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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Underground Communication


Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.”
Theodore Roethke

I have four orchid plants sitting on my kitchen counter amid the usual clutter of everyday life. They have been given to me at different times from various people; two from my friend, Isie, one from my friend, Andy, and one from the little boy next door. I'd always been told that orchids were difficult to grow, needed special attention, and specific conditions to thrive. These just sit on the counter, soak up the light from a kitchen window, and get watered once a week. They put up their bloom stalks about this time each year (when it would be summer in their native land), provide a cascade of beautiful flowers, and are no trouble at all. Two of them have loads of air roots—the tentacles orchids use to hold onto tree limbs where they normally grow, and to bring in extra nutrients from the air. The two plants I have had longest do not have air roots. I think they have come to trust that they will be watered and fed, so they don't need to waste energy by sending out loads of air roots. Call me crazy!

Forest Scientist, Suzanne Simard, in her TED talk, “How Trees Talk to Each Other,” told of her more than 30 years of research with varied species of trees growing in forests. She discovered that by way of the underground network of intersecting roots, they communicate. Through the use of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, allele chemicals, and hormones, they send extra nutrients to one anther, even though they are not the same species. Not only that, but the fungi and mushrooms that grow on forest floors put out extensive underground systems of mycelium that act as a kind of message carrier among the trees; rather like synapses in our nervous system. Trees even send out distress and defense signals to one another. Simard's work is with Douglas Fir and Paper Birch, but can be extrapolated to other forests and other tree species. There's a real cooperative, interactive community right beneath your feet.

We, too, have roots. They extend out to the people and communities that we encourage and support, and that give back to us. I would include our four legged friends in that category. Through our roots, we share nutrients of the spirit, and reach out to defend and provide for each other. When we store enough light in our roots to keep us healthy and strong, we have plenty to share with others, even with those who are different from us.

                                                      In the Spirit,


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Keeping the Faith

Faithful, Invisible, Incredible, Impossible

When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, til it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time the tide will turn. When you're down to nothing, God is up to something. The faithful see the invisible, believe the incredible, and then receive the impossible. Where liberty dwells, there is my country.”
Benjamin Franklin

I truly have no words to offer that could possibly improve that statement. I am still a believer in spite of the last two years of ugly acrimony in this land of the free and the home of the brave. I hope for the best, whatever that may be. I stand in the assurance that our form of government is strong, and will carry us through whatever trials may come. I am happy that the people who voted for Mr. Trump feel heard, feel they have an ally in government, that they will be the focus of his attention for the next four years. I have seen the empty factories, the blighted landscapes, the sad faces. Alabama ranks almost at the bottom of the fifty states in educational outcomes. There is still illiteracy and ignorance here. So, I truly hope that some of the policies being espoused by the new administration will help people in need.

On the other hand, the inner-city of Birmingham is not a hotbed of drugs, crime and crumbling infrastructure. It is a thriving, happening place. I have a hard time seeing the scene of dissolution described by Mr. Trump. The inner city here is being revitalized under democratic leadership. It's not perfect—they fight among themselves, but they are somehow getting the job done. The democracy is safe. Just this week, I was in a multi-cultural, ecumenical, planning meeting of sixty-five or seventy people, Faith in Action Alabama. Christians, Jews, Muslims, black, white, rich, poor, all working together to support just causes—right here in Birmingham, Alabama, the historic hotbed of civil unrest.

I refuse to go down the path of cynicism and hostility. I think pessimism is as poisonous as arsenic. It pollutes the heart, soul and spirit. I love the line in Benjamin Franklin's quote above that says, “When you're down to nothing, God is up to something.” We may not be able to see it in this new administration, but I do believe we will see it in the American people.

                                                              In the Spirit,


Friday, January 20, 2017

Soul Gymnastics

Soul Training

I wrote Soul Keeping because we are taught more about how to care for our cars than how to steward our souls. But you cannot have an impactful life with an impoverished soul.”
John Ortberg (Soul Keeping)

Ortberg makes a very good point about our knowing more about taking care of our cars than we do about caring for our souls. I don't know about you, but that's true for me. We're somewhat obsessive about getting the oil changed and the tires rotated on our cars right on time. We know that exercise, fresh air and fresh food are good for our bodies. We don't always have them, but we know they are important. We know that our hair, skin and teeth require regular tending. But, when it comes how to care for our souls, we go blank. We think, well, there's prayer—I pray twice a day—I give God a laundry list of what I want, and I thank God for providing for another day. Then there are good deeds—I go to the shelter kitchen once a month, I take my old clothes to the mission thrift store. I go to church and sing hymns and fellowship with my co-congregants. Isn't that caring for my soul? Not so much.

The soul requires a little bit of undivided attention every day. It wants some solitude in which we check in, and ask how it's doing. What did I do today that made you happy, what made you sad? Are you content that we're making progress? And, what does progress look like? Here is Ortberg's answer to such questions: “Being deeply contented with God in my everyday life is a focused attitude. It means practicing letting go of my obsession with how I'm doing. It means training myself to learn to actually be present with people, and seeking to love them.”

Caring for our souls means practicing love—even for those who disagree with us, who represent things we don't like. Love is like beef stew and warm biscuits for the soul. Practicing love—for self, for others, for the world, for its flaws, its pretenses, its misguided messes, its unlovely people—is how we care for our soul. Love is the language, and the source of nourishment of the soul. Love recharges our individual soul-batteries, and the world-soul's batteries. And, boy, do we all need that right this minute!

                                                      In the Spirit,


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Your dreams--my dreams...

Making Room for Change

The thing you have to be prepared for is that other people don't always dream your dream.”
Linda Ronstadt

When I see Linda Ronstadt's name, it takes me back to California in the late 1960's. I was newly married, barely out of my teens, and in college at Sacramento State University. My husband was in Air Force flight school, and we lived at an apartment complex near the base. It was the first time in my life I had friends who were not Southerners. Instead, they were from Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, even Puerto Rico! They spoke in ways I had never heard before, had their own dialect. To me, they may as well have been exotic creatures from another planet. I practice-taught in a small town north of Sacramento, Rio Linda, and most of my students were Latino. We made a float for the Camellia Festival and marched in the parade dressed like ancient Greeks. Ronald Reagan was governor. Downtown, the streets were lined with orange trees! Orange trees, heavy with fruit! How very strange that seemed to a mountain girl from North Carolina.

The musical backdrop for that time was Linda Ronstadt singing:

You and I travel to the beat of a different drum.
Oh, can't you tell by the way I run,
Every time you make eyes at me. Wo, oh.
You cry and you moan and say it will work out,
But honey child I've got my doubts.
You can't see the forest for the trees...”
(Stone Poneys—Different Drum)

Boy, was our drumbeat ever different! Everything was different. I became different. And, I became different simply because I was exposed to those people, and that place, at that time. Different ideas, different speech patterns, different dreams and aspirations. We all left Sacramento after flight school, dispersed to various bases across the country. All of us forever changed; broadened by the experience of having been thrown together with folks who viewed the world from a different perspective. I wouldn't take anything for the memory of that time.

In making room for change, we must realize that not everyone shares our ideas of what is right, what is important. And, realizing this, we do not have to make them wrong, or warped, or anything else besides different. When we insist that everyone think as we do, we are simply out of touch with reality. Everyone comes to this moment with their own history, their own experience. We don't have to dance to the very same drum to make beautiful music together.

                                                          In the Spirit,


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Identifying Your...

Multiple Personalities

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fasten a halter, but which now you cannot catch...”
Annie Dillard (The Writing Life)

Annie Dillard describes the writing life as “a lion you cage in your study.” You give it daily due diligence out of respect for its individual life—a life that inhabits your body space, but does not lay down its autonomy to anyone. I'm not a published writer beyond this blog, but truly, it owns me. It shakes me from sleep saying, “Get up, we have work to do, pressing matters that must be fit into this time slot.” Then it finds what it wants to write about and off we go, with me merely punching the keys because I'm the one with the hands.

Sometimes, I go back at the end of the day and read what I wrote that morning, and think—really! You said that! When I worked on a novel, the characters regularly took left turns that were completely unplanned and unexpected. When I attempted to wrestle them back in line with my thinking, they became Helen Keller at the family dinner table in The Miracle Worker. They threw food at me and pitched fits. Annie Dillard says you must enter your study with a chair and a whip, yelling “Simba!” to reassert your authority over the lion—I just never had the courage to do that.

I guess all of us, and not just writers, have multiple personalities. We are one person with our families, and another in our workplace, another in our spiritual life. Like paper dolls, we slip on different outfits as we go through our day, becoming more or less formal depending on who we're with. I've been reading Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, and in them her characters speak in dialect to one another, some do not know Italian, and some use Italian only in certain circles. We, too, adopt different ways of speaking ourselves in the course of a day. Our innermost thoughts and our outermost words often come from different aspects ourselves, and say absolutely opposite things.

All of this is not to say that we are intentionally duplicitous creatures—only that we are not a singularity. We are far more than meets the eye. It's well to be aware of all the various personalities that reside within your particular framework—the good and the bad, the kind and the corrupt, the lamb and the lion. The problem is not that you have them, since we all do; it's just that when you are blind to some of them, they become dangerous. Like the lion in your study, they will bite you. And they'll bite others, too.

                                                               In the Spirit,

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Exit the Peacemaker

Enter the Jester

Hope, on the one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”
Walter Brueggeman (The Prophetic Imagination)

There is a pall over America right now. It is as though a critical piece of the American psyche had died, and we're all waiting for the funeral. In the meantime, we're filing around the casket with vacant eyes. In this deep and protracted period of mourning, we are watching an impostor, a caricature, a cartoon person ascending. We keep trying to reshape this bizarre fabrication into something palatable and recognizable as our president, but it simply snaps back into itself like a twisted balloon.

What the election of Mr. Trump has done is expose the underbelly of a nation that thought of itself as having “moved on.” Never mind the persistent bickering and inaction of our government, and the grinding pace of social change—we were used to that. Some even thought gridlock was a good thing. Never mind the mind-numbing failure of our public schools, and our ever rising medical costs. Forget those empty factory buildings, and our crumbling bridges. Forget the flood of opiate addiction and military suicide, and constant gun violence in our streets—we talk about them, but only to tut-tut and move on. But this! How did we come to this?

That's how we came to this! All of the above is how we came to this moment. Somewhere along the way, we lost hope of something better, and it took a profound shock to wake us from our zombie trance. We have been sleep-walking for a long, long time. But we're awake now, by golly! Activation of the jester archetype is always jarring—that shape-shifting, twirling, watch the world burn, coyote/joker is a change maker. Devil may care, let's do it my way, create as much chaos as possible, and see what happens. The great advantage of this is not the ascendancy of Mr. Trump—it's the alertness of the American people. And now that we're awake, what will we do? The hope for us, in my opinion, and it's a great hope, is that our wonderfully creative capacity to innovate, that alchemical spirit that changes lead into gold, is alive and well, and will rise up and carry us through this time of sweeping change. I have hope and I'll bet you do, too.

                                                       In the Spirit,

Monday, January 16, 2017



I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is no way to adequately express the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the psyche of the world. I don't know whether it was the depth of his character, or the content of his words, or the ample reality of his physical being that lent him the out-sized gravity he wielded. I guess it doesn't matter, but in my lifetime, he has carried the authority of ultimate truth more than any other human being. And, what he spoke about almost exclusively was love, justice, and equality.

I have been told on more than one occasion that I am na├»ve; that I don't understand the very real and present danger that we live in today. We could make a long list of potential threats, and still probably leave some out. There is much to fear, not the least of which is the ever increasing popularity of violent extremism on all sides. The problem is that fear begets fear, violence begets violence and love begets love, peace begets peace—we have a choice. One does not lead to another; we can not kill our way to peace, nor hate our way to love. They don't overlap like layers on a cake. We have to choose which ones we will live by. Choose fear or love; choose violence or peace. 

In the face of hatred and violence, Martin chose love and peace. And, yes, he died for it, but he did not sell his soul. Instead, he said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Unarmed truth and unconditional love are choices we make, and then pray that we have the courage, as he did, to stand in their light.

                                                              In the Spirit,