Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Human Privilege and Entitlement

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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.

There is no “We” in White

I can’t seem to find my starting point today, the week of Alton Sterling’s killing in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile’s killing in Minnesota, and now the fatal shootings in Dallas. So I’ll begin with what I know. The planet – the biosphere – is a web, interconnected, and interdependent. Everything provides sustenance – and I mean this in the broadest sense – for some Other(s). The health of our planet and the systems of it, depends on it.

The anthropologist Wade Davis adds to this concept of web, “ . . . the social world in which we live . . . is simply one model of reality; there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the earth.”

This web, then, is not confined within the biological sciences. In The Wayfinders, Wade speaks of another web, every bit as critical to the health of the planet as the biological. In fact he doesn’t separate the two. He calls it the ethnosphere and defines it as the “sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by human imagination . . .” I would add as well, brought into being by human wrong thinking.

There is a far deeper and more ancient well of wisdom than we in the west are drinking from today; it comes from a time before white ideologies divided the human world into greater than and less than; it was a time of a commonality of human DNA; everyone – everyone – until about 60,000 years ago, came originally from the great continent of Africa. Some stayed. It was a time before races and divisions along racial lines. Distinguishing people by race was born of the Scientific Revolution, and division by race is the core tenet of a dangerous and utterly misguided narrative. Division by race was what allowed western Europe to justify their colonization of India, for example, and Africa. It was also what allowed the early American whites to force out and destroy the peoples native to this land; it was before white America practiced a theology of Manifest Destiny, before white America constructed and built its privilege by the institutionalization of slavery.

I want us to remember this. I want me to remember this. Race is a social construct. Racial division and its ensuing hierarchy of white privilege is a relatively modern phenomenon, with no basis in science. White people are living lives of privilege and benefit based on utter falsehood. Those of us who are desperate to “do something” want to ask for help from the very people who’ve been degraded for centuries, once again putting the burden on those who have carried it far too long.

John Metta, in his article, I, Racist, explains why he no longer talks race with white people. “We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot. Black people think in terms of we. White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals.” As individuals, white people are able to say, and dare to mean, “I am not racist.” There is no we in white.

Eco-justice and human social justice are not only related; it’s not possible to separate them out. The planet’s eco-systems, if we are paying attention, teach us about community. But our institutions – economic, educational, political, religious – practice the opposite. In The Dismal Science ~ How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community, Steven Marglin challenges the ideology of the indefatigable market, with its twin goals of efficiency and maximum utilization. He lays out step by step how these market driven systems have divorced themselves from community. Is it any wonder that the rupture continues to widen and deepen, reaching explosive proportions.

Today I am sick at heart, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t see that tomorrow will be any different. I do know this, however: every one of us has within us the wisdom and core of truth that does indeed know what to do, does indeed know how to live in right relationship. Every one of us. It is far past time to dig down deep, deeper, deepest. It is far past time for me to go public, in whatever stumbling, awkward, terrified way I can. I, racist.

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.


From Beavers to Deep Ecology

I can’t imagine a better real life drama of the battle between those who dismiss beavers as good-for-nothing rats with wide tails and those who understand the ecological benefits and offer hospitality and protection to them, than the one that lives right in my neighborhood. It’s a battle every bit as enthralling as some of the skirmishes between the Hatfields and McCoys (I know what I am talking about, in that my Great-Grand-Uncle was Devil Anse Hatfield himself.)

The land to which my husband and I belong abuts a wetland area that is home to geese, otters, turtles, ducks, bear and moose (in the early spring) and . . . beavers. The beavers have built a lodge on which they improve every year, and always build a dam which keeps the wetlands water-filled in the summers – even the dry ones – and teeming with birds, insects, and a wide diversity of frogs. Their wetland chorus extends from summer’s early dawn far into the night, as the peepers finally exhaust themselves with their love competing songs.

Here’s the problem. Those of us on our side of the wetlands love the beavers, and wait in great anticipation for their appearance in the spring. The man whose land abuts the other side of the wetlands is a developer and continues his bid (thus far denied) to fill the wetlands so that he can build; he hates the beavers, (he used to shoot them until he was arrested) and because the dam itself stretches between his property and that of our neighbors to the east, he claims it’s his to destroy, which he does, periodically, sneaking out at night to tear it apart.

In the morning, my wonderful neighbors rebuild it.

Once the men both arrived at the same time, and challenged each other with axes! It took the audacity of a brave, clearly indestructible young woman to leap into the breach and stop the fight.

Here’s the good news. According to a recent New York Times article, beavers are garnering new respect. Referring to them as eco-system engineers, Manuel Valdes writes; “They raise the water table alongside a stream, aiding the growth of trees and plants that stabilize the banks and prevent erosion. They improve fish and wildlife habitat and promote new, rich soil”.

As their dams halt the flow of water away from an area, they create pools of water – pools which cool the water at greater depths and protect species of fish from rising temperatures. Michael M. Pollack, a fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, points to these beaver-enhanced pools as “outstanding rearing habitat for juvenile coho salmon.”

There is a bigger picture here; isn’t there always? The story of the awakening respect for the beavers among us is a story that can be told not only across species of all kinds, but across the disciplines human endeavor as well. Everything is connected.

Fritjof Capra, in The Systems View of Life, reminds us that what we call the material world is in fact a network of patterns, inseparable patterns of relationships. This isn’t new news. Nor was it new news when Aldo Leopold offered it, or Henry David Thoreau , or John Muir, who said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Capra, in the introduction to his new book writes, “Deep Ecology does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment. It sees the world as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Ultimately,” he says, “deep ecological awareness is spiritual awareness – spiritual in its deepest essence.

So . . . this post (as so many) begins in the realm of beavers, but it could have begun anywhere – with wolves, insects, trees, herbs; it would still and always move into Capra’s (and others) understanding of deep ecology and its spiritual essence.

Sense of Place ~ Part Three

With thanks to Douglas Wood, author of Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, who so generously offered his permission to adapt his work to an outdoor theater.

Continuing my series of reflections on Sense of Place, one of the deepest layers of place holds the beating heart of the local community. Whether or not we know it, deny it, ignore it, we are fast heading in the direction of mutual interdependence, and the relationships that can be built in our own communities will stand us in good stead.

The Transition Movement began as an imaginative activist response to the dire news about climate change and the fact that we are on the downside of oil production (peak oil) – and these realities remain at the core – yet the movement is far more than that. It is about community, about resilience; it’s about optimism and radical hope; it’s about play. It’s about healing, and it is about knowing one’s place.

My husband Jim and I live in a small village in central New Hampshire. We make giant puppets, the kind that require human engagement rather than simple manipulation, and for six years, we have had it in mind to stage an outdoor production, to introduce Restoring the Waters Puppet Theater into our own community. We see it as our our small part in the Transition Movement, but we weren’t going to do this alone.

This was our summer to do it! And it looked like this. In partnership with the Wilmot Community Association, we worked with members of our village, ranging in age from six to seventy-seven, to choose our totem animals, to make larger than life masks, to sew costumes, and – ultimately – to rehearse.

It’s fair to say, I think, that there were skeptics (I include myself among them). Every Wednesday evening over the course of the summer, we met, floundered around in buckets of flour and water, hiding chicken wire clippers from one another, cutting and sewing fabric. Wednesdays got bigger and bigger, with more and more people trying their hand at the art of paper mache.

There was more than the creation of puppets and costumes. Old Turtle and the Broken Truth is a spiritual story of conflict, ecological disregard, and the potential for healing. Each of us was invited to learn about our totem animal: its habitat, food needs, its character, and the stories of adaptation (or not) to the often wanton and selfish ways of the humans.

As the masks and animal characters themselves began to take shape, so – thankfully – did the infrastructure and supportive roles. The word was getting out, through volunteer publicity. Our favorite musician showed up, our friend Tom agreed to direct this motley group of non-actors. We had popcorn makers, a seamstress, lights, sound, and above all, we had an audience! Below is the You Tube video, in three parts. It’s a gem, even with all its warts and glitches. Sometimes it’s good to get them over with early on!

The night was magic. Ten days before the scheduled production, the forecast promised rain and thunder storms. The day itself was perfect; the people who’d come to see watched the sun – reflecting on the water of the pond – disappear, were bathed by the late summer breezes, and the sounds of the crickets. The sound system worked; we didn’t need the lights.

I think all of us – both in the production and watching the production – were a bit surprised to awaken to the power of imaginative collaboration, to the grace of risk taking, and to the possibilities for community art to deepen friendships. We were also surprised, I think, to understand the sacredness of the earth-community, to understand that we humans are part of a much larger narrative than the one we often think (and certainly act as though) we dominate.

Jim and I are grateful to have not only survived our first Restoring the Waters Puppet Theater production, but to have been so greatly enriched by all the creatures of our small village of Wilmot, N. H.







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