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Elizabeth Cunningham
Elizabeth Cunningham
Author of The Maeve Chronicles.



Keen on Occupy Wall Street

Oct19

by: on October 19th, 2011 | 8 Comments »

I am not there in the flesh, though I did attend an occupy Wall Street, Kingston, NY rally last week, and there is some talk of occupying my tiny home town of Clinton Corners. I do support the movement in other ways as well, have donated money for sleeping bags and will continue to do so.

Last night friends came to dinner. We talked for a time of Halloween rituals. My friend was hosting one and wondering if I would be willing to be a keener (someone who mourns out loud).

 “Most people won’t be willing to wail or stomp their feet,” she said. “But we all have those emotions. They need to be expressed.” I assured her I would indeed be willing to wail.

Later talk turned to Occupy Wall Street.

“I don’t understand their objectives,” my friend puzzled. “They don’t seem to have clear goals.”

“Remember how you said most people wouldn’t be willing to keen?” I asked her. “Almost all of us are being hurt by the choices of the one percent, whether we acknowledge it or not, but most of us aren’t willing take to the streets.  The people occupying Wall Street, Washington DC and other cities are our keeners. They are expressing what we won’t or can’t express. Outrage at what has happened to our country needs expression. Our voices have not been heard in the halls of corporate or legislative power. They are giving us a voice.”

The analogy made sense to me—and it made sense to her. And it will be my answer now to those who ask: What are they doing? What do they want? They are us, and they are insisting that all of us be heard. In doing so they are making themselves vulnerable, just as the keeners will at my friend’s Halloween ritual but for far longer and at infinitely greater risk to their comfort and safety.

To all the people out in all weathers, making public woes that those in power would rather we keep private, I am keen on you. I am grateful to you. Thank you for being willing to risk discomfort, derision, tear gas, beatings, arrest, and injustice for the sake of justice. Keen on! And may the voice you lift for us all become a shout of joy.

The Rapture: Does it make Scents?

May20

by: on May 20th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

I thought I would write a possibly farewell post in case any of us are going anywhere on May 21, 2011 that would take us beyond the blogosphere. For those of you who haven’t heard, the Rapture is supposed to occur this Saturday at 6:00 local time. If you think you are going and are worried about left behind pets , there are avowed atheists standing ready to help.

I personally have been much more concerned about the loss of my sense of smell as a result of a lingering sinus infection and/or allergies. It was missing for more than a week, sending me into a perhaps unreasonable panic that it would never return. The last six months have been extremely stressful, but this deprivation tipped me over some edge, as infirmities often will. Think of Job stoically enduring the loss of his family and all his wealth. But when he is afflicted with boils he sits down in the ash pit and begins his famous rant.

Yesterday morning, I smelled my coffee again. Everything fell into perspective. Who cares if we are in the midst of a messy move to High Valley, the yard awash in mud where the septic system remains unfinished? Who cares whether or not we can afford to maintain it or will resolve all the complex issues with our neighbors? Who cares about the toll the economy is taking on us and everyone else, the extreme weather of which we are having our share and which is almost certainly linked to global climate change? (BTW haven’t the tribulations already begun?)


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The Derivation of Catastrophe

Mar16

by: on March 16th, 2011 | Comments Off

As I write, heroic workers in Japan struggle to prevent what one headline called potential “nuclear catastrophe” in the wake of the record-breaking earthquake and devastating tsunami. I was struck by the use of the word, so I looked up catastrophe in my 1975 hardcover edition of The American Heritage Dictionary.

Catastrophe 1. A great and sudden calamity; disaster 2. A sudden violent change in the earth’s surface; cataclysm 3. The denouement of a play, especially a classical tragedy.  The root derives from the Greek katastrophe from katastreiphen: to turn down, overturn. Kata-, down and strephein, to turn. From the root Strebh, to wind, to turn, to twist.  

At first the root meaning is not obvious to me. Then I think of the earth turning, like its own tides and storms, like the twisted strands of DNA. In a tragedy, literary or literal, there is also a turning. The tragic hero overreaches, underestimates, or both, and the tide turns against him, the people turn against him, the furies, the very elements. He is overturned, overthrown like a corrupt regime, downturned like our economy. We live in catastrophic times. Humans, as a species, share the tragic flaw of the hero, the illusion that we can control what is beyond our control for our own ends. And now we face global catastrophe.  

Earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, volcanoes (earth, water, wind, fire) are natural disasters not caused by human agency (though increased storm activity is linked to global warming). They are the earth shaping and re-shaping itself, losing and restoring balance, as it always has, as all life does. This dramatic flux is nothing new on planet earth. A cataclysm (kata, down kluzien, to wash) is catastrophic because we cluster in huge numbers along the coasts or on the slopes of volcanoes or on flood plains where the soil is fertile. And if we must build a power plant on a fault line to meet our needs, we do, hoping for the best, preparing (however inadequately) for the worst—all of us, in every nation that has the capability.  

As we appear to be in a period of denouement in our collective drama, we might ponder the meaning of tragedy.  The hero in a tragedy is not just flawed but heroic. Our advances in technology, medicine, agriculture that have hugely increased our population and our expectations all began with noble intent. The tragedy, as a form, gives us a chance to identify where the hero (us) lost his way. The survivors of the tragedy (us too) have chance to restore the balance that was lost and begin again.

What Did Jesus Say? Individual & Corporate Discernment

Mar2

by: on March 2nd, 2011 | 5 Comments »

There was a time in my life when in prayer and meditation, I would ask questions of Jesus (among other deities) and often feel that I had received answers – usually in the form of another question that made me see everything in a different light. When I learned that George W. Bush also spoke to Jesus in this direct, intimate way and based his political decisions on these conversations, I felt (and feel) uneasy. Was there any difference between me and the man who ordered the invasion of Iraq despite worldwide protest against this action, including the protest of many religious people and institutions?

In her recent article in Huffington PostGod in Wisconsin,” Diana Butler Bass notes that The Roman Catholic Church as well as most mainstream Protestant denominations have endorsed the Unions in their standoff with Governor Walker, but he remains immovable, obedient to his personal understanding of God’s will.

Reading her article, I felt an appreciation for corporate religious practice, the checks and balances the institutional church can provide to the individual’s interpretation of divine will (which is often his or her own will dressed up as god, a particularly noxious and often dangerous form of spiritual inflation). My gratitude to mainstream institutional religion is ironic. I have always been on the side of those the church persecuted: mystics, heretics, and other nonconformists. Though I am an ordained interfaith minister, I currently have no institutional affiliation.

The daughter of an Episcopal priest, who practiced and preached the social gospel in the 1960s, I left the church to become a member of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I attended a silent Meeting (as distinct from a pastoral) where each person shared in the Meeting’s ministry and anyone moved by the Spirit could speak from the silence. Quakers temper the individual’s “leadings” with the corporate discernment of the whole Meeting. Their model works as well as any I have ever seen. So why didn’t I remain a Friend?

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The People, My People: Who Are They?

Feb21

by: on February 21st, 2011 | 8 Comments »

Friends in Wisconsin have been daily attending the Madison demonstrations for the right of union workers to bargain collectively. They report spirited and witty placards: “The People’s Republic of Curdistan” for Wisconsin’s infamous snack food. People who were activists since the sixties and whose parents and grandparents fought for the right of unions to exist have been hailing each other via email and doubtless more sophisticated social media: All power to the people!

Popular revolution is clearly catching, as people from one Middle Eastern nation after another throng their public squares. The placards in Madison include “Walk like an Egyptian.” And Governor Walker has been called the Mubarak of the Midwest. It is an exciting, scary, encouraging time. Union workers and social activists in other states are taking note of – and maybe notes on – what is happening in Wisconsin.

I can’t help but ponder the differences between our Midwest and the Middle East. In Wisconsin, the tea partiers have jumped into the fray with counter demonstrations. My husband pointed out, they think they are The people, and theirs is the revolution. In most Middle Eastern nations there is no such confusion. A dictator is a dictator. He takes care of his people, a minuscule power elite, and The People en masse suffer, economically and politically. The young especially, with little prospect for employment, have nothing to lose and every reason to spend every day demanding change.


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The State of Our Stuff

Jan25

by: on January 25th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

While President Obama prepares for his State of the Union address, I thought I would spend my time contemplating the state of my various unions. The other night I was cooking dinner and listening to NPR (de rigueur in my marital union) when I heard a sound bite from a speech the president gave at a GE plant in Schenectady, NY. “We’re gonna invent stuff; we’re gonna build stuff.” I was busy sautéing vegetables or I might have run screaming from the room.

I know that American workers need jobs and that the last decades have seen the huge and devastating loss of manufacturing jobs to China and the many other places in the world from which we now purchase most of our stuff. But in my own union, marital – and through marriage with a beautiful, run-down property we are trying to preserve – sorting through stuff has become an overwhelming, sometimes guilt-inducing, all-consuming job.

My mother-in-law, an immigrant from Trinidad who came of age during the Depression, let nothing daunt her when people laughed at her ambition to work in coffee importing. Instead she became a teacher and convinced her husband to do the same. In 1945 they bought a farm for a song and eventually ran their own small eccentric school. Over the years, they added onto the original farmhouse and outbuildings in a haphazard, do-it-yourself (sometimes downright scary and dangerous fashion) and after his death my mother-in-law continued buying land and speculating in real estate. On vacations they managed to travel the world and wherever they went they brought back lots of stuff, making little distinction between gems and junk and never throwing anything away. As people from the Depression Era knew, you might need it someday.

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On Discovering the Existence of The Westboro Baptist Church

Jan11

by: on January 11th, 2011 | 9 Comments »

Perhaps I have been hiding under a rock – maybe a good strategy, considering – but until today I was blissfully ignorant of the existence of The Westboro Baptist Church and its history of picketing rock concerts and a wide variety of funerals. Upcoming events include the funerals of the Arizona shooting victims and of Elizabeth Edwards. Members of the church are also infamous for picketing at the funerals of soldiers whose deaths they consider evidence of god’s wrath. Although the name of their website is http://www.godhatesfags.com/ it seems their god hates just about unconditionally, and hell is either overcapacity or infinitely expandable. Dante’s nine circles could never suffice for all the people the WBC believes the almighty has consigned to eternal damnation.

I tried to go to their website, just as I recently tried to visit Sarah Palin’s, to read for myself contents reported by the media. In both cases, my computer could not connect, although connection to other sites was no problem. I wondered at first (in paranoid Luddite fashion) if somehow those websites can screen people like me who want to spy on their activities or at any rate decry them. Then it occurred to me that maybe those sites are so trafficked that there is an impassible jam. Either explanation disturbs me.

My husband, who is a news junkie, just walked in and told me he had never heard of The Westboro Baptist Church, either. Unaffiliated with any recognized Baptist conference or association, the WBC was founded by Fred Phelps in 1955. According the Wikipedia entry, its modest membership (71 in 2007) consists mostly of Phelps’ family. Since 1991 the church has been actively involved in the anti-gay rights movement. Now clearly they have become experts at exploiting the media and attaching themselves to anyone with celebrity, including Lady Gaga whom they likened to “The Beast Obama.”

Lady Gaga counseled her fans not to engage with the picketers. In Arizona people will assemble not as counter-protesters exactly but as human shields for the mourners. Meanwhile Arizona lawmakers are drafting emergency legislation to prohibit protests at or near funeral sites.

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Requiem for a Holy Tree

Dec10

by: on December 10th, 2010 | 19 Comments »

The Glastonbury Thorn. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Arboricide. There really is such a word. It means “the wanton destruction of trees.” On December 8th, 2010 arboricide was committed against the legendary Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, a tree that is said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea some two thousand years ago. The tree, whose ancestry has been traced to the Middle East, blooms during the seasons of Christmas and Easter. Each year on December 8th a sprig is cut from one of the tree’s descendants in St John’s churchyard and sent to the queen for her Christmas table. Whoever attacked the tree was likely familiar with the custom and chose the day accordingly. The Thorn Tree that stands – or stood – on Wearyall Hill was felled once before by Cromwell’s troops during England’s Civil War. The townspeople replanted the tree from cuttings, as they no doubt will again.

For the first arboricides, the tree was a symbol of Papist superstition – and perhaps also the wealth and privilege of the established religion. Whenever I hear the word Papist, I know the other “p” word, pagan, is just under the surface. The Cromwellians also made war on Maypoles, Beltane fires, observances of saints’ days, all the old customs that had been baptized and renamed by the Roman Catholic Church. Until the current arboricide is arrested, we can only speculate on the motive.

Some accounts call the arboricide an anti-Christian act which I think is unfortunate and inflammatory. The great thing about a holy tree is that no creed is required for veneration. Whether or not the tree sprang from Joseph’s staff and whether or not the staff was made from the wood of Jesus’s cross, the Glastonbury Thorn Tree is sacred because it is beloved, because it is a place of pilgrimage where people bring their troubles as well as their homage. It is sacred because it connects faith and myth, past and present, nature and miracle. It is sacred because it is a tree, with its roots in the earth and its branches in the sky, because it mediates those two worlds and draws sustenance from both, because, like all trees, it shows us how to do the same.

The veneration of trees pre-dates Christianity and no doubt all organized world religions. The tree is a source of life, offering shelter, food, habitat, fuel, soil preservation and enrichment – not to mention breathable air. In places where trees are scarce or land has been cleared, the tree is a gathering place, a landmark. In a world where we are losing forest at an alarmingly rapid rate, we would all do well to venerate trees, believers and atheists alike. No matter the motivation or beliefs of the arboricide, let’s not forget that it is a living tree that was attacked and living forests that continue to be at risk. May this loss awaken us to our deep-rooted, sacred connection with trees.

Virus warning re: the Amnesty site

Dec2

by: on December 2nd, 2010 | 1 Comment »

My husband just went to the Amnesty link I provided in my last blog post “Coming to Light” and found a warning from google that some pages of the Amnesty site have been infected with a worm. I have not encountered this warning myself, but want to make sure I let people know there may be a problem.

Because I signed up to Write for Rights, I received an email from Amnesty and am going to a particular page with case histories and addresses. I have not encountered a warning, but it is wise to be wary. Sad to think a cause can be undermined in this way.

Coming to Light

Dec1

by: on December 1st, 2010 | 1 Comment »

Chanukah begins at sundown on December 1, the beginning of what I call the Feasts of Light, the observances and celebrations that carry us through the darkest time of the year.

I am sure I am not the only one to note the coincidence of the recent WikiLeaks happening this same week, leaks that “bring to light” what people in power had every intention of keeping dark. Whatever havoc the revelations may wreak, and however questionable a character Julian Assange may be, I doubtless join many in believing this exposure of secrets is a good thing. What is revealed has a chance, at least, to be healed.

I confess I have fallen out of the blogosphere recently, because I find it daunting to be topical, to make intelligent, inspiring or thoughtful commentary on events I can barely keep up with. I comfort myself that I am doing what I can to save the earth – a particular bit of earth called High Valley. But I admit that though I sign petitions and call representatives on this and that, it is easy to lose sight of the rest of the world.

Today I committed to participation in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights December 4-12 writeathon. Their site provides you with all the information you need for writing letters on your own or for organizing a letter writing event.

The Write for Rights campaign is way of bringing to light the suffering of individuals, groups, and communities, suffering that may be unknown to many or deliberately distorted or obscured by those in power. It strikes me as a fitting way to honor this season.

Joyous Feasts of Light to all!