Holy Wild, Prayer & Praxis, Story & Song

Soul Writing: Finding Balance in Group Spiritual Practice

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


Last Wednesday evening found me crowded around a conference room table with a dozen other people, packed so closely together that some of us were literally shoulder to shoulder. Sitting together in concentrated silence.

The writing prompt invited us to imagine our hearts as a swinging door. Who might come in? it asked. And where might you find yourself headed when you go out?

But I was preoccupied instead with another question, different but related, a question of setting boundaries and holding space.

It was my first time co-teaching a class at my UU church, and I was struggling to find a balance between the persona of extroversion I put on in public and the inwardly-focused headspace I make for myself when I settle in to write. Although I write every day as a personal spiritual practice, writing in a group setting was a new experience for me. I’ve attended any number of writing critique groups, and hosted a few myself, and of course there were the open mic nights where folks shared everything from well-rehearsed performance art to raw works-in-progress, with an appreciative audience sitting by ready to applaud.

But this was different. This was much more like praying together. Or sitting together in meditation. This wasn’t about sharing something you’d already written, but being present to each other in-process, witness to the very act of discovery and composition, soul-deep in the chaotic waters of creativity. This is writing as a spiritual practice — a kind of sacred deep listening, what Karen Hering calls in her book Writing to Wake the Soul, “contemplative correspondence” — a correspondence with the self and with one’s gods.

As we sat in silence, pens gliding across blank pages, fingers pecking at keyboards, heads bowed in the flickering candlelight, I found myself pulled back again and again to this question of how to hold open the space. How to balance the inwardness of creative work with the outwardness of sharing and being present to others in their own process of deepening discovery.

write-it-down_daniel-go-sm

In Pagan practice, we have tools and rituals for crafting sacred space — casting the magical circle within which we do our most challenging work. We burn incense to cleanse the space, we bless ourselves with water and scented oils. We breathe deeply, we drum or chant to move ourselves from the uneven, syncopated patterns of distraction and dislocation that dominate our mundane lives, into the steady, sacred rhythms that help us settle more deeply and mindfully into harmony with the Song of the World.

I do this when I write, too, though the habits of setting the space are slightly different. I light some candles, maybe make myself some tea, sometimes I read a poem or a passage from a book chosen at random from the shelves in my study. I settle into my favorite chair, mug of tea nestled on a coaster just within reach. And then I sit for a while in silence, listening to my breathing, letting words rise up, letting phrases coalesce like bright gases in the obscure depths of space, condensing first into stars and from there into constellations of thought.

It takes a long time for me to say anything. I need that sacred space — that quiet emptiness within which I can start to listen for what it is I’m called to write.

So it was a new challenge, to sit in a room with a dozen other people, in silence, and try to find that same inner quiet — aware of other people’s breathing, aware of other people’s inner thoughts spinning from brain to pen to page and back again.

And, at the same time, to try to stay rooted in the outwardly-focused role of “teacher” — measuring my words and expressions for the effect they’d have on others, keeping an attentive eye on the energy of the group, slowing or quickening the pace to hold everyone’s interest. The job of teacher is sort of like the role of priestess, except without the fancy robes and colorful jewelry to lend an air of exotic authority. This is something I still struggle with, trying to balance the warm invitation of welcome with the need to set boundaries and hold open the space. The interplay of extroversion and introversion, the cultivated persona as a work of both art and artifice, self-disclosure and self-composure.

blah-flood-g

So while the writing prompt that night invited us to consider the heart as a swinging door through which love might move in either direction, I was busy worrying about how to manage the swinging door of my mind.

My mind is a messy place. A lot of clutter accumulates, and so writing for me is often much like the practice of a hoarder quietly, delicately sorting through her things, rearranging piles, rediscovering forgotten treasures, listening to the way her collection speaks to her. I write sentence by sentence, image by image, not sure where I might be going or where I’ll end up — just placing one image or idea next to another to see if they resonate, listening for the hum of harmony or tension.

Some objects I come back to again and again. I have a lot of rocks in my head, for instance — mostly the smooth, tumbled stones of riverbeds and ocean shores, some of them balanced or built into cairns, some of them marking animal graves, some of them covered in moss, some of them so tall they cast long shadows at dusk on the solstice. Also, a lot of what birds have left behind — feathers, fluffs of down floating idly on the breeze, the quick trill of a faraway song, a bit of broken eggshell, the contours of flight that great flocks carve through the air.

Also, more than a bit of gore and anxiety, craggy barren landscapes, self-righteous judgment, cynicism, defensiveness, the gross glistening slobber of my wild longings, the pitiable whine of my shame.

None of these necessarily mean much on their own. But they make up the collection of sights, sounds and textures that I reach for when I am crafting a new story on the page, trying to weave sense out of experience. I don’t always know where I’m going when I write, or what will happen to me in the meantime. I just settle down into that quiet space and start arranging and rearranging until something like art emerges.

writing-lidyanne_aquino

This is what Hering means by “contemplative correspondence” — not just as in the letter you write to yourself, but as in the way everything is connected, each thing hitched to another. She says:

The human brain loves to string things together, to connect the dots, to draw upon previous knowledge to make things whole. We long to participate in making or uncovering meaning: it is what we are doing whenever we connect our interior landscape with the external, and the temporal and material with the eternal.

This is correspondence in the Pagan sense: the way east is air is hawk is dawn is youth is curiosity is all yellow-gold. Or how autumn is dusk is death is ancestry is otherworld is mist is change is harvest is gratitude is life renewed.

It reminds me of what the poet Billy Collins wrote:

[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

But Hering’s words also remind me of another poem, this one by Mark Strand, that begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

And ends:

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I think Hering is right when she says that we love to “make things whole.” But this making is not always a process of speaking and writing, connecting dots and comparing “everything in the world to everything else in the world” until the entire space is filled (as Collins puts it), “more guppies crowding the fish tank, more baby rabbits hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.”

Sometimes, making things whole is an act of withdrawal or withholding, an act of opening up space within which others can discover their own wholeness without us.

Knowing this, suddenly it seemed crazy to me to try to write, here in this group of people who were each trying in their own way to find their own voice, to speak their own truth — it seemed almost irresponsible of me, to open the swinging door of my mind and risk all that mess and noise tumbling out.

But now there were only a few minutes left. And the writing prompt just sitting there, its ellipsis both invitation and challenge… Reminding me that I couldn’t ask others to be brave enough to write if I wasn’t willing to be brave myself. Reminding me of the old trope that UUs spend too much time in their heads already, that it is good to trust in the body’s wisdom, good to trust the heart…

So what if my heart were a swinging door? What would I say to you then? And so I wrote…

backerpacker-journaling_liam-kearney-sm

Through this swinging door…

All things fly out — the cat, the heat of the room, the noise of our laughing loudly at the television — so much escaping out into the world that we can never call back again, so that it seems we might soon be broke with the wild abandon of it all. But no. All things fly in, too — the hummingbird and the scent of the rose as it is jiggled by the frenetic stirring of tiny wings, the leaf litter from last year’s autumn, the tiny stones wedged in the tread of your shoes — your shoes, that always seem to hover on the threshold, neither inside nor out, one foot more loyal than the other (the left one going wandering), so that when it’s time to pull yourself together in the morning you are always scrambling to get ahold of it all, both shoes on, then your coat, your scarf if it is cold — though not so cold once the heat follows you out the door on your way to work — following you like the geese in their migration, like the scent of the rose fading after summer, following like the neighbor’s new puppy who has no use for loyalty when there is so much joy in the world, who follows you all the way down the block to catch the bus and then sits there, wagging its tiny stub of a tail, its whole butt wiggling in the dust until you are out of sight — only to find its way back here to our doorstep again, so that by the time you come home there are, along with the leaves and the hummingbird feathers and the tiny abandoned bits of gravel, now too the tiny pawprints of perfectly outlined mud all over all the furniture, and me — smile and cup of tea in hand and a bit of everything the world has to offer tangled in my hair.


Photo Credit:
• “I wrote you,” by Tekke (CC) [source]
• “Write It Down,” by Daniel Go (CC) [source]
• “Blah,” by Flood G. (CC) [source]
• “Writing,” by Lidyanna Aquino (CC) [source]
• “A German backpacker writing in her journal,” by Liam Kearney (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Featured, Holy Wild, praxis, story

Soul Writing: Finding Balance in Group Spiritual Practice

Last Wednesday evening found me crowded around a conference room table with a dozen other people, packed so closely together that some of us were literally shoulder to shoulder. Sitting together in concentrated silence.

The writing prompt invited us to imagine our hearts as a swinging door. Who might come in? it asked. And where might you find yourself headed when you go out?

But I was preoccupied instead with another question, different but related, a question of setting boundaries and holding space.

It was my first time co-teaching a class at my UU church, and I was struggling to find a balance between the persona of extroversion I put on in public and the inwardly-focused headspace I make for myself when I settle in to write. Although I write every day as a personal spiritual practice, writing in a group setting was a new experience for me. I’ve attended any number of writing critique groups, and hosted a few myself, and of course there were the open mic nights where folks shared everything from well-rehearsed performance art to raw works-in-progress, with an appreciative audience sitting by ready to applaud.

But this was different. This was much more like praying together. Or sitting together in meditation. This wasn’t about sharing something you’d already written, but being present to each other in-process, witness to the very act of discovery and composition, soul-deep in the chaotic waters of creativity. This is writing as a spiritual practice — a kind of sacred deep listening, what Karen Hering calls in her book Writing to Wake the Soul, “contemplative correspondence” — a correspondence with the self and with one’s gods.

As we sat in silence, pens gliding across blank pages, fingers pecking at keyboards, heads bowed in the flickering candlelight, I found myself pulled back again and again to this question of how to hold open the space. How to balance the inwardness of creative work with the outwardness of sharing and being present to others in their own process of deepening discovery.

write-it-down_daniel-go-sm

In Pagan practice, we have tools and rituals for crafting sacred space — casting the magical circle within which we do our most challenging work. We burn incense to cleanse the space, we bless ourselves with water and scented oils. We breathe deeply, we drum or chant to move ourselves from the uneven, syncopated patterns of distraction and dislocation that dominate our mundane lives, into the steady, sacred rhythms that help us settle more deeply and mindfully into harmony with the Song of the World.

I do this when I write, too, though the habits of setting the space are slightly different. I light some candles, maybe make myself some tea, sometimes I read a poem or a passage from a book chosen at random from the shelves in my study. I settle into my favorite chair, mug of tea nestled on a coaster just within reach. And then I sit for a while in silence, listening to my breathing, letting words rise up, letting phrases coalesce like bright gases in the obscure depths of space, condensing first into stars and from there into constellations of thought.

It takes a long time for me to say anything. I need that sacred space — that quiet emptiness within which I can start to listen for what it is I’m called to write.

So it was a new challenge, to sit in a room with a dozen other people, in silence, and try to find that same inner quiet — aware of other people’s breathing, aware of other people’s inner thoughts spinning from brain to pen to page and back again.

And, at the same time, to try to stay rooted in the outwardly-focused role of “teacher” — measuring my words and expressions for the effect they’d have on others, keeping an attentive eye on the energy of the group, slowing or quickening the pace to hold everyone’s interest. The job of teacher is sort of like the role of priestess, except without the fancy robes and colorful jewelry to lend an air of exotic authority. This is something I still struggle with, trying to balance the warm invitation of welcome with the need to set boundaries and hold open the space. The interplay of extroversion and introversion, the cultivated persona as a work of both art and artifice, self-disclosure and self-composure.

blah-flood-g

So while the writing prompt that night invited us to consider the heart as a swinging door through which love might move in either direction, I was busy worrying about how to manage the swinging door of my mind.

My mind is a messy place. A lot of clutter accumulates, and so writing for me is often much like the practice of a hoarder quietly, delicately sorting through her things, rearranging piles, rediscovering forgotten treasures, listening to the way her collection speaks to her. I write sentence by sentence, image by image, not sure where I might be going or where I’ll end up — just placing one image or idea next to another to see if they resonate, listening for the hum of harmony or tension.

Some objects I come back to again and again. I have a lot of rocks in my head, for instance — mostly the smooth, tumbled stones of riverbeds and ocean shores, some of them balanced or built into cairns, some of them marking animal graves, some of them covered in moss, some of them so tall they cast long shadows at dusk on the solstice. Also, a lot of what birds have left behind — feathers, fluffs of down floating idly on the breeze, the quick trill of a faraway song, a bit of broken eggshell, the contours of flight that great flocks carve through the air.

Also, more than a bit of gore and anxiety, craggy barren landscapes, self-righteous judgment, cynicism, defensiveness, the gross glistening slobber of my wild longings, the pitiable whine of my shame.

None of these necessarily mean much on their own. But they make up the collection of sights, sounds and textures that I reach for when I am crafting a new story on the page, trying to weave sense out of experience. I don’t always know where I’m going when I write, or what will happen to me in the meantime. I just settle down into that quiet space and start arranging and rearranging until something like art emerges.

writing-lidyanne_aquino

This is what Hering means by “contemplative correspondence” — not just as in the letter you write to yourself, but as in the way everything is connected, each thing hitched to another. She says:

The human brain loves to string things together, to connect the dots, to draw upon previous knowledge to make things whole. We long to participate in making or uncovering meaning: it is what we are doing whenever we connect our interior landscape with the external, and the temporal and material with the eternal.

This is correspondence in the Pagan sense: the way east is air is hawk is dawn is youth is curiosity is all yellow-gold. Or how autumn is dusk is death is ancestry is otherworld is mist is change is harvest is gratitude is life renewed.

It reminds me of what the poet Billy Collins wrote:

[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

But Hering’s words also remind me of another poem, this one by Mark Strand, that begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

And ends:

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I think Hering is right when she says that we love to “make things whole.” But this making is not always a process of speaking and writing, connecting dots and comparing “everything in the world to everything else in the world” until the entire space is filled (as Collins puts it), “more guppies crowding the fish tank, more baby rabbits hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.”

Sometimes, making things whole is an act of withdrawal or withholding, an act of opening up space within which others can discover their own wholeness without us.

Knowing this, suddenly it seemed crazy to me to try to write, here in this group of people who were each trying in their own way to find their own voice, to speak their own truth — it seemed almost irresponsible of me, to open the swinging door of my mind and risk all that mess and noise tumbling out.

But now there were only a few minutes left. And the writing prompt just sitting there, its ellipsis both invitation and challenge… Reminding me that I couldn’t ask others to be brave enough to write if I wasn’t willing to be brave myself. Reminding me of the old trope that UUs spend too much time in their heads already, that it is good to trust in the body’s wisdom, good to trust the heart…

So what if my heart were a swinging door? What would I say to you then? And so I wrote…

backerpacker-journaling_liam-kearney-sm

Through this swinging door…

All things fly out — the cat, the heat of the room, the noise of our laughing loudly at the television — so much escaping out into the world that we can never call back again, so that it seems we might soon be broke with the wild abandon of it all. But no. All things fly in, too — the hummingbird and the scent of the rose as it is jiggled by the frenetic stirring of tiny wings, the leaf litter from last year’s autumn, the tiny stones wedged in the tread of your shoes — your shoes, that always seem to hover on the threshold, neither inside nor out, one foot more loyal than the other (the left one going wandering), so that when it’s time to pull yourself together in the morning you are always scrambling to get ahold of it all, both shoes on, then your coat, your scarf if it is cold — though not so cold once the heat follows you out the door on your way to work — following you like the geese in their migration, like the scent of the rose fading after summer, following like the neighbor’s new puppy who has no use for loyalty when there is so much joy in the world, who follows you all the way down the block to catch the bus and then sits there, wagging its tiny stub of a tail, its whole butt wiggling in the dust until you are out of sight — only to find its way back here to our doorstep again, so that by the time you come home there are, along with the leaves and the hummingbird feathers and the tiny abandoned bits of gravel, now too the tiny pawprints of perfectly outlined mud all over all the furniture, and me — smile and cup of tea in hand and a bit of everything the world has to offer tangled in my hair.


Photo Credit:
• “I wrote you,” by Tekke (CC) [source]
• “Write It Down,” by Daniel Go (CC) [source]
• “Blah,” by Flood G. (CC) [source]
• “Writing,” by Lidyanna Aquino (CC) [source]
• “A German backpacker writing in her journal,” by Liam Kearney (CC) [source]

Current Events, Holy Wild

The Tao of #Occupy

As we enter the colder winter months, the days grow darker and time seems to slow down, thickening like sleepy sap in the bare-limbed trees. Yet for many of us watching the protests of the #OccupyWallStreet movement unfold over the last two months, the country seems poised on the brink of something revolutionary. A tension hangs in the air — the trembling stillness of hope and excitement, but also trepidation and anxiety. This pervasive mood has me thinking a lot recently about the Eastern spiritual philosophy of Taoism, and the lessons of stillness, receptivity and harmony with nature taught by its founders, Laozi and Zhuangzi. How might the insights of Taoism help us to understand the potency and influence of the #Occupy movement? And what can it tell us about where the movement might be heading in the future?

“Nothing in the world is more flexible or yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it.”Daode Jing, Chapter 78

I could just as easily have used the well-known quote from Gandhi when he said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The idea is very much the same. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence or satyagraha (roughly translated as “love-force” or the “power of love”) is founded on a view of love as a persistent but deeply receptive force. Often misunderstood as weakness or passivity, satyagraha has an active power all its own.

What is that power? Notice how Gandhi speaks about the process of nonviolence — they try everything to shut you down or shut you up while you simply remain steadfast in your work, until eventually they run out of ways to resist you. Like water, the power of nonviolence is its persistence, and its persistence arises out of its receptivity and flexibility. Satyagraha wears away the barriers erected between individuals because it is constantly climbing up over those walls and whispering “I see you, I hear you, I acknowledge and respect and appreciate you just as you are.” Gandhi was known for making friends with his jailers and earning the respect of his enemies precisely because he was relentless in his willingness to show respect and understanding for others. It takes a great deal more energy to resist this kind of deeply receptive power. You might expend a huge amount of time, energy and resources to build and maintain a dam — but a dam cannot change the nature of water. Even a single crack can begin the process of erosion and disintegration that will break the river free.

In this same way, the #Occupy movement has shown its receptivity and flexibility, and therefore its power. After the eviction of the original #OWS encampment from New York City’s Zuccotti Park on Tuesday last week, a new rallying cry sprang up: You can’t evict an idea whose time has come! In this age of social media and instant global communication, the ideas of freedom and equality are like water. They flow everywhere. They seep through cracks, they move around and over obstacles. (This is, incidentally, why the #Occupy symbol, the hashtag (#), is so ingenious and expressive. The social media offspring of the telephone keypad pound button, it is a symbol that evokes communication, number and weight all at once, expressing just how much gravity and influence the free expression of popular ideas can have.)

Across the country, police tactics against protesters have become increasingly violent and arrest rates are on the rise as the #Occupy movement persists despite first being ignored and then turned into a joke. We are definitely in the “then they fight you” stage of this nonviolent resistance movement. Politicians and others in positions of power would like to build themselves a metaphorical dam to stem the flow of unsightly unrest welling up in major American cities. But they simply don’t have the resources to construct a water-tight society.

“Thirty spokes join at the hub: their use for the cart is where they are not. When the potter’s wheel makes a pot, the use of the pot is precisely where there is nothing. When you open doors and windows for a room, it is where there is nothing that they are useful to the room.”Daode Jing, Chapter 11

A defining aspect of the #Occupy movement is its decentralization. Techniques for consensus building have laid the groundwork for community decision-making within the movement since its inception, and in cities around the world concepts like General Assemblies, working groups and human mic checks are becoming familiar catch-phrases in ordinary conversations about political activism and democratic initiatives. But the real power of #OWS goes even deeper: at the very heart of #Occupy, there is space.

The very notion of occupation requires a sense of space, an emptiness into which you can move. Occupation in the modern sense is used to describe both a person’s career — in which their time and energy is “occupied” by a job or employer — and a country’s (usually illegal) military presence in another’s territory. The #Occupy movement plays with both of these meanings in their founding call to action to “Occupy Wall Street” as a response to continuing underemployment in the United States and the view that the richest top 1% have unethically, perhaps even illegally seized control of the nation’s wealth.

Some of the #Occupy protests and encampments around the country have grown up in places like Zuccotti Park that exist in a strange liminal legal space between public and private property, taking advantage of laws that require businesses to make privately-owned spaces available for public use. Protesters carry signs proclaiming things like, “Lost My Job, Found An Occupation” and “Occupy Your Mind, Occupy Your Heart” — suggesting that occupation can also be a metaphor for reclaiming symbolic spaces like time, energy, emotion and thought that have been overrun by invasive foreign influences. In a society where corporate interests insinuate themselves into every public or community space possible through advertising and political lobbying, the #Occupy movement pushes back and reasserts the value of empty, open spaces as fundamentally necessary for free public discourse.

With the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park, and the successful mass demonstrations that followed two days later at the heart of New York City in celebration of the movement’s two month “birthday,” this metaphor of empty space has now taken on a new, more powerful and far more literal manifestation. As one protester explained, “We coordinated today without a park, you know, without a hub. People have been here for months; they’re in it for the long haul.” As Laozi points out in the Daode Jing, the usefulness of the hub is its empty center, around which everything else turns. The emptied public space of Zuccotti Park now stands as the perfect symbol of unjust, unethical political force robbing citizens of their right to peacefully assemble — an issue that rests at the very core of the #Occupy movement itself.

The word “occupy” comes from the Latin occupare, whose root capere means “to grasp or seize.” The Daode Jing has this to say on the same topic: “What you don’t get when you grasp is called the subtle” (Chapter 14). It is this subtlety of community space that politicians don’t “get” when they attempt to squash protests by stamping out individual encampments through fear, force or legal finagling. In another masterful work of protest-art during the #OWS march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Thursday evening, a “bat-signal” celebrating the 99% was projected onto the side of the Verizon Building corporate center from a private residence across the street, while police below looked on helplessly. Light, like water, cannot be easily grasped or seized. Public space is both everywhere, and nowhere.

But perhaps the most poignant evocation of the importance of space in the #Occupy movement was the response from students at the University of California when told by campus police that they would no longer be allowed to erect tents on the campus lawns: using hundreds of balloons and kite string, they suspended tents in midair, along with a sign that read: Our Space.

“Through nonaction, no action is left undone.”Daode Jing, Chapter 48

One of my favorite stories from the Zhuangzi, the second and lesser-known foundational text of Taoism, is the story of the useless tree. One day, Tzu-ch’i comes across a mighty old tree so huge that it could shelter four thousand chariots in its shade. Astounded by the tree’s great age and size, Tzu-ch’i marvels that the tree must have exceptional wood that would make superior lumber. On closer inspection, however, Tzu-ch’i discovers that the tree’s branches and trunk are all twisted and gnarled, no good for lumber at all, and that even its leaves are poisonous and foul-smelling. In surprise, he exclaims, “But this tree is absolutely useless! That’s why it has lived so long!” And so, the story concludes, a wise man is useless like this tree, and that is why he cannot be exploited.

Issues of uselessness, productivity, exploitation and waste have held center stage among both protesters and critics since the #Occupy movement began more than two months ago. Activists galvanized by continuing high unemployment and rampant underemployment protest for access to meaningful work at fair wages, while counter-protesters and hecklers shout slogans like “get a job!” and criticize the protests as the self-entitled complaints of a lazy, useless generation. Supporters and skeptics alike have questioned the efficacy of #OWS, wondering if other forms of protest and direct action might be more productive or a better use of time and energy. Even folks participating on the ground sometimes grow frustrated when the movement seems to be “all talk.” As encampments continue to grow in size and put down roots in parks and public spaces, the problem of literal waste — the refuse, garbage and other by-products of human animals all living outside together — has presented challenges for protest organizers, while police raids have turned carefully constructed community kitchens, libraries and sleeping areas into trash heaps in a matter of minutes.

Wasted potential, wasted money, wasted energy, wasted opportunities for peaceful reconciliation and substantive change… The problem of waste is inescapable as a reflection of the deeper tensions in modern American society between healthy productivity and unjust exploitation. It’s safe to say that Americans these days are downright obsessed with productivity, encouraged to embrace the philosophy that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they just work hard enough and long enough. Americans work more hours for fewer benefits than workers in almost every other wealthy Western nation. Meanwhile, companies focused on plumping up their bottom line outsource both jobs and waste, taking advantage of drastically low labor costs and lax regulations and environmental protections in developing nations around the world. As a result, underemployment (when someone only works part-time or in a job for which they are overqualified) is a growing problem alongside unemployment in the United States, and income inequality yawns ever wider as the economy enters a race to the bottom.

The line between occupation and exploitation is by nature a fuzzy one, and though many ordinary citizens in America sense that they’re being cheated or treated unfairly in some way, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how. The #Occupy movement — by adopting the language of occupation and embracing a kind of “agenda-less agenda” for which it has earned both criticism and praise — wades through these complexities in order to push back against a wealthy 1% who would like the elide employment and exploitation into one and the same thing. How does it do this?

The story of the useless tree can give us a clue. When Tzu-ch’i stops to marvel at the uselessness of the tree, he does so by remarking on its impressive greatness and the shade it provides. The tree may be “useless” from a strictly utilitarian point of view, but by allowing the tree to live out its life undisturbed, the true and natural value of the tree — as a thing of beauty in itself and a place of shelter for others on its own terms — is revealed. This is a common theme in both philosophical and religious Taoism. Taoists look to the patterns and cycles of the natural world as a guide (tao) to living in harmony with the Way (Tao) things are.

Environmentalists and conservationists have found common ground with the #Occupy movement in resisting a mainstream consumer culture that would reduce both people and the planet to mere utilitarian resources to be used for profit. Environmentalists point out that, like the great useless tree in the Zhuangzi, the earth’s ecosystems can contribute best to the quality of life on the planet when they are protected and preserved from exploitation and disruption, or in other words, when they are allowed to flourish naturally in their own time and in their own way. This observation about our relationship with nature echoes the idea of wu-wei, or “active-nonaction,” and for millennia Taoists have applied this same principle to human beings seeking to live with virtue and integrity as members of society. When I wrote last week about the #Occupy movement as a large-scale, public work of art, I noted that one aspect of art is that it “gives what it is” — its worth is not located in some objective goal external to itself. The #Occupy movement embraces community engagement and creativity in this same way, reasserting the value of individuals and communities for their own sake, and not as means to an end.

The patterns of nature have another lesson for the #Occupy movement and mainstream American society: there is no such thing as waste. In healthy ecosystems, one creature’s waste is another’s feast. The dead body of a wolf fertilizes the soil in which plants grow that will nourish the deer who will be another wolf’s prey, and so the cycle continues. Resources are constantly being recycled and reintegrated into the larger community. This is what Zhuangzi means when he says: “We can tell that a person has integrity, even though it may not be evident in her physical form, because she is indispensable to all things.” The bacteria and larvae that transform rot and decay into nutrient rich soil are as indispensable to a tree as the tree’s ability to recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen is indispensable to us as oxygen-breathing animals. Participating harmoniously in the cycles of nature is following the Way, and by following the Way no necessary action is left undone.

Unfortunately, the outsourcing of waste and pollution in modern American society has allowed us to ignore the consequences of stagnation, when the cycle of reintegration is interrupted and unused potential is isolated, shipped off and left to fester somewhere else, out of sight and out of mind. #Occupy protesters who rely on donations and second-hand goods while grappling with sanitation and health issues in tent communities across the country are confronting the basic challenge of how to transform waste into new potential — whether that waste is literal garbage, or unused time, energy and expertise. The #Occupy movement makes the waste of Western society visible. Meanwhile, police raids that transform viable community centers into garbage dumps in the name of “protecting public health and safety” demonstrate inescapably the damaging effects of disrupting nascent ecosystems before they can evolve to sufficiently cope with waste and its reintegration. Once again, by refusing to conform to our expectations of streamlined, waste-free productivity, the #Occupy movement challenges us as members of modern society to question the relationship between productivity and waste and to rediscover the potential to be found in harmonious, cooperative community living.


Quotes of the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi are from translations by Victor H. Mair and Thomas Cleary.

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild

Into Desert, Into Mist

It’s late afternoon, a rainy autumn day. Chill mist clings to the corners of the alleyways. A full moon only a few hours from rising over the eastern horizon. I keep the flame of my goddess. And I find myself crying again.

What struck me was the absence, how it stretched out in all directions. Indistinguishable. The trees were stunted and small, scraggly things, as flimsy as old paper dried up and twisted and left to the dust of the endless desert landscape. From the ridge, they spotted the ravine’s slope here and there all the way down to where it met the empty, mud-cracked stream bed. Out here, they called that a river. They had the nerve to mark it on a map.

When I looked down into the ravine from the top of the ridge where I was standing, a sense of vertigo swept through me. The unfamiliar shrunken size of the trees tricked the eye, so that even shrubs which I knew were only a few feet down seemed to stretch the landscape into an odd but persistent sensation of distance. A gradual slope dropped away in an optical illusion of dizzying depth. I blinked. I thought, this was what the Discworld Witches called “gnarly ground.”

I kept wondering why anyone would want to live out here.

There was nothing. For miles and miles in all directions, nothing but empty landscape. And of course, that in itself was a reason, I guess.

I found myself understanding why folks in the midwest eat animals — same reason animals eat cacti, I guess. Inside that tough leathery skin, you know there’s water in the blood. Maybe the only water you’re really going to get. In the east, the trees lean close whispering their seductive stories of plump, ripe fruit heavy with water, heavy with sweet flesh folded close around the seed. The earth is soft and everything is lush, at least for a time. Summer’s fecundity is astounding. Outside our front stoop, the neighbor’s mulberry tree hangs low, spilling purple berry clusters all over our yard, more than we could ever eat, more even than the birds can carry off. Autumn’s decay is rich and dark and damp. The berries rot. The flies buzz lazily from this one to that one. Life and death exchange sloppy kisses in the grass. The earth is forever giving herself away. Why would anyone bother to slaughter, skin and gut a beast with the trees looking on that way?

But out here, the trees were short and angry, barbed and tough. The grasses were all brown and sharp. The mud was hard and red and unforgiving. How else could you survive?

I was brought up short again by that same question: why would anyone live out here, given the choice? The desert landscape stretched away in all directions. Indistinguishable. And if you were going to live out here somewhere, I asked myself, how would you decide? Here, but not there. In the shadow of this ridge, but not that one. Dirt roads splintered off from the highway at random intervals, peeling in straight lines out towards the horizon. Where did they go, what did they lead to? Vertigo again as I imagined the land unrolled beneath me, roads scratched into the dust, all straight lines and hard angles like mysterious, unfathomable runes, saying nothing, leading nowhere.

Who am I talking to? We saw a psychic in Santa Fe, kind of a lark, because we’d never seen one before, not a professional anyway. A short, fiery red-head with tarot cards too big for her small hands, all their corners bent and their edges worn down and rubbed soft with use. One autumn leaf dropped onto the table between us. She picked it up and twirled it between her fingers. “Who are you talking to?” she asked again. “Don’t think of your writing career as a series of assignments. What will keep you writing is not the question, what do you want to talk about? The question that will keep you writing is, Who are you talking to?” And again I shook my head, shrugged, no answer. I worried she would think I was being deliberately unhelpful, but all I could say over and over was, “I don’t know anymore. I don’t know.”

And it was a question I struggled with all week — why? Why? In a landscape that seemed so hostile, where existence seemed so precarious and hard like something squeezed out between stone and sky — why live here? And the folks who did, how did they decide? What made one place better than another, when all was equally desert and dust?

After a few days, the question seemed to lighten, slowly, like a sunset gently coming into focus. It began with small things. The blue-mint color of juniper fronds against the rust-ribboned color of sandstone. Two gray snakes intertwined on a rock warmed by the unrelenting sun, slipping one over the other away into the brush at the sound of my footsteps. The soft curve and bend of tall grasses in the wind at the foot of unbending cliffs standing straight-backed all the way to midheaven. A mule deer doe and her two fawns wandering through the campsite two evenings in a row, nibbling the lower branches of stiff-limbed trees. All these small things that make a world, that transform empty space into a living, livable place — that reassure the staggered mind, perhaps not answering why but at least if you will, you may….

And just as slowly, it seemed to me the question changed. How should I make my living, how should I make my way in this culture so hostile to poetry and solitude and contemplation? A million possibilities stretched before me, a million tiny ways to scheme and strive and struggle to offer something people wanted, something they might value or cherish or need. No long, meandering essays full of mule deer and juniper, that wouldn’t do at all. Quick flippant bits of humor, snark or wit were in demand. Maybe I could sell photographs, or the prayer beads I designed. Or survive on donations from grateful readers — like a pilgrim drinking dew.

But still the question hung like an infinity of stars clamped down over the desert like a lid: why? This, but not that. Here, but not there. Why settle down on this career, when that one was no worse, no better? All equally hard and precarious, like trying to squeeze out a living between the sky and a stone.

When we finally rolled into the foothills of my mountains, small and green and so much older than the porous young sandstone towers of the west, I couldn’t keep the tears from my eyes. Almost like laughter, the question rolled out of me into the mist and rain and rolling hills and rolling thunder, all of it rounded and rolling like the world, “My gods! Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?” Every curve and dip was precious, every valley and river bend, every wooded hillside, every patchworked farm. You could live anywhere here and be happy. You could live anywhere here and be blessed.

As we were leaving New Mexico, Jeff bought a book on tape, Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, a detective novel about the Navajo policeman Jim Chee. By disc three, his godfather and mentor was dying of cancer, telling him the secret to the healing songs his people had tried to teach him. “The last lesson is the one that matters…

Know that it is hard for the people to trust outside their own family. Even harder when they are sick. They have pain. They are out of harmony. They see no beauty anywhere. All their connections are broken.

That is who you are talking to.

You tell them the power that made us made all this above us and around us, and we are part of the power. And if we do as we are taught, we can bring ourselves back into harmony. Then they will again know beauty all around them.

That is hard to believe. Do you understand that? To be restored, they must believe you.

Who am I talking to?

Who am I talking to? Not you. You who are my friends, who talk with me about the world being broken, and the injustice of it. Who see with the same pain and longing as I do, who crave the poetry and solitude and contemplation of the mountains and the rainstorms and the dim days of autumn. How can I talk to you? How can you hear me above the noise of vertigo? How can you hear me when we are all so busy just trying to survive?

I keep the flame. My goddess says, “It’s not about whether or not they will listen. It’s about whether you are listening.” But some days, that’s not enough. I listen deep, I listen long. The world whispers that we are all made of the same slow powers that carve the hills and move the rains, those powers that beat in the heart of the oceans and sing high with the sunlit winds. And we can bring ourselves back into harmony, and we will again know beauty all around us.

But some days, that is hard to believe.

So I am crying. And I am writing. Who am I talking to? In my long, meandering essays full of mule deer and juniper — some things just take forever to say. There is no rushing it. There is no quick and witty way through. I am talking to the ones who are broken. I am talking to the ones who will listen. But mostly, I am talking to the world, and to my gods. And what I’m saying is: I’m not angry, even though living is harder than I expected, even though I want so much to give something of value to a society whose values are all upside-down, even though I’m not sure that I can. What I’m saying is: the small things are what save me, moment to moment, the smell of desert sage, the texture of stone, the sound of rain slipping in between the cracks in the sidewalk and swelling underground.

What I’m saying is: thank you.

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild

Nemeton, Altar and Sacred Grove

What is the sacred grove? The nemeton, sanctuary of spirit. A place set apart, a respite from wildness. Amongst the trunks of sacred trees — thick, tall pillars of rough bark etched in rivulets and knots that watch like eyes as light and shadow dance across the land — there is a space, within which all wildness, noise and dancing gives way to stillness. The grove is the eye of the world, as the storm has its eye that watches calmly from the very center the turning, roiling winds that utterly surround it. But this is no hard-edged circle, a gate that slams shut against the sacred mess and buzz of the world. The grove is made of wildness, too, an edge sculpted by wind and rain and sunlight, an eddy in the currents of energy. It is an in-drawn breath, a going-in amidst the goings-on, that opens up a center deep in the very heart and flux of things.

And in the sacred grove, there is the altar where we do our work. A center of gravity, a pole that runs the length of the universe and patiently turns the worlds around itself. A gateway between the worlds, a spine, a wellspring, a single tree, a tongue of flame. An altar is all surface, a solid place by which to ground, to grind and sharpen our focus within the center and void of stillness. An anchor that drops into the darkness, trailing the taut length of chain like a ladder behind it.

So, too, my body is the altar in the nemeton of my soul — that small, solid piece of world that settles down like a stone into my awareness. And that awareness in turn is carved by the spiraling torrents of the sacred world, the sun that crafts the seasons out of mud and wind, the moon that pushes the sea to its extremes, the stars that draw the eye into the great distances that yawn open between us, the deer, the jay, the badger, the rustling oak and every being and body that dances through its longing, hunger, fear, curiosity and sleep. All these things turn about the sculpted edge of my nemeton, the sanctuary my soul has made of itself, the self that calls itself “I” and reaches out into the world to touch the chaos that has given birth to it. Sitting in the center of that nemeton is my body, all surface, the appearance of skin and hair and angles and soft curves of fat and loose muscle. Like a ladder that reaches into the dark. A spine, a wellspring, a single tree, a tongue of flame. My body is the altar around which my spirit gathers itself into stillness. Not a temple, but only a simple, useful table where I sit down to do my work.


This post is part of the 30 Days of Druidry creative writing project.

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

And On the Edge, Surrender

Sometimes the world feels very small.

Why is it that sleeping on the hard-packed sandy ground of the campsite, a waxing crescent moon glimmering through the thin canvas of the tiny old tent half the night, leaves me so limber and light and full of buzzing energy? It must be three or four days since I’ve had a full night’s sleep — still, here we are, lying awake beside each other in the dark a half-hour before the alarm is set to go off, lying so very awake and listening to the first few birds of the morning. I think you smile at me in the darkness, and for a long while we just hold hands. When the alarm finally rings it seems quiet compared to the birds, and we slip from our sleeping bags, rustling and feeling our way as best we can towards our shoes and the zipper of the tent flap — in another minute, the tent is empty and deflated on the ground, and you stuff the last collapsed tent pole into its bag as I load up the car and then busy my hands dragging a brush through my sleep-tangled hair before twining it back into a loose braid again. Everything is darkness and night still. Neither of us can remember what time the sun is supposed to rise, but even the blue shadows of the dawn twilight have barely begun to lengthen and ripen, so I guess we still have time.

For the past few days, we’d been dreaming about the ocean. Our first morning, I walked down to the beach and sat for an hour watching the dark clouds, heavy with unspent thunder and rain, wash out to sea and the thin horizon. Sun spilled through here and there, shivering in bright rippling pools on the surface of the rough, green water. Waves overturned unbroken seashells at my feet. Seabirds wheeled and cackled, and I had no words appropriate for prayer, no songs that came to mind but the sappy love themes of old movies — which I sang beneath my breath, sighing only a little when stars may collide slipped into the breeze as a pelican threw itself into the breaking waves with a splash and all of it seemed to me, for a moment, to be celestial and stardust, Spirit pouring Spirit into Spirit, and surfacing from Spirit with Spirit in its beak. I think I will never get used to the way birds fling themselves into everything — wind and water and song and light — as if they cannot die.

Later I walked for hours the long, flat paths that spanned the salt marshes, startling tiny crabs that hid between the planks of the footbridges, and paused to watch the warbler perched on the highest branches of a twisted live oak drenched with the wild, dangling grays of spanish moss. Singing to his beloved, or to the sky, or to the spanish moss and the tiny crabs and the clusters of oysters exposed shimmering opalescent-black on muddy banks, or singing simply to himself, the same few notes pumping from his tiny chest, over and over, first from this branch, then from another. What difference there could have been for him, or what he was singing… Along the path were sometimes scattered the last red blossoms from a tree just past flowering, trumpet-like, already wilting a little and covered with sand and grit kicked up by hikers or stirred by last night’s rain. Sunlight filtered through the palmettos’ sharp leaves and everywhere, everything smelled of salt and muck and wet bark and stillness.

~

What is my prayer? Sometimes the world is so very small and full and silent, impressing itself wordlessly into my mind. Like the tips of your fingers pressing against my palm and your dark, shy smile in the mornings. How could I ever say this?

~

Late afternoon, and we were resting together beneath the great ancient Angel Oak tree, oblivious to the tourists snapping photographs of each other next to the massive trunk. Its limbs arched and curled, dipping under the earth and emerging again in serpentine undulations — older than the memory of our culture, older than the ruined foundations of the old plantation mansions, older even than some religion, as all gods are. We reclined in dappled gold and green, my hand resting on yours, your hand resting on the low, wide branch so that our fingers, entwined, brushed gently against the bark. There had been, when we’d first approached, the sensation of pressure and power permeating the sheltered air, so that my hands trembled with a palpable warmth as I’d reached out to touch the giant for the first time, balking, hardly believing. If I had asked permission, it was silent and instinctual, a kind of groveling in awe — and then the sensation had passed, the threshold crossed, and I had slipped inside, the world small and full of quietness again in its enfolding presence.

This is poetry, though, and poetry is inadequate because it is not ordinary, not familiar enough or simple enough. The old tree bent low and propped itself up against the ground, as it has for more than a thousand years, and people wandered into its shadows for a while, took a few pictures, and wandered out again. Listening to their murmuring negotiations with cameras and poses, they sounded to me like serious children arranging their loves like soft-faced dolls, carefully, delicately, around the feet of the world. And though prayer, again, was liquid and impossible, running away from me, I closed my eyes and pressed both hands against the trunk, and tried for something like Great One, Old One… before, swimming up through my palms came a new sensation, of space and light and a lattice-work of curving, crystalline bone suspended almost as weightless as air in all directions, above and below, root and limb engaged effortlessly with earth and water and wind and sun, and this ancient accidental Angel laughed an emptiness that would be young and new when all of us had long since grown heavy and sagging with the heap of years. And you said to me, “Trees are made of air,” and I said, “And of sugar.” And then it was time to leave.

~

And now we sit on the small white towel together in the chilly dark, in front of the turning sea. Between us, half-buried in the sand, is a white candle flickering and a few sticks of incense spinning smoke into the thrumming noise of wind and waves.

I can’t remember whose idea this was, to go camping on the coast of South Carolina and visit the oldest oak tree, or to come here to watch the sun rise over the edge of the world to shed the first rays of light on the fortieth Earth Day. It began as an idle, comforting dream during a frustrating day at work in the middle of winter, when everything seemed cold and difficult and a long way from green. It was funny, and forgotten, and it stayed beautiful in the back of our minds until only a few days ago you said you could map the drive and we could make it and we could ask Raymond to watch the cat while we were gone.

The drive down took us past billboards for Jesus and gun stores and “carbon-neutral” coal, and I found myself tensed against the culture of the conservative south, angry at the way it seemed to be monstrously creeping outward in every direction, a national myth of victimhood and pride and overly-sweet everything and self-deprecation with the hard edge of defense. The tech industry and the venture capitalists live down here in the sparkling metal cities now, where access to money and computers lets them spend comfortably among the poor who still live in trailer parks. The interstates are cluttered with SUVs and fastfood restaurants and only a few spots here and there where they tried to sow some wildflowers along the exhausted, barren shoulders. And, too, there is a uselessness to Earth Day, after forty years, it’s all old-hat — and still the second graders at my old elementary school plant their tiny saplings with tiny, earnest hands and their parents “accidentally” mow over the weak little things in a week or two because they’ll grow up too close to the house and scrape against the siding. But I am not that good with long drives, I fall asleep and wake up cranky, and you kept driving and thinking quietly to yourself and feeling the air grow warmer as we got closer and closer to where the land dipped under into the ocean.

~

And it is the ocean that always saves me, and the threshold places, and the liminal moments of twilight and quiet. I worship gods of earth, sea and sky, though I do not always know their names, I sing to them silently with the movement of my being, with the vibrating, thrilling anchor of my being here, pulled taut with longing. We sit together for an hour, maybe longer, as the sky over the waters lightens and grows brighter, shades of rose, fuschia and lavender echoing and growling low in a mirror of wet, shifting sands that is so familiar, so subtle, and as old as light, as young as the deep. The rocks of the jetty creep into daylight beside us, transforming from dark, humped, hard-edged masses silhouetted against the light gray water into the soft shapes of wet stone draped with thick green algae and dusted with tumbling foam. And the horizon is close with the wheeling, angular forms of gulls against a flat, multi-colored sunrise drifting above a blue-dim mist that seems to hang forever no matter how bright the sky above becomes.

It has been a long time now, it seems to me, and the incense has burned to ash in the wet sand beside the candle. I hold a small green bag of old crushed herbs mixed with chips of moonstone and aquamarine, wound with blue ribbon now undone and trailing from my fingers. I stand up and walk to the water’s edge, still at a loss for prayer, and so I chant to myself a few reverberating awens.

It occurs to me that I have never seen the sunrise over the ocean before, and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to look like. The scenery around us seems bright now, its colors shuffling into place, and the shore that was flat and monochrome an hour earlier is now speckled with the whites and browns and blacks of shells and seaweed embedded in the sands. Perhaps this is the sunrise, this is what I should expect, and the sun is resting behind that dark mist that still clings to the horizon between sky and sea. I am anxious to be going home. A wave trips and falls over itself up the cool sand, almost licking my toes, and I cast a handful of the herbal offering into the waves, whispering gratitude as the ocean draws it back to itself again. I stand a moment longer, my body giving itself over to a sinking, deepening sensation of weight and vastness and in another moment I know a trance brought on by the drumming rhythm of wavelets will wash over me — but another spray of water catches me under the soles of my feet, shivering me awake, and I step away, turning to walk back up the beach to where you still sit waiting.

You ask if it’s time to go, and if the sun has risen yet, and I shrug because I don’t know either, bending down to blow out the half-brunt-up candle — when you say — not a cry or a gasp, but simply the word — “Look.” And there, where we have been watching for so long, the thin burning line of the sun pierces the hanging mist, bulges, arches and grows into a circle as tiny and as huge as the moon, only that I cannot look at it for long before it starts to hurt and I have to look away. In only a minute or two it has become too bright, and its light is like fire and blood in a long path out across the water.

And this is what it’s always like with you, it seems — that just when I have finished with the patient solitude of waiting, just when I am on the edge of the world, having given everything else that I have, just when I have accepted This That Is as beautiful enough — something else breaks in, something new breaks open, and the world is wide and rolling and cascading into daylight, awash with power and surprise. And this new day is Earth Day, and so I guess we still have time.