Acquiring fire

If you can’t start from scratch, how do you fix a broken system? How do you shift into new practices? How do rediscover a part of you that seemed lost?

These questions echoed in the back of my mind while moving through two seemingly disparate experiences last week. It started with the Arrabon conference, a time of discussing racial and socioeconomic reconciliation when it comes to faith communities as well as the community entire. A firemaking workshop followed (held by Owlcraft Healing Ways/Blue Heron), which was a time of, frankly, learning how much I don’t know, how easy it is to ignore what your intuition knows (and how challenging that makes your life), and that I am perhaps a bit more out of touch with Nature than I realized.

How do you rediscover a part of you that seemed lost – that part of you that knows we are all connected, even when your monkey mind dwells in fear that it’s not so?

I don’t know the answers, at least not out of any place of logic, but what I have realized is that “acquiring fire” is not quite it. It’s not all about brusquely seeking out that fiery energy.

What do I mean by this? The instructors of this workshop said it best – you don’t “make” fire. You invite fire to come and be with you. And this posture informs not only the lay you set up, but also the way you do so. The climate, weather, and environment inform what of the Earth’s offerings you use.

After that, all you’re really doing is creating space.

So to me, more than anything else, the act of making and tending a fire is about awareness. What materials have you been given? How can you use them to create a hospitable place for warmth and light?

What’s interesting is, the same could be said about the topic of “race, class, and the kingdom of God” that was the focus of the conference. Reconciliation is less about making an inner fire that bids one to fight injustice and more about, instead, creating space within you for that fire to catch – because the fire already exists.

It is about creating space for warmth and light to radiate from a new way of relating to people. A new way that is, actually, an old way that already exists.

And perhaps this fire is a different kind of fire than one would expect. Perhaps it is the kind that does push against injustice, yes, but from a place of understanding exactly what tools are needed to do so – the tools of narrative, of cultural context, of frameworks that are not your own. The tools of experiences from people who have already learned about this over and over again.

It is a fire that comes from a place of desiring to see the world and other people (who are not so “other,” of course) in a better way.

That’s really the only way to make these changes: a mindset of generosity. Be generous with yourself, forgive yourself for the past, and be willing to receive new experiences. Be generous with others, and what you perceive their intentions to be; be willing to make space for them and their reality in your own reality.

This seems simple but it is not always easy. For me, it is a process – a journey. But it is a journey that will be well worth making, I am certain. No matter how bruised my knuckles get while trying to strike flint with steel; no matter how bruised my heart gets in trying to strike up hard conversations.

There is a thread of love and light that draws us back to who we were, the world that once was, and I am starting to feel it draw near. Can you?

Sprouting

It would be great to be able to say that spring is sprouting, but it’s sort of been a tease (she wrote, as freezing rain pelleted the ground outside). Still, its sunny inklings have been relief, anticipating when good things can grow, both green and otherwise.

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Of course I’m clear on the climate change implications woven within such unusually warm spring-teases, but I don’t find it helpful to dwell. The problem is there, in rather bold and loud tones. But instead of ruminating, part of my plan of action is to take advantage – to use the more hospitable days to spring into a different kind of lifestyle.

(Hah. Spring. Pun entirely intended, I think.)

What I mean is: what exacerbated this warming was our all-too-human tendency to hide from (the occasionally admittedly harsh) natural world, right? We followed a habitual self-protection until it led our exploitation of her natural resources. Perhaps there are more layers than that, but let’s keep it simple for now.

What if we decided to use these changes, as they become more and more obvious, to teach ourselves to start embracing Nature? And – here’s a crazy thought – what if she responded to that?

Hope: it springs eternal.

When you are raised on a rhythm that says the supermarket fills every need, how do you even begin to sink your hands into new earth? How do you swap old measures out for new habits?

You don’t go it alone, first of all. I’ve been reading about prepping and homesteading lately. Such systems do have helpful how-tos, and frankly I understand the desire for self-sufficiency that they betray.

But I also believe that holding onto this old evolutionary must-protect-self-at-all-costs mindset can do more harm than good. My gut tells me that the way to make this meaningful is through the guidance of others — through community.

Do you start with permaculture? Or an urban garden? What about CSAs and food co-ops? There is a Richmond Food Cooperative starting this summer, but until then, I’m testing my plant-based interactions on a smaller scale, growing calendula, eggplant, broccoli, and onions out of cartons and containers into which I drilled drainage holes (did not actually drill any cartons).

sprouted

Strange’s is my source for sustainable seeds; Ellwood Thompson’sfor wheat in a first-time attempt at sprouting grains.

But it’s the Richmond Herbalism Guild that has drawn me deeply, with its heart for the gentle healing spirits of plants. Their first workshop of 2017 was a surprise find that slowly started my initiation into herbalism. I am so buoyed by the existence of an art and science that speaks to plants’ power to heal, something which seemed so intuitive yet esoteric, and is the former but not the latter.

One of their events was a guided plant walk at Forest Hill Park. The guides in question were Dave and Lena Welker of the Blue Heron Outdoor School.

tree walk 1

What they teach is less an ideology, and more an all-encompassing philosophy. They spoke to the idea that one could get to know plants as easily as if they were people. That so captured my attention, and I needed to learn more; next thing I knew, I was making my way to visit Dave and Lena at their home in Amherst. The hope was a simple one: to tap into their way of seeing and moving through the world.

This lifestyle (for lack of a better word) contains a great many lost practices – tracking, firemaking, and foraging, for a few – and leads to, in my eyes, a deeper realization of the interconnectedness of everything.

Because the truth is, each of us leaves an imprint as we move through this world. We do this on a physical level, yes, but also on an emotional level; in my imagination, these two combine in a colorful, crackling, metaphysical math problem that equals a web of energy. Invisible, and yet so visible, or at least palpable.

This is what we human animals do. We leave things behind. We make our marks. We carve our initials into tree trunks, dive into lakes, and build houses on old farmland. We drop plastic on the pavement, start our own gardens, and plant new trees. We pull dandelion weeds. We mark trails with cairns. And even when we think we’ve left no trace, we have left more than a few.

Each of us is more than meets the eye, and our actions, as do our thoughts and emotions, resonate with one another. We are connected.

So this time of great change – I want to embrace it, almost as if to turn it into a gift instead of a curse. Could that happen? Could we choose to leave a trace that vibrates with love instead of fear? Could we plant the seeds that need to sprout, starting now? Could we use this growth to help one another – and help this earth – be more whole?

Where we go from here

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It has taken me a week to process the Women’s March. Yes, in this high-speed world I remain impossibly slow. But in this case, and from my big picture perspective of a culture on the edge of change for the better (and it is), I think that’s not a bad thing.

I had my hesitations about being part of what promised to be a big moment. But most of them stemmed, I admit, from what-ifs – worries that, even if they were valid, should simply not have been entertained.

Every what-if was a strain of one disease: fear.

There was the initial concern, related to my experience at Richmond’s March on Monument (my first such march since college), that it would be too overwhelming to handle. (Overwhelming, the Washington one certainly was.)

There was the sense that something scary or violent could happen. (Though it didn’t, there had been violence in DC the day before; the spectre was all too real.)

And then there was the worry that maybe it wouldn’t mean quite what I thought it would. That it would ring insincere, or hollow, somehow.

The latter proved to be entirely wrong, and that, I think, speaks volumes.

Here are two truths about, at least, my own experience.

img_0136First: it was incomprehensibly encouraging and eye-opening. It was the togetherness that made it so. Moments of despair over others’ suffering leads me, as it does so many of us, to feel utterly alone. This protest proved that this is not so: we are not alone. None of us is alone. No matter the struggle, no matter the suffering. It cannot be said enough.

When we feel alone, many of us (myself included) continue to isolate ourselves, for – of course – fear of others knowing how strong we are not. But there is another story we can choose to tell ourselves. That story is: when we feel alone, we decide that the medicine is love and understanding. We come alongside one another to prove that you don’t have to be alone. Then we get to stand in a shared strength that says: your sadness, confusion, and grief are mine, too. No matter what the issue at hand is. Even if there is no issue at all.

Which brings me to the second truth: the march was very physically (and at times, emotionally) uncomfortable.

I live in a highly walkable city that’s not very densely populated, in a life that rarely requires driving a car or using mass transit. Never before have I stood on a metro train so tightly packed as those we rode this weekend, or in a crowd with as little space to move. It is difficult to describe how little, but imagine being able to stand without putting weight on your feet, and you’ll get a vague idea.

Panic was my first instinct. There was so much heat and so little air. There were so many people. A disaster could be imminent, with so many people. The thought of how do I get away floated through my mind.

But then I remembered: of course. This is the point. And I, for one, have some work to do when it comes to getting this kind of uncomfortable.

Too many people – too many women – have had to live this way, in systems and structures and even families packed so tight that they can barely breathe or be. Too many people – women and men alike – have been wrongfully kept in quarters like this before, too – be it on a slave ship or concentration camp – with no choice but to keep going until they could no longer.

In short: on Saturday in DC, we were all exposed to some very extreme empathy, if we so chose to let the experience affect us.

There were, unfortunately, a few individuals nearby who were not ready to do that. There were complaints. There was a palpable dismay. It was disheartening, for a few moments. But I understand them; I do. I was there not so long ago.

But the thing is, there are costs to comfort. And to this woman, it is too late to continue to be afraid of getting uncomfortable. There are too many people who will suffer otherwise.

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contrary to what the picture shows, we are actually the ones (pl) we have been waiting for. but anyway.

And frankly, more intense than the discomfort – more beautiful, and more freeing – is this sense of pride that I carry with me as I return to my regularly scheduled life. It’s strange, that this pride is so foreign and new. It feels as odd a fit as a style of overcoat I’ve never worn before. But this sense is that I am proud to be a woman.

It’s unreal. What if we were all so joyous? What if we decided that we are proud of each other?

Maybe this is where we go from here.

Peace be with you

Peace be with you on a day when politics is the watchword. But even so, it is not necessarily a bad word. It’s on all of our minds; why is it on all of our minds? Perhaps because politics is about power. But more than that, and fortunately for us – and our well-being, and our sanity – it is about people.

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A wise woman recently reminded me how much a President of the United States cannot do. True: the people’s ability to elect a leader is important and revolutionary. Also true: an election in itself is no small thing to be dismissed. Truer still: the President does carry weight and possess power (that is, influence).

However, we live in a country that was founded upon certain principles, one being that absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, no matter who holds it – people or President. Furthermore, we live in a time wherein a powerful work of art heralding this painstakingly constructed framework is popular and celebrated. (Yes, of course I mean Hamilton.) That is a reminder we are lucky to have.

What is interesting about Americans, then, is our proclivity for choice. Yet, interestingly enough, this seems to be on the backburner in this present climate. Nevertheless, in spite of environmental influences, in spite of the people around us, and in spite of whatever toxicity breeds on the Internet, we do have in our possession the ability to choose.

And in spite of what many would say, believe, or do, that ability does not end after a so-called historic election.

What if every election is historic? What then? Then, the effects would only be meaningful to the extent that we allowed.

By this, I mean a few things. First: none of us has to play the victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all see negative patterns, and we predict their sore outcomes. But the pattern I see is that, when we predict these outcomes, they are shudderingly likely to occur.

Second: the opposite is true as well. If there is an ill that is eating at you, and that should be remedied – if the reality of hateful words and energy bothers you – if you are unhappy with, perhaps, certain systems –

– well. You are not alone. I’m there with you. I feel angry, anxious, entirely powerless.

But we are not alone. And in that unity, that powerlessness, bit by bit, will start to dissipate.

I say this in defiance of our concocted ideas about what power is or looks like. There is a different kind. It is a power that does not come from force, or volume, or occupying a seat in the tallest tower (literally or metaphorically). It does not come from having the time or energy to post grievances on Facebook.

No: the most effectual power comes from discernment, and wisdom. This power comes from giving up your ego in favor of your fellow man. We’ve seen it in the actions of those who change the way we think, see one other, and act. We know there is a different kind of influence; we’ve seen it exude from people – Mother Teresa; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nelson Mandela – who have chosen to see and stand for the good within each of us.

Power, in short, comes from that which conquers fear: love.

None of us knows exactly what the future holds. But it is better that way. There is so much beyond each of our individual control, but those circumstances should have no bearing on whether we choose to act – whether we choose to change ourselves, in big movements and small words – to bring people to peace and to better the world around us.

I have no illusions that utopia is near. Nor do I have illusions that it would even look the same for everyone. Indeed: I hope it would not, as balance is beautiful.

But what I also hope for is a trend towards trying to understand each person who walks beside us in our lives, no matter who he voted for, no matter where she was born. We really do have the choice to listen and love. When we believe we don’t, that’s when fear comes out to play.

But when we know deep down how thoroughly we do, there is a flicker of light in the soul, an electric recognition of ourselves in others’ eyes, a hope that positive change is possible.

I have hope. I have hope that it can begin as soon as today.

Post edited slightly on November 18, 2016.

The creative spirit

Or: write on, Psalmists.

About a month ago, I went to see The 1975 play in Charlottesville. They, while not of the mainstream-radio set Stateside (yet…), have cultivated an impressively dedicated following. I can’t help but think that it’s not only because of their copious output and obvious talent/hard work combo, but also because of their utter sincerity. In their performance, and in their lyrics, it’s impossible to ignore. To me that is something beautiful – something to be proud of.

Sincerity. Complete emotional honesty. It’s what so many of us seem to be craving lately.

It’s why I love The 1975 unabashedly, even as a not-teenager (though I’m sure at 17 I would have been hyper-obsessed). It’s also one of the many reasons why Julien Baker and her echoic power have drawn me in. The poet with a guitar that rings out like a harp, her simultaneous rejoice and complain – her sincere, raw music are a gift to this world.

Music. Stories. Sincerity. Crying out to God in verse, reaching out to others in melodies, letting one’s spirit be free as it reveals itself between the notes of a song or the lines of a page. These are spiritual acts.

But of course it is, you think. You might think, for example, of the Psalms, of the Song of Solomon – then of Paradise Lost – or of Emily Dickinson’s plaintive queries to the Almighty. My mind goes to a gorgeous book of poetry called Bucolics a friend gave to me: pastoral verses that invoke the relief of nature, that send the writer’s wonderings to the God he calls Boss. Serious, curious, sweet. It’s refreshing.

I think this idea was re-awoken in me, though, by a sermon I heard on generosity. (Not the kind you’re thinking of, probably. Bear with me here~)

What I mean is: generosity is a spiritual act, too. To give what you’ve been given back to others, or to the one who gave it, is to share the light that is love. It is a way of making the impossible suddenly so possible. Of course it’s true in a financial context, but it’s also true relationally, and definitely artistically.

Isn’t this one of the reasons why we create in the first place? Are not our painted, composed, concocted works offerings in themselves?

I am trying to tease out what this looks like in my own life. But I wonder what it could look like in yours. I wonder what it would be like to have more and more people turn to this form of offering and of connection.

So until these questions are answered, I’ll probably just have Julien Baker on repeat. She just casts that kind of spell.

On films and freedom

Happy warm winter! I would have been out and running even if it were freezing – just something I like to do – but as it was, on this rain-soaked day, the warmth made it a morning shared with a great many dog-human outings.

(Global warming: helping us all reach our exercise goals?)

Anyway, that aside, there was a pair of ladies I passed who were having a bit of a problem. They were walking two small dogs, but as it turned out, they had a third, and he was off and running into the approaching woods, tearing after God-knows-what. A squirrel, probably. There were a great many squirrels, too.

As I ran by these ladies, they were calling out for this third dog, whose name was Toby, saying, “Come, Toby! Treat, Toby! Come get a treat!” I know this little chorus of pet owner bribery well, having used it many times myself.

But Toby, bless him, was having none of it. He was a good fifty feet away, having a grand time running in circles and scampering into and out of the trees. It was hard to figure why the ladies weren’t doing much to pursue him aside from promising tasty fake bacon strips. (If they even had any…)

Now, if I were Toby, this promise, while tempting, would seem particularly hollow in the face of grass and trees and squirrels and, basically, freedom. I often have felt pangs of sadness for my family’s own dogs for similar reasons – namely, the fact that we have to keep them leashed, when all they want to do is sprint like five-year-olds at an all-comer’s track meet.

I think this sense of knowing our dogs’ instinctive struggle comes from it being reflective of our own, as members of a culture that both encourages and discourages us from being the full expression of our human-animal selves.

Yesterday I had the good fortune to see the fantastic new film The Big Short. Amid the rush of sensory detail, overload of new information (or old information well-said), and awe at the acting, I realized one of its main truths was that we, as people, are weak when it comes to this instinct. What is this instinct? I would call it the attempt to outsmart ourselves. Meaning, we consider security, in the form of money, to also be freedom. Unfortunately, these monetary burdens – loans and mortgages, for example – are just that: burdens. Maybe it seems like extra infrastructure makes us more civilized. Obviously we have to take care of ourselves, and each other. But why is it that we, day after day, trick ourselves into thinking that it’s the epitome of existence to be as “safe” as possible?

I do believe, deep down, we humans are a little more like Toby than we realize. We want to be able to bribe ourselves with treats, but how different our lives might be if we chose the trees, even for a little while.

So, consider: what are some ways you can get yourself just a little more free?

For me, that’s been a more spiritual/psychological concept – i.e., relinquishing past expectations for myself in favor of better ones, in agreement with my new realities. But maybe it means something more tangible or physical to you. Maybe it looks like this awesome TED talk from 2012 wants it to – like breaking the chains that technology locks us into, in favor of real honest connection and vulnerability with others. Let this never be a skill we lose.

And ultimately, I would recommend catching The Big Short as soon as you can, and with someone who would enjoy discussing and dissecting it afterwards. It’s a story that affects us all, and definitely not to be missed.