Everyday for 7 Years

Again and again, rain or shine, through ice or humidity! JebTheDog has faithfully taken me for a walk virtually every afternoon since 2011 along Minnehaha Creek. Nothing I post on Facebook is as popular as photos from these outings. Friends consistently remark about how they look forward to seeing the latest in the “creek series”.

At first, the walks were a duty I accepted as part of dog “ownership.” Self-interest motivated me during bleak February freezes — why else would I get out for a 30 minute walk in the depths of Minnesota winter? …it was good for me! Hassles were not limited to obligation or inclement weather. In 2017 I tumbled over a granite boulder on an idyllic summer afternoon. Surgery, screws, plates and physical therapy over a couple months were required to return my left wrist back to normal.

What happens when we do the same ritual time and time again over a considerable period of time? I now annually await the bluebells on the north slope. These are followed by an explosion of violets. Unintentional comparison of water levels are noted from year to year. JebTheDog remembers where to look for the snapping turtle each June in case I forget. Worried curiosity wonders what’s happened to the coy white squirrel. The rotting stump of a ginormous willows plucks a cord of grief, followed by grateful memories for what remains and for all that has been.

Beyond the uniqueness of each day and incidental occurrences, something cumulative and and rhythmic takes hold. Shifts in motivation creep in over time. Obligation morphs into anticipation. Laughing water reliably softens a knot of worry. Trees become faithful sentinels. Field mice consistently entertain and confound Jeb. The migration of mallards and the cyclic flow of seasons nudge us to notice patterns in our lives.

After seven years, the creek no longer presents itself as a destination. Rather it has become an extension of home, a harbinger of relationship, a sanctuary of wisdom, a grounding in matter — and in what matters. The Shakers had it right:

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

Seven years of mentoring by my faithful companion, JebTheDog, casts a gentle glow on my 68 years of “occupancy” on this planet. I recognize how so many years and relationships have been characterized by action/reaction, effecting change, leading the charge, not simply being driven but being the driver. Perhaps a certain intensity needs to characterize seasons or transitory roles in our lives — they too can reveal the bulwark of a life well-lived. Yet, these can too easily come to dominate. In dire cases we accept them as our destiny — such is the death rattle of stifling monotony!

The demise of leonine willows, the laughter of rollicking water, the tenderizing cycle of seasons unmask my patterns of foolishness. A smile begins to replenish worry lines framing my eyes. With a spiritual master extraordinaire leading my way, doing the same thing everyday for seven years nudges me to awaken, let be, listen, allow and behold — recognizing we are in the place just right and precisely where we ought to be.

I’ll be glad for another seven years of dog-duty!

___________________

The familiar Shaker quote is from “Simple Gifts”, composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett.

I am indebted to Martin Laird, O.S.A.; An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation; Oxford University Press, 2019 for the distinction between reactive and receptive mind as well as the perfectly prescriptive words: let be, listen, allow and behold (p. 94).

Just the Way It Is

Really pissed! Obscenities and expletives I’d never say out loud or in public ricocheted around my head. Calculations whirled — 4 x $3.99; 2 x $8.99; not to mention what was lost from last year! Revenge surged in my veins. I’ll get those little bastards!

Four parsley plants; a Black-eyed Susan and a purple phlox; tarragon that had survived two Minnesota winters, all chomped down to the ground. That innocuous phrase about “multiplying faster than rabbits” is more than a charming metaphor. It’s an immediate reality with destructive consequences right in our backyard. Bastards!

Back on the farm they had ways of dealing with this sort of thing! I still cannot reconcile an unapologetic confession by my mother from her childhood. With the ability of barnyard cats to reproduce exponentially she had no qualms about depositing new litters into the rain barrel. “That’s just the way it was”, she’d explain.

Yes, it’s just the way it works! Nature flourishes within a balance. In our urban setting bunnies overpopulate because natural predators have been eliminated. The normal equilibrium of all created things has gotten out of whack. Cities bring in peregrine falcons to solve a pigeon problem. I simply need to do the same with our rabbit infestation.

Off I tromped to the neighbors to borrow the live-trap they had used to rid their yard of this nemesis. Noting the rain barrel near our patio I felt my mother’s youthful resolve pulse through my veins. “Just toss in a few sliced carrots and set the trap”, our neighbors counseled.

Jeb the Dog was the first to discover the success or our efforts. Thrown off his nightly quick-trip-to-the-backyard bedtime ritual, Jeb was frenetic. Sniffing audibly, he frantically danced around the sprung trap. I was pleased but less animated than Jeb at the end of the day. Besides, the rain barrel is empty. I’d deal with it in the morning.

French roast in hand, swaddled in my velour bathrobe, settled in my recliner aside an east window I commenced my morning ritual of catching up with world events on my iPad. Jeb nuzzled aside me on the floor. Rabbits were too much of a nuisance already to disturb my cherished routine or spring me from the solitary comfort of my morning universe.

“Enough is enough!” proclaims the British prime minister from the morning’s headline. Terrorists had most recently struck in the heart of London. Such tragic events are intended to jar us from our routine and sense of equilibrium. They had. Swift and firm retaliation was necessary and promised. Twelve persons had been arrested. There would be more. That’s just the way it works!

Returning to the kitchen to refill my coffee, a plate of decadently delicious brownies a neighbor had brought over last evening caught my attention. We spoke about things neighbors do — about how they were to become first-time grandparents in little more than a month, for example. And as they do with good friends and neighbors, our conversation turned to more painful matters of the heart.

The criminal trial for the man charged with motor vehicle homicide in the death of our neighbor’s sister, brother-in-law and niece begins this month. She finds it necessary to be present for the out-of-state trial. Its been two years since her family’s tragedy. This neighbor wants the man to know they forgive him; they “only want him to get the help he needs.”

In such morning light bunnies eating parsley pales into meaninglessness. I chuckled with the recognition that I’d set the trap three feet from our statue of St Francis of Assisi. We had somehow allowed too much of our garden to become mere ornamentation.

How do our worlds become so small, insular; our hearts so petty or trivialized? That’s the real tragedy — a sort of waking death while still alive, a terrifying reality that never makes the headlines. I went outside and opened the trap door.

Later today I will return it to the neighbor’s garage. I resolve to celebrate Jeb’s frenzied chase of bunnies under the bushes and delight in nature’s “balance” that rabbits run faster than dogs. I concede to pay 99 cents for parsley at the store, trying all the while to embrace my place in the bigger picture.

“Enough is enough” has meaning whenever we get really pissed, want to call others nasty names, or strategize revenge. These are times to stop, breathe and smile at ourselves. Could it be the bunnies thought I was a dear neighbor delivering an equivalent plate of brownies?

Still there are times we need to cry. Too much in our world is out of balance. Tragedy strikes all too randomly in a world that chooses not to be neighborly, chooses hate over relationship, revenge over reconciliation. Sadly, we all can become real bastards when the circumstances are right.

Again it’s time to stop, breathe and take the time necessary to regain our sense of balance and equilibrium — that place from which we see ourselves in the larger scheme of things, desiring only that we all get the help we need, setting one another free.

 

 

 

 

Images of Our Own Creation

Who was the Charlie Brown character that is known for saying “Ugh!”? That’s how I feel this morning — UGH!!!

In a little more than an hour I will drive through the heart of Minneapolis during the morning rush hour. Having made the commute six times last week I really don’t look forward to the ordeal. However, I want to make finishing touches on the icon of Teresa of Avila I began with the local iconographers guild last week. Fighting traffic is my only option at the moment.

Being retired has insulted me from this hideous ritual we call rush hour — out of sight, out of mind! But last week I was ensnarled amid a ritual horde creeping ahead at 12 mph to which we have become resigned. Like me, most vehicles were occupied by only the driver. Unlike my 1999 Chevy Cavalier, many were monstrosities of engineering wizardry (I’m told some can even drive themselves!).

Yet, we all crept along snarled within the great American equalizer we call the morning commute. The collective insanity of what we have created was inescapable. There must be a better way! Yet, as complaisant rats in a benign laboratory experiment we dutifully reenact our routine oblivious to the insanity, blind to anything beyond the car ahead of us, resigned to a certain fate.

The stagnant pace on I35 between 46th and 35th street exits provided an opportunity to consider what we have become. In fact, the frustration moved me to a kind of “contemplation” of that from which there was no escape. In the moment, I could only name what I saw as an indictment of our blind, rapacious consumption.

All this was occurring during a week in which we gave lip-service to Earth Day. This was occurring en route to writing an icon. Countering the paralysis of a horde of vehicles pumping carbon into the atmosphere, iconography is about reverencing human association with nature — fine wood panels, base coats of clay layered to gold leaf, earthy pigments mixed with egg tempera, all handled reverently at a deliberate pace, the very antithesis of the mind-numbing ritual of the freeway.

Echoing through these intervening days is an off-handed remark offered by our teacher and master iconographer, Nick Markell. He reminded us of something I had never recognized. In the Genesis creation stories God creates the world ex nihilo, virtually out of nothing. Only when creating the human does God take the clay of the earth and breathe into it God’s own breath of life.  We are earthlings by original design, human as in humus — composed of dark, rich, fertile dirt; one with creation!

Would that we returned to this original awareness. Would that we truly lived the wisdom written in our very bones. Would that we awoke from collective addiction to rapacious consumption, the alienation with which we move about our day, our suicidal isolation from the earth, resignation to what we have created.

Quiet, Please!

Used to think that people who wore hearing-aids couldn’t hear — as if someone turned down their volume. Now I know differently. Some people need hearing aids because they hear too much!

On Monday I have my first-ever appointment with an audiologist. Closing in on 66, I guess it’s to be expected. My doctor tactfully softened his suggestion by saying, “It would be good to have a baseline for the future.” In my heart of hearts I knew I needed more.

There is a lot of clatter, clamor and bellowing commotion out there. I’ve really noticed it at parties and in restaurants.  But I am increasingly unable to differentiate what people are saying on TV or radio as well. It’s not that I cannot hear, I hear too well — too much has become an indecipherable cacophony of noise and babble.

Would someone please turn down the volume! My doctor tells me hearing-aids will help with some of this but they are not a cure-all. He was speaking about the functioning of my ears. We did not pursue an equally insightful political commentary in his diagnosis.

Couldn’t we all use a little more quiet right now? Don’t we all want the shouting to stop and a return to a more civil tone? Filtering out some of the “boys-terous” shouting on the airwaves and in our public square seems to be a desperate need many of us are experiencing.

Sometimes I want to turn off the volume all-together. But I fear what would happen if too many of us do that — the shouters and noise-makers would have a free-for-all. We’d all be in an even worse condition than we are now — imagine that!

What are we to do? We can start by setting our baseline, what’s acceptable, what we will tolerate. We also need to turn down the volume. Some voices we may need to turn off all together. Whatever may be right for us, we each need to protect our hearing, be conscious of the noise we generate, and moderate our public discourse.

This morning I happened upon a marvelous two-minute trailer for a movie to be released on March 12. It was a feast to my throbbing ears, a soothing respite from the incessant shouting. Treat yourself to a couple minutes of listening to this promo for In Pursuit of Silence. As the subtitle aptly promises, it’s a quiet movie with much to say. [link here]

 

Thanks for Everything, Even Death

Ending! So many endings! The end of the year is fast approaching. My scooter went into storage a few weeks ago. The patio furniture has been returned to the garage rafters. Trees are barren now. Even our Thanksgiving gatherings are primarily focused on gratitude for what has been.

Brittle brown stubble, a bit frost touched, marks once lush pastures at Wellsprings Farm. Sunset encroached on my days at the hermitage while dawn’s laboring toyed with my eager, expectant eyes. Ice settled the lake’s surface to a silent sheen, a blanket of white crystals acccenting nature’s somnolence.

Call it culmination, fruition, fulfillment, ending, whatever! There is a certain finality built into all things. Ultimately, we all die. Once death leered on the horizon, frightening, tragic, to be fought and denied, or simply ignored. Eventually, a certain silence dawns. Our eyes eagerly pierce and parse its darkness.

An enduring gift of these recent hermitage days echoes still, blanketing my anxious questioning, casting light beyond my fears. The gift? A poem by Michael Dowd:

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.
Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children.
Without the death of fetal cells, we would all be spheres.

Without the death of neurons, wisdom and creativity would not blossom.
Without the death of cells in woody plants, there would be no trees.

Without the death of forests by Ice Age advance, there would be no northern lakes.
Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil.

Without the death of plants and animals, there would be no food.
Without the death of old ways of thinking, there would be no room for the new.

Without death there would be no ancestors.
Without death, time would not be precious.

What, then, are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth.
The gifts of death are the stardust within our bodies.

The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color.
The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life.

The gifts of death are woodlands and soils, ponds and lakes.
The gifts of death are food: the sustenance of life.

The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling — deeply feeling.
The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.
The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, and then
graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen.

Yes, for all that was we give thanks. For all that is and will be we give thanks. For all endings, even death, we give thanks to the One in Whom we all finally abide.

_________________
“The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd taken from Evidential Mysticism and the Future of Earth, Evidence: Oneings, A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation, vol. 2, #2; 2014, pp. 22-23.

Unrelentingly True to Life

2015 will be remembered for its unrelenting display of October splendor, truly spectacular! Bright blue skies consistently frame brilliant yellows and blazing red landscapes. This morning softens the exuberance with an array of gray which Hopkins so aptly dubs “all a world of wet.”

Yes, October is the most honest month, the one most true to life. We are given the opportunity to rehearse and prepare for what lies ahead with vigor, gratitude and prudence — the wisdom garnered from all that’s gone before.

Our annual harvest is not limited to earth’s bounty. We are nudged by this seasonal reminder to embrace the fullness of our nature. A poem recently discovered expresses why October has become my favorite time of year…

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays,
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.

Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.

Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,

leaves and lives
falling away,
the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.

___________________
“Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher. Text as published in Child, House, World (Hiram Poetry Review Supplement No. 12, Hiram College, 1991). I am grateful to Parker Palmer for introducing me to this poem.

A Thing of Beauty

There is an exception to every rule!

Previous posts have confessed my compulsion with having the last word. Neither do I want this site to degenerate into a Twitter-like roster of cut-n-paste stories Yours Truly finds of interest. But there are times…

Coinciding with the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Catholic Relief Services unveiled a 3-minute video on our stewardship of creation. Actually, three minutes and four seconds!

Click [here] to have your eyes opened, your heart touched and (hopefully) your living inspired.

It’s a thing of beauty — the Earth and the video!

Tomorrow is NOW

Today’s the day! Today is the day set aside for special prayer, awareness and action on behalf of creation. The Orthodox Church has been commemorating this day since 1989. The rest of us Christians are taking a little longer to wake up to our need for practical conversion and spiritual transformation in the way we relate to God’s good creation. Better late than never!

Yesterday’s post suggested a few ways to make our commemoration of the day less “churchy” and more “grounded.” It was based in the conviction that we don’t need more prayer; we need more action. We don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer (more about that later).

Here is another simple exercise… I just completed it myself. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home points to numerous ways world organizations, nations and communities can move forward and the way individuals — believers and people of good will — might see, think, feel and act.

Here is the fruit of my personal “examination of conscience.” In other words, where I felt a special need or where I felt I could immediately adapt my behavior. Again, they are what I am attending to today — you will certainly come up with a different assortment. The references in parentheses indicate paragraphs in the encyclical where more is said about this suggestion:

— Reduce, reuse, recycle. Preserve resources, use them more efficiently, moderate consumption and limit use of non-renewable resources. (22, 192)

— Stop blaming problems on population growth. The real threat is excessive consumerism and waste. (50)

— For genuine change, put the common good first. (54)

— Be consistent. Pro-life, environmental and social justice movements are all connected. (91, 120)

— Make public transportation a priority and a more pleasant experience. (153)

— Plant a tree. Take mass transit. Car pool. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Chilly? Wear a sweater. Little things add up. (211)

More than anything, here’s my ultimate favorite. It’s a practice we had at home as kids. What a transformational consequence of prayer it would be if we paused to thank the Creator for our food, for the earth that provided it and for the laborers who brought it to our table.

— Say grace before meals. (227)

In all honesty, here’s the one that presents the biggest immediate challenge at our house. We are much too tied to our iPhones, iPads and “mindless television”:

— End the tyranny of the screen, information overload and distractions. Watch out for media-induced melancholy and isolation. Cultivate real relationships with others. (47)

Above I claimed that we don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer. I promised more about that later. Well, here goes! This is the suggestion (admonition?) that calls for my deepest personal conversion:

— Get down from the ivory tower and stop the rhetoric. Get to know the poor and suffering; it will wake up a numbed conscience and inspire real action. (49)

We will all mark this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in ways that are meaningful and practical for each of us. If you’d care to reflect on the forty or so suggestions that come from Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, you can access the list [here].

Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

Who doesn’t like the musical, Annie? It’s theme song, Tomorrow is one of those melodies engrained somewhere in the recesses of our minds that surfaces just when we seem to need encouragement the most!

Well tomorrow — Tuesday, September 1 — really is a special day. When Pope Francis released his prophetic encyclical on ecology and the environment – Laudato si – back on June 18th, a leading Orthodox bishop who had been asked to help present the document, said: “I should like to mention that the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided as early as 1989 to devote the 1st of September of each year to praying for the environment.”

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon then made a request: “Might this not become a date for such prayer for all Christians? This would mark a step towards further closeness among them.” So what’s the Pope to do? Of course, he followed suit by endorsing what the Orthodox Church has been doing for 25 years!

Most of the recommendations I’ve seen for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation strike me as disembodied, cerebral, too “vertical” — focusing on “saying” prayers or going to church. Seriously, isn’t that just the sort of heavenly-minded spirituality that has got us into the bifurcated mess we find ourselves in?

So here are a few more creation-centered ways of marking a day that is to refocus our attention on the Earth and how all life is intertwined:

  • Sing “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, the sun’ll come out tomorrow” along with Annie. Be child-like again — the way you were playing outside in nature when you were a kid! Here is a YouTube [link]. Consider: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Mark 10:15
  • Sit aside running water (we have a creek 3 blocks away). Listen to the gurgle. Wonder at the leaf floating atop the passing water. Imagine the stream’s source, it’s destination. What’s all this got to do with your Baptism (or ceremonial washing common to all world religions)?
  • Walk around your block — actually any place will do. This time get out of your head and dismiss every thought about what you have to do next. Just consider what you see. Pay attention. Attend to nature’s persistent poking forth. Marvel at the minuscule. Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air — just consider them, resist making this about you and your worries. Simply consider what you see — as they are, for what they are!
  • Go get yourself a Fall plant from the Garden Store. Fantastic purple-blue asters are coming into our markets right now. Reverently transform your yard with autumn splendor. As you dig the hole and carefully pat down the earth around your favorite Fall selection, remember that human, humus and humility all share the same root-word.
  • Spend some time — whatever you have — getting the following poem into your bones. It is surely as relevant today as when Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote it in the 1880s:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Finally, just be grateful. Say, “WOW… Thanks!”  If tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation gets more us us doing that it will have been a rousing success.

Tubs, Tissue Paper and Umbrellas

The clerk at CVS had just spoken of his fear that the roof was going to blow off during the storm front that had just passed. Now we navigated some of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes consolidated in the Target parking lot. Though unspoken we both tried to dismiss concern about the weather for our outdoor wedding three weeks to the day.

Antique baskets for the table and altar flowers need to be packed carefully. We were in search of tissue paper and solid plastic tubs. The price of plain white tissue paper — neatly folded and encased in crystal clear cellophane — could rattle the rafters!

“Do we have paper towels at home? We could use paper towels and they’d be right there ready to go at the wedding.” Once again, the ingenuity of the man I love shone forth.  We moved on from paper to plastic.

Who knew storage tubs came in so many sizes and could be marketed for so many distinct purposes? The price caused us to ask if cardboard boxes might serve as well. We even considered emptying tubs we already have tucked away in the basement for this one-time wedding use. In the end we bought two more imagining additional uses, protestations that we already have too much stuff not withstanding!

Target’s automated doors swung open to a world awash in infinite shades of gray. Thankfully the rain had stopped, the wind had subsided. Remnants of a white and green umbrella obstinately poked from the trash bin near the exit, certainly a casualty of the recent rattling storm. Being the unabashed dumpster-diver that I am, of course it required my inspection.

“Honey, you are not taking stuff home from the Target trash bin!” Mortification washed across his face as he distanced himself from me.

“But, look, it’s perfectly good… three of the pins just need to be reattached”, proudly claiming new-found treasure, feeling satisfied in my ability to repair and reuse. Besides, at 65 I am long past caring what others think of me retrieving what someone else too quickly trashes.

One thing I am not so good at is keeping my spirituality firmly grounded in the stuff of life. For example, last week regulars here read this only slightly veiled self-revelation of my own conviction:

The monk … feels in a confused way that he must live within a certain ill-defined ecclesiological space, at a point where the partitions erected by the separation have not prevailed and where already those walls are yielding which, as Metropolitan Platon of Kiev said one day, certainly do not rise all the way to heaven.

I can hear my bother-in-law John saying, “What the hell does that mean!?!”

So, my apologies for the many times I get too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. Yet, never will I apologize for reveling in such wisdom. It’s the way I’m wired. Besides, the intellectual and mystical tradition of the church is also a place to find God and to be pursued as well as cherished.

But my personal need for spiritual growth is to keep myself grounded in the equal wisdom of spiritual giants like Wendell Berry. Regular readers will recall that I quoted the Kentucky farmer two weeks ago:

No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.

My brother-in-law would say, “Amen to that, brother!”

Tubs, tissue paper and umbrellas are more than utilitarian. They reveal values, priorities, how connected we are with the physical world, revealing our true spirituality! Preparing for a marriage has a way of bringing this to the forefront — perhaps we all need to renew our covenant of love with the creation that makes it all possible.

________

The reference to “the monk” recalls my August 20 post and is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf, p. 128.  The Wendell Berry quote was first cited here in an August 12 post.