Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Every Minute Kindness

There's a story I heard once, about a couple of enlightened Zen masters.  One of them goes to see the other one rainy morning, and when he gets there, the one he's come to see says to him, "When you came to see me today, did you leave your umbrella on the right side of your shoes, or the left?"

The visitor realizes he doesn't know, and that he doesn't know because he wasn't fully present when he put down his umbrella out in the entryway.  So, without so much as drinking a cup of tea, off he goes, back home to study Zen some more.  He puts in another twenty, maybe thirty years, getting himself well and truly enlightened this time, so he can really call himself a master--

--a master of every minute Zen.

Which is, I suppose, a pretty good thing to be.  But it's not my goal.  I want to be an every minute Quaker; I want to practice every minute kindness.

I think I already know what that would feel like, at least a little.  It would feel like this:

When I was a little girl, my grandparents owned a cabin--a "camp" in the Maine vernacular--out on a lake in Maine.  There were tall pine and cedar trees, but there were also humming birds, loons, and neighbors stopping in to talk to my grandfather about fishing, or to trade recipes with my grandmother.

And on the door to their cabin was a screen door.  Not a cheap metal screen door, mass produced and for sale at Home Depot, but a proper wooden screen door, with a tightly coiled spring halfway up the door to pull it closed, and a hook and eye you could use to fasten it if you chose, but no real latch.

That screen door stood open, the only barrier between the warm, lumber-smelling inside of the camp and the pine-needles and sunlight smells outside.  That door was always full of breezes, and birdsong, and family and friends coming and going all day long.  And every time it would open, as whoever it was would run lightly out into the world or the world would run lightly in to visit, that door would say the same thing...

ScreeeEEAk... BAM!

My whole childhood, all the memories of water and sunburn and mosquito bites and love, somehow can be translated with the cry of that door:  ScreeeEEAk... BAM!

That, that memory, that sound... that is the sound of a heart that is fully open.  Friends can come, friends can go...   ScreeeEEAk... BAM! 

Or maybe just the sound of the soft breezes in the pines overhead, or the leaves on the swamp maples, the far-off whine of somebody's motor-boat, or even the call of a loon.  The screen door is open to them all, welcomes them all, stand merrily in the midst of the flow and the ebb of them all.

If my heart becomes like that door--if I can learn to stand open and ready, like that door, I will have learned the art of every minute kindness.  I will have become an every minute Quaker.  If friends stop by, I will greet them.

If God stops by, I will be ready.

Hello, God!  So glad you're in the neighborhood.  Want some iced tea?  A sandwich?  I was just sitting down to lunch.  Come on in and sit for a while.  Or--I know!  Wait a sec--  I'll be right out to you!

ScreeeEEAk... BAM! 

(May my heart be open to the breezes, filled with a cheerful noise.  May I grow kind; may I have a welcoming heart.)


Images: Deeds of the Zen Masters, Hotei; Lake and Dock, Peter Bishop.

Monday, July 19, 2010

An Experiment in Scriptio Divina (Peter)

This came out of something we did last month in NEYM’s ministry and counsel working party on spirituality and sexual ethics. That group has been charged with promoting discussions at monthly meetings about sexual ethics, and also going through a process of deep and spirit-led discernment ourselves to draft a sexual ethics statement of our own, with the ultimate goal of bringing the results of all of this for consideration at the Yearly Meeting level.

Last month, one of the things the working party did was to go into worship and, from that place of worship, write down questions each of us would have had about sexual ethics and sexual behavior when we were younger. It turned into a sort of written worship sharing—not something I’d ever done or even heard of before—and it was pretty powerful.

I decided to try writing during my regular meeting for worship at Mt. Toby. Call it “scriptio divina”—divine writing. Or call it written ministry, analogous to vocal ministry. Or call it, as the subtitle of QPR says, “blogging in a spirit of worship.”

It felt like what I wrote was coming from Spirit. Not just that, it felt (like vocal ministry often does in a really good covered meeting) like it was tapped into the same Spirit that had us all gathered. I was on the fence about standing up and sharing it aloud during meeting. In the end, I didn’t, but I’m sharing it here. The first and second drafts both came during meeting. The second is more writerly, the first perhaps a little closer to the root.

LET LOVE BE THE FIRST MOTION.
SPEAK FROM LOVE
BE SILENT FROM LOVE

SPEECH WITHOUT LOVE IS AGGRESSION
SILENCE WITHOUT LOVE IS SHUNNING

WE ARE NOT CIRCUMSTANCES IN ONE ANOTHER’S LIVES;
WE ARE PINPOINTS OF GOD’S LIGHT.

WE CANNOT BE HARMLESS
ANY MORE THAN THE SUN
BY WITHDRAWING ITS HEAT
WOULD CEASE TO CAUSE HARM TO THE EARTH

LET LOVE GUIDE OUR SPEECH AND OUT REFRAINING FORM SPEECH

And the second draft…

HARMLESS

Speak form love.
Be silent from love.

We cannot be harmless
As if we were circumstances
In one another’s lives;
We are pinpoints of God’s light.

We cannot be harmless
Any more than the sun
By withdrawing its heat
Could cease to cause harm to the Earth.

Let love guide our speech
And our refraining from speech.

Image credit: Scribe Writing, posted without attribution at Manuscript Anxiety.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Weeks Six and Seven: Plastic Tally and Comments

No photo this time--I just didn't feel like hauling out the camera.  Just a tally and a commentary:

The last two weeks' tally for the two of us amounts to 3 lb., 1 oz. of plastic waste.

The good news is that very little of that is single use plastic.  The weight is probably inflated, too, since we tossed out several empty bags of dog food.  We buy our dog food in bulk, and the bags are mostly paper, but with a thin plastic liner.

I know some people do feel their dogs home-made food.  Honestly, with the special dietary needs our aging and allergic dogs have, I don't think that's a road I want to travel.

Another category of plastic waste this week is packaging from tools and hardware for our home renovation.  It's amazing how many things are simply not available without a little plastic coffin around them!  And other things, quite useful and ordinary things, like the pulleys needed to repair sash weight windows seem to be unavailable except in salvage stores.

This is disconcerting.  The more I focus on the environment, the more clear I become that old-fashioned virtues like thrift, including repairing the old and preserving the new, are a huge part of what we need to cultivate in the interests of our planet.

Other heavy things disposed of over the past two weeks include a broken timer for lights. The casing was plastic--again, lots of heavy metal parts probably inflated our weight this week--but, also, the timer itself was at least twenty years old.  When an appliance containing plastic is old enough to vote, I don't feel quite as bad if it is beyond repair.

So, the good news: a lot of that weight was unavoidable.  The bad news?  On vacation, I kept forgetting to tell waitresses not to bring a straw with my beverage.  (Who drinks iced coffee through a straw, anyway?)  We must have collected half a dozen little plastic straws--each and every one of them a monument to forgetfulness.

I'm less upset with that than I might be, though.  Being on vacation means being away from my usual habits--that there is a dramatic contrast between my actions when I'm in a situation where I can cultivate environmentally-friendly habits, and one where I cannot, seems to say more good things about our day-to-day changes than negative ones about our travel habits.  It's not like we travel every week, after all, and perhaps we'll get better at that, too, with practice.

Meanwhile, we had a great week at home around plastic waste.  Though our (old enough to vote) vacuum cleaner has died and cannot be repaired, we've decided to replace it with a rebuilt Electrolux (almost entirely metal in its working parts, and used to boot!).

And you should have seen the grin on Peter's face when he came home from grocery shopping this week.  The only plastic item?  A "rubber" band around a bunch of organic broccoli.

Stops. (And Openings.)

Part 3 of 3. 
(Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.) 

The most dramatic illustration of experiencing a stop, and what came of it, is the experience I had on September 11, 2001, the experience that made me a Quaker.  But I've written about that before, and it is so woven in with the story of how I grew a peace testimony that I think I'll set that aside for a moment, and travel just a little further back in time, to a different kind of a Stop--more personal, less dramatic, but one that is, I suspect, still unfolding.

Sometime around the year 2000 or 2001, I began to feel waves of something a lot like grief, and a lot like fear, around my work life.

At that time, I was working as a psychotherapist, a trauma therapist specifically, and if I am to speak plainly, without preamble or apology, I was good at what I did.  For many years, I had worked specifically with survivors of childhood and adult sexual abuse and sexual assault, and for a number of years beginning in the mid 1990s, I worked with surviving friends and family members of homicide and vehicular homicide.  I know that I made a difference for a lot of people, and though it was demanding and often stressful work, it was also deeply satisfying, standing hand in hand with another human being, at their heart's center, looking for what their life's experience meant to them.

In describing the nature of that work, I often remember the time a Pagan friend asked me if I didn't feel sometimes distant and detached from the gods during the intervals between Pagan gatherings and the large, dramatic rituals that punctuate our years.  I realized that I did not, and that there was something in the skinless intimacy and empathy of a psychotherapy session that made me feel close to the gods, to Spirit, all the time, on an everyday basis.  Just sitting with people in their grief and their pain, and being open to it and to them, was actually deeply sustaining to me as a human being.  By holding them as humbly and fully as I could, I was somehow finding my way, day after day, to a spring of tenderness that watered us both.

And that was wonderful.  I have enormous gratitude for having had the privilege of sharing that with so many men and women over the years.

This is not to deny that the work could also be very hard.  I remember times when I would leave a group or a family session, especially early in my work as a homicide bereavement therapist, where I would feel as used up and limp as a soiled and wrung-out dishrag.  And I remember how I was always careful to leave at least thirty minutes between client appointments, so that I could, if I needed to, go outside to a green, leafy spot, to literally lie down flat on the ground and let the pain and tension of a hard session drain out of my body and into the earth.  There were certainly times it hurt to hear the secrets of a human heart, and more times it hurt to remain open to understanding the depth of fear and despair such a heart can hold.

Perhaps it is not surprising that so many of my friends, when I eventually shared the information that I thought I needed to stop being a therapist, nodded sagely and mouthed comforting words about "burnout," that scourge of the professional healer.

But I wasn't burned out.

At the time, I didn't have a language for what I was experiencing... but I knew burnout.  Every therapist knows burnout--we play along its edges all the while, and I was not so dishonest with myself that I would pretend I had not slipped over the lip of that canyon if I had.  While there was stress in what I was experiencing, it wasn't stress that made me lay down being a psychotherapist--it was distress: a particular kind of distress.

It was, I now believe, a stop, in the Quaker sense.  The waves of feeling--of grief and fear--that rose up for me around my work as a therapist were the closing of a door.  I wasn't supposed to be a therapist anymore; I was supposed to do something else.

What I'm saying sounds a bit melodramatic and self-important when I say it straight out.  Still, it's what I have come to believe is true: God (whether I know what I mean by that term or not) wanted me to do something else now.  It was time for me to let go of being a psychotherapist.

Now, being a psychotherapist is not like being a dishwasher or even an account executive.  There are jobs and there are... identities.  To be good at being a psychotherapist, you have to let the imperatives of listening and caring seep down into you--you have to find within you what the job demands, and let it flower.  Psychotherapy is one of a number of tasks humans do that are whole-person identities, not just 9 to 5 wage-earners.  It's like being a parent, or a writer, or an artist--it's who you are, not just what you are.

And being a psychotherapist is also a source of prestige in our society, too.  Love 'em or hate 'em, psychotherapists are the wisdom figures of our culture.  People look up to psychotherapists, even if it's just to lob rotten tomatoes at us.

So, when I began to experience this strong and growing feeling of sadness around my profession, and I began to feel pangs of loss that were my first clue that I wasn't going to be, as I'd always imagined, a psychotherapist for the rest of my life, it wasn't a lot of fun to admit that to myself.  Stopping being a therapist meant letting go of a lot of things other people admired.  It meant that, while who I am as a person would not be less, I might very well be seen as less.  And I had never, in all the years since entering graduate school, been anything but a psychotherapist.  I didn't know what else to be.  I didn't know how else to earn money, but I also didn't have any idea, suddenly, what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Hence, the fear.

I remember calling my dear friend Laura, to talk with her about the increasing sense I had that I had to find something else to do for a living, and how I had no idea what that would be. 

"Well..." she began, clearly at a loss.  "It's too bad--how you're feeling.  But... you have to get over it.  You have to!  You have to earn a living, Cat."

True.  (Probably.)  But not enough.

But there are careers out there where "earning a living" is not sufficient justification for holding the job, and psychotherapist is one of them.  I knew I was becoming less than I had been, in at least some ways: I was beginning to confuse the funny uncles and the abusive stepfathers, the Klonapin-takers with the Xaanex-prescribed.

It didn't feel like burnout.  But that didn't mean I could ignore it, or start "phoning it in" in a line of work that is all about being present.  Instead, I had to let being a psychotherapist go, along with all the sense of certainty and all the things I loved about standing so close inside the human heart each day.

I would guess that ministers who lose their calling (or find themselves called away from their pulpits, which I bet does happen a lot more than we have language for) might feel the same way.

But you have to be honest about it.  There's no way to do certain jobs if you do not do them with full integrity.  And sometimes things that are very good just come to an end.

It was scary.  But it wasn't like I actually had a choice.

Fortunately, around that time, my daughter was bringing home her friends, a band of the most charismatic, interesting, intelligent middle-school girls in the world.  I realized I liked teenagers--a lot.  Not as psychotherapy clients. (I'd been there, done that, and I have to say, teenagers were just ghastly to work with for me; something about that skinless intimacy and the developmental stage of adolescence are, I think, just not a good fit.) But as people, in their natural habitat, laughing and exclaiming and emoting among their friends.

I have also always loved books.

Is there a profession that combines love of books with love of teenagers? (Hm.  Let me think...)

I knew that I did not want to teach English the way it had been taught to me--could not, in fact, imagine how I could teach English in that way and still be me--but around that time, Peter, who was in the process of becoming a teacher himself, brought home a book, Nanci Atwell's groundbreaking In the Middle, and (as the Quakers say) Way Opened.

The details of finding a teacher training program, winding down my private practice, and finding a compatible student-teaching assignment were absorbing to live, but are beside the point just now.

What is my point?

God/Spirit spoke.  She said, "let go," and I didn't want to, but I did.

I didn't want to; I didn't have any conception of that time of any kind of God or Presence beyond the Pagan gods of woods and earth and sky I knew already; I didn't have any prior experience doing the things I eventually found to do, and I found it hard to develop the skills I needed to do them.  The whole process hurt and was full of sorrow.

But it was right.

How do I know it was right?  I just do.

It is not that Quakers hear the Voice of Spirit giving them leadings and stops that is the unique thing.  It is that they have a language for describing it, and a tradition of honoring the discernment of spiritual promptings even in the absence of rational understanding of the reasons behind them.

I really like that.  I like being able to name that overwhelming experience that took my life, shook it briskly, and set me down somewhere else.

The experience, though, is primary.  Especially because working as a therapist meant working with the kind of open heart and integrity that marks spiritual depth, there was no way to be true to who I was without becoming Someone New.  There was no way to deny the stop, with or without a word for it, with or without a sense of where it would eventually (hopefully) lead... nothing to do but let go, and trust God.

I do not know why I was supposed to stop being a psychotherapist.  Maybe I'll be one again some day.  But I still don't have a clear sense of why I had to lay it down; I just know that I did.  Not because I was burned out, not because some stories had begun to seem very familiar, and I needed to work hard to remain fresh listening to each new client.  I don't know why it was time to end.  I just know that it was.

But I still don't know why I am supposed to be doing this now, not therapy.  I like teaching, I like the house I can afford on a teacher's salary (and never could have afforded as a psychotherapist, many of whose clients were poor and un- or under-insured).  But I have a sense that the question raised by my stop--"Why?"  Has not yet been answered.

Is it because I am supposed to live here, in my so-loved woods?  Is it because I will one day be led to teach somewhere in particular, like Ramallah or elsewhere in the world?  Is it so I will one day have a pension, and be free to write or do something that will matter then?  Or is it because, while it is less dramatic, what I am doing in the classroom is itself just what Spirit has in mind?  Is it--I don't know.

I just don't know.  And yet, I am content to let this part of my life unfold.  It does feel like I'm headed in the right direction--it just doesn't feel like I'm at a destination yet.

I guess I'll just keep walking.

Image credits: Stop sign, Heart of the Matter, Mitch Ditkoff's blog.  
Butterflies and Blooms, Joe Mabel. 

Monday, July 05, 2010

Why I Love the 4th of July

I inevitably cry at small town parades. 

I don't think anyone should mistake love of country for love of all decisions of its government or as a boast of all of its actions throughout history.  I don't think anyone should mistake love of country for blind patriotism or jingoism.  There is so much more to a country--to any country--than a military or a flag.  There are its people, its landscape, and its unique history, of joy and idealism and hypocrisy and loss, all blended into one unique, unfinished story.

I love my country--not blindly, but deeply, and (I hope) well.

My own love of country is founded in the blue and rolling hills that bound my horizon, the murmur of the leaves of trees in the distance, old (and not so old) church ladies sharing pickle and pie recipes at a church social, small town high school bands, and the smell of a small swimming hole at midsummer.  It is the love of rivers, of sky, of wild things and of sun-baked city streets.

It also embraces the sweat and fear of a soldier in Vietnam, the agony of the slaves whose efforts built virtually all our civic monuments up until Emancipation, the horror of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, and the triumphant, insistent moral courage of the civil rights movement.  It celebrates the fine day in May when Massachusetts recognized gay marriage, it grieves the deaths at Gettysburg, goes on trial with the Berrigan brothers, runs for president with Susan B. Anthony, and presses close, hushed and reverent, with the hundreds of emancipated slaves who met Lincoln as he toured Richmond, Virginia, during the last days of the Civil War.
 

That's my patriotism.  I am neither proud to be an American nor ashamed to be one : I am humbled.  I am the heir of so much history, so much pain, and so much love.

May I be worthy of the struggle so far.


 Images: Aldermen in July 4th ParadeThe South Hero, Vermont 4th of July parade, July 4th 2000,  courtesy, Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Trap (by Peter)

There’s a blogger named Colin Beavan who calls himself the “No Impact Man.” He’s become slightly famous in environmentalist circles, with a book and even a movie about him. The blurb for the movie asks, “Can you save the planet without driving your family crazy?”

That is one of the things Cat worried about when she started our plastic fast. She never demanded that I join in, and I’m not doing it to the extreme degree she is, but I also have a concern about plastic—have had since about 1980, when I was in college and became (for a couple of years) an avid organic gardener. I’ve been setting aside and weighing my own plastic waste as well, and I’ve been avoiding plastic packaging a little more in the last few weeks than I always have done.

But we’re contending with one of the biggest traps in this and a good many other worthy causes: Gray-faced, grim obligation.

About twenty years ago, when recycling was really starting to take off in our area, someone wrote an essay in The Valley Advocate called “Recycler’s Rush,” about how good it felt to sort the glass and paper out of your trash, even cutting those little plastic windows out of envelopes. Believe it or not, the essay got some angry letters in response, the gist of which was, You shouldn’t be doing it because it feels good; you should be doing it because the environment is in crisis and we’re headed for ecological Armageddon.

That’s an all-too-common failing of activists on the left of a great many issues: If it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t make your life an unending misery, then you’re doing it wrong. (I suppose this is just one specific instance of the basic human instinct that turns every earthquake into a punishment from an angry deity.)

And Cat and I are dealing with it ourselves. We photograph and weigh our plastic trash every week. (OK, we didn’t get to it last week. Bad, bad us.) The trash gets picked up on Mondays, so putting out the trash is part of the Sunday night rush getting ready for the coming week (which, for teachers, is considerable). The photographing and weighing takes a twenty-minute chore and turns it into an hour-long, multi-step project, and the temptation is always to think, That’s what you get for being such a bad citizen of the planet. If you didn’t generate so much plastic, this job wouldn’t take so long.

In case it’s not obvious, here’s why that’s really messed up: When I first started tagging along with Cat’s leading on this whole no-plastic lifestyle, I took the position that this shouldn’t be about personal purity, it should be about having an impact on the environment. I was doing things like writing letters to food manufacturers and talking to my school’s food service director about replacing their plasticware with compostable flatware. I felt energized and effective. I do less of that, the more that the weekly weigh-and-photograph feels like a burden.

Where Cat feels energized and effective is around finding new ways to run a more eco-friendly kitchen: baking all of our own bread and rolls, canning and freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables, making homemade chocolate syrup. She also finds herself noticing plastic in the world around us more, and finding more ways to avoid buying it, like getting our cheese from the deli counter wrapped in waxed paper. But that also means noticing all the times when we mess up and find that, Woops, we’ve brought home yet another plastic wrapper.

There are two ways you can go when you start noticing that your organic BGH-free ice cream from local grass-fed dairy cows comes with 0.016 oz. of plastic around the rim of the cardboard lid on the cardboard carton: You can start to think, Maybe we need to radically disengage ourselves from consumer culture altogether, or you can think, This sucks, I’m not doing this anymore.

Neither one leads to a particularly effective ministry. There are people like the Amish who have so radically disengaged from consumerism that they might almost qualify for corporate sainthood, if there were such a thing. But really…nobody ever says to themselves, Gee, I think I’ll be Amish too. The Amish don’t minister to the outside world; they simply shun it. They don’t offer any handholds that the rest of us can use to follow in their ways. So while they may not be contributing to the downfall of the Earth, they’re not going to save it, either.

George Fox said, “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” The Amish aren’t a pattern; they’re a one-shot, limited edition, break-the-mold collector’s item. Because they don’t engage. And the same thing has happened to countless other left-wing save-the-world movements that have gotten too caught up in their own precious purity to continue caring about the mass culture.

So where does that leave me and Cat on a Sunday night? Not, I hope, beating ourselves up over every plastic coffee lid. Not making the weekly photo into a ritual of liberal self-flagellation. But developing habits. Learning to see, and to act, but in ways that feel sustainable, even energizing. Choosing the plastic-free product when possible, or going with homemade, but also rolling with the occasional slip-ups and the inevitable shrink-wrap. Doing the weigh-in on Friday instead of Sunday, to leave a buffer for when we can’t get to it on time.

And reminding ourselves and each other, over and over again, If it’s a misery, we’re doing it wrong.

The Trap (by Peter)

There’s a blogger named Colin Beavan who calls himself the “No Impact Man.” He’s become slightly famous in environmentalist circles, with a book and even a movie about him. The blurb for the movie asks, “Can you save the planet without driving your family crazy?”

That is one of the things Cat worried about when she started our “plastic fast.” She never demanded that I join in, and I’m not doing it to the extreme degree she is, but I also have a concern about plastic—have had since about 1980, when I was in college and became (for a couple of years) an avid organic gardener. I’ve been setting aside and weighing my own plastic waste as well, and I’ve been avoiding plastic packaging a little more in the last few weeks than I always have done.

But we’re contending with one of the biggest traps in this and a good many other worthy causes: Gray-faced, grim obligation.

About twenty years ago, when recycling was really starting to take off in our area, someone wrote an essay in The Valley Advocate called “Recycler’s Rush,” about how good it felt to sort the glass and paper out of your trash, even cutting those little plastic windows out of envelopes. Believe it or not, the essay got some angry letters in response, the gist of which was, You shouldn’t be doing it because it feels good; you should be doing it because the environment is in crisis and we’re headed for ecological Armageddon.

That’s an all-too-common failing of activists on the left of a great many issues: If it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t make your life an unending misery, then you’re doing it wrong. (I suppose this is just one specific instance of the basic human instinct that turns every earthquake into a punishment from an angry deity.)

And Cat and I are dealing with it ourselves. We photograph and weigh our plastic trash every week. (OK, we didn’t get to it last week. Bad, bad us.) The trash gets picked up on Mondays, so putting out the trash is part of the Sunday night rush getting ready for the coming week (which, for teachers, is considerable). The photographing and weighing takes a twenty-minute chore and turns it into an hour-long, multi-step project, and the temptation is always to think, That’s what you get for being such a bad citizen of the planet. If you didn’t generate so much plastic, this job wouldn’t take so long.

In case it’s not obvious, here’s why that’s really messed up: When I first started tagging along with Cat’s leading on this whole no-plastic lifestyle, I took the position that this shouldn’t be about personal purity, it should be about having an impact on the environment. I was doing things like writing letters to food manufacturers and talking to my school’s food service director about replacing their plasticware with compostable flatware. I felt energized and effective. I do less of that, the more that the weekly weigh-and-photograph feels like a burden.

Where Cat feels energized and effective is around finding new ways to run a more eco-friendly kitchen: baking all of our own bread and rolls, canning and freezing locally grown fruits and vegetables, making homemade chocolate syrup. She also finds herself noticing plastic in the world around us more, and finding more ways to avoid buying it, like getting our cheese from the deli counter wrapped in waxed paper. But that also means noticing all the times when we mess up and find that, Woops, we’ve brought home yet another plastic wrapper.

There are two ways you can go when you start noticing that your organic BGH-free ice cream from local grass-fed dairy cows comes with 0.016 oz. of plastic around the rim of the cardboard lid on the cardboard carton: You can start to think, Maybe we need to radically disengage ourselves from consumer culture altogether, or you can think, This sucks, I’m not doing this anymore.

Neither one leads to a particularly effective ministry. There are people like the Amish who have so radically disengaged from consumerism that they might almost qualify for corporate sainthood, if there were such a thing. But really…nobody ever says to themselves, Gee, I think I’ll be Amish too. The Amish don’t minister to the outside world; they simply shun it. They don’t offer any handholds that the rest of us can use to follow in their ways. So while they may not be contributing to the downfall of the Earth, they’re not going to save it, either.

George Fox said, “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” The Amish aren’t a pattern; they’re a one-shot, limited edition, break-the-mold collector’s item. Because they don’t engage. And the same thing has happened to countless other left-wing save-the-world movements that have gotten too caught up in their own precious purity to continue caring about the mass culture.

So where does that leave me and Cat on a Sunday night? Not, I hope, beating ourselves up over every plastic coffee lid. Not making the weekly photo into a ritual of liberal self-flagellation. But developing habits. Learning to see, and to act, but in ways that feel sustainable, even energizing. Choosing the plastic-free product when possible, or going with homemade, but also rolling with the occasional slip-ups and the inevitable shrink-wrap. Doing the weigh-in on Friday instead of Sunday, to leave a buffer for when we can’t get to it on time.

And reminding ourselves and each other, over and over again, If it’s a misery, we’re doing it wrong.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Leadings and Stops and Gods and Trees

Part 2 of 3. 
(Part 1 is here.) 

What does it mean to listen to a god?  What does it mean to say gods or spirits talk to us?

Well, for the most part, it's subtle even when it's life-changing, and it's nothing someone with a good, hard case of skepticism couldn't explain away without even trying.  Which would be a shame, because listening to and speaking with the world of Spirit is a source of so much meaning and wisdom and strength.  I know some people need to go without it; I need not to.

I remember, for instance, the first time I "heard" a tree speaking to me, specifically.

My daughter and I were living in a tiny little apartment only a few streets from the downtown of the small village where we lived.  I had a car, but we rarely needed to use it: in good weather, we could walk almost anywhere we needed to go, from my daughter's day care center to my office and work.  I knew all the short cuts and back streets, and I enjoyed walking everywhere. 

Which is what I was doing, ambling along a cracked stretch of sidewalk on a back street in town, when the maple tree "spoke" to me.

I say "spoke" because there isn't really a word for what I sensed.  It came out of the blue, at a moment when I wasn't looking to have any kind of unusual or paranormal experience.  I was just walking down a public street in broad daylight, with little kids and barking dogs and the occasional whoosh of a passing car, when all of a sudden a large, ample-limbed maple tree, sort of went, "Mmmmm."

At me.

No, it wasn't a sound.  Not really.  What it was like most, perhaps, was the way a cat who likes you will brush up against your legs as it walks by.  Only I was the one walking past the tree, and it wasn't a touch in a physical sense.  More like a sense of the tree's life, the tree's being, brushing up against mine.  And you know?  The tree had one--a life, a being, maybe even a self--and if it wasn't exactly an "awareness" in there, it was something.  And that something was friendly, and it had just done something a lot like a friendly greeting.  Toward me.  Personally.

Which was startling.  And cool.

So I stopped, turned back toward the tree, and (glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching) stood with my arms and my shoulders and my aura open, relaxed my mind and my heart as best I could, and thought something like "Hello," back at the tree.

And then walked home.

Almost all of my encounters with Spirit are a lot like the encounter with that tree.  As in, they happen in broad daylight, during the course of ordinary life; they are usually non-verbal; and often they are as simple as a sense of another being who also seems to be sensing me.  Sometimes that being or spirit seems very large--as large as an entire hillside or forest--and sometimes, it seems very small.

This feeling is a lot like the feeling I sometimes get in Quaker meeting, at the touch of a hand against mine, or on my shoulder.  Sometimes there can be such tenderness and connection even through the most fleeting of glances after worship that it can stand in quite effectively for a long, warm bear hug from a friend of many years.

I have come to trust that the love and tenderness we feel for each other in the silence is real and solid and true.  That doesn't mean other human messiness in incapable of coming along and messing it up, or that Quaker meetings are utopias.

What I think it means is that, sometimes, for a few moments, we are privileged to be able to see into one another's deepest selves, into the part that connects with God.

What about God, then?

For a moment, I will set aside the various forms of communication I've had over the years with Pagan deities, and focus on She Who Gathers Us in Quaker meeting.

I've written before about what the touch of Spirit is like for me in a Quaker meeting.  Sometimes, She is a flood of Light, and a rush of such simple, physical joy that I feel the way I used to feel at four years old, playing outside in my sandbox on a sunny morning.  Other times, what I feel is simply a trembling that seems to well up from the heart of everything--a deep, resonant vibration that reminds me of what it felt like to stand on a bridge over a Vermont river in flood, feeling the pavement and the railings quiver.  That impression is of a great power, waiting within all things and discoverable by the lightest finger-touch on the surface of everyday reality.

Sometimes there is just a sweetness and an ache in my heart.  (Despite the fact that I feel self-conscious about how affected it may look to do so, I often worship with my hands over my heart, focusing on and feeding that sensation, that God-feeling, within me.)

So much of my experience of Spirit is physical, is in images and metaphors for non-verbal experiences.  At times I remember what it was like as a girl, to sail alone on a lake in Maine on my parent's Sailfish--a sailing surf-board guided by a wooden daggerboard thrust down through the center of the boat to act as a keel.  When I feel Spirit moving and stirring in my heart, I remember how that daggerboard used to vibrate and thrum, almost moaning with the force that moved the boat, carving it forward through the waves.  I feel as though that daggerboard is vibrating again, only this time, it passes through my heart, laboring to keep me on course as Spirit moves me.

And at other times, I think of myself as a cork, bobbing so lightly on the surface of the water of Spirit that I am almost more a creature of air than water.  A needle, magnetized and passed through me, can spin me and guide me easily toward North, effortlessly and freely, as long as I can stay light and open to Spirit, to God.

Some leadings are light, drawing me quickly and easily, like that cork-and-needle compass.  I might, after worship, feel a nudge to speak to this person, or to that.  I might understand what someone has to say to me in a way I would not have otherwise done; I am more open to what That of God within that person may have to say to me.  The sensation of this is light and free and gentle, and I am usually left feeling glad and good. 

Other leadings are strong, hard, and heavy, like the action of the daggerboard of a sail boat reaching in a powerful wind.  The work at New England Yearly Meeting sessions, laboring with other Friends around our relationship with Friends United Meeting and our concern for GLBTQ Friends has been like that: powerful and hard and strong, laboring to stay low in the water of Spirit, and feeling the ache of God's love and pain over our injustices and intolerance of one another, even in the name of justice.  This feeling is hard--but I would not trade it for anything.  It is full of sadness, but deep and rich with love.  Though it exhausts me to carry it for very long, I crave it beyond anything else in the world of Spirit.

Now, none of these feelings, these sensations, come to me with much verbal content.  I don't hear a voice saying, "Go talk to Joe Smith," or "Anna Jones needs you to tell her about X," or whatever.  It's more either an easy mobility to be lightly moved to where Spirit (I think, I guess) wants me to be, or it's a deep groundedness that lets me stay there, even in the face of pain or conflict.  It is more like a balanced stance and a readiness than the spiritual equivalent of kata; my movements are not directed, I'm just open to responding quickly and intuitively from a spiritually centered place.

Most leadings are like that.  They are not so much guidance to, say, go to Africa and teach English classes there (though wouldn't that be fun!) as they are a way of keeping myself open so that, when the God-in-the-world brushes lightly up against me, like the spirit of a tree, I will be ready; and when people with need pass me during the course of the day, I will see their need, and, if it is my turn to meet it, I will do so.

Doesn't that sound pleasant?  Doesn't that sound good?  And it is--almost entirely, even when it is hard, or tiring.

But a lot of the time, it's not enough; or I get too bollixed up and distracted with the business of daily life and my so-important SELF that I lose the center of it, and no longer notice the gentle nudges and tugs of those leadings.

For those occasions, there is the divine 2x4.  There are stops, as the Quakers term them.  And those are important, too.

(To be continued.)


Image credits: Old Maple Tree, Jemima Malkki.  
Wooden sailing boat Kleine Freiheit, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Weeks Four and Five

Lots of plastic, even for two people for two weeks: this tally comes to 2 pounds, 2 oz.  Which works out to be about 27 pounds of plastic for each of us at the end of a year at this rate; still well below the American average.

Which is disconcerting, actually.

One comment about this double-week's plastic waste:
While we're still dealing with a certain amount of old single-use plastic, there's some new stuff, too--largely from fast food buys when one of us was suddenly hungry away from home.  One of the things that has to go, for us (and probably our society) to move away from a disposable culture is the ability to make decisions on the spur of the moment. 

Life without plastic involves more planning ahead than most of us are used to: remembering to return reusable bags to the car, but also remembering to eat before running errands, or to bring a snack or reusable container for food while out.  And while you won't see any more frozen pie crust wrappers in our plastic tallies, that will only work if I either allow the time to make pie crusts when I need them, or plan ahead and have some home-made ones in the freezer.

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