Alive: the extravagant vitality of the late-spring forest

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This guest post is by Lindsay McLaughlin. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page.

The fields of our residential community: the little one behind Pinestone, and the larger one that embraces the garden and often hosts the sheep, are awash in shades of green. The grasses are growing, it seems, more than an inch every day. The hummingbirds are back, dancing in the azaleas; the whippoorwill sings like a fool in love outside our windows and doors every night. Rabbits and squirrels hop and scamper. In the garden, radishes are busting out of the earth, lettuce and kale and an array of other growing things make a thick green blanket from fence to fence. Insects buzz and hum and chirp and whirr. The wood frogs trill and the air is thick with pollen dust and the smell of warm earth. The rain and chill of only a couple weeks ago is another world.

All this heat and bother is waking up the reptilian, cold-blooded creatures in our neighborhood. Scot, who seems by some charm to find or be found by such as these, has encountered (so far) a milk snake in the sheep field, a black snake in the wood shed, a ribbon snake by his front door, and a very stubborn copperhead in the woodpile. Each time Scot tried to catch this copperhead, it slipped the noose and dropped down into the woodpile, wrapped in a cloak of invisibility.   Its disappearing act forced the practice of patience, as Scot waited for it to emerge and settle on top once more. This dance went through four revolutions until finally, after re-designing the snake stick, Scot was able to catch the snake and escort it far up the power line. Continue reading

Momentum: an ode to Baltimore

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I see a Baltimore who mines her gold
from the shadows behind abandoned houses.
I see a city of parks
with tree roots reaching deep beneath surfaces
tapping hidden sources
and joining the disconnected
with living bonds
visible even to eyes grown weary of witnessing.

I see neighborhoods of parades
of dancing and singing
lighting sacred fires
standing arm in arm in solidarity
kneeling down on cracked pavement to pray
to ask blessings and invoke peace
to appeal to the wisdom of the ancestors
the vision of the young. Continue reading

The constant invitation of the eternal

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It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

There is a literal way of seeing this that comes out of my Catholic upbringing. How fitting that I should finally be considering this final verse of St. Francis’ prayer on Easter weekend. The literal story is that Christ came to live among us as a man. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. . . .” So the verse goes. I was taught that Christ gave his life so that humans may have eternal life—in a place called Heaven.

It requires a certain effort to pan out to see a bigger picture. The story can be a lens through which to view an individual life (mine), in the context of a culture and, beyond that, ecosystems and planet and universe. And, zooming in the other direction, inspired by the great short film, “Powers of Ten” by Charles and Ray Eames, to see what goes on beneath the surface of my skin, in those interior realms of thought and belief and intuition, and deeper still to shadow and unconscious, into the place before thought and individuality. Continue reading

Permission to love it all: embodying the meeting of inner and outer

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To be loved as to love:

A cursory reading of this suggests St. Francis is speaking of loving our fellow man (and woman), but he could have a much bigger meaning here. Maybe he’s advising me to love everything I can. I have observed how alive I feel when doing something I love: designing or writing. My heart glows in my chest and the work flows easily. I feel like dancing.

Come to think of it, I love to dance as well. And to play the piano and watercolor. And walk in the forest, and sail on the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and creeks. And play cards by the fire with my son and husband. And pick tomatoes in the garden and eat them still warm from the sun. What if St. Francis, in this one sentence, is giving us all permission to do what we love, what nourishes us and connects us to the breathing earth and to each other? Continue reading

Seeking to console another is a way of summoning powerful allies

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O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,

Two aphorisms come to mind: You reap what you sow, and ‘Tis better to give than to receive. I mentioned at the beginning of this project that I had been reciting St. Francis’ prayer each morning before meditation in the months leading up to my father’s death. During the sad days and weeks following his passing, this phrase was very much in my awareness, offering its own consolation.

Seeking to be consoled is a turning inward, a way of balling up into a shell and waiting for help. I might as well dare people to show me that I am worthy of love. Consoling, on the other hand, is an act of loving connection, even at a time when everyone is in need of consolation. The distinction is not between being selfish or selfless. It’s about hiding or reaching out. Continue reading

Respecting the unknown by illuminating what we can

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Where there is darkness, light;

One of my favorite aphorisms is the advice to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. This has always made sense to me, although I sometimes forget to do it. Many wisdom traditions teach that we are, or we contain, light as the fire of consciousness. In my imagination, I can interchange light with energy with spirit; somehow this means that we are the stuff of the universe, we are light energy, animated stardust. The word, light, shows up in our language in so many ways, any one of them could be the basis for a whole journaling session.

We are said to be lighthearted, enlightened, to take things lightly, to shed light on a problem. Some people light up rooms, others may feel lightheaded or light on their feet. We have light in our eyes, so the phrase “lights out” refers to more than bedtime, as you know if you’ve ever had your lights punched out. A great leader is a guiding light. We “see the light” or “see in a new light” when we understand something afresh. Near death experiences often describe moving to a bright light. Revelations “come to light,” or we might see the “light at the end of the tunnel” after a long project or struggle. Continue reading

Practice being an instrument of peace

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Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

I made several failed attempts to capture my response to this first line of St. Francis’ prayer. Here is one: “It is perhaps a sign of spiritual maturity to dedicate oneself to be of use in the world. There is a nice reciprocity in knowing that the world is not only for me, I am also for the world.” But that sounds like I’m saying I’m spiritually mature, which could not be farther from the truth.

What I love about this line is its humility, the willingness, perhaps longing, to turn over my life to. . . .Well, to what exactly? That word, “Lord,” keeps tripping me up, steeped as I have been in Western Christian tradition, with its centuries of patriarchal hierarchies. I tried dropping the word altogether, leaving “Make me an instrument of peace,” which sounds nice but utterly bland. That higher power is stripped out, that appeal to the unseen, the majestic, the other-than-worldly. In short, the sacred. That’s it, isn’t it? Those eight words are an invocation, a summoning of great power, and a linguistic bowing down. Continue reading

Could psilocybin be a shortcut to new stories?

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I’m by turns curious about and frustrated by the way modern culture insists on scientific proof before an experience or phenomenon can be considered “real.” And while absence of proof is hardly proof of absence, there is considerable resistance to believing the unmeasured. This instrumentalism is one of our civilization’s dominant stories, part of the operating system behind our rationality-soaked worship of science.

And so we are driven to shine light on the unseen, to reduce mystery to chemistry, biology or psychology. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the 2014 book, Living With a Wild God, is a good champion of the idea that faith is intellectually lazy, and prefers the question, “Why believe when you can know?” And yet, her book and John Geiger’s The Third Man Factor both admit that certain numinous and mystical experiences elude fully rational explanations. Michael Pollan’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “The Trip Treatment,” is another intriguing foray into the science of human spirituality. Continue reading

In the terrain between stories, trust that maps do exist

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I am a framework junkie. I love the satisfaction of seeing a complex process or perspective distilled into diagrams, able to be grasped at a glance. Sure, some detail is omitted, but the best frameworks capture essence and convey key information to guide understanding and/or action. A good map is one example, or an infographic about, say, the growth in income disparity over the last decade.

I keep hearing it said that, in this time between stories, we’re wandering in unknown territory without a map. And that is how it feels much of the time. Yet, there are workable maps and frameworks that can inform both personal and cultural choices, if not direction. I’m thinking particularly of various takes on developmental psychology, like Spiral Dynamics, or Rudolph Steiner’s seven-year cycles, or Bill Plotkin’s map of the human psyche. I find it comforting to have a picture of where I’ve been and to see possible routes on my continuing quest for wholeness and belonging. Continue reading

Polishing the mirror and filling the well

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Sometimes I get so bogged down in the gunk of daily living, of arguments or rejections, a cold or lack of sleep, that I completely lose track of the spacious stillness that lies behind all of it. Thomas Merton has a great prayer for this:

“May we all grow in grace and peace, and not neglect the silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us.”

There are an uncountable number of practices for polishing the dusty mirror and seeing the light of clarity and peace shining back. Daily writing is one that works well for me. And yoga. What a gift — a thousands year old method of waking up the body, of realigning energy channels, of helping me to notice and appreciate the vastness of my interior and the wonder of this vehicle that carries me around all day. Meditation, when I get around to doing it, has a similar effect of settling my busy, chattering mind and returning me again and again to the present moment. Continue reading