What To Do On A Rainy Monday In The Time of COVID-19

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A rainy Monday in the time of COVID-19. The perfect day for some quiet reflection. I’m finding a lot of comfort in nature and try to get outside a bit every day. Being under the open sky and listening to bird song reminds me that life goes on, that God’s other creatures are carrying on, and that this current crisis will pass. Please, if you’re hunkering down and think you can’t step outside the house, think again. It just might save your mental health. Simply stay six feet from other people.

I’ve been sharing nature-based contemplative practices with some of my church friends, and today’s is an inside activity because it’s raining where we are. I’ve adapted it so it’s more accessible to people who don’t connect with God.

Today I’m considering fire, one of the most attention-grabbing creations. Even if you’re not spiritually inclined, it’s not hard to see the powerful and divine nature of fire: If you’ve ever lost track of time staring into a fire, you know how compelling it can be — and if you’ve ever been around an out-of-control fire, you know how frightening it can be. A famous Bible story says that when God seriously needed Moses to listen up, he set a bush on fire!

At some point today, set aside time to reflect on fire. Grab your journal or some writing paper, and light a candle. You may want to take off your shoes, signifying that you are coming as you are and that you’re willing to be honest with yourself.

Sit quietly, take a few deep breaths, slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you breathe, watch the flame of your candle, and consider:

Fire is essential to the natural world. It kills diseases and insects that damage trees, clears away undergrowth, and provides nutrients to enrich soil. Fire purifies the landscape and makes way for new growth and diversity. Reflect and journal about what needs to be cleared out of your mind and heart, what needs purifying. What needs to be stripped away to allow for new growth and diversity? Write about this as long as you like.

Now consider the pine cone. There are certain pine cones (like the lodgepole pine) that literally cannot reproduce without fire. You’ve probably seen them — the kind that are closed up tight, almost glued together. Such cones can hang in a tree for fifty years, just waiting for a passing fire to melt the resin that glues them shut and release their seeds. Journal some more, considering what parts of you are “glued shut.” What beliefs or fears keep you closed up tight to the world, never releasing your energy to new ways of being?

After you’ve finished journaling, if you are the hearty type, why not grab a raincoat and umbrella and go out for short walk in the rain? Don’t forget to blow out your candle! Maybe you can find a pine cone to bring home to remind you to keep your heart and mind open to the flame of purification and new growth.

Be safe, be well, be open.

On Pollinators, Pain, Gay Guys, and Gratitude

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This morning I sat on a bee, which is troublesome since I’m looking at a 10-hour drive tomorrow. As I stood in the kitchen smearing baking soda paste on my posterior, I thought of Ferdinand the Bull. Do you know him? Ferdinand is the children’s story of a gentle bull who didn’t want to leave his wildflower meadow to compete in bullfights. All the other bulls would snort and kick around, putting on a show for scouts on the lookout for fierce fighting bulls. But Ferdinand just liked to sit in the meadow and smell the flowers. Then one day, he sat on a bee and went rampaging across the field and so ended up at a bullfight where he wouldn’t participate, no matter how much they abused him. (Read an interview of a bullfighter turned animal rights activist http://www.vice.com/read/bullfighter-152-v15n10) This being a children’s story, he was brought back to his wildflower meadow in a cart and lived out his days sitting peacefully beneath a tree.

Ferdinand at Peace

I loved the story of Ferdinand, and my Dad loved to read it to me. The story is a metaphor for so many things. I don’t wonder that might father treasured it. He was a gentle man, born with a withered arm that left him unable to work on the family farm or fight with the other men in World War II. Instead, he became a college English professor and then spent the war years as a cryptanalyst, pondering and puzzling over words (it’s in my blood).

The story of Ferdinand also brings to mind a gay friend of mine who was forced to charge around the athletic fields with the other guys instead of taking drama class and then was beaten up in the showers for his efforts. And it makes me think of the lure of simplicity and the fruits of a contemplative lifestyle – I’ll no doubt be going there soon on my page, The Spiritual Life.

This morning, though, my mental meandering leads me to contemplate gratitude, a huge gift of the spirit as I see it. One you can cultivate through various spiritual practices, like fasting (makes you grateful for french fries!) or spending time in nature. Unless you are in a deep clinical depression, it’s hard not to feel gratitude if you are paying any attention at all to a natural setting. Colors, cloud shapes, a deep breath of air. All so simple, yet so complex.

I was born with a grateful bent, so I don’t have to cultivate it as much as some people do. Gratitude as a default setting is a tremendous gift, because it makes one prone to joy, as well. I’m also prone to the downward spiral, but that’s part of living life to the full – I’ve worked hard to escape my denial of childhood wounds and the resulting adult dysfunctions. I want to feel all those emotions, high and low. They’re mine. So I can even feel gratitude when I’m “down in the dumps,” as my Mom used to call her depressed days. Even a bee sting on the butt can offer food for thought and growth.

What I’ve learned from this little inconvenience is that blogging can be a spiritual practice. Just as I see pain and suffering as opportunities to look at things from the broader perspective of the spiritual realm, so, too, is blogging such an opportunity. If I’d gotten a bee sting on my butt two weeks ago before I began this blog, I doubt my response would have been a reflection on gentleness and gratitude. So thanks, God, for this blogging experience and for Ferdinand and for my Dad. And for bees and the meadows of wildflowers they pollinate. Amen.

Best Not Sat Upon

I’m a Mess, and So Are You

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Speaking of the spiritual life … oh, we weren’t? Well, we are now. I’ve decided to approach my physical and emotional clutter as an opportunity for healing, and that says faith to me. It seems absurd to refer to “the spiritual life,” since I believe that all of life is spiritual, whether or not we know it. As French Jesuit and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Many of us, particularly in western cultures, have allowed ourselves to be cut off and distracted from spiritual reality and also from nature where the spiritual realm can be accessed so readily. Most of the time, we use only 13% of our brains – the neocortex, or new brain – which has two functions: language and reason. The 87% that is “old brain” is the home of uninterpreted and unfiltered senses and emotions. It’s our inner self, our core being. It’s where kids live before their new brain has developed. That’s why they are much more in tune with raw feelings and will respond to nature so intuitively. They are just – themselves. Their spiritual selves.

I was a kid when I began my spiritual journey (that’s my 13% putting context and words to it), maybe 10 or 11 years old. Like so many people, my most profound and vivid experiences of the holy, the sacred, the spiritual – whatever you care to call it – have taken place in the natural world. I was in the woods behind my family’s country home in New Hampshire, surrounded by a green cathedral. I sat on a mossy boulder amidst delicate ferns and craned my neck to see the tops of immense pine trees and ancient oaks. And I just knew, with a simple awareness, that I was not alone. There was a spirit with me, which had always been with me, and that spirit knew me. It was inside of me and outside of me. I discovered this relational spirit I call God without any help from anyone. I had no religious upbringing, and I hadn’t gone in search of anything. God found me, and I recognized that spirit as Love.

This spirit never left me, but I basically ignored it for most of my twenties and thirties. I spoke to God from time to time and sometimes dipped into “spiritual books” like Kahil Gibran, but for the most part, I was forming my identity, becoming Ego, and I didn’t have time for spirituality. I thought I was happy – I had found my calling as an environmental lobbyist in D.C., and I was making a difference with my life. But I think now that I was just extraordinarily busy. My life was full, and I felt important as I rushed from press conference to fundraiser to congressional hearing and then collapsed each evening in a Capitol Hill pub with other very important and very busy friends.  After more than a decade of this, I was pretty drained. I realize now that I had capped the wellspring of my spirit; I was getting no true refreshment, just mostly adrenaline and draft beer.

Then one day, I was trapped in one of those insufferable time management seminars that even crunchy granola activists in D.C. must endure. The smartly dressed consultant was doing the pie-chart thing, and we had been given colorful plastic pieces.

“Let’s consider the different aspects of our lives and see how the balance looks,” she said. “Now take your colored pie slices – career, recreation, relationships.”

Check, check, check.


Hmmm. What do I do with that piece? I hadn’t noticed anything was missing from my life pie. I never slowed down enough to notice the gnawing discontent inside me.

Long story short(er) – I wasn’t happy with who I was becoming. (Who do you work for? What can you do for me?) After spending some time listening to my 87% brain (otherwise known as gut), I realized what I wanted, desperately, was peace. So I set out to find my spirituality.

Twenty something years later, I’ve found it, for the most part. I am largely at peace, though I don’t imagine my serenity will ever be complete in this earthly life. My personal journey has led me to Jesus – I know, gack! Run away! No, I’m not the TV evangelist, gay-bashing, you’ll-die-if-you-don’t-agree-with-me kind of Jesus person. I suppose I consider myself religious, having learned that religion is a lovely word that simply means to re-connect. What’s not to like? Sadly, religion of the organized variety has often proved a hindrance to a thriving spirituality!

The main thing I’ve learned is that I’m a mess, and so is everyone else. I am utterly broken and need mending in a big way. Unless we recognize and even embrace this humbling truth of the human condition, how can we develop compassion and empathy and have balanced, honest relationships? We would spend all our time pretending we’re perfect. I sure spent a lot of time in that pursuit, defending and rationalizing and being right. I believe that it’s only through spiritual pursuits that we can recognize and heal our brokenness. Self-help books and workshops, talk therapy, medication and even good old-fashioned self-control all make their contributions, and I’ve used them all. But for real, deep, transformative healing, we need to work at a spiritual level.

So that’s where I’m coming from. I’m serious about my spirituality because I don’t want to live on the surface. I want to live down deep in the 87% where things are real. REAL can be a painful place sometimes, but my most profound healing and growth has come through what most people would call pretty shitty circumstances. It’s the discomfort and pain that challenge us to scale heights for a bigger perspective, God’s perspective, and to grow more into the likeness of that loving spirit I first met in the woods in New England.

On my page, “The Spiritual Life,” I’ll be exploring and sharing some of the spiritual practices and people and books that have helped me heal and find peace. I hope you find them helpful on your own spiritual journey. I would love to hear your stories, too. Blessings!

Assisi Pathway

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