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Forces of Nature

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“Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands — a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.”   Sidney Lovett

 

Of all the fierce energy that makes up the natural world — tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis — I believe that the greatest force of nature is her ability to heal our souls and bestow on us the gift of belonging. You belong — are there sweeter words?

Humans may have betrayed nature, scraped and beaten and chopped her until she is raw and bleeding, but she endures and she provides for us. We are a part of her.

I first discovered the divine company of nature among the evergreens, ferns, and moss of a New England forest. That’s where I met God. But here in my little corner of suburbia, if I take the time to pay attention to “something not made with hands,” I am reminded every day: I am not alone. I belong.

DSCN4921

The patterns, balance, and beauty of the natural world — the assurance that sweet, delicate, winsome spring flowers will overtake the icy, harsh, and deadly serious winter — these great forces of nature reassure my soul.

 

This post is in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Forces of Nature

Worlds Collide — My Green Faith

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“Bible study! Bible study!?” My friend’s saliva sputtered across my desk and graced my hands, which were now clenched and starting to sweat. His reaction was just what I had been fearing.

“Hey guys,” Carl bellowed down the hall, “did you hear that? Mel won’t go get a beer with me cause she’s got BIBLE study tonight!”

I still cringe at the memory. For months, I’d been trying to figure out how to tell my agnostic/atheist coworkers at the Sierra Club that I had – gasp – become a Christian. I’d known Carl a dozen years, and he was a good friend, often flying from California to D.C. to help me lobby his congressional delegation. This trip, he had mentioned that he’d recently discovered Zen Buddhism and been on a retreat. Since he’d confided something of his spiritual journey to me, I thought he might be a safe person to tell about my decision to join a church community and tag along after Jesus. Wrong.

The Unholy

I didn’t blame my fellow environmental lobbyists for distrusting Christianity. Ultra right-wing politicians had formed an unholy alliance with the conservative Christian Coalition and several polluting industries to deny climate change and promote a false jobs-versus-the-environment message. (But we can’t afford to protect air and water, it will hurt poor people!)

More fundamentally, environmentalists and even many Christians misinterpret the ancient Judeo-Christian concept of “stewardship” as meaning dominion over nature, or license to exploit – even responsibility to exploit. (God put those trees there for us to use, so we must cut them down even if they are a thousand years old.)

Some Christians just figure Jesus is coming to get them any day, so why worry about the planet?

I was a different kind of Christian and a different kind of environmentalist. Could I ever put the two halves of myself together?

The Holy

For me, love of nature and reverence for God are integrally connected and biblically sound. One of Jesus’s early followers, Paul, wrote in the Bible, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

If you believe God is the Creator, then God is revealed in the created world and we should honor it. Duh. But what seemed like a no-brainer for me wasn’t as obvious to either my environmental or my Christian friends.

The Rift Widens

The day after the offending Bible study, I was at a Christian leaders’ retreat focused on identifying and using spiritual gifts. I had determined that my deep love of nature and my passion to care for it were both gifts from God; I was starting to hope that perhaps my spiritual life and my career could become integrated after all, grounded in my new faith.

During an afternoon break, I leaned against a rickety ping-pong table and surveyed what I now recognized as common church-basement fare: store-bought cookies (Oreos) and paper (non-recyclable) cups of juice.

I was chatting with the first missionary I had ever met. He asked what I did for a living and I told him, with perhaps more pride in my voice than God would have liked. In the cavernous pause that followed, I could feel the rift between my two selves widen.

He said, in precisely the same cringe-inducing tone that Carl had used the night before, “Sierra Club! Sierra Club? I wouldn’t think someone from Sierra Club would even be in a church, let alone at a leaders’ retreat.” Apparently he bought into the political rhetoric that all environmentalists are misanthropic atheists who care more about trees and spotted owls than people.

I had no allies in either camp, unless they were in hiding.

Becoming Myself

Today, millions of Christians recognize the responsibility to care for creation as part of their faith tradition, although many older ones still distrust what they mockingly call “tree huggers.”

Unabashed Tree Hugger

Unabashed Tree Hugger

But twenty years ago when my “identity split” took place, the false dichotomy nearly broke me in half as my two selves battled for balance and acceptance. I didn’t feel at home with my old hard-partying, competitive friends in progressive politics anymore, yet I didn’t quite fit with my new faith community either.

During this period, I had the opportunity to meet former President Jimmy Carter. I asked him how he managed his dual life, immersed in cut-throat politics but also reflecting the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control that the Bible says are gifts of the Holy Spirit.

He gave me one of his penetrating icy blue stares that I imagine unsettled many a foreign leader and said, “Contrary to popular opinion, God lives in Washington, D.C., too.”

We laughed, but the deeper meaning of his words took root: God is always at work and inviting me to join in wherever I am. It’s my job to pay attention and respond. Best of all, I’m not in charge of what anyone else thinks of me.

Over time, my commitment to spiritual growth – which includes connecting with God through the natural world – has given me the confidence to become the unique person I was created to be; other people’s opinions be damned.

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I’ve written this post in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge, which points to our many personas and asks us to “tell about a time when two or more “yous” ran into each other.” You have a persona story to share?

 

 

Native American Wisdom

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When I was an environmental lobbyist, much of my work involved social justice activities like equipping and empowering low income communities and people of color to protect their families from pollution and irresponsible development.

As the Sierra Club’s Public Lands Director, I often traveled to the western United States to work with Native Americans who wanted to protect their land and water. Whether it was a proposed ski slope on a sacred mountain, water diverted from tribal lands for urban use, or lakes poisoned by uranium mines, there were plenty of challenges.

One of my first trips to tribal lands involved presenting a training on Persuasion Techniques to help the Navajo people influence administrative decision-making that affected their communities. I brought organizational charts and factsheets and how-to tips and talking points.

I knew what to do and all I had to do was teach them, right?

Well, halfway through the first day, my colleagues and I feared we weren’t getting anywhere. We had a schedule and an agenda to get through. We had goals to meet for our funders. But it turns out that the Navajo people run on a somewhat different timetable than do A-type D.C. lobbyists.

Our first clue that we weren’t in the nation’s capitol anymore was when the Navajo opening prayer lasted twenty minutes . . . we had scheduled two. We moved from prayer into introductions, which took forty-five minutes instead of the ten we had scheduled because each person talked about the land they were from and about their ancestors. Every commonality that was discovered necessitated a leisurely comparing of notes, “Do you know Grandfather So and So?” and “To the west of the river or to the east?”

Our training was in trouble and I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. I wanted to be respectful, but I wasn’t sure they even understood the concept of affecting decisions, let alone lobbying. “You know, like when you’re trying to persuade your parents to let you do something?” I suggested, which always connected with our mostly white student groups.

Blank stares.

Finally, a local Sierra Club guy who frequently worked with the Navajos asked the group, “What is the Navajo word for persuasion?”

Mumbled conversations and shaking of heads.

Then a young man spoke up. “We have no such word in Diné Bizaad (the Navajo language). We do not do that. We just ask our elders what is best. We would never argue with them or try to change their minds.”

In all my wisdom, I had designed a training around a concept that did not even exist in their culture. I looked at the local activist who had asked the insightful question and he started to laugh and then I laughed and pretty soon we were all hugging and laughing.

“Respect! What a beautiful thing!” I said. “So different from the way I grew up.”

Two elders sat at the side of the room. When the mirth died down, everyone looked at them. One of the men nodded and said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.”

Humility is not a word often associated with lobbyists – or environmentalists, if I may poke fun at my fellow green-hearts. I got a massive dose of it that day as I watched the wisdom of the ages continue to guide this ancient people through the complexities of the modern day.

navajo

This post is in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge called Student, Teacher: Sometimes teachers learn the most from their students. Have you ever had the tables turned on you when you thought you were teaching, but underwent the largest change yourself?

 

 

 

Joys of Nature Color Shadows of Grief

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Grief remains my shadowy companion, sometimes storming my boundaries and overwhelming my body, but more often traipsing behind at a respectful distance. Nevertheless, color is returning to my world. Like spring foliage that begins subtly and then suddenly bursts, I’ve been surprised by joy several times this past week. Here’s what’s happening in my yard and in my heart:

  • I saw the first hummingbird of the season at my feeder, a lovely iridescent male still slender from his migration and very hungry.
  • A pair of cardinals is nesting in a tree across from my kitchen window and I’ve been a witness to their morning and evening ablutions at my birdbath. They take turns, one keeps watch while the other splashes with abandon.
  • Sitting on the porch, I was mesmerized by sweet birdsong that I first thought was one of my favorite neighborhood songsters, the Carolina Wren, but when the tiny guy appeared he had on a bright red cap – a Ruby Crowned Kinglet! I have a soft spot in my heart for Kinglets because I once found one that had been stunned, and I cradled the delicate beauty in my hands for several minutes before he took off. Thirty plus years later, I still treasure that sacred moment.
  • BATS! The first sighting of these angular acrobats is always big for me. As I sat by my fire pit sipping Carbernet and attempting to read in the deepening dusk, I heard them before I saw them. Two bats were arguing about territory, swooping around and chittering and careening into each other. Quite the power struggle!
  • While the bats argued, I saw a dark shape wobbling along a high branch of my neighbor’s willow oak and then slip-sliding down to the ground. After a few minutes, I heard something not very graceful rustling in the bushes and out popped a big, fat opossum. He waddled towards me as I fingered my fire-poking stick and pondered its very sharp teeth. Fortunately, he was suspicious of a canvas bag of firewood and took a detour around me. No defense was necessary on either of our parts.

Resurrection!

On Easter Sunday, everyone in my church brought home a chrysalis in a little plastic cup. Lots of the pupae were wiggling, but mine didn’t move all week. I was pretty sure it was a dud and then yesterday – a butterfly! It might be a Baltimore Checkerspot, but I’m no lepidopterist. (Isn’t that the *best* word?)  We had a minor crisis when it got stuck to a banana slice, so we’re not trying that again. It’s now moved to a bigger home, and I’ve given it an apple slice and dropped in some lilac blossoms.

Enjoying apple juice on a Q-tip for breakfast

Enjoying apple juice on a Q-tip for breakfast

Speaking of lilacs – they are blooming and their sweet scent fills my garden. Even though they always bring on a slight melancholy because they were in bloom when my father died in 1975, how can you not smile at a blooming lilac bush? They are just friendly, homey spirits. My grandmother told my mother who told me that having a lilac by your front door is good luck – all three of us always chose homes so graced.

So Graced

So Graced

Rejoice Anyway

People tell me I’m smiling more, and I actually wrote a blog post about laughter last week.

As I said, grief still shadows me. In fact, the last couple of weeks have been some of the worst since my brother passed away four months ago. My birthday? Don’t even ask. Worst ever.

Making oatmeal raisin cookies for the church bake sale brought on tears because I should have been baking extra for Biff. Buying bread at a farmer’s market was touch-and-go because he loved bread and I liked surprising him with exotic loaves. More than once, a simple trip to the grocery store has been a struggle.

I’ve been indecisive, unfocused, and scattered. I’ve had periods of anxiety and even extreme grumpiness, which is rare for me, thankfully. I’ve been very clumsy, which is not at all rare for me, unfortunately.

All the grief “symptoms” are still hovering. I can’t pretend all is rosy. Still, since a number of people have said that they pass my blogs on to grieving friends who find them helpful, I thought I’d let fellow grievers know that the colors do return. The birds will sing and the flowers will bloom and the butterflies will hatch, and:

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

Ancient Christian Mystic Julian of Norwich

What Color is Pride?

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What color is pride? For many baby boomers like me, I’ll bet the first thing that comes to mind is red, white, and blue. With stripes. Growing up in the post World War II era, the whole country was awash in the hues of Old Glory.

My father, being a Texan, had his own proud blend of red, white, and blue. As kids, we had a fine selection of confederate flags, which we draped over plastic replicas of General Lee’s horse Traveler, raised on toothpicks over little statues of the Alamo, and wore as magical capes as we pranced around the house fighting bad guys.

I was told that being half-Texan meant I could do just about anything I put my mind to. Bigger and better than anyone else.

My mother, on the other hand, was brought up under the red, white, and blue of England’s flag and passed on the idea that while we were better than everyone else, we were never to say so. “Don’t brag, it’s unbecoming,” was followed by, “No, dear, you mustn’t play with them — they are not our kind of people.”

What’s worse? My Dad’s resounding pride or my Mom’s false humility?

Oh well. My childhood understanding of pride may have been confused, but at least it all fell under red, white, and blue, so there was no question about the color of pride.

American Flag

The British are coming, the British are coming!

The British are coming, the British are coming!

256px-Confederate_Rebel_Flag.svg

Until Vietnam. That’s when those colors began to divide America and my family. I sided with my older hippy brother over my Commie-fearing father, and my understanding of the color of pride morphed into a bright tie-die unity with the anti-war crowd. Proud to be a pacifist, proud to be against the machine, against the system. Proud to “let my freak flag fly,” as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young put it in their song, “Almost Cut My Hair.”

Going Green

When the environmental movement took off, my sense of pride took on shades of green. In college, I began marching under the green and white eco-flag.

In surveys I did while working at the Sierra Club, we often found that people associated the word “environmentalist” with “arrogance,” and I can understand that. There’s an odd, almost combative pride that develops when people are devoted to a cause they feel means life or death. That’s particularly true when for policy reasons, they must define “the solution” and push for it, which comes across as “we know best.”

Still, the way I see it, when you are up against an opposing force that simply denies the reality of biology, climatology, or any other kind of science for that matter, it does no good to search for a “middle ground” — you have to push if you love humankind and the rest of creation. So I’m still green and proud of it.

Marching under the Green Flag

Marching under the Green Flag

A Child of the Universe

Speaking of loving humankind — in my thirties, I chose a path that truly confused my notions of pride. I became a committed Christian, which meant that I got serious about being open to personal transformation and healing. I had to lay down the prideful ego that, unbeknownst to me, had been driving my life up until that point.

When God was gracious enough to show me how much my ego and my need for recognition and esteem drove my actions, I was disgusted and dismayed and quite willing to change. I wanted to tear out the thick black threads of pride that ran through my being, binding me up and making me dance like a marionette to the tune of other people’s opinions.

At the same time, if you dare to believe that you are a beloved child of the Creator of the Universe and that you — yes, you — are unique and uniquely gifted in all of history, part of a cosmic plan to make the world a better place, well . . . well, just wow.

That’s a different color pride.

As I’ve gotten to know myself in the light of Love, I have become gentler with myself. Like any child, I have built-in needs for affection and approval. That’s OK; that’s sweet. I believe those needs are driven by our natural inclination to be close to God and to other people. (And, yes, also by our evolutionary need for survival in community, which I don’t think is contradictory to the God-part. We are wired that way by the Master Electrician.)

These natural emotional needs simply get warped by the world. Now that I’m aware of this, I keep watch, and on a good day these traits don’t run my life. I can smile fondly at them and go about my business.  I think that somewhere in the dynamic tension between our beloved uniqueness and our egoic drive lies a perfect balance of pride that is pure white like a dove in the sunshine, or perhaps transparent, clear as a pristine stream.

I’m nowhere near that color pride, nor do I expect to be in this lifetime.

creek

Abundant Yellow

Right now, I am experiencing pride as yellow — bright sunshine yellow. It is warm. It is glowing. It is good.

Last week, I graduated from Johns Hopkins with my Masters in Creative Nonfiction and gave a public reading from my thesis for close to two hundred people. I did well. People smiled and nodded and laughed in the right places. Am I proud of myself? Damn straight! I busted butt for four years to get to that podium, and I think I did a really good job. (Sorry, Mom, I know I’m not supposed to say that.)

At the Podium

At the Podium

Thing is, everyone else in my graduating class of sixteen also did a really good job. I’m super proud of them, too. We’re all standing in this sunny pride. There’s plenty of it to go around, enough of the good pride for everyone — it’s not something to clutch. It bathes the whole world in its warmth. We all glow from it. I think it comes from God, and I think it’s related to love. Which raises the question, what color is love? Another post.

Speaking of love, as I was writing this, my blog stats reached three thousand followers, adding to my golden glow. Thanks so much to all of you for accompanying me on my writing journey! I love you guys!!

And now, after that commercial break for a moment of pride, I will return to my false humility.

Related posts:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/what-color-is-shame/

Photo credits: Wikimedia.com, Public Domain Photos, Publicdomainpictures.net

Autumn’s Red Plastic Ritual

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All summer, it’s a chore. Not a big chore, just something that must be done, like groceries and cat’s pans and mowing. It’s on the list.

But when the sun hits the equator to signal the start of Fall, which it does today at 4:44 p.m. EST, my chore becomes a ritual – sacred because it will soon be no more.

I pick my favorite pot, the small one that belonged to my roommate Eileen back in the seventies. I fill it with exactly two cups of water and watch as the liquid comes to a boil: round rolls that are at first full and viscous turn to thin bubbles snapping and spitting.

As the steam rises, I measure one-half a cup of sugar — honey-colored, raw, organic sugar — and pour it into the water, stirring with a well-worn silver teaspoon that belonged to my mother, the woman who taught me to love nature and to talk to animals.

I add a few ice cubes to the pot and set it by the sink where the red plastic containers soak in white vinegar and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Castile soap, the scent of which graced every good hippie group home back in the day.

Hey, man — did you ever read this label? Far out, man!

Mom used Ivory Liquid.

I scrub the plastic with a toothbrush to remove every spot of dirt and mildew, rinse well, and then carefully pour in the sweet water.

By now the hummingbirds are hovering around their vacant feeding spots outside. They look puzzled, shiny heads tilting first this way and then that, examining the empty hanger from one direction, then buzzing over a few inches to see if things might look different from the other side.

It was here a minute ago.

“Coming, coming,” I say, as I moisten a paper towel with Avon Skin-so-Soft and wipe the tops of the feeders to repel the lines of ants that also await my return.

The red feeders are still dripping, and a sticky sugar trail trickles across the kitchen floor as I head out the door.

I never know which will be the last feeding, the last time I’ll see the hummers before their long flight and before my long winter devoid of their bejeweled company.

See if you can see her - she's looking directly at you!

Can you see her? She’s looking directly at you! (Click on it.)

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Is this fresh?

Fueling up for the flight

Fueling up for the flight!

Have a blessed Autumn!

Related Links:

http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-september-equinox

http://www.defenders.org/hummingbirds/basic-facts

Give a Thought for the Honey Bees

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I’m about to hit the road again, having only just returned from cavorting with a bunch of wacky Christians in North Carolina, but looking forward to spending two weeks at my writing retreat in New Hampshire with my bestest friend EVER.

I’ll stock up on the local late-summer honey while I’m there. It’s dark in color and rich and complex in flavor — nectar gathered more from trees than flowers this time of year.

Honey Bee Appreciation Day

Since I’ll be driving and unable to blog, I wanted to give you a heads up that August 17th is Honey Bee Appreciation Day. As you might have heard, honey bees are in big trouble. And when honey bees are in trouble, humans are in trouble because bees pollinate our food supply and our trees.

My church raises honey bees, and our hives are struggling.

Church Bees at Work

Church Bees at Work

Several countries have begun to ban the pesticides that are killing bees worldwide. As usual, America is behind the curve – there’s a lot of corporate money in pesticides. Recently, though, a couple of lawmakers have introduced a bill in Congress that will require the Environmental Protection Agency to pull certain pesticides off the market until their safety can be proven. It’s called “Save America’s Pollinators Act.” Click here to urge your members of Congress to support this important bill.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons -- thanks!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons — thanks!

How to Honor the Bees

Adapted from the National Honey Bee Day website, here are suggestions of ways that you can celebrate honey bees and make a difference for our buzzy friends:

  • Consider beekeeping as a worthwhile hobby and seek information to get started. The more beekeepers there are, the more voices there are speaking for the bees..
  • Support local beekeepers by buying locally produced honey and other beehive products. Honey is the best “green” sweetener you can buy.
  • Attend and support beekeeper association events held throughout the year in places like environmental centers, schools, and state parks.
  • Educate yourself on the dangers and risks of homeowner pesticides and chemicals. Whenever possible, choose non-damaging and non-chemical treatments in and around the home. Most garden and backyard pests can be eliminated without harsh chemicals, which many times are not healthy for the pets, the kids, or the environment.
  • Get to know the honey bee. Unlike other stinging insects, honey bees are manageable and non-aggressive. Don’t blame every stinging event on honey bees! Many times, the culprits are hornets, yellow jackets, and wasps.
  • Plant a bee friendly garden with native and nectar-producing flowers. Use plants that can grow without extra water and chemicals. Native plants are the best for any region. Backyard gardens benefit from neighborhood beehives. Here is a link where you can read more about “Backyard Wildlife Habitat.”
  • Understand that backyard plants such as dandelions and clover are pollen and nectar sources for a wide variety of beneficial insects, including the honey bee. The desire to rid yards of these plants and have the “perfect” yard results in chemical runoff and environmental damage from lawn treatments. A perfect lawn is not worth poisoning the earth!
  • Consider allowing a beekeeper to maintain beehives on your property. In some areas, beekeepers need additional apiary locations due to restrictive zoning or other issues. Having a beekeeper maintain hives on your property adds to the overall quality and appeal of any country farm or estate.
  • Know that beekeepers are on the forefront in helping with unwanted wild bee colonies. Every community should welcome beekeepers. It is not the managed colonies beekeepers maintain that cause problems, it is unmanaged colonies. You can rely on beekeepers and bee associations for dealing with honey bee related issues. Passing restrictive measures or beekeeping bans might mean nobody is around to help when needed.
  • Get involved with your community environmental center, volunteer programs, county garden center, and other agriculture and nature-based programs. No doubt you will meet a beekeeper. Beekeepers are part of your community and many love nature on all levels. Beekeepers give generously to affiliated programs and understand we are all connected.

Thanks for Caring!

Enjoy some honey today!

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