Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Earth, waters, wind, and fire

To Re-establish Kinship ~ Sense of Place Part VIII

To Re-establish Kinship

As pastor of a California congregation whose commitment was to the development of a paradigm for multi-generational worship, the challenge for me was to honor the traditional practices of the church while at the same time redesigning the elements of the ritual in such a way that any one, of any age – of any faith or no faith for that matter – could participate with integrity.

We had good story tellers, actors, and artists in the congregation, of all ages, and so the dramatization of the scriptural stories along with the liturgical art to accompany them unfolded with relative ease. More difficult was the worship piece called the Confession of Sin. How it appears in the Book of Common Prayer is as a long, very long, string of words, with no silences for thinking about the many things “done and left undone”.

An idea slithered its way into an afternoon alpha state – I was lying on the floor of my office; it had to do with partnering river stones with running water. Of the many scriptural stories of rocks and water, I chose three: the discovery by the Israelites in the desert that if they were to strike the rock at Meribah, water would flow; the rocks placed across the Jordan River by the twelve tribes which became the path into the Promised Land; and the convert Paul referring to the risen Christ as Rock.

At the appropriate time, each member of the congregation was invited to choose a stone from the basket, weaving its way down the aisle by the efforts of a couple of the youngest. I asked the people to hold onto their rock; think about the things they had done that they wished they hadn’t; the things they hadn’t done that they wished they had; and to lift those regrets from their hearts and place them on the rocks. The same children then gathered the rocks, brought them forward, and with words of compassion and forgiveness, I poured water over the rocks and into the baptismal font. Regrets named, promises made, regrets released, and washed away, a new heart given. Although I imagine I did mention God from time to time, I didn’t have to. Rock and water were enough.

During a Reiki session one evening, I described the ritual to the body worker as she stood over me, and her reaction both surprised and disturbed me. “You lay your sins and regrets on the rocks and expect them to carry your burdens? Did you ask them? Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”

I had no answer at the time, and although I thought about it in a guilty kind of way for quite some time, I finally relinquished the concern and thus yielded to the power of the ritual. Rock and water.

Frederique Apffel-Marglin reminds us that before the beginnings of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, we lived in diverse communities of other-than-humans, with a lively host of spirits – of trees, of waters, of creatures – spirits who teased us, played with us, chastised us, educated us, communicated with us, all as they accompanied us on our earthly journeys.

In Subversive Spiritualities she writes, “The beings of this world taught us . . . they had reasons for existing, their own requirements, and their own agency. We needed to ask permission, to share, to give back, and to give thanks.” (p 3-4)

I find now that I am revisiting the angry words of my Reiki master. I still don’t appreciate the aggressive manner in which she asked her questions, yet there was fodder enough in her thinking to accompany me for more than twenty years.

Thomas Berry arrived in my life during those twenty years, in the form of books, recordings, and interviews. In a conversation with Caroline Webb, Berry insists, “Every being has rights. Every being, to exist . . . has three rights: the right to be; the right to habitat; and the right to fulfill its role in the great community of existence.”

So, what is the role of a rock? Maybe I should ask the question differently. Does a rock have a spiritual role? Likewise, what might be the spiritual role of water?

Because the refrain “the waters of grief” keeps looping in my heart, and I am thinking about eco-justice and rocks and yearning and grief and water and release and rebirth. This is a new day for new ritual, and, as Robin Kimmerer and Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Jeanette Armstrong and so many others remind us, it’s a time for permission, for sharing, for reciprocity, for mindfulness, and for gratitude. God or no God, it doesn’t matter; it is time, way past time, to know that the Holy Land lies under our very feet. How are we going to learn to honor and celebrate that?

That is kinship. It lies deep in our human memory and in the memory of everything that has life.

A Sense of Place Part VII ~ Coming Home

Lori Arviso Alvord is the first Navajo woman surgeon. In her book The Scalpel and the Silver Bear she chronicles her wayfinding, first to Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, then to Stanford Medical School.

Born of a Navajo father and a “blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very attractive” mother, there was not ever a time that Lori Arviso Alvord did not live out of the paradox of being of two worlds and belonging to none.

She writes of the four sacred mountains which encompass the Navajo Reservation, mountains which form a circle to keep her people safe. Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peak, Blanca Peak, and the La Plata Range. To leave this mountain embrace to go east to school was a frightening prospect. The gift of these mountains was a sense of place.

Once I knew place. The unpredictability of my family life would often yield to chaos, and it was during those times I would make my escape. Packing whatever was portable in the refrigerator and a bottle of water, I would ease my way out of the brick patio door, skim over the lawn, through the tall meadow grasses (where I could begin to relax, as they were taller than I) and into the woods. From there I followed a secret way which led to a series of rock caves, big enough for crawling, big enough for sitting cross legged. Small enough to remain undiscovered, small enough to hide.

The rocks which defined the caves were irresistible to a pre-pubescent child, and I would taste each one with my tongue. The ritual required that I taste them according to size. I tasted the dirt, the moss, nibbled on the ferns. I did not know the word sacrament; I know now that my relationship to the rock caves and the earth around them was a sacramental relationship.

That was my place. To this day I have a ritual of laying my cheek against a particular boulder on my daily walks, touching my tongue to it, and offering silent tribute to the rock caves of my childhood. To this day I can walk through the woods and smell the damp and rotted mossy earth of the forest floor in rural Western Pennsylvania. If I can embrace with integrity the concept of indigenous solely as it relates to place, then I claim those caves as my place. I belonged.

But it’s not so simple. I’ve not belonged to any land since in the way I belonged to the rock caves. I wonder if it’s the long ago glimpse of belonging to a place in a ritual way that frames the intensity of my yearning today. And maybe I am getting closer. Although I am not encircled by four mountains which proscribe my home, I have a path to the water, to Tannery Pond in Wilmot, New Hampshire. It’s not a long path, and so my husband Jim has cleared a couple trails like switchbacks, to lengthen the walk. I walk these trails three and often four times a day, with our three dogs who are at home in the woods. Every adventure shows me something I’ve not seen before: a boulder; a White Pine; green fungus against a lichen covered stone; the curl of the bark of a birch; one brilliant red maple leaf fallen among a bed of yellow poplar; a certain mist on the pond itself.

This morning it was the mist, and the stark black bare branches over my head, entangled to form a squirrel’s paradise. As I remember those caves of long ago, I remember them as mine. Now I understand what I couldn’t at the time. These trails I walk do not belong to me, but I to them. And with that understanding comes the trust that day by day I am coming home. I belong to this place.

The Paris Summit on Climate Change ~ Why We Care

“As you prepare to come to the Paris Summit in December, we would like to ask you to think about your personal role, and answer a simple, but profound, question: Why do I care?”
Organised by Nicolas Hulot, special envoy for the French President for the protection of the planet,  the letter asks each delegation member to think about what a greenhouse gas slashing pact will mean for themselves. “Your response might be very personal – the influence of a parent, child or grandparent; the influence of culture or personal beliefs; the influence of a transformative experience of the wonder and beauty of nature; a crisis in your life which brought you back to core values,” the letter continues. “In our contemporary world it is very rare that we are asked to talk about what lies at the heart of our actions. Instead we hide behind statistics, data, policy statements etc, few of which actually touch other people’s hearts and minds.”

I am struck by the brilliant simplicity of this question and thought I would spend some time with it. What follows is Round One.

I care about the release of our human sense of primacy and entitlement. I care about us as humans growing our capacity to know our appropriate place within the earth community. I care about our awakening to the interdependence of the human and non-human world. I care about our awakening to the sacredness of this world, this universe. I care about our awakening to the intimate connection between human health and well being and ecological health and well being. I care about the entanglement of biodiversity and human diversity. I care about the entanglement of ecological justice and human social justice. I care deeply and desperately about this earth. I care about the unfailing generosity of earth, water, air, and fire. I care that earth, water, plants, trees, creatures love me and us. I care that we have so circumscribed what it means to be intelligent and conscious beings that we cannot conceive of the consciousness or cognitive ability of non-human species. I care about elemental and sacramental ritual which engages the whole earth community. I care about the concept of a decentralized soul.

I am hoping that you do this with me, and post your thoughts in the comment section below.

Anthropology ~ In Search of a Broader Context

Throughout her lifetime, my mom was a naturalist. She had a way about her with the other-than-human world, and was never more content than when she was in the moose and bear country of Montana. She had been moving rocks, one day, in a portion of the creek that ran through her property, and felt a whisper of breath on the back of her neck. Very slowly she turned her head and found herself literally nose to nose with a curious cow moose. This beautiful creature stayed right there for a while, taking in the scent and sight of what had to have been an odd creature for her, and exhaling her own breath into my mom’s hair. Then she ambled off into the woods.cow moose

The experience stayed with my mom for the rest of her life. She told me it had changed her, that the more she reflected on it, the deeper her understanding of herself in relationship to everything around her.

Against that backdrop I welcomed a book recommended to me by a friend. It was the title that caught my attention: How Forests Think ~ Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. (Eduardo Kohn) Living in the woods as I do, certainly I would like to know how a forest thinks, particularly the one I inhabit. What an intriguing idea! What I did not know when I ordered the book, is that it would be such an academic undertaking just to read it. That said, I continue to be enchanted.

Not surprisingly, I am doing a fair amount of forehead slapping; of course anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. Anthropo ~ human. Humans (with an occasional primate or two thrown in) are the center of attention. Drawing on the social and biological sciences, as well as other disciplines, anthropology is all about human to human relationships, and solutions to human problems.

The question that pops immediately to mind: is it even possible to understand human interrelationships and to discover solutions to human problems without placing them in the context of the non-human world? I don’t think so. More than 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher/theologian Xenophanes wrote “Men always makes gods in their own image,” and, to bolster his point, “if horses had gods, they would look like horses.” If it can be argued (and it is argued) that the very God who called humans out, separated us and placed us above all other life forms, “chose us” is the God who is made in the human image, then it shouldn’t surprise us that the discipline of anthropology is concerned almost exclusively with human to human relationship. man skull

It follows that, with humans as the center of study, anything else that humans might explore ~ a forest, for example ~ will be investigated through a human lens, ie from a human perspective. What is a forest in relation to me? What is a black bear in relation to me? What is a predator big cat in relation to me? Or an elephant, or a baboon? A wolf? A songbird? It’s all about me.

In fact, in the very first pages of his work, Eduardo Kohn lays out a significant problem; another “slap your forehead opportunity”. He writes of the circular nature of anthropological discovery, writing about the confinement of a discipline that “seeks to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans.” How much (really) will you learn about yourself by looking into a mirror?mirror

Kohn is after a broader exploration, one in which humans study and are studied ~ not just in relation to one another ~ but in relation to the non-human world. His question is simple. How might this broader context of study change ~ in a similar way to my mom being changed by her encounter with a cow moose ~ what it might mean to be human?

In the March/April 2014 issue of Orion magazine, Robert Sullivan, in his article Forest Farewell: An Ode to an Iconic Tree, writes of a visit to a grove of hemlock that is slowly dying because of the infestation of a certain sap-sucking bug. As he and a small group walk into the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, where the temperature immediately drops a good ten degrees, one woman says, “You can hear it.” Sullivan thinks she is talking about the quiet. In the quiet he hears what he thinks is the sound of a stream of cold rushing water. It isn’t. What he is hearing are thousands of dead hemlock needles falling to the ground in a steady rain. He writes, “I memorize it, lock it in, and carry it home. A forest is leaving, going forever. When I listen to the hemlock’s sad rain, play it over in my head, I feel thicker, like a hemlock, more worn.

Robert Sullivan is changed by this experience, and the measure of this change can only be understood placed in the context of the dying hemlock forest.

I like to think of experiences such as his, and such as my mom’s, as an anthropological sea change. It fits the concept of Eduardo Kohn’s broader anthropological exploration, one which redefines in some measure what it means to be human.

Eco-spiritual Dimensions of Green Burial ~ Sense of Place Part V

In my growing up years, we didn’t talk about carbon footprints, diminishing rain forests, loss of wildlife habitat, and the destruction of boreal forests. We certainly didn’t talk about dying and death, nor our cultural propensity to send off loved ones in mahogany coffins placed snugly into plastic or concrete vaults. We didn’t talk about the behind-the-scenes violence done to bodies by physical manipulation and chemicals, all for the sake of making them look good.

Cremation was rare, and there was no thought given to the toxicity of the chemicals released into the atmosphere. The more money we spent, the greater show of our love; our efforts were – and to a great extent in the West, still are – designed to hide the reality of both the dying process and the outcome. Hospice care didn’t exist in the U.S. until the mid-1970′s. The job of the medical profession was and continues to be to keep a patient alive no matter the cost.

Today I would like to introduce you to Lee Webster, the director of the non-profit New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy. Lee is a hospice volunteer and a passionate advocate for home funerals and green burials. From the time I was first introduced – I can only describe it as a lightening bolt of clarity – I knew that what she offers is the obvious next step for all of us who are committed to walking a pathway of intention to minimize our ecological footprint and at the same time, create and enrich habitat.

Hers is a rich and comprehensive compendium, drawing together the threads of ecology, family and community, human dignity, ritual, practicality, history, and common sense. Lee has – unwittingly or not – sent me spinning into the eco-spiritual dimensions of home funerals and green burial. My thoughts are mostly taking the form of “I wonder”.

Ecological healing calls to me. As I think on being “buried green”, I wonder, if we humans were to acknowledge our appropriate place within the earth community, as part of, participating in, and integral to it – and therefore of no more and no less ecological value than any other form – would we behave cooperatively and collaboratively with creation? Might we grow a vision of healing that is antithetical to our current sense of human primacy and entitlement? What if we were to share our green plans with our children and grandchildren, letting them know that “buried green” is becoming the new normal? Might we put new thoughts and behavioral patterns into more than a few hearts and vocations?

Ritual, community, friends and family call to me. More than simply wondering how we have arrived at the predominate funeral home/church directives, telling us how things must be done, I wonder about the honoring of our dead in ways that are more organic to the lives they have led. We are not obliged to hand over the bodies of our loved ones to funeral homes; the families are in charge! It’s not a common understanding.

Lee shared with me what has become a powerful metaphor. We were in a restaurant and had just ordered from the menu. She shared with me a comment from her mentor Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. “If you were to go to a restaurant, you’d be given a menu, from which you would order your preference. It wouldn’t occur to you to order something that’s not on the menu. It’s the same thing when you arrive at a Funeral Home. You are given a menu, from which you make decisions. It doesn’t occur to you to order something else, because you don’t know what’s not on the menu.” I wonder what we would choose if we knew there existed something other. I wonder what we would choose if we understood that the family of the deceased is the ultimate authority.

I wonder how a commitment to dying at home and buried “green” might serve as the ultimate embrace of one’s sense of place. My husband Jim and I have often had this conversation: “I would like you to dig a big hole (not easy in the Granite State), drop me in it, and plant a tree over me.”

We’re both a little short on the details, but we know the commitment is right. If I knew that I would be buried (according to the legal criteria) on the property I have shared with all kinds of life forms, would I treat this earth portion (and by extension, every part of the planet) differently? Would I love it and honor it? Would I be thrilled beyond measure to imagine the deer, raccoons, moose, mice, daddy long legs, bear, and squirrels walking over me? To imagine the earthworms and billions of microbes within me? I know I would.

And, as I age, I wonder if I would welcome my homecoming? I can only say I hope I would. I hope that as age continues to come my way, as the possibility of illness lurks, that my deepening sense of place within the earth community will offset not only my fear of dying, but also the fears of my family, my community, and my medical support.

We will all die. My hope is that I do so according to what I say I believe. Ritual is important, and I will want that. But I want its sacramental significance to correspond to the particulars of who I was in my lifetime. And I know another thing. If I had to choose between some ethereal heavenly sense of homecoming and a literal earthly homecoming, I would choose to come home to the latter.