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.
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