Sunday, May 30, 2010

Small Stuff (A Cross-Posting from Quaker Pagan Reflections)

For quite a while now, I've had a growing concern about plastic and its impact on the environment.

Pagans, of course, theoretically worship the earth, the land, and the cycles of nature. And not only do many Quaker meetings maintain an environmental witness, but Quakers have long been enjoined to "examine our possessions for the seeds of war."

What if we examined, all of us, our possessions for the seeds of a different kind of war, the war our species is waging on our planet's health? What if we thought for any length of time about the true costs of the lives we live, and the conveniences we feel entitled to?

This thought has been returning and returning and returning to me, in waves that leave me rather breathless. I'm starting to think of these waves of pain--sometimes pretty intense pain--as a kind of labor. I'm starting to think of this kind of pain as the difference between having a concern, and laboring with one. It feels an awful lot like needing to give birth.

I think perhaps I can no longer bear to live as though my convenience is worth the death of ecosystems. I think I can no longer bear to choose quickness and comfort and modern ease over the lives of others, from whales and sea turtles to the plankton that forms the basis of all life in the sea--and, indirectly, most life on land.

Specifically, I find myself convicted that I am killing the planet I love through my heedless, selfish, foolish reliance on disposable plastics.

The video that pushed me over the edge a few weeks ago, from a growing personal concern to a sense of being placed under and laboring with a spiritual concern, is posted at the bottom of this page.

As I mentioned, I've been concerned about plastic for quite some time. I've been gradually removing more and more sources of disposable plastic waste from my life--starting with the easy stuff, like no more of those horrible plastic grocery bags or water bottles. And while I always do recycle what is recyclable, I have learned how inadequate that is--plastic, unlike glass, aluminum, or steel, does not truly recycle; it only "downcycles" for a limited number of cycles before it becomes waste forever.

For it will take hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of years, for plastics to ever fully degrade. They will choke macroscopic and microscopic life for every one of the years in between--not to mention the toxic chemicals they release into the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years, first.

When I think of this, the plastic container holding a package of cookies, the plastic bag holding my bread, the plastic bottle of shampoo or condiments or milk seems like an obscenity to me.

I think of how Quakers have responded to moral obscenity in years past, and I am ashamed.

I think of Elias Hicks, who was so opposed to slavery that not only did he refuse to wear or use cotton cloth, but as one story has it, when he suddenly suffered a stroke while traveling in the ministry during a heat wave, despite being unable to speak, he managed through his agitation to communicate to his hosts that he could not bear the touch of a cotton sheet upon his body. Through his restlessness, he eventually made clear his distress; he would not, could not, rest easy until that cotton was replace with a woolen cover, heat wave or no heat wave.

He knew that sheet was foul with human sweat and blood.

I know that plastic is foul, too. I know it. We all know it, don't we--not just about plastics, but the thousand thousand ways human actions are destroying the planet?

Elias Hicks knew how to be faithful. Do I? Do we?

Can I bear not to be? What am I going to do with this?

I think that being faithful to the Spirit of Life is a lot like being faithful in a marriage. Let's face it: most days, most of us don't have to choose whether or not to cheat on a spouse. It's not that that the big stuff doesn't matter... but it isn't what's in the frame on a daily basis. It's not normally what makes it or breaks it for us, and for those we love.

But we do have to find a way to not get bitchy when they've left their underwear on the rug, or come home late or too tired to do what we wanted them to, or whatever other small test of love and patience daily life brings to our lives together.

It is my experience that it is in the small things that human beings are least faithful to each other. I suspect it's true for being faithful to our gods as well. And it's when I look at the small things in my daily life, the details, that I am most keenly aware of my faithlessness.

My friend Marshall Massey has said that one mark that a leading is really from God is that it will be large, and probably lead us to do things that will be very difficult or inconvenient for us.

I think that may be right, sometimes. But I also think it's only partially right.

I am not sure where this concern, this leading, this thing is going to lead me. I don't think it's going to lead me to quit my job and go live in an unheated yurt in the desert; I hope in doesn't lead me to relinquish my beloved computer (made with plastic!) and the world I share through that computer.

But I'm getting a clear signal that the way I am living is not All Right. Yeah, God loves me anyway--that's a done deal, unconditional love if ever I've found it--but I'm making Her very unhappy.

I just don't want to make Mama unhappy like this any more. So a few things around here are going to have to change.

First of all, what will not change: this blog, at least for now. Quaker Pagan Reflections is home to a very wide range of my experiences and concerns, and I'm keeping it that way.

But, as of today, I'm adding a new outlet for my writing: the Chestnut House blog. That's where I'm going to track my attempts to be as faithful as I can, first to that leading I think I'm feeling to reduce my plastic consumption, and second, to live a more environmentally-friendly life generally.

I make no promises not to talk about the environment here, on this blog... but over on Chestnut House, you will see the results of my attempt to dramatically cut my use of plastic.

Beth Terry, over at Fake Plastic Fish, has cut her use of plastic to about 4% of the typical American total of 88 pounds per year. I don't think I'll be in her league, and certainly I won't at first. But I'm going to do what I can. The new blog is where I'm going to write about how.

Chestnut House is where I'll be posting the mechanics of that struggle: starting Tuesday, June 1, I will be saving, photographing, weighing, and logging all of my plastic use. Every bit of it--or an explanation for what gets left out.

If you want to, you can keep score. I'm going to.

Expect a lot of very practical posts there--how to make ketchup may be an issue I'll take on soon, for instance, as I am running low, and I can no longer find any in glass in my local stores. Expect it to be nit-picky with details, because there seems, from the limited amount I've done already trying to cut down on plastic in my life, to be no end of that.

I don't know how I'll do. I want to live with integrity; I want to be faithful to the Light that's speaking to me.

But I doubt I'll be graceful about it, any more than I have been about the small ups and downs of marriage. I am not an environmentalist saint--I love my fast food, pop-culture, easy-access American life too much for that. But then, maybe sharing that struggle is worth something, too.

I'm starting with the small stuff.

Next time I write on this subject, it will be over there. (I'm thinking of writing about shampoo... or maybe baking bread.)

Blessed be.

Small Stuff

For quite a while now, I've had a growing concern about plastic and its impact on the environment.

Pagans, of course, theoretically worship the earth, the land, and the cycles of nature. And not only do many Quaker meetings maintain an environmental witness, but Quakers have long been enjoined to "examine our possessions for the seeds of war."

What if we examined, all of us, our possessions for the seeds of a different kind of war, the war our species is waging on our planet's health? What if we thought for any length of time about the true costs of the lives we live, and the conveniences we feel entitled to?

This thought has been returning and returning and returning to me, in waves that leave me rather breathless. I'm starting to think of these waves of pain--sometimes pretty intense pain--as a kind of labor. I'm starting to think of this kind of pain as the difference between having a concern, and laboring with one. It feels an awful lot like needing to give birth.

I think perhaps I can no longer bear to live as though my convenience is worth the death of ecosystems. I think I can no longer bear to choose quickness and comfort and modern ease over the lives of others, from whales and sea turtles to the plankton that forms the basis of all life in the sea--and, indirectly, most life on land.

Specifically, I find myself convicted that I am killing the planet I love through my heedless, selfish, foolish reliance on disposable plastics.

Here is the video that pushed me over the edge a few weeks ago, from a growing personal concern to a sense of being placed under and laboring with a spiritual concern:



As I mentioned, I've been concerned about plastic for quite some time. I've been gradually removing more and more sources of disposable plastic waste from my life--starting with the easy stuff, like no more of those horrible plastic grocery bags or water bottles. And while I always do recycle what is recyclable, I have learned how inadequate that is--plastic, unlike glass, aluminum, or steel, does not truly recycle; it only "downcycles" for a limited number of cycles before it becomes waste forever.

For it will take hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of years, for plastics to ever fully degrade. They will choke macroscopic and microscopic life for every one of the years in between--not to mention the toxic chemicals they release into the environment for decades, if not hundreds of years, first.

When I think of this, the plastic container holding a package of cookies, the plastic bag holding my bread, the plastic bottle of shampoo or condiments or milk seems like an obscenity to me.

I think of how Quakers have responded to moral obscenity in years past, and I am ashamed.

I think of Elias Hicks, who was so opposed to slavery that not only did he refuse to wear or use cotton cloth, but as one story has it, when he suddenly suffered a stroke while traveling in the ministry during a heat wave, despite being unable to speak, he managed through his agitation to communicate to his hosts that he could not bear the touch of a cotton sheet upon his body. Through his restlessness, he eventually made clear his distress; he would not, could not, rest easy until that cotton was replace with a woolen cover, heat wave or no heat wave.

He knew that sheet was foul with human sweat and blood.

I know that plastic is foul, too. I know it. We all know it, don't we--not just about plastics, but the thousand thousand ways human actions are destroying the planet?

Elias Hicks knew how to be faithful. Do I? Do we?

Can I bear not to be? What am I going to do with this?

I think that being faithful to the Spirit of Life is a lot like being faithful in a marriage. Let's face it: most days, most of us don't have to choose whether or not to cheat on a spouse. It's not that that the big stuff doesn't matter... but it isn't what's in the frame on a daily basis. It's not normally what makes it or breaks it for us, and for those we love.

But we do have to find a way to not get bitchy when they've left their underwear on the rug, or come home late or too tired to do what we wanted them to, or whatever other small test of love and patience daily life brings to our lives together.

It is my experience that it is in the small things that human beings are least faithful to each other. I suspect it's true for being faithful to our gods as well. And it's when I look at the small things in my daily life, the details, that I am most keenly aware of my faithlessness.

My friend Marshall Massey has said that one mark that a leading is really from God is that it will be large, and probably lead us to do things that will be very difficult or inconvenient for us.

I think that may be right, sometimes. But I also think it's only partially right.

I am not sure where this concern, this leading, this thing is going to lead me. I don't think it's going to lead me to quit my job and go live in an unheated yurt in the desert; I hope in doesn't lead me to relinquish my beloved computer (made with plastic!) and the world I share through that computer.

But I'm getting a clear signal that the way I am living is not All Right. Yeah, God loves me anyway--that's a done deal, unconditional love if ever I've found it--but I'm making Her very unhappy.

I just don't want to make Mama unhappy like this any more. So a few things around here are going to have to change.

First of all, what will not change: this blog, at least for now. Quaker Pagan Reflections is home to a very wide range of my experiences and concerns, and I'm keeping it that way.

But, as of today, I'm adding a new outlet for my writing: the Chestnut House blog. That's where I'm going to track my attempts to be as faithful as I can, first to that leading I think I'm feeling to reduce my plastic consumption, and second, to live a more environmentally-friendly life generally.

I make no promises not to talk about the environment here, on this blog... but over on Chestnut House, you will see the results of my attempt to dramatically cut my use of plastic.

Beth Terry, over at Fake Plastic Fish, has cut her use of plastic to about 4% of the typical American total of 88 pounds per year. I don't think I'll be in her league, and certainly I won't at first. But I'm going to do what I can. The new blog is where I'm going to write about how.

Chestnut House is where I'll be posting the mechanics of that struggle: starting Tuesday, June 1, I will be saving, photographing, weighing, and logging all of my plastic use. Every bit of it--or an explanation for what gets left out.

If you want to, you can keep score. I'm going to.

Expect a lot of very practical posts there--how to make ketchup may be an issue I'll take on soon, for instance, as I am running low, and I can no longer find any in glass in my local stores. Expect it to be nit-picky with details, because there seems, from the limited amount I've done already trying to cut down on plastic in my life, to be no end of that.

I don't know how I'll do. I want to live with integrity; I want to be faithful to the Light that's speaking to me.

But I doubt I'll be graceful about it, any more than I have been about the small ups and downs of marriage. I am not an environmentalist saint--I love my fast food, pop-culture, easy-access American life too much for that. But then, maybe sharing that struggle is worth something, too.

I'm starting with the small stuff.

Next time I write on this subject, it will be over there. (I'm thinking of writing about shampoo... or maybe baking bread.)

Blessed be.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Unweaving


A good and modest man is dead, and I am sad. Last night, my friend Alexei Kondratiev died. He was only sixty-one.

I found out online, at The Wild Hunt, the Pagan news blog, and my mind has been throwing these momentary blanks in the hours since I read the news; I'll be puttering along, minding my business, when I'll find myself wondering, Why do I feel so heavy, so sad? And then I remember: Alexei died last night.

We weren't particularly close. I honestly do not remember the last time I saw him. But he was one of a circle of men and women I call my friend, and my sense of him is not abstract, but is mixed together with memories of a Beltane when it was too humid and too rainy outside to want to picnic, or of another, later day in May when the sun beat down like swords on bucklers, and I crouched beneath a tarp, listening to him tell us stories.

I remember Alexei over breakfasts and late night snacks, I remember Alexei and Len sitting at the next table over from me at Pagan gatherings, or standing patiently across a circle from me, waiting for a ritual to start. I remember the lilt of his voice, and how excited he could be when someone caught up and understood a new idea he had, and how sad, and stiff and inward he could become if he was scolded, or thought he had done wrong. And I remember the warmth in his eyes, when he would laugh among old friends.

How many languages did he speak? It was hard to get an exact count. He insisted that various of the Celtic languages did not count as separate, because they were too much alike--or he'd say he didn't really "speak" them, if he considered himself less than fully fluent.

I've heard his mind wander across a dozen countries' folklore, gently and almost lovingly pointing out patterns and histories that braided and unbraided themselves across Pagan Europe. On rare occasions, I heard him talk of his own childhood, and how he began breathing in the Celtic mythologies that were his passion.

He was brilliant. And softspoken. And genuinely modest. Was he pedantic? Perhaps he seemed so to those who knew him best, but I did not soon tire of listening to him talk. He loved the Old Gods, and he loved the old stories, and he loved to tell anyone who was interested what he knew of both.

I took his talk for granted, a fixture of my world.

As I say, I couldn't claim to know him well. But he was tribe to me, extended family; part of a Pagan Brigadoon that has met together year upon year upon year. I couldn't be there every year, but when I was, he was almost always there as well. Just... there. Ubiquitous. And now I will never see him again.

My mind shies from thinking what this means for his partner, Len. Just freezes, stops, and will not consider yet.

Here is what I do know: For twenty-five years, I have been a Pagan, and for all of those years, I have felt that I am weaving something, a kind of cloth or tapestry, together with my friends. Paganism is so new, and, when it is working well, so warming and so full of hospitality, that for me at least, the heart of my experience as a Pagan has been the weaving together all of our separate lives to form one fabric, one community honoring the earth and the old gods. I've never cared particularly who called himself a shaman, who a Witch or a Hellene or a Druid, because I have felt it in my bones how much we are woven together as kin.

Believe it or not, today is the first day I have properly understood: the whole time I have been weaving, weaving my life and the lives of those I love into this fabric, time has been unweaving it again at the other end.

Alexei has died. And part of the world is gone.

I will miss Alexei--but it is for myself that I cry.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Simplicity of Rest

Last night, stumblingly tired after a full day of teaching on top of a weekend away at a Quaker retreat, I turned the heat on on the wrong burner of the stove. A few minutes later, picking up a pot lid I thought was cool, I gave myself a second degree burn on the fingers of my right hand.

Burns being what burns are, the pain increased throughout the evening, and by bedtime, I could not keep my hand out of a bowl of water for more than a few minutes without the pain being too loud for me to sleep. And sleeping with my hand inside a bowl of water... that wasn't too easy to arrange, either. By midnight, I acceded to the inevitable: a night without sleep. I got up and toyed with the computer, keeping my burn cool and quiet until, at last, around three, I was able to sleep.

At five in the morning, I called the sub dispatcher for my school, wrote up my sub plan, and emailed it in to work.

My whole job today has been to make up for a weekend of too-little sleep, and a single night essentially without sleep. My only work, in other words, has been to rest.

The singleness of purpose has been delicious.

Just now, waking up from my fourth or fifth nap of the day, I turned over on my pillow, feeling refreshed, and maybe smart enough not to burn myself in the process of cooking tonight. Not only that, I woke up with a post in mind, on what it means to live simply.

It means a lot of things, obviously. But I mean, what it means to honor the testimony of simplicity, as part of living as a Friend, a Quaker.

I should mention what I understand Quaker "testimonies" to mean.

There are a lot of forms of the traditional Quaker testimonies listed, in a lot of different places. Some are very familiar: just about anyone who knows that Quakers are not extinct knows that they are opposed to wars and violence. That's one of the oldest of the "testimonies," and it gets described these days as "the peace testimony." Some liberal Quakers especially will list the most commonly understood of the things that Quakers, as a group, stand for as the "SPICE testimonies: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality."

Other Quakers will refuse to produce a list at all; New England Yearly Meeting, for instance, in the current revision of our Faith and Practice (the how-to-do-it guide for Quakers who are members) does not have such a list, but instead has a chapter discussing where testimonies come from.

Testimonies, you see, are not rules that one follows in order to please God or grow near to God. Rather, the testimonies are the result of growing closer to the Holy Spirit. The more time we spend in communion with that Spirit of compassion, the more strongly we feel the pull to bring our lives into harmony with that Spirit's ways. The testimonies are the flower, and the communion with the Spirit is the root.

Like the fragrance a flower sends out into the world, testimonies are the changes in how we live our lives that become visible outgrowths of our relationship with God. Like the perfume of a flower, they can carry a long way, and even attract, as flowers do bees, those who are hungry for what the fragrance promises. But the testimonies are not static things that define Quakers--they're the natural outward development of living into the Quaker relationship with That Which Is.

In that light, I woke from my nap refreshed and wanting to say a little bit about simplicity.

A lot of people are drawn to the ethical dimension of simplicity; we recognize that we have abundance in a world where many are hungry, and we want to "live simply, that others may simply live." That is one of the flowerings of Spirit in our lives. But it is not the only one, nor the defining one.

Other people are drawn to the traditions of plainness which Quakers have historically kept: right down to plain dress--that broad brimmed hat or bonnet, suspenders or a simple, modest dress. Your basic Amish look, carried to it's historical appearance, though other Friends choose instead to wear only clothing that carries no logos or advertisements, or no clothing produced in sweatshops, for instance. Others choose to wear only clothing that carries no message of power or authority (no ties or suits or dress-for-success outfits), and others choose clothing that is hard-wearing and durable, to avoid the frivolous ("vain" in old-time Quaker speak) expense of constant updating and replacement of cheap and transient fashions.

For Quakers in the past, simplicity implied eliminating distractions like music or novels from our homes; for many Quakers today, it means questioning the constant distractions of pop culture (especially violent pop culture) with its expensive, flashy video games, movies, and consumerism. Some become freegans, or thrift shop customers, and others learn to make their own bread, clothes, and gardens.

But although avoiding waste is one of the results of this kind of anti-consumerism, and (hopefully) that frees up income to share the world's resources a bit more equitably with others who have less, I think that perhaps the most valuable benefit of simplicity is the elimination of distractions. Not that I'm opposed to distractions, in their place: I love me my pop culture! Joss Whedon's television shows, a good comic book, and even video games with their sometimes violent and hypnotic images do, in fact, find a home in my life. I'd even argue that there have been times, when I've been tempted into self-importance and a strained, self-conscious piety that definitely outruns my Guide, that the very frivolity of pop culture has been the saving of me--at least for a while.

However, I need to remember the importance of simplicity in clearing away the excess, the clutter and the competing noise in my life that take away from me my ability to center down and listen for the Spirit speaking to my condition moment by moment.

Today, my only job was to sleep, to rest, so that my mind and body would again be strong enough and clear enough to do the work that is given to me right now to do. And I loved it. The result is that I am refreshed, really refreshed, in a way that no comic book or new set of clothes or laptop computer will ever refresh me.

Real simplicity is remembering the importance of the root. Real simplicity is setting aside the superficial long enough to find rest and to water that root, to remember and recover that living connection with Spirit.

As important as it is to avoid consumerism, greed, waste, and addiction, I feel today quite clear that the place of simplicity in spiritual life is greater than any of these: it is preserving the space in my life for the Holy; it is refusing to allow anything to crowd out that connection with the living Spirit that is the root of all the other flowerings of my outward practice.

At least when I am doing it right, for me, the testimony of simplicity is about resting in God.

* * *

Oh, yeah. The burn is healing nicely, too.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Smell of Forests

It is unseasonably hot today, and humid. More like late June than early May. And I have realized that it is the sugar maple that says "summer" to me. Now that the familiar shapes of sugar maples have taken back their female roundedness on the hillsides and edges of fields, my heart says it is summer. Even when the mercury drops again--as it surely will, as it always does in early May--I will be in summer now.

It is Beltane, and the woods are awake and full of life.

Walking in the woods today was like nothing so much as making love. Never mind the tracks and sounds and movements of animals, or the many small flowers on the forest floor, the smells of the woods were sensuously overwhelming. I kept opening my lungs as deep as I could, breathing in the scent of May woodland the way one can breathe in the scent of one's beloved.

It made me remember the weekend, when Peter and I were in the first, utterly-stoned-on-love stage of our relationship, when we stayed at Temenos together. I remember being wrapped around each other, damp with sweat as I am tonight from the humidity, smelling the scents of the forest around us and hearing the rustling of the leaves overhead, tangled together on the small deck at Knoll Cabin.

Bursting with lazy delight, we invited in the God of the Greenwood.

Deep in our hearts, we heard him laugh. He was too big, he seemed to answer. (Of course, a god can be any size he wishes. Perhaps he meant, we were so in love, the size of the god we were reaching for was vast--as large as the forests of all the world.)

Images: Maple leaves, Bruce Marlin, Creative Commons License 2.5; Green Man, Sally Holmes, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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