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Giving Thanks for Things Growing in New Zealand

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This evening I’m camped next to a Horse Chestnut tree, a being I’m not sure I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting before. Very solid vibes.

The Horse Chestnut is the little round fellow to the right of my camper

New Zealand knows how to do trees, no doubt about that! It’s easy to see why people might see trees as objects of worship. I’ve fallen for any number of the lovelies and made more than a few u-turns to capture photos.

Tree with friends

 

The vegetation here is remarkably diverse, from cactus to moss to eucalyptus, from temperate rainforests to tiny alpine daisies to towering tree ferns, one of which — the Silver Fern — is the national symbol that graces their rugby uniforms and their airplanes. The Silver Fern gives off a majestic but humble vibe, if you can imagine. Strong and formidable, yet with growing centers that are vulnerable and gentle. Much the way I imagine the person of Jesus to have been. 

 

Silver Fern Fiddleheads

I think my favorite plant is the Red Tussock grass, and its proper name is almost as cute as it is: Chionochloa rubra. I can’t decide if these little guys belong more to the Star Trek genre or to Dr. Seuss, but I love how they just march up hillsides and take over entire landscapes. They wave enthusiastically in the wind, and the sun brings out the red in them. They are native to New Zealand and the country has created a preserve for them on the South Island — one of the few places I did not see sheep or cows!

 

One of the more ubiquitous plants is flax, which you see along the roadsides and also growing as an ornamental in many gardens. It’s not at all like what we call flax in the northern hemisphere, the plant that produces seeds for our backyard finches. The Maori traditionally used fibers from the sword-like leaves of the flax plant to make everything from coats and sandals to river rafts and eel traps. Our Maori tour guide at New Zealand’s national Te Papa museum spoke about working with flax the way African American elders in the southern U.S. speak about braiding sweetgrass. It’s as if the flax fibers are woven into their very beings.

Since I’m in New Zealand, there will be no Thanksgiving for me this year. However, I am in a constant state of thankfulness as I “live and move and have my being” among the green beings of this glorious landscape. Have yourself a blessed Thanksgiving stateside!

Precariousness Happens: Autumn, Impeachment, and Anxiety

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This happens sometimes, usually in the Autumn when I’ve been cloistered away at my New Hampshire retreat for a time. It starts as a vague feeling of perhaps needing someone to talk to, progresses through the sense that your skin doesn’t fit and you might need to get out of it, and ends with lying awake at dawn wondering what terrible fate is about to befall you. Sometimes cancer, sometimes bankruptcy, sometimes North Korean missiles. You get the picture.

I blame it on the shortening days, the darker nights, and the mood of these northerners who are dreading another long winter of shivering and shoveling. Today I had lunch with a friend at the Badger Balm factory where she works, surrounded by hillsides bursting with near-peak color. As I walked out of the building and into the beauty, the woman following me sighed heavily and said, “It really smells like fall, I guess it had to happen.”

Had to happen??? I just drove ten hours to see this happen! But if you live here, autumn heaviness is apparently part of life. And it might be contagious, even if you don’t live here year-round.

I guess it had to happen

Happenstance

This year the depression/anxiety engulfed me on my first day. It probably had something to do with the fact that our president is quite clearly out of his cotton-pickin’ mind, as my father would say, and also with the fact that my financial planner just really, really screwed up, resulting in a massive tax bill and the possibility of losing my health care.

These two realities staged a fierce competition to see which could wreak more havoc with my brain chemistry during the two-day drive up from Maryland. Although I was listening to an outstanding audiobook (Lab Girl, by geobiologist Hope Jahren), every time I stopped the car, trump was still president and my financial world was still rocking. I had way too much time to cogitate and fret. I watched late-night news in my hotel room, diving ever deeper into the details of impeachment.

Yesterday I spoke to my financial planner over the phone and finally lost it — which I never, ever, do — when she kept telling me how complicated taxes were and how she wouldn’t exactly call this a mistake, more of a “learning experience.” It felt good to yell in the moment, but not so good afterwards. To comfort and numb myself, I spent the day on Twitter. I repeat: to make myself feel BETTER, I spent the day on Twitter. ‘Nuff said.

Hence, my 3 a.m. musings on North Korea’s latest missile launch — from a submarine, mind you, which can cross oceans — which took place while the so-called president was tweeting about his impeachment being BULLSHIT, in all caps in case we missed it. (This was all before he stood before a bank of cameras on the White House lawn this morning and encouraged Communist China to investigate his political opponent.)

Precariousness

Today I have been thinking about the nature of the word “precarious.” It just popped into my head as I was journaling and meditating this morning.

It’s a good word, even better than an onomatopoeia, which merely sounds like the action the word implies, like buzz or hiss. Precarious is more clever than that, kind of sneakily apt. As if you might unwittingly step onto the platform of “pre” and totter at the top of that brief, crisp “c” before tumbling headlong into the “AAAaaaaar-eee-ooouuus” abyss.

It doesn’t sound it, but precarious was a legal term in the 1600s — “held through the favor of another” — from the Latin, meaning “obtained by asking or praying.” This notion of being “dependent on another” led to the broader meaning of risky or dangerous.

So here I sit seeking comfort in language and writing, gazing out the window at the flaming leaves precariously clinging to their branches until the will of a breeze or a rainfall decides otherwise, and feeling grateful for my health, my financial security, and the democracy in which we live. And praying for the favor of God’s protection on all of it.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

– Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342 – circa 1416

Courageous Middle Age

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I never call myself “middle-aged,” I hate the term. I don’t like getting older, even if I am getting wiser (here’s hoping). But let’s face it, unless I’m going to live to be well past the century mark, I am there. In middle age and a teensy bit more.

Change is Afoot

Recently, though, something has clicked, or is in the process of clicking. I am rather suddenly learning to appreciate middle age! I’ve always loved those transition periods in life when you know you’re  evolving, but you aren’t sure what’s happening or where you’re going to end up. I’ve noted periods of passage in my journals since I was sixteen, and today was jotting about my latest one while soaking up the late summer sun at my place in New Hampshire, sipping tea on my deck and feeling entirely retired and entirely blessed.

In contrast to my past inner transitions, I can see this one has a direct cause, and it’s my recent weight loss. Not the actual shedding of pounds, but more the Noom weight loss program itself. It’s a whole mind, body, spirit thing and I’ve never come across anything like it. It’s put together by psychologists and while it’s relatively “simple” (ha!), it’s having a profound effect on the way I think and consequently behave. It seems my ability to lose weight after years of telling myself I’d never have the power to do so has allowed me to see myself and my life journey in a whole new light. I have been examining my past beliefs and behaviors with a curious but not overly critical eye, challenging the age-old pesky negative voices in my head, and allowing myself to dream a little.

Growing Up is Hard to Do

One of Noom’s “psych lessons” talks about goal orientations and how they can be either performance-based or mastery-based. As we get older, our less-ego-driven selves generally shift from an orientation of performance (What do others think? How do I compare? ) to mastery (What am I learning? Is this helping me grow, making me a better person?). This has been a hard transition for me. For most of my life, I’ve cared way too much what others think of me and have craved recognition and affirmation. That’s a draining and frustrating way to live because it gives others control over your well-being and serenity.

This idea — I’ll call it ego versus spirit — isn’t new for me; it’s not some epiphany. I was in therapy for eight years, have done related twelve-step work around growing up with an alcoholic parent, and have read several books on the topic. (Two good ones, if you’re interested, are Father Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” and “Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey” by James Hollis.) Well, through Noom I’m finally getting it, and it’s changing everything. You know how sometimes it’s just time?

Fear No More!

I’m banishing ingrained habits of thinking and feeling, like powerlessness and fearfulness. I learned to be risk-averse and overly cautious from my mother, and the river of fear runs deep. New things are dangerous, period. Laying low is always safest.

Noom to the rescue. They urged me to create a morning affirmation, and I’ve done so (don’t laugh, it’s working): “I have the ability to do whatever I choose because I am strong, determined, courageous, and wise.” At first I used “smart,” but smart is for younger people trying to impress others. By affirming my “wisdom” instead, I give myself permission to embrace what comes with middle age. I’ve been through a boatload of painful crap and I’ve learned some stuff! I’m owning it, along with the lines in my face and the sunspots on my arms. (Well, sort of.)

COURAGE
Courage is armor
A blind man wears;
That calloused scar
Of outlived despairs;
Courage is Fear
That has said its prayers.
— KARLE WILSON BAKER

So guess what? I’M GOING TO NEW ZEALAND!! Just like that. By myself. In a camper van. Don’t care what anyone thinks. So there, fear! I bought my (first) NZ travel book this week, read, researched, and emailed camper van companies and travel bloggers late into the night, and I’ve decided! Am I scared? Sure. But I’m also tingly excited. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this. Time to get over the idea that middle-aged women can’t get tingly excited!

Milford Sound, New Zealand (Photo by my cousin, Richard Boyter)

 

A Touch of Beauty

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The hardest part of coming back from the Wild Goose Spirit & Justice Festival is facing reality — getting back on social media and seeing the news and being reminded in a concrete way of the evil that’s blatantly running amuck in America.

So today I’ve been fretting. I’ve been forgetting to breathe, forgetting to do my contemplative journaling, forgetting my meditative centering prayer. I even neglected the new body/chanting prayer I learned at the Goose this year.

As if in response (and who knows, maybe they do monitor my stress levels), Facebook chose to share a lovely photo from a simpler time, a time when white privilege and basic denial allowed me to wander amongst the flowers without the knowledge that nearly 40% of my fellow Americans are OK with straight-up racism and state-sponsored child abuse.

Thanks, Facebook. I need to practice seeing beauty again, in nature and in people. Because the world is both/and. Beauty and racism, peace and cruelty. God, please open my eyes to both.

Beauty in Putney, Vermont. 2015

Holy Spirit Hangover: Wild Goose Festival

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Returning from my annual pilgrimage to the Wild Goose Festival is never easy, but this year seems weirder than usual. I feel as if I’ve had an overdose of Spirit and am in the midst of a complicated recovery.

If you are new to my blog, I’ll just say that the Goose is a progressive Christian celebration of spirit, justice, music, and art, which takes place every July in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The Wild Goose is an ancient Celtic symbol for God’s Holy Spirit, and She shows up every year. Use this blog’s search function to find stories from past festivals. This year was more political than usual, given the evil and violence that’s being done in the name of Jesus. We think he’s pretty annoyed about it and that his followers should be, too.

Anyway, reentry: Yesterday I was agitated, my mind racing, my body needing to do something — like go protest the racist venom spewing from the White House or at least dive in to the Twitter mud pit to fight with “Christian” racists. (Now there’s an oxymoron for you.)

Twenty-four hours later, all I want to do is sleep. I’ve been having crazy-profound dreams, as if the wall between spirit and mind has been breached and my subconscious is having to work overtime to translate between the two. It’s not bothersome at all, in fact it’s quite pleasant. I feel so much healing happening and wisdom being birthed through no effort of my own. There aren’t words for any of this yet, but perhaps there will be.

As one of my friends said during the festival, “God has troubled my waters.” I knew exactly what he meant. We had just been in the Beer & Hymns tent, singing the old Negro Spiritual, “Wade in the water, children, wade in the water, God’s a gonna trouble the water,” and were now listening to a powerful African-American preacher talking about finding our unique purpose in these dangerous times.

“You were born with your purpose on purpose,” Bishop Yvette Flunder assured us, “and you can only find your purpose through the one who sent you on assignment.”

Humankind’s purpose according to the Hebrew prophet Micah. How do you think we’re doing?

Over a four-day period, my mind grappled with concepts like the “oceanic consciousness” and questions like “How do you prepare to be dead?” My body sang, danced, chanted, laughed & cried, walked a labyrinth, and sweated. And sweated. My heart grieved over what we do to each other and our planet. And my soul soared to be among a diverse crowd of people owning their crap and healing from what life has thrown at them so that they can join together to make the world better.

No wonder I’m tired.

Over the next few weeks, I imagine I’ll continue to process and dream. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, here’s an article that Religion News Service did on the festival this year: In Remote Appalachia, Liberal Christians Gather to Pray and Plan 

Traveling Companions

“Hallelujah Anyway”

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Greetings, friends & readers! I’m still alive, I’m happy to say. Folks keep asking why I haven’t been blogging lately, and my answers are all over the map. I wish I could say I’ve been working on my memoir instead, but it’s more that I feel I *should* be working on my memoir if I’m going to write at all. How dysfunctional is that? I started a writing group last year specifically so that I would be motivated to work on the memoir, but so far I’ve only shared Chapter One and a bunch of older pieces. Little new writing.

In Search of Hope

Blogging is usually is a spiritual practice for me, one which entails at least reflection, if not prayer or meditation. Sometimes I’m just processing, but usually my writing takes me to a place of greater understanding or even hope. I trust that my erstwhile readers occasionally end up there as well. These days, though, it’s harder to find my way to hope. The practice of reflective writing can take me to some dark places. I mean, the planet . . .

I think that’s one reason my posts have been scarce lately. When you’re working with kids in cages, porn star pay-offs, climate collapse, and our democracy teetering on the edge, well — hope can be a stretch.

“Hallelujah Anyway” **

The good news is, I’m learning to live life despite the outrage, grief, and dread brought on by our national crisis gone global.

My life has been full and rich and fun. I’m working five mini-jobs right now (I know, kind of nuts) and each offers some level of meaning and purpose. I appreciate the yin/yang balance of teaching middle school kids and companioning an older man with Parkinson’s. I recently opened my sweet house in New Hampshire for the summer, attended a spiritual writing conference in New Jersey, and took a two-week road trip in New Mexico. Since stepping away from my pastoral position last fall, I’m able to be more present and attentive to all of this. Sometimes I am literally brought to tears of gratitude for my church, my friends, and my crazy-blessed life.

There’s plenty good and edifying to write about. My annual pilgrimage to the Wild Goose Festival of spirituality, art, and justice is only a week away, and of course there’s the Democratic primary circus — you know how I love waxing eloquent about politics! I fear that in the end, though, “progressives” won’t like what happens in the primary and will either vote third party or not at all, thereby returning trump’s rump to the Oval Office chair. But since I’m eschewing dread and aiming for hope, we won’t go there.

Happy Monday, Happy Fourth, and enjoy life! See you back here soon, I hope.

** Borrowed from author Anne Lamott

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

I’ve Missed You!

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I miss you. It’s been months since I’ve written here, by far the longest silent stretch since I started Writing with Spirit six-plus years ago. I can’t explain it, it just is what it is. For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back in, but I haven’t found an obvious doorway.

It’s Lent, I always write during Lent. And there have been lots of mass shootings — I always rage and offer prayers after one of those. The person in the White House continues to be an embarrassment, a danger, and an outrage. What’s new? Why waste the ink on him? Why contribute to the negativity? America made a huge mistake and it may take us down; take the planet down. We all know that.

At last count there were approximately 323 Democrats or sort-of Democrats vowing to take on the monster in 2020. In the past, I would have had plenty to say about all of them.

And yesterday the Mueller report came out – now there’s something to write about! But no. No words for any of that.

Am I a Pastor or Am I a Lap?

One reason I think I have not written is that I had news to share but I did not know how to share it. I stepped down from my pastoral role at church in the fall. It was a difficult decision that played out over the summer, during which time I lost both my cats. (I think I told you that part.) I don’t know quite why that was relevant, but it was. Perspective, I guess. Life is short, live in the moment.

I remember at one point thinking, “The most important role I have in life right now is to sit in this chair with this sweet dying cat in my lap.” That’s it. I realized I was just a lap. A loving lap.

Mostly it had to do with space. I was supposed to be the Pastor of Prayer and Healing, leading people into silence and contemplative practices, preaching about making space for God in your life. And there was no space in my life. I wasn’t practicing what I preached. And as long as there was no space, I could not sense God nudging me into different paths, or whispering to me about who I am meant to become. It’s always uncomfortable to step away from one thing before you know exactly (or even vaguely) where you are headed next, but sometimes it’s wise.

Anyway, I’m still leading retreats and groups and occasionally helping with worship and so on, but the burden is less. It was a good choice. Maybe I’ll write more about it in the future, but I just wanted to get it out there, because I felt a big part of my identity had shifted and it seemed disingenuous not to share that. Maybe now I can move on and write more regularly.

Entering the Desert for Lent

Most years, Lent is a busy season for me, while at the same time being reflective. This year I simply skipped town. I went into the desert for Lent, which is appropriate, since the season is meant to reflect the forty days Jesus spent in the desert wilderness before he began his ministry.

But I didn’t spend much time in self-examination and repentance. No ashes on my forehead for Ash Wednesday. Instead, I flew out to Albuquerque with a girlfriend and spent two weeks cruising around the New Mexican desert in a rental car. We collected cool desert rocks, visited museums, parks, and wildlife refuges, wandered through the ruins of Spanish missions and Pueblo Indian villages, drank margueritas, bought turquoise and silver, and soaked in the same hot springs that Geronimo is said to have frequented.

We gazed at distant horizons instead of computer screens. I read only books about New Mexico: no politics, spiritual growth, or fiction. Living in the moment. We drove for what seemed hours without seeing another car. At night the starfields left us speechless, which is perfectly comfortable when you’ve known someone for sixty years, as E and I have.

In short, I’m practicing “living life to the full,” as Jesus recommended.

There — now I’ve slipped back into the blogosphere. More pictures and stories from New Mexico to come.

Yucca at White Sands National Monument

E wandering in the desert

Native American petroglyph of the Easter Bunny (Petroglyphs National Monument)

Bee in Apricot Blossom

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