A Deer on the Sidewalk (Or, Wisdom Against the Odds)

Driving through the streets of Poughkeepsie when I left work at the unusually early hour of one o’clock, I became the first in a long line of cars to stop for a buck casually prancing across College Avenue. This regal creature only seemed vaguely aware that his four antlers were no defense against the four wheeled beasts barreling towards him.

Here was an animal so out of his element, his dark coat no camouflage against the yellow lines down the middle of the road, his forest wisdom so easily lost in the cracks in the pavement. At the same time, since we find ourselves in the middle of the New York hunting season, he was a clever lad, testing his luck against the visible rush of oncoming traffic rather than the more clandestine attack of flying bullets.

For these weeks when guns and bows rule the woods, the deer’s natural habitat becomes a house of danger, and he must risk these ever closer brushes with humanity. The world is turned upside down as home and safety must be traded for an unknown civilization that plays by mysterious rules.

I cannot help but think of those moments in life when the foundations shift, when people who promise to always be there end up following a divergent path, when the plans that were meant to offer a secure future refuse to materialize, when the homes we have created for ourselves cannot be a refuge.

This deer could have panicked in the face of suburbia and left hoof prints on the hoods of the parked SUVs (I am working this metaphor based on the belief that he is not some cervine street rat, fat from the neighborhood petunias). Instead he crossed the road to munch another house’s shrubbery and was not shaken by the passing cars. Adaptability was the secret of his survival (at least on this particular Thursday afternoon). He was willing to brave unknown dangers in order to increase his changes of surviving against forces that would almost certainly be his doom.

Though a brief emotional bust-up this week threatened to upset this castle of peace and equanimity that I have been blessed enough to construct, I am still fortunate enough to be free of those dreaded calamities that drive us from our places of comfort. Still, I want to learn from this beautiful animal what it is to walk through unfamiliar territory with proud head held high, maintaining essential poise even when nothing is working as it should.

A Spiritual Midwife During a Dark Spell

Now that I am alert to this November chill, these late autumn doldrums, I see lives being eked out in the shadows all over the place.

It is happening on a global and national level as economies falter and threaten to fail and we come to realize that capitalism might have been some sort of cruel joke. This gathering darkness even after all that shiny hope of only a week and a half ago (can you believe that the elation over our new president has slid into naked financial fear in only eleven days?) is crippling everyone to some degree.

I am watching it happen to the people in my own circles. Relationships are changing irrevocably or are falling away. New illnesses are emerging and some are losing in their battles for wellness. The ability to pretend everything is fine is dissolving. It is time to admit that life cannot continue on this twisting track, at this breakneck pace.

Like I said, I am watching this happen to those around me right now. I find myself wrapped in a blanket of blessing and abundance that I thank the Gods for every day. My friend BlissChick talks about how such good fortune can set us questioning this luck, and sabotaging ourselves because we fear we have been granted “too much blessing.” I completely understand that impulse to throw on the hairshirt and deny ourselves the joy of what we have been given, and have fallen into that trap countless times.

This time around, however, I am able to look at my blessings and comfort as a divinely given shield and solace. I am so well shrouded in a soft cloak of peace that I can stand beside those who suffer and absorb their stories without the interference of my own fears and losses. None of this is to say that I am cleansed from all of the selfish whining that I regret occasionally mars my conversations, but I recognize that I am free of the deeper dramas that others need to be supported through right now. I can strive to be a vessel that takes in tears and offers them back as different brew of solace and hope.

For all that we are all marked by the wheel of the year, but the ebb and flow of nature, I think that we are occasionally chosen to stand outside of time. With all humility, I admit that I am caught in a time of joyful midsummer even as the skies turn a dirty pearl and wasted wet leaves choke the walkways. I give thanks for this role as spiritual midwife, a candle burning in the fog for those who are lost in the early evening gloom.

Have you been given a warmer coat to ward off the first frost? Is it big enough to wrap around a friend who needs it?

November Chill

In a post looking back at an unobserved All Hallow’s Eve, I thought about the madness of the encroaching holiday season and the need to find sacredness in all of the other days on the calendar. As I recognize this odd in-between time that spreads from Samhain (the final harvest and the start of the Celtic New Year) to the return of the sun on the Winter Solstice, I think it is even more essential to find the touchstones that connect to our vitality and to the Divine.

I am watching several people I love experience a sense of dissolution in their lives. Illusions are stripped away and they are confronted by resurgent realities that they had once been able to escape. There is solace to be found in the belief that this too shall pass, that God offers nothing more than one can bear, and that it is only possible to be truly alive when all of the veils that lay between you and the true presence have been ripped away. And yet, the desire to just keep driving away from all the problems is so strong and the need to ask “why” is so persistent. It is so hard not to shiver in the brutal winds of our fate as the bitter chill of November settles into our bones.

To stand as naked as the trees is to be living in direct contact with nature, and though it may threaten to turn you to coldest stone, it is nothing more than the Earth herself is going through at these moments. Cold comfort, that, but perhaps it is just the Universe’s way of reminding us we are alive. She cannot wake us with the calls of birds and the warmth of a July sun, but she can remind us that she is always there with us by allowing us to feel the rattling of her bare branches and her sorrow of another summer passed.

The world will keep turning, the secrets will be uncovered, and the globe will tilt back to the sun again so that light may return. We just need to find the faith to witness its sweet, slow progression.

Hope In the Glare of Oncoming Headlights

Driving home from work last night I was listening to NPR, as usual. As All Things Considered drew to a close, they offered a commentary by a Steve Bouser about a turtle who perished in an ill considered bid to cross four lanes of traffic.

At the end of this momentous week, I was expecting inspiring homages to how much America had grown and how we all had been a part of history (well, at least the 52.3% who voted for Obama). Instead, here was a guy describing the cruel but banal death of a tortoise. He extended his metaphor to the madness of human “progress” that so often happens at the expense of other species and he closed with:

Turtles have been around for 200 million years, since before there were dinosaurs. And I’ll bet they’ll still be plodding on their way long after we humans have progressed to what sometimes seems a well-deserved extinction.

What? We take a bold step our of fear into a new vision of hope and we end up with the consolation of reptilian road kill and our inevitable, self-constructed doom?

Actually, there are times I agree with this rather dim view of the human endeavor. If we continue to pave over paradise and choke the air with the byproducts of our easy credit lifestyles, then a planet that refuses to support mammalian life might be just punishment.

How’s that for hope? I recognize that this intense frustration with the oblivious hedonism and narcissism of the developed world does not exactly harmonize with the spirited optimism I often share in this space. Both are vital aspects of who I am, however, and I think it is just this dissatisfaction with much of the world that drives me to write and to project whatever positive energy I can scratch together at the end of each day.

I think this NPR commentator and I are coming from a similar place, as much as I might refuse to end any of my own pieces with such a damning last sentence. He did try to save the poor little creature and is undoubtedly sharing his reflections in order to make others think about our relentless war with nature. There are enough of us who recognize that we are wreaking havoc on the globe that we must speak up and act to change it all.

Focusing on my immediate reaction to this story, I was paying little attention to the the winding road ahead of me. A black and white cat appeared, illuminated by the relentless glow of my approaching headlights. She stopped and I swear our eyes locked for a fraction of a moment. I screamed, thinking of a series of childhood cats who looked so much like her, all of whom had probably met the same fate on a dark road on a cold night.

This feline’s story would not end like the turtle’s, however. She would scamper into the bushes and my heartbeat would slow and at least one four legged creature would prove wilier than a four wheeled machine. And so I will interpret her escape as that ray of hope, that belief that there is still time to dodge the oncoming traffic of our own undoing.

Rising to the Challenge of Change as Temperatures Fall

I drove into work through a bowl of great Hudson River fog, guided by my memory of the road and the headlights of what little oncoming traffic there was. The car’s thermometer read 29 degrees, but I found that impossible to believe, wearing only a wool turtleneck and a shawl as I was. My sweet October could not possibly have dissolved into temperatures that demand jackets and gloves and drying one’s wet hair so it doesn’t turn to icicles. As I moved in and out of clear spots, where the sun could actually filter down to the increasingly bare branches, I finally noticed the blanket of frost. Mums on porch steps were limp and clearly affronted by the weather and the trees that don’t turn to brilliant autumn colors were decked in shriveling, mud colored leaves.

Why was this such a shock to me, one month past the Equinox, well into the time when the northern hemisphere was due to sleep? As the sun set last evening I made my way through the fallen foliage, and shivered through my thin shirt. I found myself cursing the cold, amazed at how I seem to have grown a summer skin that rebelled against nature’s inevitable chill. So often I have pitied those who cringe at the first crisp morning, who bemoan the coming of the gray days and the nights when the fog of your breath blots out the brilliant stars. With some pride, I’d describe how I love wool scarves and leather boots and velvet jackets and how my mind simply functions better when the temperature starts to fall. But this year, I am as shocked as the last grapes on the vine, and I find myself squinting into the last gold of the trees, trying to get my bearings.

My life has been marked by constant change over the last few years with marrying, my husband’s multiple job changes, and buying our first house. I would say that I thrive in a dynamic environment, and hunger for different experiences. Then I remember that I dislike stay up late these days and how crummy I feel when I eat the wrong sorts of food. This summer, I had a kind of existential crisis about travel and consumerism and dislocation in the middle of a covered bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland while my husband and I were on an otherwise blissful holiday. Far from my nest, jet-lagged, and juiced on Swiss chocolate, I couldn’t believe how stressed I was to be so out of my element. My “element” used to be a vast, seemingly infinite place.

Is it growing older? Is it that I have set healthier patterns for myself that are uncomfortable to break? Is it that I am as susceptible to the mundane dictates of human nature as anyone else?

I did not intend this to become a political post, and I really feel like I should resist the urge to talk about November 4 just because I mentioned the dreaded/beloved “C” word, but oh well. We can dream that electing Obama will set off the seismic shift that our country needs, but we are all too aware of the limitations of the slow moving barge of government and that one man will not be our messiah. Thing is, are we upset that the social and political (dis)order will not be overturned overnight or are we secretly pleased that the planet will not start spinning so fast that we cannot keep up?

We beg for transformation, for “little earthquakes” – not the sort that rip us into pieces but those that shift us into the new era we yearn for – but I think we have to uncover all of our internal resistances and feel the ways we might cower as our new world tries to emerge.

Turning Wine Back Into Water

Communion CWMGaryDue to a nagging health issue, it has become alarming clear that I really have to eliminate sugar and alcohol from my diet. I’ve been reading about this worst case scenario for years, so it was not a when the news came yesterday that if I am serious about my health, I will do more than merely feel guilty as I delight at the gluten free bakery.

As I write this, I can only think of the incredulous emails I will receive from friends with whom I have downed countless pints of Guinness and emptied hundreds of wine bottles. It will be one thing to turn down birthday cake, but to refuse a champagne toast as well? When I finally do make it back to Galway could I possibly be so crazy as to ask for a club soda when I get everyone to go back to the Crane with me? When we go to beer gardens of Munich this summer will I smile and ask for a really, really big stein of water?

I am mourning all of the wineries in Napa I have never visited and thinking that I never enjoyed local honey enough when I had a chance, but is this really an issue of any worthy, never mind spiritual, import? At this point, I am not sure how all of this gastronomical denial will really affect me. Presumably, it will be much simpler to keep weight off during the holidays and I guess I will be more likely to remember the details of reunions with long lost friends if I do not lubricate my late night chatter with a nice Cabernet. But, at the same time I wonder what it will be like to be excluded from what seem to be amongst the major tenets of my culture: eat (whatever you like), drink (more than a little bit), and be merry (with the glow of all that has passed your lips).

Actually, part of that is really quite untrue – I have been avoiding gluten for a few years now so “eating whatever I want” is made of the stuff of distant memory to be stored next to pulling all-nighters in college and thinking Tom Cruise was attractive. Initially, it seemed impossible that I might have to live without bagels, but eventually I just realized feeling like an entirely different person made baguettes less essential. It just seems so much to excise even more wonderful edible possibilities from my already limited menu.

Of course, this realization is just over twenty-four hours old, so I am still trapped in bemoaning all that I will miss instead of focusing on finding what else there is to really enjoy as I have sagely been advised to do. As I try to cultivate mindfulness, it seems there can be no better way than to be compelled to pay even stricter attention to what nourishes me body and soul and what might be so much good tasting poison.
As I prepare to move through life that is not enriched by chocolate covered strawberries, I wonder what new sugar free, gluten free treats with high price tags and way too much packaging I will discover at the natural food store. It seems so strange that I will be driven, with many others I am sure, to the pricey aisles of such stores in pursuit of a life devoid of such perfectly natural plants as wheat and sugar cane, fermented grapes and aromatic hops. What does it mean when the modern diet (or in my case, modern medicine) has proven so detrimental that it sends us past eating like natural, conscientious omnivores to become odd niche eaters with strict lists and an overdependence on rice cakes? It will open a whole new set of challenges to try to live a more authentic life connected to this earth when I have to respectfully decline so many fruits of the soil and gnaw on some more broccoli. I’ll let you know if such obstacles seem worth it…

Beyond the Inconvenience of Changing Behavior & Changing the World

I am still preoccupied with the issue of global warming and the devastation we cause simply by being regular, average citizens of the western world, but I am ready to draw a more concrete parallel to this awakening and the overall quest for the True Self. Of course, the way we live upon this earth and the imprint that we leave upon creation is an inherently spiritual question in itself, so please forgive me if I get stuck here for a while.

In Entering the Castle Caroline Myss writes a great deal about a fear of humiliation as being the force that keeps us from embracing humility – the quiet, unselfconscious power that can open us to God. She asks her readers to go through these humiliations, from the minor interpersonal stuff that keeps us from changing our morning routine to the deep spiritual elements that affect the way we relate to the Divine. I am beginning to realize that one of the little humiliating situations that I would do anything to avoid is being derided for being too high-maintenance or difficult, for being deemed a chore to have around because I cannot just go with the flow. Of course, I fear a common element of groupthink, the tyranny of the majority that will do everything possible to keep all people at the lowest common denominator.

The food we choose to eat can expose us to a great deal of judgment and ridicule. As someone who is gluten intolerant, I have had more than enough conversations about my diet and my digestive system. Before I got serious about eliminating gluten, I was a relatively serious vegetarian, but once the menu’s meatless pasta choice became a half-remembered dream, I had to give up my anti-flesh convictions. If I planned ahead even more carefully and prepared to refuse even more offered sustenance (let us not forget the degree to which calories are the currency of friendship, love, and hospitality), I might be able to earn back my veggie stripes, but at least to this point, I have found that it is not worth the struggle.

There has been plenty of reporting dedicated to the impact our carnivorous diet has on the planet. Environment Magazine published the first story I ever read about the issue. Even that show I keep talking about, Six Degrees Could Change the World, discussed the amount of energy it takes to put a hamburger on an American plate. The issue is emerging as one that is larger than my own appetite or the annoyance of people who never know what to feed a picky eater like me (ah, those hostesses faces that have fallen to despair when I whisper weakly that soy sauce’s second ingredient is wheat!).

I bring up the issue because I recognize that one reason I do not change my diet is a little bit like my inability/refusal to see the Divine in all people and treat them accordingly. I don’t want to plague loved ones with either my wearisome food concerns or my new codes of honor. Already I am the woman who cannot eat a normal birthday cake and is forever caught up in spiritual pursuits, how can I start passing up pork chops at Sunday dinner and refuse to twist my wit in wicked directions to make friends laugh too? Of course, none of this is to say that I am either entirely virtuous (I liked the turkey and cilantro burgers my husband made for dinner last night and sometimes I am engulfed with a mean spiritedness that is entirely my own) or that I am completely ruled by others’ whims (I am a pretty strong willed person, but sometimes I abandon my principles in an often feeble attempt to be polite).

Some of the most overused words of this decade have got to be “convenient” and “inconvenient” – proof that Al Gore’s movie hit a home run into the modern cultural lexicon. It is time to stop throwing around inconvenience as just another buzz word, however, and realize the deep truth contained in the fact that we are creatures completely addicted to our convenient, disposable world. Changing our behaviors and facing the confused or hurt or laughing faces of our companions really is just a trifle when we talk about affecting the fate of the world or engendering more compassion in this world, but damn, it sure seems hard.

Upon Hearing a Conversation Spiced with Hope

It’s funny how shreds of the past come to mind in a new light now that I am allowing myself to recognize the central place the question of planet’s future has in my life. On Saturday while I was making dinner I listened to a Speaking of Faith episode called “Discovering Where We Live: Reimagining Environmentalism.” At the time, I gave it as much mind as I could as I tried to wrap my head around making spaghetti alla carbonara (both because it was one of my husband’s favorite dishes and I wanted to make it perfect, and because I was frying pork and readying myself to eat it – me, vegetarian who??).

The person whose accomplishments and experiences stick with me now is Majora Carter, a native of the of the South Bronx who returned to her neighborhood after studying art in college and, to her own surprise, ended up taking on the environmental issues that detracted the lifestyle of all those who lived in her part of the city. How could I have listened to this story just a few days ago and been largely unmoved? How could I be filled with anything other than stop-in-the-middle-of-the-kitchen-with-my-jaw-open awe when I heard about this unlikely shifter and creator of local culture and landscape? Now that I am staring at this problem as vast as the atmosphere of the earth and all of the oceans combined, I am desperate to find proof that we can make some of difference. It seems that I have more shining examples than I have the ability to recognize. I just may be time to open my ears and eyes wider so I can recognize the radiant hope that humanity still has the power to generate.

Check it out at: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/discoveringwherewelive/index.shtml

Global Warming and The Place Between Mourning and Action

Six Degrees Could Change the WorldLast night, I declared that the thing that breaks open my heart, the thing that wakes me at three a.m. and turns my sweetly oblivious sleep toward the direction of nightmare is the spectre of global warming. A person who I love has lived his day under a bleak cloud after watching the same program on the National Geographic channel that I did last night, Six Degrees Could Change the World. I was able to tell him that such information galvanizes me at this point; I have done my mourning for the devastation that our modern lifestyle has cast upon this earth, now I am ready to act. Of course, I am realizing now that I may have just been trying to comfort him. I know that I will not finish mourning our stifling planet until I can understand what it means when the glacier at the head of the Ganges has melted and the coral reefs around Australia have all died, and how can I ever comprehend the destruction of natural wonders so vast? It is just as difficult as trying to wrap my mind around the forces that created these beauties in the first place.

The decision to really take on this issue, and make it something that I am aware of with each cup of coffee passed to me in a paper cup and with each shampoo bottle I toss into the trash when I see it is not a number 1,2,3, or 5 and the recycling center has no interest in it, will force my everyday life into a new perspective. Am I really ready for that? Can I find a solution to the 37 miles I drive alone each day on my way to and from work rather than just climb into the car guiltily each morning? Can I bear the inconvenience of keeping a plastic mug and silverware in my purse so that I can cut down on at least one cup and one plastic fork everyday? Can I find somewhere other than beneath torrents of hot water that flow from the shower head to do my best thinking?

Situations like these might lead to minor annoyances or changes in behavior; in the end I will probably reap the great immediate gains of feeling virtuous and proactive. The real problem would arise when I begin to imagine how changes I may feel compelled to make in my own life might make those around me uncomfortable or upset. George Monbiot’s 2006 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning was the first to introduce me to the idea of “love miles” and how those are a part of the environment’s undoing. Inwardly, I “tsk, tsk” at the perpetual business travelers who circumnavigate the globe several times a year in the pursuit of universal capitalism. Monbiot tells his readers that they must accept that one of the great entitlements of western society, air travel, would need to be a thing of the past if we are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the degree he believes necessary: 90% by 2030. How do I deal with not being able to fly to see my friends in Ireland or that I might be contributing to the devastation of the Amazon if I went on an “eco-tour” there. I am still unready to think that it would be better for Galway Bay if I never went to see it again. What is even more difficult to imagine are those “love miles” that don’t seem like a vacation or a luxury but necessity like the two hour drive to see my grandfather or the four hour ride to the Cape to see my folks.

What would it mean to be of a generation that once had the entire world at its feet, but now may only have it at its fingertips, making the Internet into the only responsible way to reach out and experience the world?

Perhaps we could realize that we are actually creatures who can only truly experience the world as far as the visible horizon like David Abram talks about in The Spell of the Sensuous. Maybe his vision of local culture is not just a quaint homage to the indigenous peoples of this world; maybe their way of life is a model for our future.

And I have not even addressed the idea of action. I am certainly not finished mourning yet.

Recognizing that “Six Degrees Could Change MY World”

NASA The dryer is humming in the background, but the house is only lit by one compact fluorescent and the glow of the television and my laptop. There’s a cup of cold, forgotten coffee next to me, but I am drinking water we filter at home out of a Nalgene bottle I have used a thousand times. We went for a nice hike today, despite the gusty wind and the snow, but we drove to the top of the mountain for a change of scenery rather than take the path from the backyard.

My husband is watching a National Geographic special called “Six Degrees Could Change the World” and I am finding it impossible to focus on an Andrew Harvey book about Christ. The idea of the infinite love of God is tough to focus on when a voice is saying that “a change of just one degree could change American cattle country into a wasteland swallowed by drought.” I have never heard Alec Baldwin sound so terrifying – he’s the narrator of this scary little story I find impossible to ignore.

Instead of listening to the proof of “the dangers posed by global warming,” the litany of awe-inspiring changes that could occur with each degree increase in the global temperature I am writing this and trying unsuccessfully to keep my own fears at bay. It’s cable, so I know that this program will be repeated again and again, so later I can catch those details about how many thousands (was it 500,000?) of species that could be lost if one coral reef died so I can rattle off some statistics next time someone speaks dismissively about climate change. For now, I will watch and worry and wonder how on earth I can stop another polar bear from drowning and whether I will bring my grandchildren to my favorite Cape Cod beach someday.

Is this show going to give us any answers beyond reminding us to recycle and walk more and buy a hybrid (or wait, maybe you shouldn’t since there are so many resources already tied up in your current gas guzzler that putting yet another car on the road just makes it all worse)? I’ll keep watching and let you know.

At the very least, I think I can answer the question that Andrew Harvey posits at so many of his lectures “If you wake up at three o’clock in the morning and look at all of the injustices of the world, what is it that breaks your heart and forces you to action?” I cannot pretend anymore that someone else is going to take care of the corners of this earth that I love; I cannot withdraw into the fear that the science is too contradictory for a mere mortal to understand. The disappearing Arctic ice is my heartbreak; the rising seas will not recede into the neglected background of my modern life.