Friday, December 24, 2010

The Learning Curve

Our salad garden in October
Tally of new plastic waste since our last report: 11 oz.

So, a few weeks ago, I posted very optimistically about the possibility of subsisting through the winter on salads from greens I grew myself, on my windowsill.  And a glance at this picture will explain why.

With our excellent southern exposure and a couple of self-watering planters, I had big dreams for green leafies.

Now, I'm a little wary of any "earth-friendly" project that begins by buying new stuff--especially, as these planters were, new plastic stuff.  But I love salads, and I really did not want to go back to plastic-wrapped salads hauled over distances, so I went online and ordered these.  (I know myself; if it were my job to make it rain anywhere on the planet, that locale would quickly become a desert.)

In this picture, the planters look very promising, don't they?  I planted the lettuce quite close together, as I have done on occasion in the past outdoors, when I've put in "ornamental" borders of leaf lettuce around flower gardens.  But the lettuce was spindly and never grew much larger than this.

Whether this is the fault of the potting soil, the indoor lighting, or the density of the seedlings I did not know.  So I replanted the next time more thinly, in clusters.

Which barely germinated.  I had foolishly altered two of the conditions of the experiment, and reseeded with some organic lettuce seeds that had been included for free in another order we'd made.  Perhaps because they were old and likely to annoy paying customers by not germinating.

I have since reseeded the second planter as well, with the original bargain-basement seeds I got at the end of the season from a big box store.  Those seeds are not doing especially well, either.  Not more vigorous than the original batch, for sure.  There is just not very much lettuce growing on our windowsill.

They are simply too small to keep up with our demand.  The lettuce I originally planted grew slowly at best, and provided us with only about four salads before I'd completely exhausted both beds.  I need at least another three planters to match the number of salads we would probably want to eat in the amount of time it takes for lettuce to germinate and grow to maturity, and that's a lot of money--and plastic--to invest.

If I trusted myself to keep up with a watering schedule, I could plant them in almost anything, I suppose.  But, well, I know myself.  I don't think that experiment would have a particularly happy outcome, either.

The alfalfa sprouts are doing very well.  And I normally have at least three quart jars at some stage of production; I'll probably experiment soon with growing sprouts in old nylon stockings or in cotton bags--which may or may not work, but I'm willing to find out.

However, I don't think the lettuce crop makes sense.  If I can, I should probably simply rely on winter keeping vegetables--my own and the local coop's--and save the bins for some winter windowsill herbs.

I admit, I'm disappointed.

But it's a valuable reminder.  I think we can learn to live quite comfortably and gracefully without many of the modern conveniences our grandmothers lived without.  But, as our grandmothers did, we will have some learning to do in order to get there.  Everything about living in a less consumerist way takes a knowledge base, from knowing how little soap is needed to wash the laundry, to how to bake bread or save winter food.

We're experimenting.  A couple of weeks ago, we bought a winter farm share in a local CSA, and brought home about 100 pounds of food, some including winter vegetables I've never tried to cook before, like turnips and rutabagas.  And then there are the questions.  How do I preserve 30 pounds of fresh carrots or potatoes?  What's the best way for me to keep ten pounds of beets edible over the next few months?  What should I do to keep all the fresh potatoes and butternut squash?

Peter built us a lovely bin for the potatoes, for the space between our heated front hall and our unheated garage.  We've stowed the carrots between layers of damp sawdust, but we're still seeking the part of the house where we can find the right temperature--our basement is much too warm, what with the furnace and hot water heater down there.

So perhaps the lovely potato bin will be a failure--or a very limited success, as was the windowsill lettuce.  Perhaps we will come up with ideas that will make it work next year, if it doesn't work this year.

The point is, while I am committed to living in a lower-impact way in terms of the food I eat (and avoiding food waste--one often overlooked way to reduce our emissions footprint!) I can't ever guarantee any experiment's success at the outset.  There is a learning curve for everything, and in order to make change for the better, I have to accept that sometimes I'm going to fail.  Hopefully on the way to some satisfying success.

And if it's as satisfying as the boiled carrots with ginger and maple syrup I served for dinner this week, that will be a pretty nice reward.

Even if we do have to forgo the salad.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Peter on the Minute of Sending Forth

The annual Sessions of New England Yearly Meeting this year was unusual. The 350th anniversary of NEYM was declared a Jubilee year, and items of business were squeezed into very brief discussions or simply handed down from the clerks’ table in a “unity agenda” for approval without discussion, leaving the bulk of our time together free for “meetings to hear God’s call.”

The week ended with the drafting of a Minute of Sending Forth, which was an attempt to capture succinctly all of the currents of discernment and passion, despair and hope, which had been rising during the week. The minute included a brief statement that had been composed by one of the anchor groups—small groups of a dozen or so that had been meeting in between the gatherings of the entire body. This small, three-paragraph statement proved to be very controversial. It was prefaced with “noting that we as a body cannot claim all these words as our own” and followed by “with pain and regret and gratitude for their faithfulness ... we record that [half a dozen] Friends wish to stand aside from this minute.”

The controversy arose from the opening two sentences of the anchor group statement: “There is only one testimony, and it is the testimony to the transforming power of God. There is only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ.” In the context of a liberal Quaker body that included both Christ-centered and non-Christian Friends, it seemed wildly inappropriate to conclude our annual Sessions with a declaration that seemed to say that everyone in the room was Christian and that Christianity is the only true religion.

The clerks would not permit any wordsmithing in the language of the anchor group’s statement, and there was no time, at the end of the week, to compose a statement of our own that would reflect the leadings of the entire body. Their statement was simply cut-and-pasted in, making it look as if it were ours. The minute as adopted was especially painful because it came so close to capturing the essential truth: that we really are one body with one witness, and that in worshiping together, we really are all gathered under one Spirit.

Some Friends angrily stood aside. Enough others were so uneasy that the Minute of Sending Forth ended up saying more about our disunity than about our unity. Me…I kind of shrugged with a feeling of, Oh well, we blew it that time. We’ll do better in the future.

Months passed. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a f/Friend from the Boston area, who had also been at Sessions, was in town and stopped by to have dinner and spend the evening in conversation. Like me, he has a painful history with Fundamentalist Christianity. Like me, he has an appreciation for the universalism and diversity of liberal Friends. And as we were talking about the Minute of Sending Forth and about the anchor group statement, he said two things that got me thinking.

One was that Quakers (at least liberal Quakers) in using phrases like “only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ,” mean something very different than Southern Baptists would mean with the same phrase, and he was disappointed that people at Sessions had been unable to trust that the anchor group had been using the phrase in the Quaker sense.

The other was that he was disappointed that those first two sentences were the only part of the anchor group statement that anyone ever talked about. So much of worth later on in the statement was being ignored or completely missed.

Thinking about this, I realized I couldn’t remember a single word of the statement except for those first two sentences. The conversation that night led me to go back and look at it again, first transcribing it into my Lectio Divina notebook and then simply rereading it and sitting with it.

There is only one testimony, and it is the testimony to the transforming power of God. There is only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ. There are many pieces of work which will require the particular gifts, ministries, and passions of all of us, because the desire of God for healing and redemption of this blessed creation requires profound change.

We refute the lies of the present situation: the lie that causes movements for transformation to see each other as competitors; the lie that says that social action is spiritually shallow and spirituality is socially passive; the lie that says that war and destruction are inevitable and efforts for change are hopeless; the lie that says we can’t change the world until we have perfected ourselves.

We declare that with God’s help, we stand ready to be agents of transformatory witness to God’s promise. We pray for the wisdom to perceive the patterns of thought and behavior within ourselves which conform to the present darkness. We pray for the strength to take bold, prophetic and concrete action in the world. Some of that action will be local, some global, some individual, some corporate, some immediate, some long-term. For action which is rightly guided, we can trust that we have already the resources required for faithfulness. Use us Lord!

My first reaction to those opening sentences was to simply skip over them. (In fact, it was suggested on the floor of Sessions that the statement be included with the first two sentences removed—a suggestion that was summarily dismissed by the clerks’ table.)

I remember once hearing a Chinese physicist talk about how incredibly difficult it was to write a basic physics textbook in communist China, not because the physics was difficult, but because “you had to have Mao on every page.”

I remember in the weeks and months following 9/11, how antiwar activists wore red, white, and blue and used slogans like “Peace is patriotic,” not because patriotism was forefront on their minds just then, but because you simply couldn’t participate in the conversation about war and peace without first establishing that you loved America.

And I think about how Quakerism came into being in a time of religious wars and religious terrorism. Like patriotism after 9/11, Christianity in the 1600’s was simply a prerequisite to participating in the conversation. Religious freedom, freedom of conscience…these concepts might or might not apply to Puritans or Catholics or Dissenters, but to extend them to Jews or other unbelievers was unthinkable, much the way it was unthinkable for Americans in 2002 to identify with the struggles of Muslim societies to maintain their cultural and religious identities in the face of western globalization.

So my instinct, on trying to read the anchor group statement with an open mind, was to skip over Chairman Mao and go straight to the physics, so to speak.

It took a long time before I saw the elegant parallel structure within the statement. It begins by talking about spiritual/religious unity, and then it uses that to affirm the underlying unity in our various gifts, leadings, and actions. The first two sentences are not just a perfunctory acknowledgement of an obligatory creed. They matter, and if you can avoid choking on the word “Christ”—take the word to mean “Spirit-as-they-perceive-it”—then it is a beautiful and powerful statement.

For me, the parallel structure shows up better (and I am less likely to have a gag reflex to the Christocentrism) if the sentences and some of the clauses are simply reversed in order:

Use us Lord!

We can trust that we have already the resources required for faithfulness in action which is rightly guided. Some of that action will be local, some global, some individual, some corporate, some immediate, some long-term. We pray for the strength to take bold, prophetic and concrete action in the world. We pray for the wisdom to perceive the patterns of thought and behavior within ourselves which conform to the present darkness. We declare that with God’s help, we stand ready to be agents of transformatory witness to God’s promise.

We refute the lies of the present situation: the lie that says we can’t change the world until we have perfected ourselves; the lie that says that war and destruction are inevitable and efforts for change are hopeless; the lie that says that social action is spiritually shallow and spirituality is socially passive; the lie that causes movements for transformation to see each other as competitors.

There are many pieces of work which will require the particular gifts, ministries, and passions of all of us, because the desire of God for healing and redemption of this blessed creation requires profound change. There is only one witness and it is the witness of the body of Christ. There is only one testimony, and it is the testimony to the transforming power of God.

The anchor group seems to have been entirely faithful to their leadings in every word of their statement. But I cannot believe that they ever intended it to speak, as written, for the entire gathered body. If they had so intended, I think they would have had the discernment to use the word “Spirit” instead of “Christ,” knowing (as they surely must have) that the Spirit that covers us and gathers us together in worship is known by some of us as Christ and by others of us by other names, or by no name at all.

Friday, November 26, 2010

And Another Thing About Spiritual Authority...

And another thing...

I remember my daughter's teenage years.  You would not know it to meet her now--she's poised, charming, generous, clearly intelligent and lovely.  But her teenage years were scary ones for us, her parents.  (More than average, I think.)

I have a gift for guilt and worry, insecurity and obsessiveness.  And I clearly remember when I realized that I just had to set that aside.

It didn't matter if it was all my fault, or not.  It didn't matter if I was a terrible mother.  It didn't matter if she was going to hate me or blame me or if I was going to hate or blame myself.  The  only thing that mattered, the only thing, was the question, what do I do now?

What am I supposed to do, what will be in any way helpful, now, today, to help my kid survive being an adolescent?

Spiritual authority is like that.  It's about when you don't have the luxury of blaming yourself, or worrying about whether or not you're adequate or lovable.  You have to set all that aside.  Because, if you look, you can see it's stopped being about you at all.

It's not about you.  It's about the Work you're being called to do.

You don't get to have insecurity or defensiveness or guilt.  You don't get to let that even matter.  Your job is to do the Work at hand, and trust that what you need will come to you when it's time.

12th Century Icon
There's this story I've heard Quakers tell.  Maybe you've heard it, too: about when this guy Moses got his marching orders from a burning bush on a mountain, to get himself into Egypt and walk up to Pharaoh and get all up in his face and tell him, Let my people go.

Get it done, Moses.

Moses pointed out he had a speech impediment.

God essentially said, Hey, whatever.  Take Aaron along to back you up.  But it's on you, kid--Aaron is just the B side.  Pack your bags, son--you've got a job to do.

And Moses went.

And that's what spiritual authority is.

But for me, it's also that thing in me that broke, the year I was most fearful for my child, and I understood that it wasn't about me any more.

Spiritual authority is what happens when the Work is bigger than we are, and when the only question left is, "How?"

How Are We Doing? A Six Months' Checkup

6 oz of plastic waste in November
As of November 26, 2010, six months into our plastic fast, Peter and I have produced a total of 13 lbs., 7 oz. of plastic waste.

By a reasonable estimate, that puts us at about 17% of the average rate of waste production for the United States, though we may be generating plastic waste at a rate of only 7% of the average, depending on which set of numbers you choose to use for the average amount of plastic waste per capita.

For instance, Beth Terry, of Fake Plastic Fish estimates that Americans produce between 85 and 128 pounds of plastic waste per person per year--based on EPA data for residential plastic use in 2008.

The University of Oregon's estimate is a bit higher: "Every American uses almost 200 pounds of plastic in a year--60 pounds of it for packaging." (Source: San Diego County Office of Education, cited in University of Oregon Campus Recycling page).

So how are we doing? Better than we could be, though not as well as we might like. Beth Terry, for instance, produced only 3.7 pounds of plastic waste in 2009.  It is certainly possible to be more rigorous in avoiding plastic waste than we have yet become.

But along the way to reducing our household waste, we've examined our emissions, looked at the need for sustainable agriculture, cut our food waste, begun composting, and have learned how to base our diet increasingly on whole, seasonal, and local foods.  We've done it while saving money and working full time, too.

I believe in small changes. Partly because of the way they grow.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Spiritual Authority

About a month ago, near the end of meeting for worship, I felt something rising up in me and nudging me for attention.

Sometimes a leading is a deep, powerful, physical thing.  When I was a teen, I used to go out sailing on a sailfish with a single piece of wood, a daggerboard, that was thrust through the heart of the little boat to act as its keel.  In a strong wind, you could hear and feel that keel moaning and keening with the work it had to do, keeping the boat headed where the rudder directed it.

Some leadings are like that--almost unmistakable piercings of the heart that power us forward.

Others are lighter, gentler, and more subtle.  At times I have thought of myself in worship as feeling like a cork, floating lightly and easily, able to respond to the lightest of touches, moving here or there at a mere breath.  At such times, I may feel drawn to talk to this person or that, not even perhaps knowing why, just that it's what's right to do.

Those leadings are delicate nudges, mere taps on the shoulder by Spirit. 

On this particular day, the nudge I was feeling was somewhere between those two extremes; closer to a tap than a piercing, but something that felt valid nonetheless.

One of our members, someone who might describe herself as a non-theist, had spoken that morning, on the sense of loss she feels since letting go of her belief in a personified deity.  Her message resonated in me.  Not only do I experience the power of Spirit in this Friend's vocal ministry on a regular basis, I feel that her concern for not labeling her experiences with words she is less than clear about is one that speaks to my own condition as I struggle to make sense of experiences framed in the language of two theologies.  And I believe her integrity and her radical willingness to allow Spirit to take whatever shape it will (including even the possibility of no shape at all) is not a reflection of confusion among liberal Friends, but of a deep trust in the Light to find us and lead us.

I've long felt troubled (and sometimes annoyed) at the way many Quakers feel that the theological diversity among modern liberal Quakers is not rightly led.  I feel like I have to dispute this because of the depth of worship I find among us, diverse as we may be, at least in the meeting I normally attend.

But I have heard from many sources the critique that modern liberal Quaker diversity is only possible only because of our silence--and that silence has become a form in its own right for us, and one that holds us safely back from hearing and being alienated by the extreme diversity of beliefs among us.  And while I don't think that is true, I do think that it is easy to forget that the silence in waiting worship does not mandate perpetual silence on matters of spirit among us.

I think Quakers need to talk to one another more.  And on that morning, I felt an urgency about having a conversation on that day, in the context of that particular gathering of Friends.

So I stood up when it was time for introductions and announcements and suggested a conversation outside for anyone who wanted to talk about what it was we were sensing together in the silence of our worship.  After rise of meeting, I took a few chairs with me outside in the sun beneath a favorite tree, and little by little, Friends who wanted to join me in the conversation came out.

As things turned out, it was a good conversation, and I was glad I had felt the nudge to suggest it.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment.  In at least one important way, it was a bad day for deep conversation.

Meeting for worship had run long that day--as it sometimes does--and it was the second Sunday of the month: meeting for business was looming fast.

I very much wanted to be in the business meeting, not only because I like following rules and being On Time in and of itself, but because my husband Peter is this year's recording clerk--and another friend is this year's clerk.  And most of all, because meeting for business is often rich and deep. 

So it was a somewhat hurried opportunity for us to connect with one another.  And what's more, none of us happened to have a watch. 

Just about the time I began to worry seriously about time, another friend came out to let us know that it was almost time for the business meeting to start, and to let us know she felt it was important for us to be there.

We wrapped up our conversation and went inside.   And were late.  Which is bad manners, and--much worse--disruptive to those attempting to center down in order to attend to business properly.  This was stressful... but it still did not feel that we had been wrong to spend the time as we had.

It is the custom at Mt. Toby for the clerk to begin our meetings, after a period of silent worship together, with a piece of reflective writing or a set of queries for us to sit with; a period of worship sharing generally follows, before we move into that month's agenda.

As it happened, the excerpt for that month's meeting for business was from Bill Taber's The Mind of Christ: On Meeting for Business, and the query that followed it was, "What do I value in Meeting for Business?  What challenges me?"

As I took my seat, the Friend who had let us know we were going to be late spoke out of the silence.

"The clerks in meeting for business have been given the task of holding the meeting, and it is important for us to be with them in their service.  As people straggle in late, it is sometimes a challenge to see ourselves as a corporately discerning body joined together in worship."

She was talking about me.  Not me alone... but, yeah.  My actions had been a problem for the clerks, and for the meeting as a whole.

In the context, it was difficult not to feel stung, or tumble into feelings of shame.  But I called my heart to heel, and centered down firmly.  What the Friend had said was true, after all.

Was it possible I needed to approach her after meeting to see if she needed to speak to me directly?  To see if I had offended her in a way I needed to make right?

Being stern with my heart, keeping it on a short tether, I decided that I could trust my Friend to let me know that directly; if she was offended with me and needed me to make something right, she would say so.

Did I have anything to say to her?

Yes, I decided.  I did want to thank her for calling us in to meeting for business when she did.  I was glad she'd done that.  I did not feel that our holding the conversation had been wrong... but I was glad someone had kept an eye out for the time and for us, even if the reminder of it was uncomfortable.

I centered down and gave my attention to the meeting for business.

At the end of the meeting, I sought my friend out.  I did thank her, and she spoke of how keenly she'd felt a sense of the clerks struggling with the way our meeting as a whole was straggling in that week.  While she recognized the value in what we were doing, her heart and her empathy were with the clerks, who are both new and both carrying a heavy weight on our behalf.  (She said it much better than that, by the way.)

And she was right.

Another Friend, who had been outside with me, said that she had felt stung by the words spoken in meeting for business--scolded.

And she was truthful.

Finally, I shared that I had been aware of the awkwardness of the timing, but that I'd felt a nudge that I had believed was rooted in Spirit.

I believed, in other words, that I had been faithful.

Each of us had just spoken truthfully and painfully to the others.

And each of us could see and acknowledge that we each had been attempting to live up to the Light we'd been given in our small, individual way. While we felt tender, and could easily have slipped into either self-righteousness, or anger, or shame, none of us did so.

Instead, we'd listened, not just to one another, but for "that of God" within one another.  And we'd heard each other. 

Sometimes a community is like a large and complicated family, and we are called to serve different parts of it in different ways.  And just as in an ordinary family, there are awkward bits.  Sometimes the family car is late getting home to give Meagan a ride to softball because Mom's still at the parent-teacher conference for John; sometimes Dad is late to Terry's concert because he had to bind up William's skinned knee.

Sometimes the awkward bits are avoidable.  Sometimes they aren't.  But what a loving spiritual community, seeking Unity in Spirit, can do for one another is to hold each others' bumps and bruises compassionately and proceed with trust in each other.

Trust and courage have to bridge the rough places.

Trust and courage of a particular kind; as recently as six months ago, I don't think I'd have had what I needed to listen and speak as plainly and non-defensively as I did.

What I needed to know is this: when you are busy doing the work that has been put in your hand by Spirit, you have all the authority you need.  You owe nobody apology, and you do not need to defend yourself or your actions; you can trust the work and the truth of what you are doing to justify themselves to those who care to know about it.

I am beginning to understand that when we do the work of Spirit--not the work we appoint ourselves to in the name of Spirit, but that which we have been asked to take up by the Light itself--we stand in a place of simplicity and strength.  We have all the authority we will ever need.

Which is pretty cool.

Afterward: And Another Thing About Spiritual Authority...

Monday, November 15, 2010

On Hunting

On Saturday morning, Peter and I put on our blaze orange vests, and took a walk together in the woods behind our house.

There's an old woods road back there, maintained by the local snow mobile club, and used by the vocational school's forestry program, as well as various hikers and hunters.  Since bear season is in progress now, I often see a jeep parked at the top of the V.A. Center's access road, the most common point of entry.  There's a muddy spot there made by the action of tires coming and going, but otherwise, the road is paved with leaves, generally in a loose, ruffled layer.

When we were out this morning, however, we noted that the leaves were flattened--clearly there had been vehicles driving farther along the road than is normally the case.

There were other signs to be read in the road, too.  I'd told Peter of a recent discovery, of a scenic outlook off a spur trail, an abandoned logging road that branched away from the main woods road to the east, and how I'd found many, many disturbed areas in the leaves.  At first I had wondered if it was the deer; I'd been surprised last winter to discover how like rock stars wrecking a five-star hotel a group of deer could be, rummaging down through snow to churn up layers of (presumably warmer) leaves beneath.

But it is only November, and the weather has been mild.  There is no snow, and the rut has not yet properly even begun.  Deer yarding up made no sense to me.  And yet, there was such extensive disturbance among the leaves.

I had noticed that in many of the disturbed places, the leaves had been raked back to expose the bottommost layer of leaves--the ones that, blanched and fragile, are perhaps one winter away from crumbling entirely into the black soil that lies beneath them.  And I noticed that in many of those places, I could see the small, deep holes of burrowing insects--rooting for food in the leaf mulch in just the way you can nearly always find a few squirming bugs under an overturned log or stone.

Was the disturbance the work of an animal, hunting for grubs and insects to eat?

Could the animal possibly be a bear?  Eating grubs seemed more in character for a porcupine or a skunk, but bears are surely working to pack on all the pounds they can, this late in the fall.  And there were an awful lot of churned-up leaves.

That morning, walking along the woods road, we found more areas of disturbance.  Here, however, the leaves had been scraped back to bare earth.  There were marks that seemed suggestive of claws, but the road is hard, and amid the leaf litter and stalks of weeds, it was hard to be sure of that.

Until we found one area where the leaves had been raked away over moister earth than usual, and there definitely did seem to be claw marks there.

What's more, over the claw marks, we were able just to make out the faintest hint of a human boot heel.  And in a dozen yards more, rounding the bend to where my spur trail left the road, we saw a big shiny SUV, parked across the trailhead.

I was annoyed.  I was annoyed to find an SUV parked at the trail I'd hoped to take to my scenic outlook, which seemed both less safe and less bucolic with a hunter close by.  And it seemed safe to presume he was close by.  Why drive a car so deep into the woods unless you were averse to walking through them?

Which also annoyed me.  Like a lot of liberals, I have mixed feelings around hunting.  Though I'm not a vegetarian, I do have problems with eating the meat of mammals.  My personal standard is "don't eat it if you wouldn't be able to kill it," and it isn't entirely a lack of skill that would prevent me from killing a mammal.  Nor is it Bambi-propaganda; the more time I spend around animals, the more clearly I see that there intelligence and emotion is not so different from my own.

A clam I can kill without a qualm.  I've dissected their nervous system--they haven't got anything you could really call a brain.  Fish?  I've killed fish before.  More dying goldfish than fresh-caught perch or trout, but I've never seen much sign of emotion in the eyes of a fish.  Perhaps it's speciesist of me, but there it is; I got no issue with killing a fish.  Birds?  I get a little hinky about birds, which can be so much more intelligent than we give them credit for.  But it's getting so much harder to find sources of fish I can be sure are not endangered or harvested in ways that endanger other species that I've almost given up eating fish, and I'm not a skillful enough cook to do without meat altogether.  So I suffer some pangs of... something, conscience or aesthetics--it's hard to tell--but I do eat chicken and turkey from time to time.  And I do believe I could take their lives, if I had training to do it skillfully and well.

Not the big stuff, though.  Not deer.  Not cows.  Not bears.  (I am told by local hunters that the bears taken in hunting season here do, in fact, get eaten, for the most part.  And do not taste like chicken--more like pork.)

But that's just me.

I recognize that there has been a long and interwoven dance of farmer and livestock, hunter and prey, involving my species for a very long time.  I recognize, too, that it does not harm the environment to hunt within the limits set by law, and that hunters can be among the most passionate of environmentalists.  So I try to do without an attitude around hunting.  A lot of families around here engage in it, and a lot of my students, of both genders.  And certainly, in comparison with the horrible conditions of factory farming for meat, and the appalling environmental toll of huge commercial feedlot operations, hunting for meat is among the kindest things for the earth or for animals that human beings engage in in their quest for food.

I know this.  But, as I say, I have mixed feelings.  The woods fill up with people firing guns, if nothing else.  And I really never want to find myself on the receiving end of a bullet fired stupidly in my woods.

The SUV, though.  That really ticked me off.

You're coming into the woods to take a life, I thought.  And you can't even get out of the damn car and smell the air first?  Why not just stay home, eat nachos, and play a video game about hunting?

A friend pointed out to me that a black bear can weigh as much as 600 pounds.  And it's gonna be tough to move that much body back to civilization if the car is very far away.  Which is true enough, I suppose.  But, hell, comes a point when you might just as well bring your ATV, doesn't it?  It just grated.

That was in the morning.

That afternoon, about an hour before sunset, I hiked out into the woods again, following the deer trails this time.

I stopped several times, listening to the sounds of the woods.  The leaves are drifted so deep right now that even a squirrel hopping across it sounds very loud.  I'm not sure that a bear in the woods would make as much sound as a squirrel does, come to think of it.

I was pretty sure the noises I was hearing were from squirrels.  But I kept coming across churned up patches of leaves.  And I had seen a bear not so very far away from where I was, not too long ago.

It occurred to me more than once that I find bear hunters more frightening than bears.  A bear hunter is much more likely to harm me accidentally, after all.  A bear is mostly likely to ignore me, and walk away, should we chance to meet.  And it is unlikely to kill me if I forget to wear orange.

Neither is the hunter.  Normally.  Most hunters.  But there have definitely been more New Englanders killed by hunters than by bears, and I can't help but think about that when I'm out for a walk in fall.

I did not see a bear today.  I did reach the place where the SUV had been parked, and either that was a surrealistically tidy hunter, or he did not take a bear out of the woods with him today. 

I did not see signs of the hunter down the side trail where I'd found the earlier patches of disturbed leaves.  But I did see, in several places, more signs of bears: unmistakable claw marks this time, in the lowest, palest strata of fallen leaves.

The bears are here.  They just stayed safe from whoever was seeking their lives this morning.

I'd be lying if I said I minded.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I've been home the last two days, yesterday on family business, and today because it is a school holiday.

I got to make soup, and bake a cake to freeze in slices for snacks next week, and tend my indoor garden.  And the day was mild and sunny, and I woke up very early, so I was able to wash a week's worth of laundry and hang it outside to dry one last time.

My dog is always very happy when I am drying laundry outside.  He gallops alongside me as I walk across the yard to the clothesline, and lolls about munching the grass--or rolling in it--as I clip socks and tee shirts onto the line.

Sometimes we stop together and peer overhead, or into the woods, at mysterious rustling animals or the wild cold calling of geese passing by.

Female wild turkeys
There is a quiet to November.  After the flurry and rush of September and October, November's hush is a surprise and a relief.  Parent conferences, in-service days, school holidays and Thanksgiving punctuate the school year, but it's more than that.  I see it on my drive to school and back each day.  The woods, so passionately on fire just days ago are faded now to shades of dun and brown and gray.  Brown wild turkeys graze golden stubble in fields of deep, turned earth, and grass fades pale under frost.

The year has finished its long, long out-breath, and is resting, gathering for the in breath at midwinter and on into spring.  A Friend said as much at Quaker meeting this week, but I had been thinking the same before he spoke.  We gained an hour, setting all our clocks back in time, and it has been strange how that hour has affected us all.  Awake now, with just that one more hour's rest, we see how weary we've become.  We feel the need for quiet in our bones, and in the weak cheer of the midday sun.

November is the rest measure in the music, the quiet of the year.  Through tree-trunks stripped of leaves and color, I see the embers of the year lying on the hearth of the horizon.

I love November, as the weary love to rest.  I love November, the pause between the breaths.

Friday, October 29, 2010


One trait I've always had is "buyer's remorse": that tendency in human nature to regret commitments made, and to wonder if we haven't made a terrible mistake as soon as a decision is irrevocable.

For instance, when I brought home Morgan, our 185 pound English mastiff and the dog of a lifetime, I spent at least a week fending off a sinking feeling that I had ruined my life (and this dog's), and that it would never, ever work out!  It did--Morgan eventually joined me in my therapy practice, working with me and with my trauma-survivor clients on a daily basis.  She was enormous, she slobbered, but she could sense a painful emotion a mile away, and loved nothing better than to rest her head on someone's knee and look up at them with the big, sincere gaze of a mastiff, telling them without words that she would never have treated them that way.

Of course, there is a difference between a dog, a living, breathing animal who can give and receive love, and stuff.   I have a long and bitter history around buying stuff--I don't like to.

So ubiquitous has been the experience of buyer's remorse that I have learned to question closely every craving I have, every keen desire for yet another Thing.  Shoes, cars, books, computers, houseplants and appliances... whatever the Thing is that I'm contemplating bringing into my world, I stare at the decision for as long as I can, fending off purchases as long as possible.

I ask myself, endlessly, "If you get this nifty new Thing, six months from now, will your life be any better?  When the money is spent and the novelty has worn off, will this actually make you any happier?"

For me, at least, when I'm honest with myself the answer almost always turns out to be "no."  And then I'm left holding my remorse.  (And maybe a big bill.)

We Americans love our cars.  And I admit it--I drive mine until they are unreliable hulks, real beaters, and when I get one that I can be pretty sure won't break down and strand me on the side of the road--maybe even one that has AC can actually cools the car--I like it.  I like riding around in a new car as much as the next person.

At least, on the day I bring it home.

But six weeks later, stuck in traffic or driving home after working late?  My satisfaction in life is no higher with the new car than it was with the old beater.  (Though admittedly higher than it would be stuck at the side of the road.)

It's that way with almost everything: new outfits, faster computers, even (though I'm ashamed to admit it) the new book purchases I convince myself I can't live without.  Six months later, I might as well have tossed my money in a well for all the satisfaction it has given me.  And I'd very much better have saved it, or given it away.

Stuff doesn't make me very happy, at least, not for very long.


I asked myself these same questions when we were looking at buying our house two years ago.  I asked myself if it would really make any difference to me, say, on a day when I was home with the flu, or came home late and weary... if on a steamy August afternoon or a frozen November morning, it would actually make the least difference to how I feel to be alive, knowing that there were woods behind the house, or that it was built in the mid 19th century, or had a garden outside.

I worried I might find it did not.

I was wrong.

I love living in the country.  I love my commute, past the small town beach where I swim in the summers, under the red pines that stride in even rows back to the chaotic jumble of the real woods.  I love hearing geese honking overhead as I pin my laundry onto the clothesline each week.  I love my multi-layered view from the dining room window: phosphorescent-green lettuce growing on the windowsill flaming against the deep rose color of an autumn shrub just outside, hemlock tree jutting upwards in the middle distance, and behind it, down the hill, the vehemence of blazing oak and maple leaves catching the last of the afternoon sun.

I love my sloping ceilings; I love the deep blackness of the sky overhead at night, and the stars that are farther and cooler than they seem in the city.  I love watching "my" oaks reemerge from the cluttered foreground of swamp maples and poplars as the lesser trees shed their leaves, and I love having the ability to plant and love and care for seedling trees of my own.

Even last winter, when pain from my back would not let me sleep, I loved to pace from room to room, chilled with night, waiting the emerging gray of morning, with the line of pine trees marking out the old boundary to this property.  Even as I have worked long and hard hours this fall, with scarce the energy to climb my stairs to bed at night, never mind hike in the woods I love, I have been glad.

It may have taken the economic meltdown of 2008 to make it clear to everyone: a house is not necessarily a good investment.  What goes up can indeed go down.

But love lasts.  I am in love with my home; I am in love with the sweet autumn hills of New England.  And I'm so glad I did not allow thoughts of caution or thrift or a faux-simplicity (for real simplicity is about clearing our lives of clutter in order to grow closer to Spirit, and living here has done that for me) to turn us aside from buying this house.

I am remorselessly grateful to be home.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Eating In

Mmmm... supper!

I started by baking my own bread, in an attempt to get affordable bread without all the plastic packaging.  One thing led to another, and I returned to making my own pie crusts, as I had in college--only this time, making one to use now, and freezing the second--buying local produce and freezing it, then pickling it and turning it into jams and jellies, and finally into getting pretty much all of my produce local and organic.

But it's almost winter here in New England, and my favorite farmstand has closed for the winter, and I'm reluctant either to give up fresh produce, or to go back to buying the stuff hauled in from California, plastic-wrapped and ready for me at the local supermarket.

In fact, if all goes well, tonight's salad may be the last grocery store lettuce I'll need.

My fingers are firmly crossed; I've never been much of a gardener, though I lived with one as a child, and I know how much better home-grown anything tends to be.

But I've got this south-facing window.  And some packets of lettuce seeds.

Lettuce does not grow well in warm weather, and round about August, it began to be hard to get local lettuce of any kind, organic or otherwise.  And I thought about that for a while, and took advantage of the remaindered, end-of-season lettuce seeds for sale in the local stores.

I also decided to take into account my personal brown thumb, and I went ahead and invested in a couple of self-watering planters.  And for the past two weeks, I've been anxiously watching over the gradually materializing glow of green leaf lettuce filling those two planters.

I'm almost ready to start using a few thinnings in a sandwich or two.  And so far, they're looking good: very much like, well, young lettuce.  I am hopeful that I'll soon be able to replace the non-local romaine in my salad bowl with the ultimate in local food, stuff from my own windowsill.  There's plenty of sun, and, thanks to chilly New England nights and our stinginess with our fuel bills, it's just about the perfect temperature for lettuce in our house at night.

We're not stopping there, however.  I'm also sprouting alfalfa seeds that I ordered from an organic online source.  It's a little bit of a pain, to rinse them each morning and evening, just before and after work, but the yield is pretty amazing.  For $7.50, I have enough seeds to last me all through the winter, and then some.  A tablespoon of seed fills a quart jar with sprouts in about a week.

Supper tonight?  Besides the store-bought romaine, I've got about 1/2 cup of alfalfa sprouts, some nice local red onion, and the tart green tomatoes from my neighbor's garden.  (It turns out that people who grow things in the dirt will give them to you, just to be nice.  And it turns out to be fun to give things back--stuff like pickles, and bread.)

This has not been a plastic-free adventure.  The planters are largely plastic, and the jar the pound of alfalfa seeds came in was, too, alas.  And it will take a while before the plastic used in producing and packaging these items, as well as the petroleum consumed in getting them to me, will be balanced by the impact of the in-house winter veggie production.

And the lettuce is experimental.  Perhaps it will not work.  (In which case, I'll try my hand at organic microgreens next!)

But there's a particular satisfaction in finding ways that my initial prompting, to try to reduce our plastic waste, has been leading us deeper and deeper into concerns like neighborliness, local food, sustainable agriculture, and now, the joy of a tiny windowsill garden.

Tomorrow, I may eat the rest of that soup I made a few days ago, with local squash and onions and peppers in it.  The day after that, perhaps I will plant the Chinese chestnut saplings given us by a friend.

And someday, perhaps I'll be eating even more locally than I did this summer: from my own backyard.

One small change can lead to others.  (Excuse me, now.  I've got a salad to finish.  Yum!)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Bear Magic

I just came back from a walk in our woods, and for the first time, I have seen a bear.
Oh, I've seen cubs before, even before we moved out of downtown.  As woods have grown up around the small cities in Western Massachusetts, bears have found places to live that are awkwardly close to humans; about a year ago, for instance, the wildlife police had to remove a mother bear with cubs who had made a den in a drainage culvert in the heart of a thickly settled neighborhood.  We even had a treed bear in a sidewalk oak tree just off Main Street a few years back.  That took some pretty skillful work to remove the bear cub without killing him.

And it's well known that only a fool leaves a bird feeder in place once the snow starts to melt.  Bears love bird feeders.  And garbage, so it's a good idea to plan accordingly, especially if you have dogs or small children.

All that is common sense.  So, yeah, I've seen bears before, and I've known about bears for years.

But it's not the same.  

I was out hiking the trails behind our house, admiring the views just starting to emerge where the leaves are thinning to a scrim of green and gold at the crest of the ridge, and thinking to myself, "I know there are bears in these woods.  I wonder why I have never seen one?"  

I've seen so many deer that I've almost become blase about it.  (Almost.  There is something so regal about a deer, particularly with antlers, that I can't imagine ever taking them truly for granted.)  I see turkey, wild geese, red-tailed hawks, red squirrels... all kinds of critters.  But not--until today--a bear.

I'd reached the place at the top of a steep scramble through dense hemlock trees--I was meditating on the place of hemlocks and chestnuts in New England forests, past and future, and wondering how the few deciduous trees would respond if woolly adelgids remove the hemlocks from slopes like the one I was on--when I turned onto a sunny bit of path, glanced up, and saw the bear.  Fully grown, large, alone.  A male?

I had been singing, quietly, as I walked.  When I saw the bear, I froze for an instant, the hairs on the back of my neck riffling in the breeze... and then raised my voice a bit louder in song.

(It was a nicely appropriate song.  One of my own, with very few words, in a minor key but with an upbeat tempo, about turning the Wheel of the Year.  Suitable to the occasion of encountering a bear feasting in preparation for winter, I thought.)

The bear, unconcerned, continued on his way upslope, into a beautiful stretch of white pines and oaks behind barbed wire, posted against trespassers.  Bears, of course, pay no attention to such signs.

I admired the smoothness of his walk, the beauty of his shape, for just a moment more, then bowed, called out a blessing, and turned back and returned along the same trail I had been following.

I'm not a very theological Pagan.  I take my gods and my spirits as I find them, and they do not necessarily have a place in any historical pantheon.  There is the Dark Lady of Vernal Pools, for instance, whom I sometimes sense at the bottoms of muddy spring puddles and streams.  There is the spirit of deer and forest and time, whom I call by the name Herne, though that is almost certainly not his name.  There's Rosie, the Lady who spins at the root of a great tree in a vast cavern of dreams...

And there are the elder brothers and sisters, the deer, the oaks... the bears.

All things, in their right places, are filled with magic, with numen.  And today, I got to see my elder brother, the bear, in his home.  It was not surprising.

But it was very, very good.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Since My Last Confession

OK, so I'm not Catholic.  But it has been a very long time since my last confession here--meaning, the last time I posted our weigh-in of plastic trash and recycling.  (Why do I count recycling?  Because, although I do recycle everything I can, plastic is not like aluminum or glass that can recycle endlessly; plastic actually "downcycles" and becomes, essentially, hazardous waste for thousands of years after only a handful of reuses.  So it all counts, sooner or later.)

The last time I posted our weigh-in was back in July: a two-week tally of 3 lbs. 1 oz.

In the ten weeks since then, we have generated 6 lbs, 7 oz. of trash, which would average out to about 17 lbs of plastic waste per year per person for each of us... in comparison with an American average of over 80 lbs per person.

Of course, I'm not counting my totaled automobile in that amount.  I have to hope that many of the plastic parts will be salvaged, and used on other cars.

But I am counting the dead twenty-year-old eggbeater that we disposed of last month.  And we're still coming in with a lighter yearly average, based on the last few weeks, then we did at the beginning of the project. 

So, while I compromised the weigh-in part of the no-plastics diet, Peter and I did manage--mostly--to stay on it.

So, what made up our trash over the past two months?

  • Construction packaging.  We moved into a new/old house, and some parts--replacement springs and housings for the windows upstairs, for instance--were only available by special order, and came packed in--ugh--styrofoam.
  • Old products we no longer buy, like toothpaste in plastic tubes, or deodorant in plastic.
  • Lots and lots and lots of plastic caps for glass bottles.
  • Packing materials for the canning jars I bought to try to preserve local produce over the winter.
  • Prescription drug containers.  No avoiding these, apparently--and they aren't even recyclable.
  • One yogurt container--we haven't begun making our own yet.
  • Plastic pull tabs on frozen juice containers--and, yeah, there's a thin plastic membrane lining the paper tube, too.  We are starting to regard this as an occasional luxury, rather than a staple in our diet; both from the standpoint of food-miles and plastic packaging, this makes sense.
  • Straws and even one plastic cup from times we weren't quick enough to make sure to tell the waitress not to give them to us.  (We still goof from time to time.)
I will admit that I have on a couple of occasions not only forgotten, when out at a restaurant with friends, to ask for no straws or plastic containers (for sour cream, salad dressing, etc.) but even to bring the offending item home with me at the end of the night.

However, I've come to appreciate the way that requesting no plastic turns into a kind of opening to witness to the importance of reducing plastic trash.  Not because I make speeches, but because the waitress asks about it.

I can see why No Impact Man chose to use a canning jar for his commuter mug, too.  I mean, I'm very fond of my stainless steel mug.  But there's no question that using a canning jar makes its own quiet statement about the need to challenge and change our current consumerist culture.

That's it for now.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Orchard and the Hedge

Last April, as I may have mentioned, Peter and I planted a sort of mini-orchard of eight semi-dwarf apple trees.

Our new old house sits on a main artery.  Behind the house are literally hundreds of acres of woods, filled with deer, red squirrels, bears, and every sort of tree--including a few old, abandoned apples, and even some lingering chestnut trees.  Before you've gone a quarter of a mile into the woods, the road sounds have faded away, and there's nothing left but the sighing of leaves and the clacking of branches, the cheeky tunes of chickadees and the perpetual scolding of jays.

By the house, however, especially at rush hour, there is a regular flow of sometimes noisy traffic.  Last year, there was often trash in our yard, thrown out of the windows of passing cars.  And the constant flow of traffic makes the yard feel somewhat too exposed and public.

It was for those reasons we decided to plant some trees, hard up by the road, though back behind the salt splash line.  Many people advised us to plant cedars, so that, eventually, we'd have a thick green privacy curtain between us and the road.  I like cedars well enough, and I've seen some hedges I really liked, too, for that matter, but it didn't quite seem right.  And besides, who can eat from a cedar tree?  We decided to plant apples, though we planted them close enough together that--we hope--their branches will touch and seem to intertwine, when they are grown.

They seem to be doing well, and there is much less trash in the yard this year.

A little bit before school started up, my friend Margaret came to visit.  Technically, she was there on business with Peter, but when he had to leave for a committee meeting, she lingered.  We wound up taking a long, leisurely walk in those woods, talking about everything I most wanted to talk about.  It was one of those wonderful conversations that go deeper than a confessional could, in letting you see and air out your deepest self, the kind of give and take that's a blessing wherever you find it, but especially with a friend.

It was a very good walk.

When we returned from the woods, the shadows were getting long, and the air was getting cool with those first hints of fall that come sometimes at the end of August.  The air smelled so clean and so good, and our conversation had ranged so wide and deep, it was only natural that we plunked ourselves down on the grassy hill outside the house, and kept it up watching the way the trees at the edge of the wood blew in the breeze.

But up on the road, the traffic was building to its evening peak.  After a few minutes, Margaret commented on it.

"Yes, well, it's true--that's the one thing about the house we don't really like," I admitted.  "Still, I'm sure that's part of the reason we were able to afford it."

I glanced over at the road, not so very far away, and somewhat spoiling the otherwise idyllic mood created by the late sun on the cool green grass.

"And yet, " Margaret observed, "you chose to plant apples, instead of a hedge."

Photo credit: Kor!An (Корзун Андрей)

We chose to plant an orchard, not a hedge.

I think Margaret meant that to be a metaphor.  I think it works as one, too.  It is easy, in this life, to work at planting hedges.  But sometimes, the toughest hedge in the world will not really keep the world out.  And maybe it's better to plant a few apple trees, instead.  Maybe there's a thing, in embracing the world or in turning away from it, that is very much analogous to planting an orchard, or planting a hedge.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pieces of an NEYM Mosaic

We have set aside most of our usual business agenda, and are holding instead something we are calling "Meeting to Hear God's Call."

We are hearing a lot of messages about world suffering, economic injustice, environmental destruction.  We hear a lot of despair.

Some of the messages feel rooted in Spirit to me; if others are, it is not in a way that I can discern.  I wrestle with my own anxiety over doing "enough."  I know that I live in a manner that is far more comfortable than 90% of the planet's humans ever will; I know that my lifestyle is unsustainable.  I know that I have not sold all I have and given it to the poor (though I'm also grateful that, as a non-Christian among Friends, that one is not a given for me, but one whose social justice message must prove itself to me on its own terms, not just because Rabbi Yoshua said it back in the wayback.)  (Mind you, it's message is pretty damned compelling.)

I am in the weeds; I am in the tall grass.  So, I suspect, is my meeting.  And we are wrestling not just with the need to walk our talk, but with despair.

*     *     *     *

Will T. rises.  Gives a message about Abraham.  About God talking to this childless nonagenarian with an almost equally ancient wife.  Taking him out under the stars and telling him to look up: if you could count all the stars in the sky, that's how many your descendants will be one day.  God promises this.

The message is about Moses.  About wandering in the desert with the children of Israel, and about the Promise: there's a land.  I'm leading you there.  Just follow me, and you will be in the Kingdom of God.  About God keeping promises, and about the present reality of the Kingdom of God.

I remember my sense, last fall, sitting with Janet and her friends, as her wife Abby lay dying, and amid the grief and the sadness, feeling the love and the commitment we all had to one another and to both of them: my sense that I was, that moment, witnessing the Kingdom of God.

There is never reason to despair.  That promise is kept every day.  Filled with betrayals and pain though the world is, sick unto death though it may be, we are in the Kingdom as soon as we are faithful to where we are being led.

The promise? The Kingdom of God?  That is the place, surely, where we stop ignoring or objectifying the poor, we stop killing the earth, we stop distracting ourselves from loving and forgiving each other with our favorite addictions.

I have a sudden, almost overwhelming sense of what it would be like, to live into that Kingdom, and I'm almost overcome with joy--and with impatience at all the things we allow to interfere with our faithfulness as individuals or as a body.  Every moment I spend not heeding the call of Spirit is a moment I delay the Kingdom; every moment we listen, as a body, to our own wills, however altruistically we think we are motivated, is a moment we are not entering that Kingdom.

I want to weep.  But I no longer want to despair.  And my worship deepens.

*     *     *     *

Note to self: Re: ministry.  Is it possible that despair is one of the signs that a message is not of God?

*     *     *     *

Later on, I have the chance to tell Will how much his ministry meant to me.  I tell him both of my joy in the sense of the immanence of that "place" where we live faithfully in the world into the promise of justice and mercy Spirit gives us, and my deep, deep sadness that we are so good at delaying our entry there.

He reminds me that the Kingdom is present, and that there is a way we cannot delay it.  I share with him the story of being with Janet the night of Abby's death.  He nods.  While my vision of the Kingdom is not necessarily his, it is not too alien to be recognizable. 

*     *     *     *

N, a close friend from my home meeting, is surprised that Will's message spoke to me, both because of its Biblical imagery and on its own terms.  Far more Christian than I am, she found the talk of kingdoms off-putting.  "My God is not a King," she says.  I understand her point.

But I do keep having the sense that the Holy Spirit is a helluva translator.

*     *     *     *

Later, the same meeting as Will's message.  I feel a leading to speak; test it, sit with it.  It recurs.  I stand.

We are using "mike spacers"--both to deal with accoustics in this large, unfriendly space, and to assist the hearing impaired, when we rise with a message, we are asked to wait for one of two microphone bearers to bring us a microphone to speak into.  I wait patiently.

My message feels like a bookend to Will's.  It is not one that is natural to me, but, for the first time I am to give vocal ministry within the yearly meeting, that is good.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

Spirit's promises are kept.

*     *     *     *

I stand.  I wait for the mike runner.  I am handed the mike, recognized, and I breathe in to speak.

But I am standing in the clerk's blind spot, and she does not notice me, or that her mike runner has brought me the microphone.  Just I open my eyes to speak, I see that she is starting the handshake that signals rise of meeting.

For a moment, my inward gears clash and grind, caught between the imperatives of delivering a message and the social forms of politeness, and recognizing the form of the end of meeting.

I speak, but I hesitate.  I stammer; my voice is not clear.  While I did not get in the way of the message fully, neither did I get out of its way with perfect faithfulness.

I suppose that does not matter.  I hear Moses had a speech impediment, and vocal ministry is not a performance art.  But that moment of hesitation, between human forms and simple obedience, has made me clumsy.  I don't know how many people heard the message.

I did speak.  The handshakes paused as I spoke, then resumed, and we parted for lunch.

*     *     *     *

Later, I take a long walk with my friend K., and I need to talk about that stumbling message.  At first, she misunderstands me, thinks I am concerned that the message was inappropriate or not faithful.  She assures me that it felt Spirit-led to her.

One of the advantages of being non-Christian: when the Biblical stuff takes hold of me, it's so against my grain, my personal preferences, that I can be at least reasonably sure it is not ego-driven!  It's an odd thing to be grateful for, maybe, but I'm grateful for that.

My point is much more superficial, much more shallow.  I'd never spoken in yearly meeting before.  And the interruption by the handshake--it hurt.  It just hurt.

"Why don't you just give me a nice paper cut, and pour lemon juice in it!?" I complained, in my best Miracle Max voice.  And I spoke about how it felt like being smacked, being stung by a hornet, the way it happened.

At the same time, I'm well aware that my sting is not important, and that no one had intentionally done me any harm or disrespect.  I was just raw, open and vulnerable, the way one is when trying to open to Spirit.  And you know, shit happens.

Shit happened.  I was sitting/standing in a blind spot for the clerk's visual field.  Perfection does not exist among us humans, and there you go.

I begin to appreciate the importance of making a serious study of the art of forgiveness.  Because, short of hiding in your room for a lifetime, you're going to need to forgive a lot of people.  Sometimes including yourself.

What would be worse than rising with vocal ministry, being recognized, and being cut off by the handshake to end meeting?  What is worse than getting a paper cut with lemon juice in it?

Being the clerk who made the error.  Being the person who gave the paper cut and poured the lemon juice, however unwittingly.

We're human.  We're going to play both roles again and again and again.  We're going to need that forgiveness stuff--a lot, I'm pretty sure.

Friday, August 20, 2010


I appear to be completely incapable of writing my impressions of NEYM Sessions this year.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Becoming Giants

I'm here at New England Yearly Meeting Sessions, the big annual Quaker business session and gathering for worship.  This year is unusual, in that the agenda-driven business sessions that normally shape the rhythms of our time together have been subsumed, mostly, in a much more open-ended "Meeting to Hear God's Call"--a kind of back-to-basics discernment session about our spiritual condition and where we may be being led by Spirit, as a body.

My attention, however, has been much less on the spiritual condition of my meeting, and much more on myself.  Since I arrived here on Saturday, I have been wrestling with almost overwhelming feelings of self-doubt, excoriating shame, stupidity, and a temptation to be severely critical of others.

This feeling has alternated with moments of extraordinary grace and quiet strength, in which I have found my heart more open and intuitive to the needs and longings of others than I can ever before remember being, and moments so filled with the Spirit of the Holy that I have half-expected to see Light burst from beneath my fingernails and shine out through my open eyes.

I have been teetering on the lip of a new level of spiritual maturity, seeing men and women around me clearly, both in their gifts and in their folly, able to love them deeply and fully in one moment, without sentiment or illusion... and the next moment, finding it all I can do to hear them and care for them at all in the wash of my shame and self-consciousness.

I am passing through yet another spiritual adolescence, and I don't like it much... though today I am beginning to hope I have traveled through my adolescence, and I'm emerging on the other side.  It has not been an easy journey.

Like all adolescents, I've been alternating between idealizing and judging the "grown ups" around me.  Unlike biological adolescents, I've been down this road before, and I've known from the beginning of my association with Quakers that the day would come when I would see their faults and follies in such a clear focus that I would be capable of forgetting the things they do right, or to hold each individual Friend in a kind of regard of mercy, understanding how impossible it is to move through life without hurting anyone, ever.  We all blunder; we all hurt each other.  Only the adolescent believes otherwise, or thinks that they themselves will be held to such a standard.

There are so many Friends here I want to engage in deep conversations with.  I want to be fully present to an absolute laundry list of remarkable Quakers, men and women I will likely not even get to see again until next year.  I've had a wonderful, growthful year, and I want to share it with them. What's more,  I want to be seen by them, loved by them, given a chance to give them my love in return--and admitted to a kind of full adult friendship I don't think I was quite capable of before this year.

I'm almost a grown-up, now, in "Quaker years" to coin a phrase.  I'm almost ready to be giving something back, to the people who have given me so much.  I want to sit with the grown-ups, and be real to them and real myself, open and transparent to Spirit.

And a lot of that is happening.  I've had some amazing heart-to-heart talks, and amazing quick conversations punctuated by a hug, or even just a brush of the hand.  I had a brief conversation on Sunday, for instance, with Viv Hawkins, one of two plenary speakers, and a woman whose warmth and genuineness in ministry is as rich and good as the smell of sunlight on loam.  She asked gently after some of the sources of the sadness I was feeling on that day.  Her questions and her attention were wonderful, but more wonderful still was just the ordinary touch of her hand against my wrist as she made some passing remark. She was so simply present in that moment, to me and to God, that it made my whole heart still and glad.

There have a lot of moments like that, and I'm aware that I have given as well as received that kind of presence. Moments of grace, as I said.

But at other moments, my damned teenaged awkwardness has gotten in my way.

Two days ago, feeling as naked and skinless as a newborn, but also filled with love and a sense of Spirit, I got a chance to walk between commitments with my friend Will T.  It was really just the down-payment on a longer conversation we were able to have later, and I hope my perception was correct, that despite his busy-ness at Sessions, the company was welcome.

But then, moving to give him a hug goodbye as we parted, I stepped on his foot.

Pretty hard, I'd guess.  I wouldn't know for sure, unfortunately, because I was in hiking boots. (He, of course, was in sandals.  Is there some cosmic law that this must always be the way?)

That's such a perfect metaphor for what it is like to be a human being, trying to be in a loving, friendly spiritual connection with another human being.  Even when we are guarding with all of our strength, all of our vigilance, all of our love against harming each other, we are apt to come down hard on each others' toes.  Right at the moment we mean best.

Will, of course, was good-natured about it.  I, however, was mortified.

Unreasonably so, actually.  But you know, it's one thing to know that in your head, and it's another thing to overcome your adolescent self-doubt long enough to be able to let something like that go.  Now, out there in the world, I could have put that blunder behind me with a laugh and an apology.  Here, trying so hard to live without armor, I am without the instincts that keep me from wounding myself.

It turns out that when you take off your skin to try to get really, really open to other people, you not only feel every bump and bruise and careless touch of theirs against your own vulnerable baby soul, but you feel every wound you inflict on them, too. 

And we inflict those wounds on each other all the time.

What clumsiness of mine have I missed, in my eagerness and gladness to greet Friends or rejoice in Spirit--or even just in tiredness, humanness, ordinariness?

My teenaged self is ashamed.  My spiritually adult self is beginning to know--really to know--this is just how it is, and that it needs to be accepted, acknowledged, and released.  My emerging spiritual maturity understands that this is really a lesson in the absolute imperative of forgiveness and mercy. 

(Don't worry--I have forgiven myself for stepping on Will's toes.  I'm pretty sure he's forgiven me, too--though I think he's entitled to stand a little farther away from me if I hug him again while in steel-toed shoes.)

The advantage of growing up is gaining an empathic inner eye, one with perspective that can level out the bumps and valleys with a little hard-won wisdom.  Wrestling with my own feelings of shame and stupidity lets me see other people more clearly.  And one of the things I'm watching unfold before me at sessions is a parade of men and women who, like me, find themselves a bit overwhelmed by their vulnerability here.  We truly are trying to live into the Kingdom of Love--and that's something that's very hard to do, in a world that teaches us to wear our armor even among our closest friends.  We who are trying to move beyond being defended castles of one into becoming members of one another are doing something new, and we are feeling more, loving more, grieving more than most of us are really in condition for just yet.  We get tired.  We get hurt.  And we too easily imagine we are the only ones in pain, the only ones who wonder if our spiritual gifts will be welcomed, if the love that we want to give one another will be acceptable.

Jan Hoffman delivered a memorable message on the pain of spiritual gifts not accepted by our communities; whether gifts of ministry or eldering or healing or just love and tenderness.

Whether through error, a rejection of what seems too far from our understanding, or simply through the ordinary bumps and bruises of a life in Spirit where some of us are in sandals and some of us can't quite see where our boot-tips are landing, our gifts are not always welcomed, let alone drawn out and nurtured, in this community.

It hurts when it happens to you.

And it's going to happen to you.

There's not a damn lot we can do about that, except keep trying: keep trying to give, keep trying to receive, keep trying to stay skinless and real and loving with one another, and to reject that little voice in the backs of our minds that suggests that we're the only ones who have been hurt like this, or that those who have hurt us did it on purpose, are Bad Friends, unloving, unfeeling, unkind.

Mostly, it won't be true.  And even when it is, it's not going to change by judging and labeling it.  It's going to change through tenderness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness.

And, yeah, telling the other guy to get off our foot--or going back to our meetings and reaffirming we've got a ministry, or a need, or a problem that is being forgotten.  Plain speech belongs in the equation.

But always, always, remembering to let love be the first motion.

The more I see of ministry and eldering in action, the more I see gifts in both that never become ripe. Because the bearer of the gift had been hurt... and had not been courageous in forgiveness.

We must be giants in forgiveness--giving it, asking it, receiving it, accepting it.  Or we will not be able to carry the gifts we bear.
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