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Ray Charles and His Gift of America

The 4th of July holiday has always been a difficult one for me, for reasons I will name below. But because of the public nature of my work, I have never been able to pretend it away.

During the many years I was an active clergy person, and despite underground grumbles of “separation of church and state” the majority of any congregation I’ve ever served wanted to celebrate the 4th of July on the Sunday closest to it, which tended to mean patriotic hymns. My musician husband Jim Sims and I found a way to do that with some measure of integrity. Jim “spliced” together two hymns: America the Beautiful and Finlandia. (A click on the link should take you this piece, arr. by James R. Sims). Jim and I contented ourselves that in this little way, we could broaden the concept of democracy and freedom.

It is Friday, June 30 and the 4th of July weekend is upon us. I am sitting in my friend Gina’s chair in her salon. She has washed my hair and now she is cutting it.

“Do you have plans for the 4th?” she asks me. 

“Truthfully, the 4th of July is not my favorite holiday.”

 Gina asks me to explain and I do. I don’t like flags. I don’t like loud firecrackers. I don’t like the toll the unexpectedness of the noise takes on animals, both wild and domestic. I don’t like the patriotism which does not even pretend to something other than chauvinism. I don’t like the arrogance. And most of all, I find little to celebrate about this country at the moment. 

None of the above is new to me, except fear which, since the election, masquerades as cynicism. I don’t call myself an American; I don’t want to be imprisoned in that way. I take offense at all of us who have assumed the name America belongs to us, as though there were no other Americans but the ones who inhabit the United States 

I think Gina is a little surprised, but she is an accommodating kind of person, and – at least as far as I can tell – she makes no judgement. (I notice, though, that she is not volunteering anything about her 4th of July plans.)

Yesterday was July 3rd, and in my inbox was a video, Ray Charles (live), singing America the Beautiful. As I watched and listened, tears rolled down my cheeks. How unbelievably grateful I am to live in what I call Ray Charles time.

Today is July 4th, and I listen and watch twice more. Ray Charles has given me a gift, the realization that I love America. There is something sweet and tender at her core. I don’t have to claim the title of American to love America, although I am not entirely sure what the distinction means. I love America today in her smallness, and the countless kindnesses and resistances that are rising up everywhere, from others who, perhaps like me, are understanding this love anew, or even for the first time.

Today I am making barbecue and baking bread. We have invited our friend, Annie, to share our 4th of July meal. She said yes!

It has been a peaceful joyful 4th of July. Annie is safely home, and the darkness is coming. I am outside watering the garden. It seems as though everyone in the neighborhood has the same idea at the same time, and the jarring noise of the firecrackers has begun.

White Pines, Slugs, And a Wayfinding

Before I address the fact that I’ve not posted in a long time, I want to share a story. My three rescue dogs and I walk through our woodlands three times a day, maybe four, maybe more, depending on how the day is unfolding. We walk through a predominantly white pine forest, with some birch, maple, oak, poplar, and beech. The first walk of the morning whether 6:00 am or 7:00 am is a meditative walk for me. It is always a surprise when I hear my voice for the first time each day, and I prefer to do it in private. Lately I have been re-learning how to whistle. I don’t want anyone to hear that, either.

I carry kibble in my pocket for the dogs, and although they take off from time to time, after squirrels – which they can never catch or mice (they can’t catch them either, their underground labyrinth is of such complexity) – they always come back because they know what is in my pocket. By the time they come back, I have reached the neighborhood pond.

I long to make friends with the trees along our various trails, I name them (some of them), and, on the first walk of the day, gift them with the kibble, which I place in niches in their bark. It gives me joy to gift the trees, and I hope/trust they know I honor them. It gives me joy to envision the other-than-human beings who discover the offerings, the creatures of the woods. I know that someone(s) is enjoying these gifts, because the kibble rarely remains by the noonday walk.

One noonday walk, as I checked out the trees where I’d left kibble five hours earlier, I discovered who was benefiting. Slugs. Slugs. I discovered slugs had wrapped themselves around three offerings I’d left on one white pine – my grandmother white pine – and two more on the one adjacent, one of the water protectors.

I laughed with joy over the insanity of it. In my desire to honor and befriend the denizens of the woods, I had been building up a great population of slugs. I laughed because my “growing up normal” had taught me that there was no creature of greater or of lesser value than the human creature, not even slugs. I laughed because I could not pry those slugs off the kibble. It has to be a metaphor for something, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

I tell that story as a kind of farewell, although I don’t know exactly what I mean by that. Maybe I am saying goodbye to a kind of white-bread vision that has failed.

It is true, I have not posted in a long while. Part of the hiatus makes sense; I have been completing a workable draft of my next book. When focus of that particular kind is required, trying to write other things is too distracting. Not that I don’t have time, I do. Focus is the operative word.

The rest of the explanation is more difficult. My desire and intent for the writing I do on this site has always been to lift up what I have assumed (mistakenly, as it happens, and I might have seen this long ago) are the heart longings and heart breakings on behalf of our beloved lands and waters, an earth community crying out to us humans that it is way past time that we find our way back. I have hoped – and by way of confession, this is certainly born of my fear of alienating anyone – that I could propel my words like lifelines directly to our hearts.

I have been mistaken.

I have learned the word entanglement from my brother/mentor/friend Bayo Akomolafe, who – in his redeeming the word from any negative cultural context – has reframed my own reality. We are entangled: human, other-than-human, and our elemental lives of earth, water, air, and fire.

Everything is connected. For fear of alienating those who have clicked “like” on the www.restoringthewaters.com FB page, or, even better (and fewer) who have found the RSS button on the website itself, historically, I have pulled back from divisive opinions but for one: the urgency with which we humans must relocate ourselves within a reality which is web-like. Entangled.

The writing of my book-in-progress is about connecting the dots; nothing exists in isolation. The writing of my book-in-progress has transformed the lens(es) through which I see this world. I am not yet sure what that means in terms of this blog site, but fair warning. . .

To Know Them By Name

The early 14th century Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Listen to the music.
I am the concert that flows from the mouth of every creature,

singing with the myriad chords.

The story from The Daily Good to which this verse was attached was titled Singing to Tomatoes, and it caught my fancy. I am enthralled with the science which at last offers substance to the capacity of cognitive communication and vibration – human and non-human – taking place all the time, among all that make up the earth community.

I am thinking now about the trees and the granite boulders on the land I walk with our dogs. There are three trails on this land, trails that stretch through the woods from our home to Tannery Pond. I vary the walks – three or four each and every day, the first one attempted in the first light of the morning when my joints are not yet oiled. Sometimes the dogs and I negotiate which trail we’ll take. Other times, the dogs get their way, because they are ahead of me, and so I follow. From time to time I insist on my own way. Three trails: the Outer Loop, the Ridge, and the Highway. The Highway goes straight from house to pond. My daily goals have to do with time and distance: at least two hours and at least three miles. I combine the trails; any two of them make a mile. If we stay at the pond for ten minutes or so, each walk takes forty minutes.

The trails are not the only ones with names. I name trees: white pine, birch, maple, oak, poplar, and beech mostly. From time to time, names just come to me and I know the power of them: Beauty and the Birch. Other times I wait until I can hear the communication – tree to me. Not infrequently, I name them out of my own projection, and find that they have a different idea. If a tree is reluctant to introduce itself, I simply greet noname – no-na-me, three syllables. Is it too fanciful to think that trees like introducing themselves?

Rocks have names, too.

I can shut my eyes and name the trees and rocks of the Outer Loop:

The Sentinel
Turning Point
Slippery Rock
Spike Lee (one of several young pines by the same name – quite the family)

 The Twin Peaks (granite boulders)
Upper Slingshot
Grandfather Fallenbe

Grandfather Fallenbe is a tree which has fallen. At his foot stands a white pine who, for a long time, did not share her name. After weeks of greeting her daily, I heard the name: Elephant Tears. Two knots are reminiscent of sad elephant eyes, and from them the bark flows down, rivulet to rivulet.

Then:

Great Uncle Bones
Lil Brother Lean on Me
Auntie
Papa Bentwood
Grandfather Bolt and Little Sister

And then I greet the pine known (formally) as Lower Slingshot. People who know her well call her Granny Sling. I call her Grandmother Dear Tree. Across from her is Standing Rock –  it’s why we’re known as the Granite State – twelve or fourteen feet high. Then comes:

Bob Wire (barbed wire over the years has grown into this tree). Bob is a trans. He used to be Barb Wire, but he transitioned.)
Mama Bentwood and quite a few young Bents
Buckhorn
(an antler rub)
Beauty and the Birch
Whale Maiden (granite)
Old Paint (Poplar with moss)
Softly Dying
RT
(RT was my recliner. I could lay back on her and gaze through the branches of several trees into the clouds. RT split in two one day, and I could no longer recline. Because her bottom half has been rotting, I named her R2 and then R-squared, but she prefers RT.
Then Papas Bill and Bob, fraternal twins, one a pine, the other a birch, twins named after friends from elementary school.Uncle Willie and Uncle Charlie – these are my great grand uncles, both fallen.
Uncle Willie and Uncle Charlie were my grandmother’s uncles, and they were brothers. One fought for the Union, the other for the Confederacy. Both died. Not in the same battle, so I’ve been told.

As I come up over the rise, the beeches sing. I love the beeches in winter. They keep their light brown leaves, and when there is wind, they rattle. I have a friend whose name is Beecher, and so I have named these Beecher Woods. They seem to like it – they rattle a lot.

Tre (pronounced tray) is a stump of a birch which Jim had to cut, because he was ready to fall.

At last the dogs and I arrive at Tannery Pond. I have two friends (so far) at the Pond. One is an altar of stone, in honor of Jim’s brother John. On the stone live two hippopotamus(es?) because John loved hippos. He died in 2016, and asked that the family scatter some of his ashes in Tannery Pond. The stone altar with hippos is his gravestone, Hippocampus.

Great Grandfather lives on the bank of Tannery Pond. He is old.

Before the dogs and I go on any walk, I fill a pocket with kibble. As we walk, I offer kibble to the trees, seeking (and finding) crevices in the bark or woodpecker holes to leave them, a great game for the dogs who love to sniff them out.

Walking through this community of tree and rock gives me a profound sense of belonging. It’s hard to be lost when you know the names of the denizens of the woods. I like to think they know my name. I wonder.

Citizen of Earth

Francis Bellamy was a Christian socialist minister ousted from his own pulpit for espousing Jesus as a socialist, and preaching against the evils of capitalism. Maybe this is new news for some of us, but Bellamy’s original version of The Pledge of Allegiance was intended for citizens of any country.

I pledge allegiance to my flag

and the Republic for which it stands,

one nation, indivisible,

with liberty and justice for all.

No God entity was in the frame.

I’ve been trying to re-imagine what it might mean to be a citizen, a citizen of something or of somewhere. I do know this. I know that I am a citizen of the land I walk with our three rescue dogs. I know it especially today, in the eye of a blizzard; the woods are darkening in the late afternoon, and I know our path; I know to avoid the ice patches underneath the magnificent snow; I know every tree and boulder, many of them by name. I know I am a citizen of the pond – whichever trail we take – which marks the outgoing destination. And on a day like today, all four of us know the ultimate destination – HOME – where the fires in the wood stoves are as welcoming as the mac’n’cheese in the oven. A night for comfort food. I know myself as a citizen of the land, a citizen of the home fires, a citizen of my family, a citizen of my friends.

What does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean now, in February 2017, with a man in the White House (at least from time to time in residence) who has little sense of his own heartbeat and far less sense of the pulsing heartbeat of the land, a man who revels in malfeasance and surrounds himself with very white and very male advisors of malfeasance? What are they whispering in his ear? That’s a rhetorical question, I guess, because we know what’s being whispered. Climate change? Nonsense. GMO’s? A non-issue. Immigrants? Why keep them. Refugees? Not on our watch. Non-Christians? Ours is a Christian country. Women? It’s time they return to their place (except the one who can’t seem to find her pencils). Health care? Voting rights? Black Lives Matter? Latinos/as? Asians? People who are poor? We know what’s being whispered. I should probably use the word tweet – we know what’s being tweeted.

To identify as a citizen of the land is a far different commitment than to identify as a citizen of this country, (the U.S.) which is barreling down a path of unmitigated ruin, taking down everything it can with it. I am writing of the earth, the forests, the waters, all creatures, including the humans – many on the brink of extinction – habitat, and the very air that all life forms breathe.

My sister posts on FaceBook: I am hearing about oil spills from the left and from the right, so I thought I’d post this. “This” was a photograph of her winter flowers. My sister is a citizen of beauty and art, and things that grow.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer identifies herself as a citizen of the Maple Nation of the Northeast. She names the currency in the Maple Nation as carbon. “It is traded, exchanged, bartered among community members from atmosphere to tree to beetle to woodpecker to fungus to log to firewood to atmosphere and back to tree.”

What do we do now?

Like many of us, I imagine, I am overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by the petitions of resistance. I wonder if we don’t have to choose our particular citizenship and trust that others are choosing what we didn’t. Many of us are trying to re-negotiate our citizenship. Canada, we say. Or Ireland. Or Australia. Or Costa Rica. Or even California.

The question I hold, and it’s not easy to find the words, what citizenship do I claim, here in this place where I sleep, and walk, talk to trees and boulders honoring them by name even as I leave special gifts, where I eat, shovel snow, make soup for a friend with bronchitis, and haul wood from the outside racks to the living room? How do I become a citizen of the land, the waters, the denizens of the woods and oceans, and the forests? What is my currency? How do I keep it circulating?

Eco-Justice and Social Justice, Entangled

I have said many times in my writings and teaching that it is not possible to address the issue of human social justice without embedding it in the broader concept of eco-justice. Not is it possible to address the issue of human diversity without embedding it in the concept of biodiversity. The reason I say this is that humans do not exist in isolation from or separate from the non-human. Yet, as I review my posts over the past few years, I begin to see my own disturbing pattern – that I am writing about ecological dis-ease without really addressing human dis-ease.

To understand this world as sacred is to understand its as humans sacred as well. It is not always easy because the humans are the ones causing the damage, both human to human and human to non-human.

As I continue the research for my new book, which may or may not ever “go public” I am struck, again and again, that our basic fields of academia such as economics, anthropology, politics, are, for the most part, human centered. Anthropology may claim a homo erectus or an ape within its purview, but anthropological studies tend not to be concerned with human to non-human relationships. As Eduardo Kohn writes, “sociocultural anthropology as it is practiced today takes those attributes that are distinctive to humans and uses them to fashion the tools to understand humans.” It’s been pretty much a closed system. Kohn, Frederique Apffel-Marglin and others are reaching for an anthropology beyond the human, but it is certainly not mainstream.

Economics, too, is a self-contained and often self-congratulatory system, and a predominantly White system at that. Steven Marglin, a Harvard economist, refers to to the field by its derogatory name, the dismal science and writes extensively about current economics and its undermining of community. The field ignores the relational aspects, he argues, with its twin goals of market efficiency and utility maximization. Marglin himself, however, has been moving toward green, based on Aldo Leopold’s understanding of community: “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to citizen of it.” Still, as Marglin suggests, the ecological model of economics is hardly mainstream.

Regardless of the potential movement within the fields of economics and anthropology and others, there is no trickle down. Studies are funded and accomplished, decisions made, budgets are cut

. . . all of this happens with little consideration of the human to human relationship, and virtually no consideration at all to human to non-human entanglement.

The irony doesn’t escape me that the environmental organizations fall into the same pattern. Save the wolves. Save the manatees. Save the big cats. Save the elephants. Again, there is no consideration given to the human to non-human interrelationships.

It is no wonder that we as a culture cannot seem to extrapolate ourselves from our human-centeredness, and the travesty lies in the way it plays out: some humans to some other humans. The rest don’t count. We are all witness to the daily cost of a White privileged entitled ruling class of the very wealthy, but some of us don’t see, can’t see, or refuse to see.

I am suggesting that this is all of a piece. One piece. We know through the science that this living world exists as an interconnected, interdependent systemic web. I don’t believe that we can transform one part of it without addressing the whole. It all works together, or it doesn’t work at all.

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