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How I Spent my Lent


by: on April 7th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

One day in Lent went like this: another scattered stupid day of laundry, a crazy amount of mediocre cooking, bad feelings about myself and my negligible achievements, and attempts to pull myself out of self-absorbed self-criticism. Scurry, scurry, worry, worry, and meta-worrying about worrying. Tiring.

I got simple things done – a haircut, but only after wasting inordinate amounts of time surfing the web for “flattering haircuts for older women,” printing some images, doubting, looking for signs, irked at having to make all these decisions myself without clear divine commands. (Maybe the command I didn’t hear was, “Is this really important? Please live with more gratitude and now-ness.”)

That night, trying to decide whether to add doing a textbook to my list of tasks, I went to a Taize service at a local Church, a ritual I got into last year with my friend, Marilyn. I love to watch the candles, flickering as if they have a soul. Sitting in the dark, the computer well out of reach, I try to spare thought for others, think about Jesus in Gethsemane. Up above the altar, a big, round stained-glass window shows that scene, idealized. Why, I wonder, is Jesus’s face raised to the sky in prayer? Why that posture? Wouldn’t his head be down on the stone in agony and pleading? Around him are brilliant reds like chili peppers, and stunning blues. Closer to the congregation, two white lambs stand guard, one proudly holding a denominational banner, apparently with its leg. I wonder (but not in a harsh way) why martyrs need clean robes and how lambs can super-proud without dirt on their wool. Is this representation of myth an acknowledgment that daily life has so many dirty clothes and animals acting like animals? What would it be like if the lambs in church looked real, silly and fearful with maggots in their tails? What if Jesus looked like an everyday person in a country under occupation? Maybe we would find it hard to hope; maybe we’d resent being reminded of the world too much around us.

I believe in the value of ritual. Though not Catholic, I like to observe Lent in an interfaith way: a little bit of Ramadan for solidarity with the poor, a little bit of Judeo-Christianity for depth in simplicity, a little bit of Native American enlightenment through solitary retreat, a Jungian belief in the balance of feast and fast. In an unorthodox way, I decided to try out the experience of relinquishing several needless things during this period between Mardi Gras and Easter: candy was the first thing. For years, I never ate candy and somehow I’d started eating it regularly. The second thing was crabby negativity, a lifelong habit. You can guess which one was easier to give up.


Murmuration & Occupation – Why We Shut Down the Ports


by: on December 15th, 2011 | Comments Off

On Monday morning I awoke before dawn and somehow managed to crawl out of bed, fumble my jeans and boots on, and sling my drum and backpack – the one that has become the indefinite home for my first aid kit, a patchwork bag of herbal tinctures, a squirt bottle half-full of milk of magnesia, a bottle of bubbles, and some lavender essential oil – over my shoulder.

As I checked my back pocket one more time for my ID and locked the back door, the clock on the microwave read 5:08 AM. By 5:39 AM, I was snaking through the dark streets of West Oakland in what seemed to me to be a much-too-small crowd, mostly quiet except the occasional heartbeat of a lone drum or the sleepy but hopeful cheer that rose up as we passed under the overpass of Mandela Parkway. It was somehow comforting to hear our own voices echoing off the walls – it helped us remember our power.

You better believe I was asking myself the same questions that CNN, the Huffington Post, the BBC, and Mayor Quan had that morning: Why on earth are we doing this? Are you absolutely out of your gourd, trying to shut down all of the major ports on the West Coast?


The Derivation of Catastrophe


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.

Spring…and Death: More Questions than Answers


by: on March 13th, 2011 | 4 Comments »

After a long, cold, and icy winter, it’s spring here in Boston. The light has changed, making the sky somehow lighter and further away; if you find a spot out of the wind you might actually feel some real warmth from the sun; and in my neighbor’s miniscule front garden a band of hardy crocuses (croci?) have adorned themselves with purple buds. The birds didn’t have to be told twice, and they are singing, tweeting, cawing, and flying around with new home building and speed dating on their minds.

Spring is change, new life, excitement. Taking off the heavy leather, the bulky down, searching the ads for some new running shoes.

And spring also makes me think of death. But in a good way.


What Did Jesus Say? Individual & Corporate Discernment


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?


God, Seed: Poetry and Art About the Natural World


by: on February 13th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

by Rebecca Foust and Lorna Stevens

It was in San Rafael, in a tiny subterranean artist studio with walls of thickly plastered brick that I made my acquaintance with New Zealand’s huia bird, meeting it in my friend Lorna’s intricate twig sculptures and an altered artist’s book whose pages had been painstakingly excised, erased, and inked with images of haunting delicacy. I learned how the bills of males and females (his squat cudgel for shredding bark, her curved needle for finding insects) had evolved so as to make them mutually dependent mates-for-life. I also learned that the huia had recently become utterly, unalterably extinct, so that not only would I never see it with my own eyes, but neither would my children, nor my children’s children, nor their children and so on and on down the long, bitter corridors of never.


The State of Our Stuff


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.


What can we learn from the world’s oldest art?


by: on December 14th, 2010 | 20 Comments »

For Alex Shaland’s accompanying photographs of South African rock paintings by the indigenous San people on our art gallery – click here.

Secrets Hidden in the Rocks: The Spirituality of the South African Pre-Historic Paintings

by Irene Shaland

Rocks as canvas: the world’s largest open art gallery

A few hours of scenic driving from bustling Cape Town (and seventeen endless hours of flight from the US) will transport you into an other-worldly realm: the South African Cederberg Mountains, a massive rock wilderness where wind and rain have sculpted giant sandstone boulders, piled one upon the other, into bizarre shapes and towering surreal creations in every shade of rust red, brown, yellow, orange and white.

The Cederberg is the canvas for some of the oldest and most spiritual art ever created, and the mountains – home to the highest number of painted images per square kilometer – are one of the richest areas of rock art in South Africa – indeed the world. And, unlike France or Spain, where the well-known Stone Age paintings of the Lascaux and Altamira caves are located, in South Africa deep caverns are rare, so most paintings are in small shelters or rock overhangs. This means that most South African paintings are easily viewed, but they have also been exposed to merciless sun and rain for many centuries. They are pale remnants of once brightly colored images.


Requiem for a Holy Tree


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.

The Dead Do Vote and Not Just in Chicago


by: on October 26th, 2010 | 5 Comments »

As the United States prepares for midterm elections (a phrase that recalls midterm exams and evokes much of the same anxiety) some of us are also preparing for Hallowe’en, the Eve of All Saints Day for Christians and for pagans, Samhain, a word that translates from Gaelic as Summer’s End. Many Mexican-Americans will celebrate Día de los Muertos. Though these holidays are culturally and historically distinct, they share the same time of year and many of the same customs, particularly the honoring of the dead, the acknowledgment of worlds and realities beyond our immediate ken.

However long term their effects, elections happen in the frenzy of a particular moment and climate, currently a desperate and divisive one. The holy days which precede this sacred, secular rite — the casting of the ballot — can offer a longer view, both comforting and profound in its perspective.