Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moss Time

Tonight my 7 year old daughter fell asleep with her head on my lap…what heavy things I have carried today: two full compost buckets and a sleeping child.  What other heavy things have I carried? The weight of sorrow and helplessness- pictures of other children... children trapped by violence in Gaza....and children running from violence and met with anger at our borders…

I am also carrying some hope- some pictures of peace in the midst- the intimate handshake of friendship between a Palestinian and an Israeli- in the midst of horrific fighting too large and too long to hold in my view. And at our borders- pictures of people in yellow shirts standing with other faiths to bring our attention to the plight of children.  Large crowds of supporters, part of a movement, standing for the defenseless, the small.

My eyes flash between the large and the small, the particular and the panoramic.  In my small life, I see most often the particular- the moments of intimate love and connection.  Though standing on a  mountaintop or overlooking a river, my vision is panoramic in scope.

I was moved at General Assembly this year (my first!) to see justice and love from a panoramic view….raising my hand to vote on actions of immediate social witness as a delegate, raising my voice in joyful singing at worship with 5,000 others, and raising my eyes to flames on a river and my ears to melodic music everywhere at WaterFire- a truly moving witness and gift of love to the city of Providence, Rhode Island.  I was proud to stand among all those yellow-shirted UU's in what was for me the most contemplative moment of the conference- sharing this moment first with a local stranger who told me he comes to every water-lighting for the peace and beauty… and later with a small crowd surrounding two men from Nashville, Tennessee who proclaimed their wedding vows beside the flame-lit river (a ceremony I happened upon by surprise, and by joy…). 

There is a different energy to be one among thousands.  In my quiet Hudson Valley life, I am sensitive to the particular.  I can quiet my mind by meditating on an ant meandering across a meditation hall floor, or a bee pollinating yellow wildflowers by the Hudson river. I can see the universe in a single stem.There is a way of seeing everything in the mundane; like the lead character, Alma, in Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book - The Signature of All Things- who pursues the meaning of life through science- by studying the particular, the slow evolution of moss.  She calls it "moss time", noting a slower-almost infinite- pace of time much different than our own. The lens of a microscope reveals a world no less grand than the voyages to exotic islands... and certainly more real than the fancies of some angelic realm beyond. It is in this world that we must live. In human time... but perhaps also in moss time.

Moss time. "Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that/ they have no tongues, could lecture/ all day if they wanted about/ spiritual patience?" writes Mary Oliver, in her poem Landscape.  Perhaps that is what we are caught up in this summer- as though our lives were following a different clock. 

For those of us caught up in busy lives, moss time signifies a much needed slowing down which opens our eyes to noticing the particular;  but perhaps there are others for whom this slowing of time has become a way of life- tedious, almost infinite... 

I think of prisoners. Yes, perhaps moss time is a heaviness in the life of the incarcerated…. I am writing letters to a prisoner now according to the holiday cycle of the Pagan year- an honoring of his religious rhythms, and my own need for calendared commitments.  I am aware that the distance between letters is so much greater on his end than on mine. 

It is unbearable for some. This past weekend I climbed a mountain with my children and a few friends; it was the first mountain I ever climbed 18 years ago- and it was my first time returning since.  Climbing the mountain was a ritual- a pilgrimage- in memory of another prisoner- sentenced to 37 years, who died recently after just two years into his sentence.  He was one of my original companions (there were three of us) on that climb 18 years ago.  Then, it was a relatively short two hour climb which we ran up with enthusiasm and our naive adventurous spirits… and a drawn out 5 mile return descent along a winding service road (as it was too dark to return by the trail).   Oddly enough, our conversation on that descent turned to evolution- dinosaur intelligence, mass extinction, and grace. It was an unforgettable climb and return- and one which led- for me- to a love for hiking up other mountains in places throughout the country. 

This time we climbed by day, and I returned by trail, not road.  The descent was a run down steep rocks on my own.  As I ran, I saw my younger twenty-year-old self and her two friends walking up.  I saw myself with a water bottle filled with vodka, a hurt heart, and an open spirit bent on restless disaster. I saw all that I had not yet seen.  I saw all the things I thought I knew then- and all that I did not yet know.  I saw my younger self and I loved her and I forgave her.   And all this too for the others- one now a ghost, whose last years were caught up in pain- spiraling cycles inflicted on self and others- and perhaps a coming home.  All this, I witnessed. 

I was running down the mountain on the opposite of moss time, the reeling flight backward through days and decades. At the end of the tunnel- after crossing over a dangerous highway- I found a semblance of peace. 

And perhaps peace too will come- unimaginable on that panoramic scale in human time, but maybe in moss time. But in the particular, we can see it now. This summer when the intimate loving between two strangers- the ultimate witness to love in a celebration of marriage- is human time.  As is a child falling asleep on my lap. 

And if we can in the particular bear witness in love to the breaking of these hearts and the healing of these wounds and the connections and threads that bind us together- then perhaps we will slowly mend the world in the panoramic.  Or at the very least, in our struggle- uphold the beauty and the tenderness and the wholeness of life in its terrible midst. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Fire of Commitment

Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, 2014
I am beginning a new segment of this blog, which I am naming after that beloved UU song in our teal Singing the Journey hymnals: The Fire of Commitment.  The symbol of fire has ignited this journey, casting its warm glow on my life…it has been smouldering for awhile, and in the words of Garth Brooks-'I cannot abide, standing outside'...the fire!  I have walked wooded paths beside a river…and I have arrived at a place where vows are made before a blazing water fire. So this is where the journey leads?  I am arrived at that unexpected place, where Love surrounds me with its warm conflagration, a love that will not let me go.  This is the Holy Pentecost, the Fire of the Spirit, the power of love that moves within me and through me, as I move more deeply into the fullness of Life.

2014 New Contemplatives, Spiritual Directors International 

                      May the reflections I offer her arise 

                               from that one true Flame.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dirty Hands…and Grace

Return to the center….peel back the layers to reveal the core of this fruit of life…which has so much to teach in every bite.

It was like that yesterday- time and space moving so quickly that I barely had time to notice and understand- the emotions beneath the emotions, the particular flicker of every image that flashed through my peripheral vision.

Only later, did it come back- beneath a layer of my ordinary frustrations, a man reaching out his hand to shake mine, and I, reaching back, apologizing for my dirt-covered hand.  "That's ok, my hands are dirty too," he responded. I asked him his name; it was Anthony. We all introduced ourselves- me, my children, and a few others from my congregation.  Anthony had seen us planting flowers in front of the Hope Center in the city of Newburgh and had stopped by to say hello- and to ask about worms in the dirt he might use for fishing. We had come there earlier with a Welcome Sign for the homeless drop-in center, a sign the Religious Exploration class children had made.  We had come to light our chalice and sing songs in the parlor.  And we had come to plant flowers- our seeds of hope- for this new thing we might be making- new possibilities of extending love beyond our doors, new relationships, new connections.

It was just a beginning… but if my congregation's chalice has been lit in places off the hilltop (or outside of a church building) before, I do not know it. Perhaps in homes for small group gatherings, especially when we were desert-wandering in the years after a devastating fire, but a gathering in the inner city of Newburgh may be the first.

I did not feel as hopeful yesterday… our small number, my children's misbehavior during the short service, and the difficult hurried pace of the day before and after left me frayed and vulnerable.  I was worried this did not matter.  I was worried I did not matter.  I was worried efforts would be futile and foolish. But the sign and the flowers and the chalice did matter... all the people eating soup and playing cards at tables applauded as we unfurled the colorful sign, like all of us providing welcome for one another. A woman slept curled in the corner, as we hung the sign on the back wall above her, a sign that she too was welcome.

We could have waited, spent more time planning and promoting to bring more UU folks in… but I have been in more than enough meetings to last a lifetime, and now the call is to move beyond- in the spirit of prayer- to worship and to serve.  To allow the Spirit to lead us to unexpected places.  Places where my dirty hands meet other dirty hands and relationship happens from the ground up.

So, there was grace. And love. I recall "Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love."  The truth is when I look for God, I most often find him in those intimate moments between people- on the road to Emmaus, in the conversation between friends, in the dirty hands.


It was almost two years ago that I first visited the Hope Center.  I was seeking a spiritual director at a crossroads in my life- I was letting go, learning to embrace change, and feeling the longing to live more deeply from contemplation into call.  It was the beginning of my journey to become a spiritual director. At that time, after a walk in the woods, I reached out to the Hope Center for my own direction… it began with monthly meetings with my director… and led one-by one to more connections between people. It was like tilling the soil beneath a tree to see an entire tangled, interconnected root system.  And it is this system of connections which allows the tree to grow.

And so in the midst of another seemingly frustrating day- I have to step back and again get over myself,  get over my expectations of how I want things to be, and get over my rush to see things grow. Because already growing beneath the soil are things that cannot be seen, and nurturing grace already abounding.

It's not about me…and what I am planning to do.  It's about trust and following.  It's about slowing down and returning to the center, to the seed of God growing within. And it's about reaching out my hand- our hands- our dirt-stained hands- in love.

Connections, Marge Piercy

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot always tell by looking at what is happening
More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden
Gnaw in the dark, and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: make life that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in, a thicket and bramble
wilderness to the outside but to us it is interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always.
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The gentle breaking of the heart

"There is a breaking of the heart which is gentle....and there is a breaking which is violent and harmful, shattering it completely."- Mark the Ascetic

For Sufi's it is the rose which symbolizes the opening of the heart. As Rumi says, What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.

And as UU's sing- I know this rose will open, I know my fear will burn away. I know my soul will unfurl its wings. We hold flower communions of color, joy and hope in the midst of despair. 

For the Buddhists it is the lotus flower- The flower, as a closed bloom, is like the human heart. 
When enlightened with the teachings of the Buddha, it blossoms.

I think of Easter lilies in Christian resurrection- a symbol of new life. Lilies planted beside a cross...How many layers of the sun until we rise? 

Tonight I contemplate this garden of symbols as a way of imagining wisdom. We hold the seeds of contemplation...what new life shall emerge from its depths?  

Let me accompany this bursting forth.  From the depths of contemplation, may my heart break open gently, as from the seed emerges the flower of new life. 

(Quotes and images inspired and collected from spiritual director reflections, in anticipation of the 2014 SDI Emerging Wisdom Conference...) 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ashes, Ashes

A few days ago I had a dream that I was at a local Christian church, standing in line to receive ashes.  But instead of receiving a tiny cross to the forehead, I leaned forward into a bucket of ashes and doused my face, neck and head with soot.

This dream- occurring two days before Ash Wednesday, and on the same day I had been googling 'funeral celebrant'- speaks of religious rite and passage. It is also symbolic of where I find myself year after year on Ash Wednesday, fully embodied and immersed in life in a season of contemplation.

Confession: I love this time of year, despite its bleakness. It's as if we have been climbing a mountain all winter, and especially this winter of heavy snows, and are almost to the peak.  While I have lost so many loved ones in February and early Marches past, their presence and love seem particularly close as the year winds round again this way.  The time of death and loss is coupled with the turning of the season- the signs of spring, nests and crocuses- beginning to peak through the earth. It's peak labor, and life is just aching to be born.

Grief too has an ache in it- and a tremendous love.  I know God so near in grief, the heart broken open and compassion knocking at the door in the face of a neighbor or friend. I know God in memory, and the beauty of a life well-lived. And I know God in emptiness, in the patience to hold still and simply be with the places I cannot bear to hold alone.

And what of religious rite?  I did not go to Ash Wednesday services at a Christian church, but spent the day living my life.  Cat litter, pen ink, granola bar crumbs, and street salt were the sacred objects of my daily rites.

The Sunday before I attended service at my Unitarian Universalist church; with a sermon my minister gave entitled 'Nuclear Numbing', ashes took on another meaning- stories of Hiroshima, incinerated bodies, the dehumanized other, atomic bomb earrings in the White Sands gift shop, and the blind eye...the lie.  Here perhaps, more poignantly, are ashes- our ashes. 'From dust you came, to dust you shall return'. And yet what speaks to me in the story of a dying Japanese girl giving to another child the lunch her mother made her? A final heartbreaking gesture of life, the precious human body and spirit, the life and pain and love in between.

Bearing witness. Awakening.  Opening eyes to what is, and to the deep call to respond from a place of inner truth.  With tears in the sanctuary, I found myself in our final song beside a lively elderly woman whom I adore, leaning with our arms around each other, singing 'We'll build a land'. Hugs on the way out with fellow congregants were warm and sustained. Petitions were signed, forums planned: to take a stand for nuclear disarmament.  From the broken heart and deepened awareness of devastation and threat emerged a call to action.

It was one of the most powerful worship services I have experienced, not only breaking open my heart but also connecting me with my call to ministry as a poet and spiritual director-- a call that urges me to honor the soul, to open the heart, and to support the fullness of human life.  Later I was struck with awe that I will be traveling to that same Southwest desert (a few hours from White Sands, in Santa Fe) a week after Easter, with teachers of many traditions and nations, with wisdom ancient and emerging, with hope for a better way.  It seems now that each day I live fully into my work of seeing the holy in the mundane and accompanying others on their journeys, I am answering the question I have asked so many times, the question that changed my life: What is the one thing you can do for peace? Answering not on my own, but as an instrument of the Spirit...

So ashes, ashes... I turn to the humus of the sacred earth, and mold it into clay.  I cover my face and hands in the dusty symbol of entering a time of spiritual contemplation and preparation.  I repent for the times I have been blind, numb, dull, asleep to the preciousness of human lives and forgotten my ancient mother earth.  And I bury myself like a bulb beneath her soil, turning inward for a time until I am bathed by light and love, and resurrected- called to go forth into action- with the spring.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mini-Blogging Experiment

As the Christmas season approaches, I will be offering a min-blog experiment which I hope to share more widely with friends others.  While stores have opened their doors on Thanksgiving evening (and earlier in many cases), and customers have lined up for early shopping and Black Friday sales... many of us are seeking a deeper and more meaningful way of experiencing this season...a slower and more contemplative way of celebrating. 

Tonight, the candles of the menorah are lit- in deep respect to another tradition- and in honor of religious freedom, gratitude, mystery and miracles.  And on Sunday I will light the first candle of the Advent wreath- the candle of hope.  A Christian tradition with Pagan roots (German peoples were said to have spun a wheel decorated with evergreens and adorned with candles, to bring on the light in those dark winter days...), the Advent wreath is a tradition I have cherished and made my own over the past several years, offering prayers and meditations with each morning's candle lighting. 

My personal re-creation of the Advent ritual is neither Pagan nor Christian, though it draws on the spirit of ancient peoples who longed for light in the dark cold winter, and of those who have found hope in a powerful story of divine love incarnated. Bowing to the wisdom of our religious traditions, I offer a personal ritual for our human story that is centered on the spiritual pillars of those five candles.  While candle meanings and colors vary depending on who you ask,  I have chosen hope, love, joy, and peace- with patience at the center- as the attributes around which I will reflect in the coming weeks.  Love, joy, and peace are what we hope for and long for most fully in our lives and in our world.  May we in this season of Advent create a space for the soul, a space of preparation and openness, of patient and expectant waiting, of hopeful possibility for the birthing of our lives into fullness. 

I invite you to join me in walking this Advent Journey over the 25 days of Christmas. To follow, please visit:


Monday, November 18, 2013

The Gift of Brokenness and Vulnerability

With tears in the corners of both our eyes, she told me how my vulnerability was a gift to her.  How seeing me full of emotion, sometimes with tears even as I spoke from the pulpit, had brought comfort and allowed her to open herself more.  She wasn't the first person to tell me this, and as she spoke I was reminded too of my minister in a former congregation I attended a few years back.  I was reminded of how her frequent tears and emotional expressions were for me a salve, an expression of our common humanity.  They provided a compassionate connection between people, a link from minister to congregant, a knowing that my spiritual leader was not a superhero or a savior but a human being filled with a brokenness and pain similar to mine.

I am not an ordained minister.  But I have been told by many that they look to me as a spiritual guide.  It was this affirmation and repeated asks for companioning that allowed me to recognize my call as a spiritual director.

As I consider my own emotional fragility, I recognize that I might be a little embarrassed.  I have made great strides into living a more whole and integrated life. I have done this with the aid of many good friends, counselors and spiritual guides....  But I still have pieces that are in need of healing.  As I've grown closer to integrating parts of myself into more public light, I have not wanted to be seen as broken, never fully getting this one piece of my life that needs healing into balance. I have not wanted to be continually weak and dependent, and have been embarrassed that I cannot step fully into the person I imagine myself to be. I have not wanted anyone to see me as less than that image- that persona- a spiritual guide, full of light and life and wholeness.

But can there be wholeness without the recognition of shadow? And there is a shadow.  I see that shadow, I know her.  She is not everything, but she is a part of me.

In recent weeks I have pulled away from some of those good friends, counselors and spiritual guides who have helped me. I have felt I must learn to rely on myself because in the long run I am the only one I can depend on.  I recognize the unhealthiness of this thinking and write it now simply as a way of catching it in action.

In fact I write all this now as confession, as ways of acknowledging the foolishness of pride.  I notice this false thinking that has everything to do with ego and a lack of self-acceptance.  I notice and I catch it and I seek to redeem it with a written act of contrition that embraces the wholeness of who I am.

It is the woman who told me what my tears meant to her who reminded me... that there is room- and often necessary space- for a broken heart.  There is room for my vulnerability and pain- not to get lost in my story- but for the compassion to shine through.  It is compassion built on seeing that recognizes a kindred soul that has known its own  brokenness and loss, and risks connection.

And so it is, as this woman's words remind me, that the vulnerability and brokenness that I have been trying to hide are in actuality the gift- the gift to myself and to others, waiting to be opened, to be revealed, to be seen.