Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Sensuality of Green

All the greens of summer upon which our eyes feast. Look. Look around.
The greens they calm our savage cones and rods, keep them busy photosynthesizing the multitudinous matters of greenity. Grass, weeds, bushes, shrubs, herbs, trees (sugar maple, silver maple, oak, cherry, cedar, Virginia pine, Kentucky cigar, autumn olive berry, walnut, filbert, apple, pear, peach), duckweed, you name it.
Lime, forest, olive, mint, sage, hunter, pine, sea. Not enough names for all the variances of shade and light and tone.
Green, you want to see green? The fields of Ireland are neon. 
The greens of summer engage all my senses: I see them, hear them, smell them, feel them, taste them.
On a sunshiny weekday afternoon, crossing the field. The tall grass? It tickles me shins. The cherry tree? It caresses my arms. The pond weeds? They whisper my arrival.  

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before, 
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
(from The Leaf and the Cloud by Mary Oliver)
 And my ears. Hammer, anvil and stirrup tremble with secret pleasure at the gentle rustling of the woods at night (trees, they dance in the dark) like ladies’ long taffeta skirts or the applause of the elderly on a Sunday afternoon. Before a storm their stewing branches and leaves form a cacophony of alarmed voices, becoming with the jays, crows, swallows, squirrels and rumbling thunder, an orchestra.
 Stepping into the room of “forest,” it’s like … like shutting a door on the world. All outside sounds are muffled. Deep breaths take in olfactory contentment. Pools of sylvanshine illuminate the undergrowth and become jewels. Jewels I tell you. Gems of such beauty. A tri-petaled chartreuse flower, so tiny. Tree ferns, so delicate. Moss, so soft. Pitcher plants, so intelligent.
 You don’t experience this stuff on a TVphonecomputermovie screen.
Once, in a Maine State Forest, my family and I were walking when my father suddenly laid down on his back. The rest of us had no idea what he was doing.
“Come on, lay down,” he said. “Look up.” I lay down next to him and looked up. Straight up the tall trunks to the leafy canopy overhead. Up the depth, the movement, the sparkles of green light.
Consider the machinations of a single leaf.
 The sunlight hits the leaf’s broad surface, which actually absorbs the energy by its green pigment, chlorophyll. So the energy goes into the leaf.
In the meantime, the underside of the leaf is working too. It’s full of tiny pores called stomata. Each stoma absorbs a raw material from the air, carbon dioxide. So the carbon dioxide goes into the leaf.
 In the meantime, the tree’s roots have absorbed water, which travels upward through tiny pipes called xylem, to … guess where? The leaf! So the water goes into the leaf.
So now we’ve got energy, CO2 and water. The energy joins the CO2 and water to produce a form of sugar called glucose. Glucose is tree’s food. It travels to the rest of the tree through tiny pipes called phloem.
 As in any production plant, there is a waste product. The waste product of photosynthesis is oxygen. Oxygen! What a gift.
 From what I understand, too much carbon in the air is bad for humans. Perhaps it is for lack of trees.
A few weeks ago I was in Boston. My friend who lives in a section called Somerville says her town’s surface is only six percent canopy.
Trees, our stalwart faithful silent sentinels, can save us.
Thou shalt not “trim” off all of their branches, leaving them with no leaves, no way to absorb sunlight, no way to produce glucose, no way to feed themselves. They die.
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way” (William Blake).
The greens of summer feed me, too. Lettuce, kale, peas, cucumbers, zucchini, asparagus, green beans, peppers. Picked washed sliced diced sautéed grilled baked boiled broiled or raw chewed swallowed.
From the sun to the plant to me:
Nourishment in the first degree.
The food chain begins with the sun. How far should we stray from that? In the summer, it is only a few feet.
 The greens of summer. Just outside the door.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Women, Let's Ditch the Duties, Enjoy the Season

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la!

But you can’t deck those halls until they are squeaky clean. As every red-blooded American woman knows, we cannot decorate for Christmas until the whole house is clean. And when I say clean, I mean pull-the-sofa-out-from-the-walls-wash-the-woodwork-dust-and-polish-the-furniture-shampoo-the carpets-unbug-the-light-fixtures-strip-the-floor-wax-and-rewax clean.

Then we can decorate.

The decorating must create the perfect atmosphere. If it does not transform our home into a haven of Christmas spirit, then we must shop for more and better decorations. Another miniature tree, perhaps? More fake holly? An LED-lit garland for the banister? Maybe an inflatable snowman for the front lawn? Will these impart the peace we seek?

Back in the day, the one thing I bought every year was a new mistletoe. In my homes growing up, the mistletoe hung from the arch between the living and dining rooms, the spot where two people are likely to come into coincidental proximity. It could not be a fake mistletoe, but a fresh one.

The decorating is like the gun that releases the racers. Then we women bake cookies, hundreds of cookies, beautiful perfect cookies. We make a gift list of all the people for whom we must shop. Then we wade through crowded department stores to find the perfect gifts for our family members, friends, co-workers, the mailman … And the cards, we women must buy the cards and the stamps and spend peaceful moments writing personal notes to each person on our list. Of course, there are many trips to the grocery store, to shop for baking ingredients, egg nog and cider, cheeses and crackers, other special foods and Christmas dinner, of course, oh, and the Christmas Eve meal, too. A stop at the liquor store for some rum.

‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la!

If we’re involved in the church program we have rehearsals for the concert or play and then the event itself. Cross that off the list. We attend the company party, the neighborhood party, the parade, the family get-together, the community concert, church services.

Going to get the tree is an event in itself. The tree farm has so many shapes and sizes to choose from. The anticipation of decorating it always conjures images of carols playing softly, the room lit by the tree lights, a bit of spiked egg nog and a great deal of affection and joy. In reality, the tree must be trimmed to fit the room, it’s got gaps so we turn and turn it to its good side and by that time tempers are a bit short and if you feel that way, why don’t you just decorate it yourself!

Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la!

What should we wear to these parties and concerts? We women must look perfect, elegant, festive! Something red, of course. And the children need Christmas clothes, too, dresses for the girls and red or green sweaters for the boys. Not to mention the special Christmas pajamas and socks.

And how about wrapping gifts? My stepmother was the Queen of Wrapping. She wrapped gifts perfectly, decorated with ribbons and bows, no two done the same. What an example to follow!

Sing the ancient yuletide carol,
Fa la la la la, la la la la!

My question is, how many of these activities do we actually enjoy?

I like baking with my kids and grandkids, not only for the camaraderie, but because they take most of the cookies home.

I like decorating, but I don’t get frantic about it. If my home is not transformed into Christmas Wonderland, then it’s not transformed.

I like sending cards. It’s the only time I keep in touch with some people, aside from Facebook, which doesn’t count. A card is tangible, real.

While I hate shopping, I love making gifts, whether it’s sewing a robe for a little boy or framing family photos.

Honestly? I dislike children’s Christmas programs. While others are melting at the cherubs’ collective sweetness, I’m tapping my foot, wishing I was elsewhere. (Of course, if it’s my kids or grandkids, it gives me reason to stay.) But if there is a hell, it’s one long children’s Christmas program.

There is a better way to celebrate Christmas, women. It means leaving behind what we think is expected of us and doing what we truly enjoy. For most of us, that means spending time with loved ones.

That’s the list I’m following.

Friday, December 02, 2011

I'm Not Working on the Railroad

It is better to travel well than to arrive. ~ Buddha

We glided through the backsides of villages, the centers of old downtowns, along the edges of abandoned industrial zones. We slid in chasms between wooded embankments, over iron bridges spanning amber-tinted rivers, through dark brick tunnels.

What a vastly different way to spend the day. I read, napped, and gazed out the window. This is traveling by train.

When, in the week before Thanksgiving, the husband declined to give me a ride to Union Station to catch a bus to New York—I was meeting my musician daughter who had a gig in Manhattan—he suggested I take the train. The fare was comparable to what I’d spend on gas, tolls and parking. It was cheaper than flying. And much more comfortable.

As a kid I traveled regularly by train into New York City via the Long Island Railroad. Back then, the ride was clunky. The passenger trains offered bench seats and stopped at every rinky dink town on the South Shore.

And of course, in England and Ireland, I’ve used their extensive rail systems, for traveling from town to town or from one end of the country to the other. Plus, instead of being isolated in your automobile, you get to mingle with the locals.

The Crescent that I rode from Charlottesville to New York’s Penn Station offered wide, cushioned seats that reclined to a comfortable sleeping position (not just two inches like bus or airplane seats), had ample leg room and a folding table. The overhead storage had plenty of space for my suitcase and the husband’s guitar (he was loaning it to Rachel for her gig). The snack car—four cars away—served fresh hot coffee and tea, beer and wine, sandwiches such as wraps and paninis, and lots of snacks, all at reasonable prices.

The windows on the train cover the whole wall above the seats, as if to acknowledge that, hey, there is a world to see. If you prefer to sleep, you can pull the curtain. This train’s route was New Orleans to New York, so some passengers were on it for the long haul.

I, who had been stressed, hurried and anxious for weeks, felt at peace on that six-and-a-half-hour journey. I was not where I’d been nor where I was going. I had no decisions to make, no obligations to keep. Around me, a few passengers had quiet conversations. I gazed out the window, read and napped.

This passage—I did not note the source in my quote book—is about a woman traveling by ship, a journey of several weeks:

“It was an interlude when time ceased to matter. One might hear the ringing of ship’s bells or the call of the watch by night, but there was no past to be reckoned with because that lay far behind the white wake of the stern; no future, because the dripping prow still pointed toward an unbroken horizon. ‘I was never able to visualize Eternity until now,’ she wrote.”

As I write this, it comes to me that the timeless quality of this journey was like a Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Abraham J. Heschel writes that the Sabbath is holiness in time, a palace in time, a sanctuary in time, and that God commanded us to keep the Sabbath to know ourselves as eternal beings, to remember this core part of ourselves.

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow [humans] and the forces of nature—is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for [human] progress than the Sabbath?”

That doesn’t sound like bad religion, does it?

As I anticipated this train trip, I wonder if in my heart somewhere I consecrated it. I’m using “religious” language here, but I’m not talking about God; I’m talking about just being.

Heschel writes, “Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”

How can I swing this Sabbath thing on a weekly basis? I need it. A day in which I nap, read and gaze out the window.

Friday, November 04, 2011

This is My Brain Without Faith

For five weeks, I'd been dizzy.

With all the many possible causes of ongoing dizziness, I could not ascertain the problem. Sometimes figuring it out on your own just doesn’t work. I needed to talk to someone who knows more than I do about such things, so I went to my doctor.

The doctor asked me a series of questions. By the time he physically examined me he’d already determined the cause: Anxiety.

Numerous situations and circumstances have contributed to this anxiety. But the bottom line is that I have not been trusting God to take care of me.

How could this have happened?

Little by little. My faith has been so deep that I felt nothing could affect it. And in a way, nothing has. I mean, it’s still there. But it’s buried beneath the troubles of the world. It’s been assailed. It’s been worn down by doubt.

In a song, Over the Rhine asks:
Who will guard the door
When I am sleeping?

No matter how strong we are, how grounded and rooted in the faith, we still must guard our hearts, “for from it flow the wellsprings of life.”

So this diagnosis was sobering. It’s given me a glimpse into my inner life were not for faith in God. I would have all these years been ruled by anxiety.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
For to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

(Psalms 86:4)

Maybe others can get through life without faith, but I have, since my mid-20s, always leaned heavily on the promises of God. I am one of those pitiable people who needs a crutch.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
And saves the crushed in spirit.

(Psalms 34:18)

Until last year, I was sustained spiritually by a small group. How long did we meet? Six years? Maybe more. We met every week in a welcoming home, a collection of people from diverse backgrounds. We drank coffee, talked about the relevance of the Bible, shared our lives and prayed for each other. Week after week for years.

I always felt a supreme peace there. Without the group, I have been a bit lost.
Anxiety weighs down the heart,
But a kind word cheers it up.

(Proverbs 12:25)

This week I turned a corner. Over the past few days, when I awaken at night or in the early morning, I find myself praying or hearing inside me a psalm or a song. Much better than rehearsing all the terrible things that could happen to me or those I love.
Cast all your anxieties on him,
For he cares about you.

(1 Peter 5:7)

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

And it seems the songs are coming back. I find myself humming, whistling or singing the old hymns.
Great is thy faithfulness, oh God my father,
There is no shadow of turning with thee.
All I have needed thy hand has provided,
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

No, faith really makes no logical sense. I cannot explain it. And I cannot make faith. All I can do is seek it, turn my heart toward it.

I sought the Lord and he heard me,
And delivered me from all my fears.

(Psalms 34:4)

It is a gift.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Where To Be Or Not To Be?

Tuesday as I descended the front steps of JMU’s Keezell Hall, I decided for the first time not to hurry down the Quad.

Today I will stroll. Then I notice the students. Some walk alone deep in thought or looking around at the scene and scenery. And the scenery is something to behold on this cool October day. The huge old oaks around the Quad are starting to turn color. The muted yellow and orange hues seem almost to hallow the space.

Some students walk in pairs chatting. Two young men in front of me, as we approach the tunnel, become fascinated with the antics of a grey squirrel. You know how erratic squirrels’ movements can be, as if they can’t make up their minds which way to go. The one boy was imitating the squirrel’s undecidedness, jerking his head and body this way and that; they both laughed aloud.

What was so unusual about this scene? It was like I’d walked into opposite world. On a Tuesday several weeks ago, it was this: Each of the hundreds of students on the Quad was either texting, talking on their phone or listening to music with headphones. Two students stood together around their bicycles, gazing down at their phones, texting. A couple laid on the grass, each of them texting someone else in another place.

Usually, most students walk with their phones in their hands, as if it were an appendage. Sometimes I wonder if evolution will cause this to happen: for humans to be born clutching a tiny cell phone. Or perhaps undergo some surgery that will attach their cell phones to their bodies so as not to lose them. This could become important when cell phones contain all of our vital information: our ID cards, passports, credit cards, driver’s license.

But this Tuesday, nobody is carrying their cell. Did I miss something? Was Tuesday declared a non-handheld day?

The husband comments at dinner that I am a later than usual arriving home. Just five or ten minutes. I tell him about the scene on the Quad. I tell him about deciding to stroll and how I am usually not where I am but already mentally in the place I am headed.

Actually, it started a few minutes before that, when I stayed after class to talk with my professor rather than rushing out the door. Such is my usual rate of propulsion, as if I’m training for the Women’s 4-Miler. Often, I wish to be where I am going: “I wish I was in my car” or “I wish I was home already” or, on some days, “I wish I was in bed, reading.”


This week, I began reading my Bible again in the mornings. I use a devotional guide, which goes by themes in the church year. There’s a Psalm for the week, a prayer, then a list of Bible readings, one for each day, and then about a dozen quotes from various writers and spiritual people through the ages.

The theme for this week’s readings is “Eating the Bread of Anxious Toil.” Ha! How did I happen to pick up this small leather volume after neglecting it for months?

It has not been easy, becoming the “breadwinner” in the family. In this recession, I fret (yes, fret!) about how long we will survive. My mind—usually at 1:34 a.m.—sometimes takes me away from the present, when all really is well, on a downward spiral of job loss, foreclosure, homelessness.

It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
—Psalm 127:2

And then: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread … .”


As I write this, it is raining, raining on my tin roof, each drop a moment, raining moments, moments of thirst and satisfaction, both. My job allows me to work at home one or two days a week, depending on what’s going on, what needs to be done.

The desk in my home office faces two windows. Outside one window is a thick lilac bush and outside the other are two maple trees; beyond all is the woods, the wet woods, yellow leaves sotted to the ground.

Inside, my Tuscan yellow walls are golden, warm, hallowed. This moment is as perfect as it can be.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

'Occupy Wall Street' A Lightening Rod for Populist Discontent

Have you been following the Occupy Wall Street movement? No?

Since Sept. 17, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people have “occupied” Wall Street in New York (and other locations across the U.S.) to protest socioeconomic inequality and the influence of corporate lobbying on Washington politics, as well as a number of other social injustices. Mostly coordinated via social networking services like Twitter and Facebook without a central organizer, the flash-mob participants have since set up base in Zuccotti Park (Liberty Square) near Wall Street.

They call themselves the 99 percent. It is a peaceful protest.

“I can’t afford a lobbyist. I am the 99 percent.”

“People not profits.”

“How much do you owe?”

“We are not leaving, not while the richest 1% own 75% of USA’s wealth. Tax the rich.”

We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.

It’s no surprise or secret that Wall Street’s influence over Washington led to the financial collapse of 2008. The real shock came after the collapse: Nothing was done. Nothing changed. Nothing.

“A president elected with the spirit of Louis Brandeis (“[We have to stop] Wall Street from taking enormous risks with ‘other people's money’”), who promised to “take up that fight” “to change the way Washington works,” (“for far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans”), and who was handed a crisis (read: opportunity) and a supermajority in Congress to make real change, did nothing about this root to our financial collapse,” writes Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law, Harvard Law School.

Lessig calls this “terrifying, given what it says about this democracy.”

Thoreau said “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to one who is striking at the root.”

These protesters are the one striking at the root, says Lessig. Corporatism is at the root of America’s financial woes. Corporatism is why so many are unemployed and underemployed. Corporatism is why so many have lost their homes. Corporatism is based on Wall Street.

On the website, people heading to Occupy Wall Street post photos and short statements about themselves. Here’s one young woman’s:

“I am lucky to have a steady job doing what I love. I live frugally and without debt. All of my friends are jobless or homeless or swimming in debt or all of the above… I wonder how long it will be before I join their ranks… and the government doesn’t care. We are the 99%. I want a government that puts people before corporate bottom lines.”

Here’s another: “I was laid off to be hired back as a contractor so the company wouldn’t have to pay health care insurance or payroll taxes. ‘It’s only temporary,’ they said … two years ago.”

Occupy Wall Street has no leaders. It is not partisan politics movement. It can’t be or it will alienate citizens who are in one accord. The Republicans and Democrats’ obsession with remaining in power, with campaigns funded by corporations, has caused this mess. Political groups, labor unions and celebrities are welcome to join their voices, but they must not co-opt the movement. In order to succeed, it must remain a populist movement.

Last week, participants of Occupy Wall Street wrote and voted to agree on a statement. Space prohibits me from quoting it all. Here’s a highlight:

“…a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and … no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.”

And thus it concludes:

“We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

“Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

“To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

“Join us and make your voices heard!”

We really are the 99 percent.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Love Our Enemies? Are You Kidding?

Does Sept. 11, 2001, make any more sense today than it did 10 years ago?

The Daily News-Record archives is a faithful record of the local aftermath of that tragic day in our nation’s history. I look back through the stories—the newspaper put out a special edition on the evening of Sept. 11—and the memories awaken like a sleeping dragon.

“Valley Airport Closes Operations.” For the remainder of that week, my daily walk was eerily quiet. I live near the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, and there’s not much noise from air traffic. But when there was no air traffic at all, it was dead quiet.

As I walked down the dirt road, by the pastures, along the Middle River, I felt far removed from the tragedy and devastation in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. It’s easy, when you live out in the country, to be lulled into complacency about what’s going on down those other roads.

Of course, the Valley has had its share of violence, not far from my home at the Battle of Piedmont. Sometimes, when I pass Civil War sites, I imagine our peaceful pastures as battlefields. I can almost see the soldiers, a soldier, a Yankee perhaps, a teenaged boy far from home, wounded, bleeding, dying alone as the fighting wages around him.

But this is just my imagination, based on scenes from movies like “Braveheart” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Both had gory battles, but neither could give a realistic impression of the true horror of those events. Neither could watching the jets bash into the towers on 9-11.

“For Media, It Was A Day Everything Else Stopped.” I don’t know why I wasn’t at work that day. I usually worked on Tuesday. It sure would have been exciting to be part of that special edition. As it was, I sat glued to the TV set, watching the reports, trying to make sense of what happened. Mostly, we saw the jets hit the towers, over and over and over.

The newspaper’s special edition came out at 4 p.m., the first since President John Kennedy was shot on Nov. 11, 1963.

“Couple’s Friends Were Supposed To Fly Into NYC.” As the local connection emerged, it seems everyone had a story, everyone knew someone who knew someone who was somehow connected. I have a friend who was booked for the American Airlines flight 77 out of Dulles International Airport, the one that crashed into the Pentagon. On Monday, however, his Tuesday meeting was postponed to Wednesday, so he changed his flight to the following day.

“The Valley Grieves.” That night, I went to the wrong prayer meeting. While other congregations lit candles and prayed for victims, the service I attended went beyond intercession to focus on songs and prayers of victory and overcoming the enemy. After a few minutes of this, I stopped participating. My grief had not yet turned to anger.

“Valley Muslims Deplore Violence.” Local Muslims were quick to disassociate themselves from the Islamists who engineered the 9-11 attacks. As religion reporter, I followed up this story with a series in Saturday’s religion section on Islam and local Muslims. I researched the origins and history of the Muslim faith, interviewed longtime members of the Islamic Center of the Shenandoah Valley, attended Friday prayer for several weeks, wrote about JMU student who had converted to Islam.

I hoped the stories would replace our ignorance of this Eastern faith with knowledge and our suspicions with understanding and a desire to know our Muslim neighbors.

In the weeks and months that followed, American flags appeared in new places, on barns and fences and factories. Signs everywhere admonished us to pray for the troops that had been deployed to Iraq in the wake of the attacks. These were natural responses. I wondered, what is the supernatural response?

Jesus said, “You have heard that they were told, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But what I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors …” (Matt. 5:43-44). Crazy. But you can pretty much bet every time that our natural response is not the one advocated by Jesus.

Jesus was speaking to individuals when he said this, not the Jewish leadership council or the Roman Senate. As an individual, when I examine my heart, I find that what he commands is impossible.

But, later on, in Matt. 19:26, Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

And once again, I realize why it’s called faith.