, not just in his hand, but all the way into him and through him, like the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl just before the sound can register, maybe. Or like the sound crystal makes before it shatters.

I took my father's hand, and he was old. For the first time ever, more even than his cancer had made him, I saw my father old. My father, giant not just of my childhood and his grandchildren's, but of men and women he trained and led and befriended and worked with. My father has always been a large man, not just in height, but in charisma, energy, imagination.

I wish I could tell you somehow what I felt when I took his hand.

I felt the truth. He's dying. We're all dying. It's just a matter of time. And... the hurt of it is too big to hold in or to let out or to make peace with or to make war on. All we can do is tremble, like he was doing, with that very, very fine tremor.

Life kills us. And grief stays with us, etched into the heart like lines on glass, even when the terror and the fear have passed. My mom's alive. My dad is healthy and strong. But we know something we didn't want to know.

Figuring this out now, at almost-fifty, is a bit like starting to get the roof on as winter sets in. But I'm getting it, bit by bit: life hurts, the people we love get sick or go crazy or do terrifying things with terrifying consequences, and sometimes they even die on us and leave us alone to grieve, the most impossible thing of all.

Here's what I've got for comfort; here's what I've picked up, scraps to carry me when it gets bad:

Nothing is ever lost forever. I don't know if I believe in a heaven or an afterlife, but I think that, somehow, I've been blessed to look into the River of Light. It's always there, flowing through the roots of things. I came from there, and I'll go back there, and so will you. I don't know if I'll be me, or if you'll be you, but we'll be there. This I know... experientially.

There is always joy. You can't defeat death, fear, grief. The terrible things keep happening, and they really do just get harder and harder as we go along.

But there really is always joy.

The worst year I have ever had in my life was about seven years ago. Fear and anger are a terrible mixture, and I was awash in them, almost helpless against them.

And my best friend adopted a son--not an infant, but a young man of five, with the most amazing, intelligent black eyes. I met him within days of the placement, and I remember the look of hope (and maybe a bit of fear) in his eyes. And the overwhelming tenderness in the eyes of my friend and her husband.

While my life seemed to be in ruins, the next few years I held that boy's picture, and eventually the pictures of his siblings, over my heart, like a plaster holding that organ together. My friend's joy carried me through my own grief and pain, and I learned a truth: make your life large enough that, when you are in despair, you can look up and find some corner of your world where there is cause for gratitude.

In fact, that's one of the main lessons for surviving grief:

Find the gratitude.

Not for the grief. I'm not saying that--I'm never saying that. But for whatever else there is to be grateful for.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

You Who Are My Bible

I have a vivid memory, from a Quaker retreat I attended not so long ago. I remember coming across a friend, sitting quietly in a patch of sunlight, paging through his Bible.

The sense of depth and worship that surrounded him was as rich as the silence in a forest, and I envied him his ability to sink so deeply into communion with his God, and to stay there so comfortably and restfully. (I often find that, after any extended period of worship, I need an even more extended period of silliness and ordinariness. I love the depths, but often find myself unable to bear them for long.)

Today was one of those days in meeting for worship that the sense of living silence rolled out to meet me as I passed through the door. That feeling--the patient, watchful stillness--is sometimes as palpable as a fur cloak laid over my shoulders, and at times, I find myself savoring it a moment or two before I go to my seat. I love to stand and feel the warm light of morning on my face, and the even warmer quiet of worship washing around my whole body. I love the sense of a communal indrawn breath that I can sometimes feel, once I am a few feet into the room.

When I did take my seat, I found myself making eye contact with others who were already there, smiling at one friend and another. That's not unusual--though I know it is somewhat at odds with the unwritten Quaker rules, that would have us worship with closed eyes to avoid intruding on one another's spiritual space. Perhaps this is really an expectation of Quakers over time: no smiling! No looking into one another's eyes! And I do try to gaze gently, aware that even a glance can be distracting, at certain moments. But I also feel that, if not in worship, then when can we look one another in the eye, in the light-hearted, simple fellowship of simply being together, caught up so intimately in this Spirit? So it's a rule I often break, or at least bend, as I settle into worship.

This week, though, I seemed not to settle into worship, but to break open into it, without centering myself down into my own separate self and thoughts at all beforehand. My attention remained quite firmly in the room, my heart jumping up like a puppy when guests arrive for a party as one friend and then another came into the meeting. And at the same time, I felt very full with that sense of present Spirit that comes in worship.

In some ways, it was not a settled worship for anyone at the meeting. There were lots of comings and goings, maybe because it is fall, and the families are still establishing their routines and habits around arriving and getting the kids into their First Day classes. Doors opened and closed in the parking lot. Children's voices called out--and so did adults'--and the stream of latecomers, shifting positions and bundles, coughs and movement all seemed to continue longer than usual.

It was not a problem for me at all. As I heard each voice, saw each face or movement, part of me reached out and held the person close. And as I saw each newcomer enter the room, I felt the knowledge of their stories rising within me.

And I thought of my friend whose peace lay in paging through his Bible; who found an open door to his God there. And I realized, looking across the meeting room floor at his face, You are my Bible.

Every person there, filled with story. Every person there, whether I could find it or sense it or not, holding within him or within her a great Story: the story of the Holy Spirit moving within his life, or hers.

Sometimes, I'm privileged to sense that Story, just looking into another person's eyes. Sometimes, I've been lucky enough to get some of the keys to understand at least a fragment of their tale.

This is one great reward of having attended the same meeting for so long. I begin to know stories: I know this couple's courtship story from decades gone by; I fill with joy to know it, again, as I see them take hands beside each other on their usual bench. I know the stories of how this member, and that one, and this member in front of me, were each widowed, in such different ways and at such different times in their lives. I grieve with them again, and rejoice to see their courage and strength as they sit quietly upright now beside us.

I know that this member is in constant pain from her arthritis; I know that those members struggle with loss of hearing. That one has shared the story of a terrible childhood with me; this one of lost years as a teen. I know who mourns for brothers, mothers, friends... children.

Somehow, I have become woven into the stories of my meeting.

I want more of them. I want all of them. I want--and I can never have--to take each member of my meeting by the hand, meet their eyes, and hear them tell me who they are, down to the last syllable of the story of their True Names.

Don't get me wrong. I've been at my meeting long enough to know one or two whose stories are personally challenging to me. Not everyone in my meeting is easy for me to love or care about. Some members annoy me; more make me quietly unhappy by their lack of concern or charity or empathy for one another.

I do love the members of my meeting... but some remind me painfully of things about myself I'd rather deny or forget, and others...

Quakers, like anyone, can be irascible, judgemental, self-righteous. Some are models of compassion in meeting, but go home and kick the dog. Some seem to go out of their way to find places where they will, themselves, be kicked like dogs. Some are beacons of love and forgiveness. But some, at least from my very limited perspective on a bench at the back of the room, are not.

So these stories I find myself longing to know--and, truly, I am longing to know them--have among them stories I will have a hard time sitting with. Some of the Friends in my meeting are hard for me to like. Some of them, I have reason to know, do not much like me.

We wrestle with the holy scripture written on one another's hearts. Just as in the Bible itself, there are stories in which I cannot feel the movement of a loving Spirit in the world; so too there are lives of tragedy or of what looks (from the outside) like meanness or hypocrisy, in which I cannot sense the movement of that Spirit, either.

I often fail to understand. Sometimes, I don't even remember to try. And I fall into parochialism and disdain far too often for my own good.

But it came to me, in meeting today, that whether I can see it or not, the Holy Spirit is constantly, constantly at work in the hearts and the lives of the people all around me. Like the wind that stirred the branches of the trees outside the meetinghouse windows, Spirit is working in all of our hearts all of the time.

Read with an open heart, read with patience and love, the people I share my life with--most definitely including those who challenge me--may be the best of all possible gospels to me.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Meeting for Worship for Woods

I stayed home for meeting for worship today.

The two acres of woods immediately behind our house have not been woods for very long. They are still in that stage of growth where the trees are mostly of the same age, young trees that are stretching their heads up as high as they can, seeking some light and air, jockeying for position among their fellows in a very close race. Only at the edges of the old field are there old trees: oaks, a hundred years old perhaps, planted behind (and apparently in) the old boundary wall.

These woods do not belong to us. Of course, that is the nature of living things; properly speaking, all living things belong to themselves. However, the non-profit that is the paper owner of the woods maintains a loop path in the young woods behind our home, with a fire circle and benches in the middle of it. As far as I can tell, neither path nor fire circle get very much use. Only once have I ever seen another human being on the path, and the fire pit is almost entirely grown over with moss.

However, there is a ring of a half-dozen wooden benches around this fire pit, and a small clearing in the already very open wood. It is an airy place, far enough from the road that the traffic sounds are muted, and it is possible to hear the drops of water, still falling in the morning sun from last night's rain; and the scolding of squirrels, the cries of jays and chickadees.

That is where I went for my morning worship today.

There is a different kind of quiet in the woods. And it brought me to a different sense of God.

I'm not much of a monotheist. I'm not much of a polytheist either, or even an animist. I'm a nicely mushy blend of all three, but, because these are such distinct ways of experiencing and thinking about the world, there are days when I might feel or look as if I was entirely one or the other.

As a girl, the only way to relate to Spirit I'd ever heard about was monotheism. But monotheism was too big for me, too abstract, and too far away from the daily contact with what I knew of holiness, the woods behind my earlier home. I could never quite connect with that concept of God: He remained my invisible make-believe friend for a lot of those years, someone I tried to believe in but couldn't quite.

I related better to fairy tales and stories about water nixies (our well was scary enough to have had one) and tree nymphs. It still felt a bit like make-believe, but it was a make-believe of manyness and particularity, in which each individual tree, each individual stone, possessed the potential for story, for presence.

It was not until I was an adult, able to hold in my head things like the notion that light can "be" both a particle and a wave, that I began to grasp the ways that language limits our ability to understand Spirit. Whenever we define a thing simply with words, we've killed it, dead.

I became Pagan. I began to worship gods of manyness; gods that were the physical presence and life force and numen of the tree and the leaf and the body I lived in myself. For me, those gods, and the encounters I had with them in ritual and dream and imagination, finally managed to transcend that seeming gulf between the individual, particular landscape of each pine or maple or ash; and the infinitely abstract, almost notional monotheist god of everywhere and everywhen.

It helped that I finally understood that all language is metaphor, and we're not half so precise as we think we are.

Are the gods many? Are the gods one? Tell me first what you mean by god. (We're constantly oversimplifying what we mean by that one, and then we wonder why we so often disagree.)

The language I need is the language that can speak my experience. When I became a Quaker, and felt the stirrings in me of an overarching, all-encompassing Spirit of peace and love, I adopted a lot of monotheist language. This blog is full of places where I write "God," as if I knew what that word meant. Because that's the word I need, for the Source-of-All-Being, all pervasive, immanent and transcendent (but maybe not personified) Spirit I seek in Quaker meeting. After a while, it just got tiresome to call that anything but "God," so "God" it often is. It's not as though I've got a better word.

But out in the woods today, centering down into worship, I found myself surrounded by all that many-ness. Dozens of species of trees, countless birds and insects and small creeping animals of the woods. The sun was low, and the number of small spider webs, gleaming with dew-light, was beyond counting. How many lives were all around me? How many hearts, how many eyes, how many living beings out in the same morning as me?

And the woods, even as autumn begins to open them out, even in a wood as young and open as that one, draw your mind to the individual, the particular, the ingredients of many-ness. I know perfectly well where the stone walls that border the old field run, and I know where the loop path is. I know, for that matter, where the woods open out and become my lawn, and, beyond that, the busy road on which I live.

But the woods hold their own silence, separate even from the outside sounds that find their way inside. And you cannot see far, in any direction, try as you may. Your eye is met with so many trees, each unique: the white pine that's rotting as it stands, circled with broken off branches and with a swath of lost bark; the swamp maple with leaves only on the uppermost ten feet of fifty; the hornbeam, no taller than you yourself, lit to incandescence with a shaft of sunlight.

You really do not see the forest. You see the trees, one by one by one, until their individuality blurs into an impression of infinite forms, infinite variation, an infinite series of singularities. Infinity of diversity, within a mere two acres of woods.

And then the light shifts, and it shifts everywhere, over the whole forest at once, like an expression passing over a face. And there it is: unity. The whole forest has one heart, one mind, one being. She's everywhere, and all around you, and--never mind that this wood is small, is young, is near the road and hardly wilderness--She always has been.

There is a Great Wood, of which all the woods that ever were or ever will be are simply parts, chambers of one beating heart. (Don't believe me? Go ask your local woods.)

And my old Wiccan duotheism comes back to me. She is the forest; He is the stag that runs within it. He is the young tree; She is the loam that bears Him up and nourishes Him, and will receive Him (and us) when He falls.

(My gods are, and always must be, gods of the New England forest. That much was decided for me before I was three.)

The gods are many. The gods are one. I know you might not agree with me.

But when I was done worshipping this morning, I got down on my heels, and pressed my palms against the needles and loam of the forest floor.

The floor of the woods is firm, but with a softness to it, a resilience, like flesh. It is flesh. It's Her flesh.

And now I'm back home, back in my house in the human world. But the smell of my Mother is still on my hands.

Blessed Be.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Daily Sustainability

This is it... the last weekend before I return to full time teaching in a high school English classroom. And, if past years are anything to go by, teaching English will live me feeling wrung out and used up at the end of each day, somewhat resentful at the end of each week that I have such a narrow little window in which to fit the rest of my life.

I don't want it to be like that. That's not new. But the both the desire and the challenge is keener now, since buying this house.

I've mentioned before how important the woods behind the house are to me. I grew up surrounded by woods, and I've longed to live in the woods ever since I left them, to go out and try to create an adult life.

As a child, I at least believed that I lived a life with a kind of balance. My parents had important, meaningful work, but also friends, time outdoors, a house and a garden they were able to take good care of... it looked good, and I both wanted a life like that, and have been afraid I'd be unable to have one.

Whether because my parents were superhuman mutants (Don't laugh! It's a theory I have been known to entertain) or because the world had changed, or because the life I thought I knew as a child never really was that life, I have not felt that I've ever managed anything like the graceful life, lived in balance, that I at least believed my parents had. Of course, to a child, a summer is an eternity, and anything that lasts a year is forever. There are ways that childhood, at least if it is a happy childhood, does lend itself to certain illusions. But this one, that one day I will live a life of balance and love, has been remarkably persistent. I don't feel that I've ever quite found it; and yet I've never stopped seeking it: a sustainable, productive life.

This house reminds me so much of my childhood. There are stretches of woods that feel so similar to the ones I remember from years ago that it is almost deja vu to walk there.

What is it that I want? I want, in the midst of my working year, to find a way to have some of the sense of grace and balance I thought I lived with as a child. I want, in the midst of the working year, to find time to walk in the woods, smelling the warm smell of the forest floor. I want to have time to write, and to sit by a window in my new house and breathe in the toasty steam of a fresh cup of coffee while I read a novel. I want to have long conversations, punctuated by firelight and laughter, with Peter, and my daughter, and my friends.

I want to sink deep into worship on a regular basis. I want to watch the moon's face through the fog of my own breath on an icy starlit night, hand in hand with other Pagans in the snow. I want to fold my own laundry, wash my own dishes, keep up with my grading and my lesson planning, and maybe even bake a little bread once in a while.

I want to ride my bike to the library. I want to have a day off sometimes. And I want to be tired from working hard at the end of the day, but not so tired I can't think, or talk on the telephone, or feel the wind on my face now and then.

I want a sustainable life. I want my finances, my relationships, my workload, and my relationships with my gods to be in balance. I want ordinary (or is it extraordinary?) grace, daily sustainability.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

In Which our Heroine Tells us More Than we Wanted to Know about Her New Old House

So. As previously hinted, I do have more to say about New England Yearly Meeting. However, my ability to say it has been temporarily compromised by two issues: technical difficulties, and finally moving into that new/old house I've mentioned here before.

Unless my personal life and Peter's holds interest for you, you might want to skip this one.

The technical difficulties I mentioned are entirely the normal thing in this technological age; when we arranged to transfer our current telephone and Internet service from our old house to our new one, across town, the telephone company gladly accepted the commission, without mentioning that they don't actually provide Internet service in our new part of town. At all. Three weeks and six or seven phone calls later, we learned exactly why the carefully scheduled transfer of services was so unsuccessful when it came to our Web access.

While I realize that it would be unusual for a service to refer customers to their competition, I think admitting up front that they didn't provide the service at all would have been the thing to do, rather than canceling it without admitting to us that's what they were doing. Once we figured out what had gone wrong, it did make the decision to switch to their competitor an easy one! Unfortunately, since we do in fact want to keep our old phone number, there's going to be about a two week delay. Since we made the initial set of arrangements more than three weeks ago, I find that annoying. We will have no Internet service here until the 22nd.

Whenever I get warmed up to whine about it, however, Peter points out how smoothly this move has gone so far. And he's right. With so much to be grateful for, I have a nerve kvetching over the small stuff!

Under the header of what has gone right I'd have to put being here at all. Oh, it's not the fact of getting the loan I mean. Peter and I have known for some time that the bank was going to be willing to loan us more money than we would be comfortable owing. Our credit history is reasonably good... and the bank does not have the same priorities we do about our daughter finishing college. Their standards for our money and ours are not the same. So even in the midst of a credit crisis, we were pretty sure of qualifying for the mortgage.

The difficulty has been trying to finance the house while juggling so many midlife financial matters: that daughter in college, saving for retirement, concerns about how an illness might affect our ability to keep working (and working hard enough that fatigue is a daily problem as it is) in addition to paying for a mortgage. It took us a long while to figure out whether or not we dared take on a major new debt at this point in our lives. Over a year, in fact. And for that whole year, this house, which we fell in love with at first sight, has been on the market.

It made it as far as offer and acceptance four or five months ago, but the offer was withdrawn before the deal went through.

Our house waited for us! That's the feeling of it. I've been hesitant to put it into words before, because there is hubris as well as gratitude in the Quaker idea of "way opens," at least in a personal matter. But way has been opening for us like crazy in this move, in big ways (like the house waiting for us) and smaller ones (like the extreme generosity our friends have shown us in helping us with the move, from lifting boxes and toting furniture, to the donation of a big TV we can all watch videos on when they come to visit). Even finding a new tenant for the unit we used to occupy ourselves happened through community, and within two weeks of our offer and acceptance on this house. Truly, it has been remarkable how much has fallen into our laps.

Don't get me wrong: we've been working hard ourselves, too. I have personally scrubbed every single wall, baseboard, and molding in the rental unit. Peter is there now, prepping and painting the last two rooms. We're still hauling boxes, repairing fixtures, sash-cords, and latches all over that old apartment. We've figured out, too, that we're not going to make the deadline on handing it off to our new tenants without a little outside help, and a connection of Peter's through two of his best students at school (there's that community piece again!) is going to come in and help with the last of the carpentry.

Work. It's been plenty of work.

But also gratitude. I'm still in love with the woods--today was the first time we brought the dogs out in them for a walk--but I'm also delighted at how much the house itself really does feel like home. From the first night we slept here, it has felt like we belong here. Oh, part of the delight is the new-house pleasure of playing house: the first meal I cooked in the kitchen, the first load of laundry. All of it feels a bit like being a little girl playing with a dollhouse.

But it's more than that. The house just fits, just feels like a pair of broken-in hiking boots or a favorite sweater. Both of us have had the experience of just looking up from whatever it is we've been doing, sighing happily, and announcing to the universe, "I love this house!"

I love this house.

It has room for us. It has sun that streams in the windows, and grass outside that's thicker than velvet, and enough cupboards in the kitchen, and a laundry that's not down two flights of twisty dark stairs and a cozy room for my office and a spacious one for Peter's and a fireplace and a front porch and slate steps and a Rose of Sharon and a flowering quince and such a pretty view from the big front windows. And best of all, it really feels like home.

I cannot convince myself that we have earned this, or that we deserve it. But I can feel grateful for it. And my gratitude moves me to look for ways to perhaps live as lightly on the land as we can.

So many dreams. My friend Beth may be willing to give us a chest freezer she has. And while running a second freezer is not without environmental cost, it would allow us to buy things like local produce and chicken in bulk, and to freeze them: to eat like locavores, with less packaging and shipping to get our food to our plates.

Our new house's furnace is on its last legs. We're looking into getting a pellet furnace: a bit more work--OK, quite a bit more work, with hauling the pellet fuel by hand into the cellar--but to burn locally grown wood pellets would be kinder to the earth than burning Middle-Eastern oil. Not just the reduced shipping and refining costs, but also the fact that fossil fuels release new carbon into the atmosphere. Burning wood, provided one lives in a region (like New England) where new growth exceeds the harvesting of trees, means releasing some carbon into the atmosphere... but carbon from a source that has actually fixed more carbon into the soil (in the form of fallen leaves, twigs, and needles) over its lifetime than is released when it is burned.

(And its cheaper, at least around here, and for now.)

We talk about where the indoor clothes drying lines will go, and what sort of clothesline to put up outside. We dream about solar panels--and that is a dream, given our finances, but, with our southern exposure, I suspect it will be a recurring one. And we dream about planting trees, and a garden, and where the compost heap can go.

I'm liking these dreams.

Though they, as well as our technical difficulties, may keep me from writing about other things, or even any things, for a while. Still. It's good to be home.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

New England Yearly Meeting Affirms Same-Sex Marriages


This was a sort of a breakthrough year for me at New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers).

I want to write about that, but I feel that, this year, I need to allow NEYM to scoop me. Because it was a breakthrough year for Friends in New England, too; we minuted our clear sense of the right order of same-sex marriages performed among us.

It is probably worth mentioning that same-sex marriages have been performed by monthly meetings for a number of years now, and that many of our quarterly meetings have affirmed this practice. We have, however, been laboring with this issue, and with our relationship with Friends United Meeting (which continues to be a tender spot) for a long time now.

I mention the issue of Friends United Meeting, which has a personnel policy many of our members find discriminatory and painful, because it was grappling with our discomfort over FUM that kept pushing the matter of same-sex marriage, and of glbtq rights in general, into the limelight for us. Try as we would to separate them, the two issues persisted in rising together.

Ultimately, while recognizing the sincere and possibly prophetic witness of our members who feel that they cannot make financial contributions to FUM, we came to strong and clear unity on two things:
  1. We are clear that we wish to remain in loving relationship with Friends United Meeting.
  2. We are clear that we have been blessed and honored by the ministry of many glbtq Friends in our meeting, and that every marriage taken under the care of our meetings, without regard to the sexual identities or orientations of the couple, is a blessing and a joy to our meetings.
We love our relationships and work in Friends United Meeting.

We love our glbtq Friends, and recognize the love of Spirit working through them in their relationships with one another and with us.

The minute does not mention Friends United Meeting at all. Though our concerns with the wider body remain, and some Friends are in a place of deep pain and have great demands of conscience weighing on them over how to carry our concerns within other branches of that body, this minute addresses our own meetings, urging each to examine what they can say on the subject of holding up the equality of glbtq members. Each meeting is asked to "discern how they can best offer to all couples the same care and affirmations of their leadings to walk together in love."

Though directed at our own meetings, it is probably relevant that NEYM is a founding member of FUM, and quite active in that body. I believe this represents either the first or second such minute from a yearly meeting within the larger, and worldwide, body of Friends United Meeting.

Spirit labored a long time with us to bring us to this point, and my heart is grateful for the grace we found to arrive at this point today.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Standing on Holy Ground

I dreamed a few nights back that I was in a hurry.

I was rushing along through cleared fields and woods roads, up and down hills like the ones I remember from the town where I grew up. Though it looked nothing like the specific landscape behind the house that Peter and I are moving to this month, in the dream it was part of that landscape.

I was in a hurry because it was almost dark. There was a sense of urgency, but no panic--just a need to cover a lot of ground efficiently.

As I came up over a rise, along a power line I was following, I saw silhouetted against the brow of the hill a remarkable sight: a circle of standing stones, very stereotypically Stonehenge-ish, tucked under the wing of the soaring high-tension power lines. The sunset flared out behind the pairing in a breathtaking way, and I mourned that I did not have a camera with me.

I resolved to return with one for another sunset, yet wondered if it would ever be possible to capture the image again in quite the same way. I paused for a moment, drinking in the sight, and then rushed onward, into the darkening woods.

* * *

For whatever reason, I take change hard. And the older I get, the tougher it seems to be for me to commit to change anything. The main reason I don't dye my hair has nothing to do with Quaker simplicity, and everything to do with my fears of buyer's (dyer's?) remorse. What if I don't like it when I'm done?

I'm not old. But I'm old enough to think twice, three times, maybe thirty times, on even the smallest changes. My reaction time is already slowing, and not just when I drive my car.

The sunset is on the horizon. I am in a hurry. If I had not committed to making this move now, would I ever have had the courage to make it at all?

And what do I get for my move? High tension. Energy. High voltage energy, yet, crackling overhead, and a clear path to follow, at least for a while.

And what is under the wings of this change? What is it my sunset illumines for me?

Well, Stonehenge only has no connection to druids in a factual sense. I don't think it's especially hard to read, in the language of dreams. I might as well admit it to myself: my desire to live in sacred relationship to a forest is real, and powerful. I might as well pause, and take in just how important it is to me, in all the ways that matter. I might as well enjoy the view.

Even if I can never recapture it, I know what I am feeling about this vision, this moment.

* * *

And as for the fact that there are no such standing stones anywhere near the ordinary New England woods behind my home? Well, that's so much foolishness. Every plot of land is sacred land. Every stone was raised at Stonehenge. And every mountain is the sacred mountain.

Take off your shoes, Cat. You are standing on holy ground.

* * *

Of course, one implication of the fact that every mountain is the sacred mountain is that every desecration of a mountain is a desecration of my sacred mountain. Yours, too, if you love the land.

Maybe it is because I grew up on one of the eroded mountain stubs that is the distant sister to the mountains of Tennessee. Or maybe it is because the woods I am falling in love with and hope to stand steward to are so similar to the woods of Eagan. But this video breaks my heart.




Every mountain is a holy mountain. Every forest is a holy forest. If you feel the way I feel, speak out against the mountaintop removal mining that is destroying the mountains, the forests, the headwaters and ecology and community life of Eagan and hundreds of places like it.

Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed eliminating a streamlined permitting process -- known as Nationwide Permit 21, or NWP 21-- which allows coal companies to seek quick approval for their mountaintop removal coal mining projects.

Roughly one-third of mountaintop removal coal mining projects are permitted under nationwide permits, which means that eliminating the streamlined rule will help slow the pace of destruction in Appalachia.

The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comments for the next 30 days on its proposal, and they need to hear from you.

Please take a moment to tell the Corps that you support ending the streamlined permitting process for mountaintop removal coal projects.
(Quote from ilovemountains.org)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Peter on When Words Fail Us

I have been really struggling with how to respond to the controversy that keeps rearing its head (most recently at Quaker Quaker) about Liberal Quakers’ supposed “hostility towards Christianity.” I’ve been disappointed in and saddened by some of the Quaker bloggers whom I have respected as intelligent and thoughtful Friends with integrity but who are just NOT LISTENING to anyone who might, for instance, be hurt by the Pope’s encyclical against the Neopagans.

I was ruminating on various ways to respond—angry tirades, insightful analyses, heartfelt pleas for understanding and tolerance…none of which would have amounted to more than spitting into the wind—when I came across a quote from Wendell Berry’s essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation.” He said it all much better than I ever could. And Cat, in her comments over at Quaker Quaker, has been doing a good job of making the point that not all non-Christians are wounded refugees from Christianity; some of us just happened to grow up elsewhere. So I’ve stayed out of the discussion on QQ, and having stepped back a little—closed my eyes and counted to ten, as it were—I can see that it’s not my job to fix this problem.

And having seen that, I can move on to the real question, which is: If I listen to the Light, to the Spirit of Peace, and to my own Patron Deities, how would they have me respond?

What is God’s answer to all this controversy about God?

Words fail here, because it’s so easy—so obvious—for so many people to answer immediately, Jihad against the infidels! Crusade against the heathen!

Words fail…so what stands in their place? The Divine steps in, and, whoo boy, the second you say it the words betray you again. God acts in this world. Like, all that happens is God’s will, from the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (to glorify My Name) to the holocaust (insert lame rationalization here) to September 11th (to restore America’s pride and military resolve). It’s enough to turn anyone into an atheist, clinging to cynical rationalism as the one stable island in a raging sea of delusion and horror.

But God does step in. The overwhelming majority of the world’s religious people seem to deny it, fear it, run from the room covering their ears and shouting La-la-la-la-la! I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting! I’m not listening! Amen!

But God does step in. Look at the history of Wicca. The Neopagan movement has matured—not just grown explosively, but matured—over the past half century. Each generation has become more grounded, more spiritual, more in touch with the Divine and more aware of their place in the web of life and in the human community. And the clearest explanation for that is that the Gods have acted within the corporate body of Paganism much the same way they’ve touched my own individual life, and Cat’s and my life together. That which is divine in the Old Gods of the Craft calls to our highest inner nature—deep calling unto deep—and we have grown. Too many self-identified Christians simply can’t or won’t see it. But they don’t need to see it for it to still be true, and perhaps I don’t need them to see it before I can have meaningful and productive spiritual dialogue with them. Perhaps not…but that’s not the important question. The important question is, what does the Divine within my Gods—within the Light—what does that Divine Reality lead me towards in my own spiritual life?

I say What is God’s will for me? and I hear crazy street preachers spit the words of St. Paul at me as if they were curses (and in their mouths, the words of salvation are curses) and now it’s me that has to cover my ears and go La-la-la-la-la I’m not listening. I have to constantly tune out the batshit crazy Christians in order to be able to hear—not God—but words about God that sound anything like their lurid threats of apocalypse and Hellfire.

Where do we turn when words fail us? I’ll close with two quotes from people who’ve tried to answer that. And I’m going to try to remember to take my own advice.

James Nayler:

Thou asks further whether the name of Christ may be known to all the world by the Light within them, without Scripture or tradition? I say, yea, and by nothing else without it, for the name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c., which name none can know but by the Light of the World, though many of you read your Bibles who are the greatest enemies to his name, such is your knowledge as appears by your practice.

Wendell Berry:

THE SILENCE
Though the air is full of singing
my head is loud
with the labor of words.

Though the season is rich
with fruit, my tongue
hungers for the sweet of speech.

Though the beech is golden
I cannot stand beside it
mute, but must say

“It is golden,” while the leaves
stir and fall with a sound
that is not a name.

It is in the silence
that my hope is, and my aim.
A song whose lines

I cannot make or sing
sounds men’s silence
like a root. Let me say

and not mourn: the world
lives in the death of speech
and sings there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thought for the Day: Save What You Can

Pagans and Quakers spend a fair amount of time thinking about what is going wrong: wars, global warming, species extinction.

And if we're not careful, we can get caught up in feelings of helplessness, cynicism, or despair.

Today, reading about another effort to save yet another endangered species, I found my heart aching with something, something like this:

Photo Credit: KetaDesign
It doesn't matter if we're going to succeed or not. Not to you and me, and not to what we have to do. Yes, I am hopeful; but really, hope or despair is not my job. My job is to do what I can, small or large. Your job is the same.

Save what you can. Whether or not we're all headed for destruction is beside the point.

Save what you can. No pausing for cynicism or despair. No excuses. Get it done.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Walk in the Woods

I went for a walk in the woods yesterday.

Though it's not the regular occurrence in my life I wish it was, it wasn't just the fact of being in the woods that made the walk important to me. It was the fact that, after thirty years as an orphan from the woods of my childhood, I was once again walking in woods of my own. Peter and I are buying a house, and the house has woods behind it.

The woods will not literally belong to us, but to a non-profit located next door. That's all right. The woods I walked in nearly every day of my girlhood were not my own, either, beyond the two acres my family held the title to.

I couldn't even guess how many acres I rambled over as a child. From my backyard to the two oaks; from the path across the street to the ledges and the maple grove; from the end of the street to the Peak and the oak scrub and trails beyond it. I hiked over streams, across farms and orchards, in snowstorms, fog, blazing sun and, on at least one memorable occasion, through a small wildfire. But very little of the woods I hiked through was mine or my family's, in any legal sense.

Maybe the right way to say it is not that I grew up in woods that belonged to me, I grew up belonging to those woods. Not just any woods, and not the idea of woods, but those particular woods.

Properly considered, woods belong to themselves, and the thought of people owning woods is as obscene as that of people owning other people.

Will we ever see it that way? My despair says, no, but my memory of history says, maybe. It was not self-evident to my ancestors that slavery was wrong. Perhaps to my descendants, it will be self-evident that land cannot be owned, but rather, as a particular living, breathing, soulful thing, it should be cherished and respected for itself.

For now, however, the woods of my childhood are lost to me. There are big expensive houses built between me and them, where the woods have not simply been cut down to make room for manicured lawns. Of course, before the woods were woods, they were pastures and farms. Woods in New England have a habit of coming back: a hundred years ago, the land was almost naked. Now, it is the clearings that are vanishing, and not the trees.

I know that, but I have missed having woods that are my own--or whose human I am, to say it properly. And so it was quite an experience, yesterday, to walk past raspberries and mountain laurel, oak and hemlock and stones and swamps, knowing that, as in a marriage, I will have time to get to know this land.

"How would you like to spend the next thirty years getting to know these woods?" I asked Peter, at one point.

He said he'd like that just fine.

Loving land of your own, that you live with and on, is as different from admiring land that you travel to as is marriage to a one-night-stand. There are more beautiful patches of ground in many places: this plot of woods is not Niagara Falls or Mt. Lafayette or the Cape Cod National Sea Shore. It's not the Knife Edge or Cathedral Trail on Mt. Katahdin (one of the most beautiful places I have ever personally visited) or even a lake shore on a calm morning. It's "just" woods... just as Peter is "just" a guy. But he's my guy. I get to love him. I get to know what he looks like with crumbs in his beard, and when he's too sleepy to keep his eyes open another minute, or when he's covered with sawdust--even in his eyebrows.

Photo credit: Richard Bonnett
Land wants us to love it that way. It wants us to remember where we once saw a ladyslipper growing, or when the big windstorm took out that specific oak--that one, right over there--or where the last of the chestnuts still has a stump-sprout growing. Land wants us to know which old stretch of tumbledown stone wall holds a colony of chipmunks, and which is home to a snake.

Land, like a person, wants to be--deserves to be--loved in its particulars.

I have been away so long, lonely so long. It is going to be hard, in a lot of ways, making this move work. Money and time and energy are going to be hard to come by.

But I'm so, so glad at the possibility of falling in love again, at last.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Quaker Pagan Reflections Featured in Writing Cheerfully on the Web

Writing Cheerfully on the Web, an anthology of Quaker writing, is now available for order.

And Quaker Pagan Reflections is in it!

Edited by one of my favorite Quaker bloggers of all time, Liz Oppenheimer, it also features the work of many of my other favorite Quaker bloggers, including Chris Mohr, Robin Mohr, C. Wess Daniels, Aj Schwanz, Peggy Senger Parsons, Micah Bales, Will Taber, and Peterson Toscano. Sections include Ministry & Worship, That Of God, Convergent Friends, and Love As A Testimony.

Why should you buy a copy of this book? Well, besides the fact that I'm in it (and, did I mention, I am in it?) there's the fact that all of the featured writers do a terrific job at voicing some part of the complicated choir of the modern Religious Society of Friends. Absolutely there will be points of view that will surprise you, maybe even provoke you a bit. But, if you are interested in Quakers, the book will offer a juicy, quirky, lively, and sometimes even wise and insightful look at how a range of us walk our talk.

Plus--did I mention--I'm in it!!!



Writing Cheerfully on the Web can be ordered from Quaker Books--though, at the moment, you will need to email your order, as the direct link to the book is not yet up at their website. Alternatively, you can order the book through Lulu.com, the POD publishers.

(If you are email ordering from Quaker Books, be sure to include the quantity desired, your name, shipping and billing address, and a telephone number. For orders to private individuals they will call you later for a credit card. Or phone them, between 9:00 to 5:00 pm EST, Monday-Friday, at 1-800-966-4556.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Touching the Spirit

Ask me where I feel Pagan, and I will hold out my hands. Ask me where I feel Quaker, and I will touch my heart.

The other day, at my Quaker meeting, I had just come in the door before meeting for worship and was quietly greeting friends. I was, however, inwardly, already making the transition to worship in my mind, and as I was happily smiling at a friend who had just walked into the room, my hand found its way over my heart.

My friend, thinking I was giving him a kind of New Age salute, returned the gesture. My hand dropped a moment, sheepishly; I am far more New Englander than New Ager, and hate like anything to seem grandiose or self-dramatizing. The gesture, as a gesture, seems terribly precious to me.

Nonetheless, a moment later, I noticed my hand had returned to its position over my heart.

See, there's this thing about my hands. There's this thing about my heart. There's this thing about the sensuality of Spirit, and the physicality of prayer.

The thing about my hands is maybe easiest to explain if I tell you about Reiki. Reiki is part of it... but it's not the whole of it. In a way, Reiki is just the envelope, and the real message is inside.

I was given a Renegade Reiki attunement* at the Freespirit Pagan festival, in about 1996. I remember sitting out under the trees at the edge of the campground where the festival was held, smelling sweet green grass and listening to the wind moving over it, as perhaps a dozen of us received first level attunements.

After the attunments, we were directed to lay hands on someone, or at any rate some thing living, to establish the flow... and to take it easy and drink plenty of water for the remainder of the day. Spiritual work is physical work (something I'm too inclined to forget after meeting for worship, when a wave of fatigue will sometimes surprise me) and deserves at least as much respect as would a long bike ride in the sun.

I know people for whom receiving Reiki attunements has been a life-changing event, who go on to build entire identities around their use of this hands-on healing practice. (The most ludicrous example I have seen is the Reiki master I once saw wearing a mauve sweatsuit prominently emblazoned with the symbol for Usui Reiki. I put it to you that when you need to advertize your spiritual attainments on your sweatsuit, you may have work to do that does not depend on logos.)

I think this is because, for many people, Reiki is their first encounter with magic that actually works--that does something palpable in the world. And Reiki does. Oh, I wouldn't tout it as a cure for cancer--though I would recommend using it as part of a conventional treatment for cancer, if it's available. It will almost certainly make the recipient more comfortable, if not healthier. It can be hard to measure the physical benefits of Reiki, in fact, though I tend to think they exist, if only because Reiki has been useful to me, personally, for pain management when I needed it.

But what I mean by Reiki being palpable magic is simple and easy to observe: when using Reiki, your hands get hot.

I have no idea why this is, and the effect has dimmed for me a bit with time, as I do not use it as often as I once did. But, unlike many another alternative healing modality, from Therapeutic Touch to a range of magical healing techniques friends and covenmates experimented with over the years, I was able to feel Reiki at work from the first time I received it as a patient, and I was equally able to feel it in my own hands, touching other humans or even the green, green grass, that summer's day in Maryland when I was attuned myself.

For many of us, who want to believe in God or in gods, in miracles or in magic, there is a constant struggle to accept these things as true, or at least as possible. And some of us, lacking any clarity, succumb to the temptation to pretend that we believe, hoping that in that way, we'll put ourselves in a way actually to discover our hoped for relationship with the universe is true after all.

We pretend we have magic; we pretend we have faith; we pretend we have experiences of spirit, hoping we will have them one day.

Surprisingly enough, while that sometimes creates an impassable bar to actual encounters with Spirit, sometimes it does not. Sometimes, in the midst of our hopeful pretending, miracles intrude on our awareness anyway. I suppose it is a little like the way a young girl, daydreaming of falling in love and of romance, may find herself surprised by the genuine article, and fall in love for real.

For a lot of people who hoped for magic in the world, Reiki has been that first breaking in of the truth and actuality of miracles. For some, that has been as far into the realm of wonder as they have cared to go: having found one method for touching the Spirit, they latch on and look no farther.

But Reiki is far from the only miracle, and it was not my first. Having already experienced the presence of gods and magic in the world, I knew this, even as I was delighted with the sensuousness of Reiki itself.

My friend Maureeen, with a background in shamanism and shamanic healing, has likened Reiki to an Amway cult--not without cause--where those who are true believers become suppliers to the next batch of entry-level providers. Despite this, she agreed to receive an attunement from me, at the point where I had had enough training to give them. And on another hot summer's day, alone in a tent at the edge of a field, I gave her one.

Afterwards, she asked about the symbols I had used. (They are Kanji, for the most part.) She sketched one for me on the ground. Had I used this?

I had not.

She told me that what she had felt seemed to her essentially like the shamanic healing energy she was used to working with. She was initially a bit startled to recognize some of the symbols she saw in her mind as I worked, as they were also shamanic, and she would have been surprised to find one of her symbols being used in Reiki attunements.

They weren't. Though they were present for her. And that, I think, surprised neither of us.

Maureen has not gone on to practice Reiki--not name brand Reiki, even of the renegade variety, at least. But I think she and I both agree that it would be odd beyond measure to think that there was anything innately and uniquely sacred in the combination of gestures and Japanese calligraphy used in a Reiki attunement that can bestow healing magic. It is not that Reiki healing is unique that it startling--it would be far more startling if it were the only such modality that worked.

The uniqueness of Reiki, if it has such, is that it has a technology for transmitting the non-verbal awareness of how to allow it to flow within you. Reiki practitioners have nothing that Maureen hasn't got. But while the spirits of her shamanic workings guided Maureen in developing her hands-on healing abilities, they did not teach her how to share that ability to others who might want to do the same thing. Perhaps they would, if she needed them to, but they did not.

Reiki comes with a set of more-or-less reliable techniques for passing the ability along. Which is very convenient and helpful.

But the real delight of Reiki is not that, and it is not even the ability to help manage pain that has been resistant to medication, to ease athsma (my own most common use for it), or to speed healing times. I have seen it do all of those things--and I have seen it fail to do all of those things. I like Reiki. But I do keep my health insurance premiums paid up.

No, for me, the best thing about Reiki is the thing that it shares with Maureen's shamanic healing practices, with Wiccan spellcraft, and probably also with prayer and yoga and a thousand other spiritual practices, named and unnamed: it lets us touch the living body of God. (Yes, yes. I know that some of you don't believe in God. You may say mana if you prefer, or Gaia, or magickal aether. For this purpose, I am not at all fussy, especially since whatever I'm talking about is well beyond my comprehension anyway.)

That is what it feels like to me, at any rate. (I wonder what it felt like to the apostles?)

It is the sense of presence, of deep, deep interconnectedness, that matters to me most.

There are times, particularly when I am around those who are suffering, when my hands will suddenly become very, very hot. This happens more for me around emotional suffering than physical pain--perhaps because, with the years I spent as a psychotherapist, that is the kind I am most attuned to.

I don't, as some do, "tell" my Reiki to turn on. I just find my hands becoming warm and tingling, and wanting to touch. Nor do I lay on hands, uninvited, to those who are grieving or in shock, or intrude on what may be very private moments in their lives. Instead, I generally find myself placing my hands over my own heart, and...

I suppose the nearest translation would be "praying for them."

I hold them in love. I feel the truth of them, and I cherish them, and I remember that the healing power that is in my hands is in them, too. In their bodies. In their hearts. And in all the space between us.

I can lay my hands on my own heart--or my knee, or my shoulder, or my elbow, I suppose--because all these things are connected, and are in fact connected by that very thing that is flowing through my hands and making them hot.

I place my hands over my heart, specifically, because it feels right to do so. Because, somehow, I know that my heart must be stronger and more open in order to be helpful in this way.

Am I praying for the person in pain? Am I praying for myself to be open? To them? To God? I don't entirely know. There are no words in this. There is only the sensuality of doing--of touching them through this Other Thing, that touches them and me all the time, and runs like a river through my heart.

It happens to me more and more often, now. Not because my brain suggests it, but because my heart hungers for it, and my hands tingle with it, when I am in worship, I will find myself, often and often, hand to heart. (Sometimes I am hand to heart and hand to belly, to hara, perhaps to remind myself that I am rooted in this world and in this body, and this too is good?)

This kind of holding aches. I think it stretches me. I don't choose it--I respond to it. I rejoice in it.

But, mostly, I feel it. In my hands. And in my heart. For me, at least, right here and right now, there is a sensuality of Spirit, and a physicality of prayer.


*There are several schools of Reiki in the world. And in the United States, the world's largest economy, most of them are for sale. Renegade Reiki is not--its practitioners are mainly Pagans who defy the requirement to charge money for attunements and teaching. Depending on your point of view, that may be a good or a bad thing, but it is the form of Reiki in which I have been attuned. Open Source Reiki, if you will.
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