Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Where Will You Spend ETERNITY?

I may have mentioned that my drive to work and back is unusually beautiful. I drive past three different waterfalls, five working farms, and past a parade of old stone walls, apple trees, and white clapboard houses. It is eye candy.

It is also the beginning of serious countryside. And one thing about rural America: it takes its religion seriously.

Near the end of my morning drive, or the beginning of my evening commute, there is one particular ranch house that works hard to make sure everyone who drives past understands how seriously everyone inside that house takes religion. They have one of those signs, one of those semi-professional ones, that can be changed to show a different Christian slogan every month or two.

Perhaps because my drive is my best reflection time, I not only read the sign, I read it and think about it, too.

Lately, the sign reads, in one direction, "Jesus will give you REST," which I actually try not to focus on, because I read that side on my way into work in the morning, and I am quite sleepy enough without thinking about REST, whether it comes from Jesus or from turning off the alarm clock.

But in the other direction, for my return trip, the sign reads, "WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY?"

Now, I haven't been living under a rock for the past forty-nine years of my life. I am well aware of what thoughts of eternal damnation and salvation I am meant, by the poster of that sign, to be having on my commute. And it's not his fault that I'm a bit of a rebel: I have never been impressed by the carrot-and-stick approach to theology the sign is meant to imply. The god it is meant to imply has always seemed to me to be a bully. Worship me, or I'll torture you forever would be a pathetic demand from a human being, and I, for one, expect more from my gods than from people--not less.

However, as I said, I do take that sign seriously. I think about it. And what I think is this: Where will I spend eternity? I don't really know.

The likeliest possibility seems to me to be this: that I will die one day, and my body at least will go either into a small wooden box to be planted in the ground--if my Quaker meeting is able to work out the details around green burial before my death--or will be put into a superheated furnace, to emerge as smoke and ashes.

I'm not sure about the smoke, but either the ashes or the decaying body I leave behind will go into the ground.

I've given some thought to where in the ground. Part of me would like to have my remains put right here, in the land under this house I live in. My molecules and atoms can leach into the soil that nourishes the woods I love.

I do like the idea that, although land can never really belong to us, perhaps we can eventually belong to the land.

But Peter might not want to live for the rest of his life in this same house. What if What if he were to become too ill or too weary to manage to live well here, in this house? I would not his needing to move away to be made even harder and lonelier than it otherwise would be, if he felt as if he was leaving me behind.

So perhaps Mt. Toby's burial ground is the best place for what is left of my body, whether as ashes or decaying flesh.

We chose Mt. Toby as our meeting, after all, in part because we loved its land. Mt. Toby sits at the edge of pastures, and owns pastures and woods, a beaver pond, a hillside. There are trees there, and grass, and even if it is not land I have lived on daily, it is land I have loved.

And it is New England.

I love my home. I love New England. Could I ask for a better end than to be here, as seasons wheel overhead, as generations of dandelions, sugar maples, white-tailed deer and black bears are born, grow, and die? Could I ask a nobler home than stone walls warmed by sun in summer, and by hibernating squirrels in winter? Than hillsides that are home to hidden spiders spinning webs in hemlock gloom, or even over the snow and ice of midwinter?

There's life here! The earth is rich and smells like spices, and birds set up a racket first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I would like for my body to feed that life. I would like to return to the home I have loved since I was born, "giving something back," in the simplest and most literal way.

Someday, the continents will move into fresh shapes; mountains will grow and be crushed. Ice will recede and grow again, species will disappear, and even the sun will go dark. But I'll still be here: home, however changed.

What of my spirit, though?

Well, what of my spirit?

Sometimes I think there may be something more that happens when we die. I know that, if there is a heaven--a Summerland, as the Pagans and the Spiritualists like to call it--for me, that heaven could look like nothing so much as a New England autumn. Give me the smell of woodsmoke and fallen leaves, the tang of apples in the air and a chill beneath the day's warmth, like the bones beneath the fur of a cat... that's my heaven. Keep the harps! (But send my Herne to me, to carry me there, if that is what there is. I only want to look into his eyes, and see that he can see how I love him.)

Sometimes I think there might be such a thing as reincarnation. That might be nice. I don't care if I come back as bat or owl or white pine tree, as long as I am alive, part of this wonder. (Of course, do I need a spirit to be part of life that way? Isn't that what happens when we go back into the soil, the earth, anyway?)

Then, sometimes I think that my spirit, all the things that go into shaping me, and making me who I am, may be a bit like this body of mine: cobbled together from whatever good things were on hand as I've been accreting over time, from birth to the grave. What happens to my spirit then, when I am done living as who I am? Perhaps, like my body, I go back, flowing out again to become part of the landscape... part, perhaps, of God.

But you know what? I'm here, now. Today is the Kingdom of Heaven. Today is the day of Spirit. Today is the day I give myself, recklessly, laughingly, delightedly, to Eternity.

I hold myself out, like a handful of ashes on the wind, and I give myself to this earth I love... right now.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Prodigal April

It's the last day of my April vacation, and I've got the blues. There's always so much more to be done than there is time to do it in.

This week has been full of outdoor things. Peter and I planted a small orchard--eight semi-dwarf apple trees, in holes dug with friends, and with expertise borrowed from friends. One of the two perennial beds has been weeded; heaps of brush and dead branches have been hacked up and removed. The big hemlock tree is being treated for wooly adelgids, and the arborist thinks we can save it; I've notified the Girl Scouts next door that one of their trees is infested, too, and given them the contact information for the arborist.

I walked in the woods with friends who love forests, and learned new ways to care for blight-affected American chestnut stump-sprouts. My daughter and her friends went walking in the woods, and together we cut back some of the invasive Japanese Knotweed that's back there. And I took a few long walks of my own, though I still have not made it farther than the granite outcrop to the north of our house. I saw deer, and red squirrels, and leaves so green they were practically hallucinogens.

And indoors, I baked bread, made yogurt, read, wrote, and cooked for friends.

And everything, from the outdoor work to my indoor reading, has seemed threaded together with an awareness of its interconnectedness.

I recently picked up again Barbara Kingsolver's book, Prodigal Summer. I'd tried to get into it before, but found myself unable to make it more than a chapter or two. Not enough action, or maybe not enough of a hook to the characters to draw me in. I'm not sure. In some ways, it is an unusual book for Kingsolver: so often, her books rest on the unique and charming voice of a vivid narrator. Not this book--here, the story, such as it is, is told in third person omnicient, and moves back and forth between three separate story lines: "Predators," "Moth Love," and "Old Chestnuts." I'm a handful of chapters from the end, now, and I still don't know if the story lines are going to bump up against one another in anything more than casual and transitory ways, although there is a level on which they are deeply connected.

And that's the point of the book, actually. It is typical Barbara Kingsolver to have her fascination for biological science and for environmentalism run through a book. What is a little odd, and made it hard to get pulled into this book, is the degree to which the ecosystem, not the characters, is the center of the story.

I say "story," but it's not exactly a plot-driven book. It's something else, a connection-driven book, perhaps, which allows me, as a reader, to gradually understand more about the invisible connections that join not just people, but societies and whole biomes of life in webs as much joined by invisible species and unnoticed interdependencies as by the ones the human characters see and name.

And that fits with this time of coming into deeper relationship with this piece of land where we now live.

We planted apple trees? We went off into the woods, and found humus from under the leaves at the foot of a wild apple, to innoculate the soil around the roots of the new trees with appropriate mycorrhiza to encourage their growth.

We weeded perennials? We spoke at length with the next door neighbor about the man who planted those beds, and cultivated them for decades, and then "gave" her a small shrub to transplant that had become completely overshadowed where it was. I watched her plant it along the stone wall between our yards. (Can you "give" a living thing to anyone? Who owns a garden? The one who plants it? The one who loves it most, or longest? Or the one who holds a deed from a courthouse?)

Places, events, even objects in Prodigal Summer resonate with my experiences this week.

For instance, there is a chestnut log deep in the forest that is mentioned in the book, the hollow trunk of a giant that was, once cut down, too large to move. In the novel, one character, Deanna, thinks of it as her own special place in the woods, a perfect retreat. When she discovers that the young man she is falling in love with has camped there before they met, she is angry with him for having invaded, without her knowledge, a place so important to her. Another character, an old man, remembers that the log was cut by his family in the years before the chestnut blight, and remembers running through it with friends as a boy. And yet that log may lie on the land of yet a third character, an outsider whose husband has died and left to her their family farm. Theoretically the "owner" of the log, she does not even know it exists.

Anyone who has spent time walking through the New England woods can relate to the tension between ownership and experience of a place in nature. But beyond that, not only is it true that this house which I love has been loved before, and for long years more than I have known it, but the very places I go to be away from humans have been loved, used, sold, tallied up in stacks of silver and sold again by humans... and nothing out there in those woods actually belongs to me. Or, perhaps, to anyone.

What do we own? What do we have to hold on to? Maybe just a brief, flickering band of days, or a single season.

In the novel, one character, Jewel, is dying of cancer. At the beginning of the summer, she has some hope as she undergoes her chemotherapy, but by the time August rolls around, she knows she will not live to see another summer, and that she has to find a home for her two children who will soon be orphans.

Reading it, my heart breaks all over again for my friend Abby's death last fall.

Jewel shook her head, keeping her eyes steady on Lusa. "I'm not going to see another summer. I'll be gone before you're done eating the canned goods in your pantry."

"I'm sorry," Lusa whispered. She reached up to take both of Jewel's hands in hers and held on to them without speaking for several minutes. An occasional syllable of the children's shouts drifted in through the open window. The position eventually became awkward for Lusa and she had to let go, stroking her sister-in-law's fingers gently as she did.
I am grateful I was able to be with Abby before she died. And I know that no one ever forgets those moments in which the body's awkwardness interferes with the heart's willingness to hold, to touch, to be with someone in the face of pain and loss. Just as I know that this house, this land, is more my home because I have mourned a friend here. Or maybe, is it the other way around: that I am more this land's, not that it is mine?

We don't get to hold onto anything. We don't get to own anything. I may live here for another forty years--or another three, or less. There is no way to know, and, of course the thing to do is to live here fully and lustfully, being entirely present to each perfect spring day I can be present to. I can't spend too much time cringing back from mistakes, because it may turn out that the mistakes and the things I thought of as the warm up act for my "real life" are all I actually get.

As Jewel explains, later in the book,
"They came to our wedding... ...It was here, in this house. But they left before the reception--that's how they were. They never approved, they said we were too young. We were too young. But just think." She looked back at Lusa, intense. "What if I'd been sensible and waited, instead of marrying Shel? There'd be no Crystal and Lowell."

"That's true," Lusa said.

Jewel narrowed her eyes. "Remember that. Don't wait around thinking you've got all the time in the world. Maybe you've just got this one summer. Will you remember that? Will you tell the kids for me?"

Melancholy thoughts, for the last day of a vacation. We all have so little time. And it's so easy to lose track of.

And nothing is ever really, fully, our own.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Dream

How truthful are dreams, I wonder? How much are they flattery, and how much are they our waking selves, writ small?

I dreamed last night I was in a war; I believe it was the WWII. Somehow, I'd been drafted, and I was being shipped to an army camp of some sort. After a while, I looked down at the rifle in my hands, puzzled.

"Wait--" I thought. "This can't be right. I'm a Quaker. I don't fight."

And they came and they gathered up those of us who said we wouldn't fight, and told us to stand in a circle in the middle of the troop of soldiers, and they trained their guns on us, and asked us if we still insisted that we could not fight, and we said yes.

I didn't think they would actually kill us--I thought there was some rule, even in my dream, that Quakers did not have to fight--but I wasn't sure. I wasn't very afraid, and I didn't want to die, but it seemed possible.

And then the soldiers fired at us, but they fired blanks, and then took away our guns, and we didn't have to fight. And I felt so peaceful, so good: the way I felt on the first morning of summer vacation when I was young.

A little later in the dream I was doing stand-up comedy to promote glbtq rights, with fellow-blogger Mike Shell. We were working on a routine around the Bible, and having a lot of fun.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the sequence was its lack of drama. At times I was confused, or worried. But mostly, it was a peaceful, centered state of mind I found within myself.

It was a very peaceful, contented dream.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Peter asks, “By what name?”

This is Peter writing, for the first time in much too long.

Quaker meeting was good for me today, and it’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that. For months now (maybe even years) meeting has been about trying to tune out the incessant internal chatter of my own brain, or about trying to sit comfortably on benches that are about four inches too low, or (most debilitatingly of all) about struggling to stay awake.

But today, although I can’t say whether or not the whole meeting felt covered, I know I felt covered. A Pagan might say “cloaked,” and a better word than either might be “embraced,” though that also doesn’t quite convey the experience. My wife, when I protested that I had no words to tell her what it was like, told me to go ahead and tell her anyway, so I came up behind her and placed one hand over her heart and the other over the space between her shoulder blades and pressed gently, and she nodded and said, “Oh, that. Yes, it’s good when it’s like that.”

And on the way home, I was thinking about how the other thing I don’t have words for is the… the…

The thing that was doing the thing. You know. God or the Light or whatever.

I’ve written about this before, but that was from a more linguistic, philological approach. Today it’s more like I’m gazing upon my Beloved, who never seems to tire of unfolding more and startlingly different manifestations of Him/Her/Itself, and asking for the umpteenth time, “By what name shall I call you?”

There’s “God,” of course. But “God” carries so many connotations of Creator of the Universe and all that, and the—presence—that I feel in meeting for worship… If it is the Creator of the Universe, that’s not exactly relevant right then. It is present, Here, Now, very intimately with me, and who or what it was thirteen billion years ago doesn’t really matter.

It’s not “Herne,” the god-form that was my patron deity for most of the time that I was most actively Wiccan/Pagan. I knew even at the time that “Herne” wasn’t His name. Again, it was His intimate presence more that his name that mattered. And the presence of Spirit in Quaker meeting isn’t exactly the same as “Herne” was. Though it feels like it partakes of the same Divinity, sort of like the three Persons of the Trinity are all said to be the same as God and yet not the same as each other.

“Spirit” is a nice, generic term, but much too wishy-washy. “Spirit” sounds like something that would waft through the room like piped-in music, not come swooping down on you to massage your heart. Not something that would have a personal identity, that could make you smile and think, “Oh, it’s you!”

“Lord” is a term of address that feels familiar to me to use in the presence of Deity, but it doesn’t feel right here. “Lord,” in common English usage, means a kind of ruler, and Quaker worship is not exactly about being ruled. And the word “Lord,” used anywhere that Christians are present, is also the word used to translate the Hebrew name “Yahweh,” and the Light that covers a Quaker meeting just seems nothing at all like the terrifying and capricious pastoral deity who demanded that blood be smeared on the horns of his golden altar.

“Guide” eliminates the Yahwist connotation, but again, it names the presence for one of its lesser characteristics. Like if someone called me glasses, or beard, instead of husband, father, teacher, writer…

There’s “Light,” of course, but the experience is much more tactile and visceral than it is visual.

“Holy Spirit” is probably the most satisfying name I’ve come up with so far. If you take it just as two words in English, they mean a spirit that is holy, and that’s right. That works. It’s got more oomph than just “Spirit.” And if you relate it to the Greek “paraclete,” which is the word in the Bible that gets translated as “Holy Spirit,” that word literally means “advocate” but it also gets translated as “helper” or “comforter,” as in John 14:16-17.

And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (KJV)

And that feels more like what I’m talking about. It’s likely to give my Pagan friends hives, and maybe to lull my more Christian friends into assuming we have waaaaay more in common than we do and leave them feeling duped when they realize it. I can’t help either of those. All I can do is sit with the experience.
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