Refuse to Look Lightly Upon the World

Refuse to look lightly upon the world. Bear the weight of each day, every moment, every word and every action, like it is your last and final undoing. Let this burden weigh you down, push you under, slow your feet to a crawl. Some days you will feel as though you are sinking in quicksand slowly creeping its way up to your chin, heavy on the chest, only a matter of time when breath escapes you. Other days, running in water or wading through snow will feel only slightly more difficult. And some some days, you’ll crawl, climb, maybe even dance with a burden light and malleable. Bear it, none the less, and do not forget that you are not alone.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Do not underestimate the impact you have on your place, your land, your people. Every greeting, every smile, every tear, every sigh, every goodbye. Each has the power to change the present moment and the shaping of things to come. Maybe even the past. You are your ancestor’s ancestor. They dreamed of you when they measured their own impact on what may come. They lived with you in mind. Who will you be an ancestor to? What kind of person will you be as you anticipate those who will awake one morning and wonder if you considered them while you were alive? Measure the impact of your life, knowing that there are those who have done the same before you and those who will come after you. By all means, you are not alone.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Do look after yourself. Rest, rock out, sing on your commute, party even. Allow your mind, your heart, your body some space sometimes. Even often, if that is what you need. To live and feel and engage deeply requires great escape as well. But always know you must come back because there are those waiting for you wondering when you will show up again. Maybe your children, your spouse, your animal companions. Maybe even the birds wait for water and seed. Do not leave your life unattended. You will have help.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Recognize the insignificance of your tiny little body in the grand scheme of things. The earth does not need you to continue to turn. Maybe even the earth might do better without your consumption, your use, and your living on the take. Life goes on and will continue to go on long after you breathe your last. So what will you do while you are here? And what will you do after you die? Will you steal the gift of your body from the earth that has sustained you all this time? It doesn’t have to be this way. Live as though you are not alone.

Refuse to look lightly on the world. Pay attention. Technology is not the answer and it will not save you. Most assuredly not your children, your grandchildren, and those who come after you.  Love, life, and gratitude are what matter in your days. You are not alone and you never have been. Your very breath has always been a gift to you, given by trees you have not cut down, grass you have not mowed over, algae you have not scorched with your chemicals. Your body is entirely gifted to you by the food you eat and the water you drink, whether it came to you in a box from a factory or from the work of your own hands. Do well with what you have been given. Treat things kindly and speak praise into the world, from the sun rising to the waves crashing to the soil you walk on to the wind whispering. Your voice and your words may not be with you forever and they have the power that is uniquely yours as a human being to make things real and to set things in motion. Refuse to look lightly on the world because in no way does the world look lightly on you.

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Panentheism: Filling gaps of ancestral homelessness

A wise teacher said recently, with acute and accurate observation, “Most multi-god religions never really had an issue with the one-god religions. It’s the Monotheistic religions that chronically have taken offence with everyone else.” He went on to note that it may be entirely possible for an animist to sit in a Protestant church and feel fairly at home.

It seems it is becoming less and less tolerable (especially with increased information and awareness coming from science, anthropology, history, and ethics) to claim sovereignty of belief and truth in opposition to a great multitude of beliefs and experiences in the world. This poses an extremely consequential dilemma. On the one hand, there are fundamentalist believers of many different religions, who dig their heals in even more, saying it is a sure sign of the demise of humanity that so many people disagree with “our way.” These groups have to work even harder to preach and evangelize the “one true way.” On the other hand, many who grew up in the church or have Monotheism in their ancestral heritage, leave these “limited and exclusive” belief systems behind in order to find something more authentic to their experience. Sometimes this seems rather fundamentalist on the other extreme.

Granted, there are those who are perfectly comfortable with this arrangement of digging in even harder or abandoning their roots. I would be willing to bet, however, that for many, though, the arrangement, message, or straight up disconnection feels off… like something is missing and can’t be settled. I think this unsettledness is good and is important. It creates a hunger to search for something of meaning, something more reconciling, more inclusive, and more embracing of our ancestral heritage.

Some of us don’t feel quite right about about tossing off monotheism and some of the nuances that we are drawn to within our belief systems we were raised on. Maintaining a spirit of anger and betrayal towards something so central in our heritage is something akin to walking with a profound limp. I have heard so many times of the pain and horror at what our ancestors have done in the name of God and how this has driven one to different beliefs. Good! The pain of how things are and how they have come to be is exactly the burden we need to carry into the future as we put words to the trouble we are in.

There is a historical and cultural understanding about god, though, that I believe can unite and reconcile these homeless and disillusioned Westerners. It is indigenous, it is local, and it is inclusive. Panentheism is a foundational belief that includes God, mystery, or divine and also allows for more unification between the creator and the “created.” While not exclusive to Christianity, there have been Christians since the early church that considered God to be in all things and all things to be in God. So the universe is contained within an infinite and infusing presence.

In this way, the divine is simultaneous with Life. Love. The Force. The Great Spirit. Problems with the dualism of monotheism can be moved beyond. Within panentheism there is room for all, the ability to hold the grief of what has been done and is being done, and a way to love the world as alive and infused with Life. Problem of evil, or a good God allowing bad things? Not really an issue if God includes all of life, both light and darkness. Other religions or views about God? We are all part of a greater presence, each trying to find our cultural way of understanding and connecting. The relationship between humanity and other earth beings? We are all sustained by Life. None are greater than the others, but participate together with Life and Love to create more life.

Personally, the implications of living in this way and with this union are only beginning to take shape. Living in the belief that all things are in God and God is in all things has been my ongoing contemplation for maybe more than ten years now, but it continues to shape the way that I engage with others, pray, care for the land and those that live on it, eat and drink, attend and participate in church, and care for others in times of heartbreak and death. I have been able to find some reconciliation and harmony with my Christian heritage without feeling like I have to be stuck in a box that is too small and exclusive. I find myself in great wonder much of the time and frankly in awe of mystery at all times. It is okay for me not to know. In the midst of it all… all the joys and sorrows, wonder and heartbreak, there is still God who holds me and all beings in love. Life happens and continues to happen. It is not the enemy, not bad or good per se, but wonderful, yes. And consistently beautiful.

The arrival of fox and other animal teachers

I have only seen foxes a few times in my life, but most of those times in a rather liminal space where their arrivals made me stop in my tracks. The first time, I was out walking the land at Bethel University one Sunday morning. It was one of those early mornings where the mist was rising off the lake and I had that sense that no one, not one student was out an about especially out here. The path curved around Sem hill, that towering slope degraded by years of sledding down it in canoes and on lunch trays. Sem hill that rose above the massive cottonwood, the survivor of lightening strikes, the home for so many countless wild critters, the watcher of hundreds of years of passers by, and the one who blanketed everything in downy dusting every early summer, later cut down to make way for more buildings. Every morning, I walked this curving path along the lake with maples and oaks fighting against the buckthorn to cover the way ahead. I learned the way of the squirrels at play and the numerous feathered ones, big and small, their calls, their foraging spots, and their colors. This particularly quiet and misty morning, was likely after a rain, and I’m sure my mind was preoccupied with the musings of a early twenty-something young man trying to find my way in the world and a sense of connection to Life as it swirled around me and I breathed it in in that very moment. The path opened out into a clearing on the other side of the hill and as I looked up, I saw him there. A fox, staring back at me, with the leg or tail of some animal hanging out of it’s mouth. I was stunned as I had never seen a fox out there and I froze. When I finally blinked, he trotted off in the way foxes do and I didn’t even consider following him or trying to get another look. It was as it was meant to be, for that moment only. Brief and fleeting.

When we open ourselves to grief, to loss, to heartbreak, and to trouble it seems often we grow new eyes. We see things differently and things we would have passed by on a normal day (or maybe not “normal”), now seem to show up with messages just for us and just for this time. Perhaps this is the wonder of being on the receiving end of Life, the mystical and mystery nature of the universe, those who have come before and those who will come after. The world is not there to give ME my own personal messages… and yet, the world does communicate to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Animals have been significant to me at various times in my life, teachers if you will, or messengers that I am not alone. I would never claim the use or access to a “spirit animal” as this is not my tradition and it minimizes the deep culture of those for whom this IS part of their tradition. It is ought to be fairly clear, though, that animals carry with them certain personalities or energies that offer something to us when they come upon us (or we come upon them). I should have to prove this concept, but if you wonder about this, consider what qualities of sight one might attribute to an eagle versus… hmm, a mole. It has helped me at times, especially when they show up in my dreams, to observe what others have found to be significant about their nature. Sometimes, there is learning to be done there, something about myself or the world that is trying to come through.

There was another time just over a year ago… I was in the dark, my heart drowning in the grief and shock of an imagined future exploding before my eyes. We were still in those early days of learning of Brendan’s diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, the days before the collective heartbreak of releasing the news. Those were the days that blurred together through my spontaneous tears and the consuming effort required just to put one foot in front of the other. I don’t remember who I talked to during that time nor what I read or what shows and movies I watched to get some momentary escape from the devastation. I was riding my bike to work those days, listening to worship music on Pandora, which sometimes is the only thing that keeps me holding on. Paradox of pure misery coming up against songs of hope, a God that is good, and the promise of not being alone. I didn’t want to ride my bike those days, but it was one of those saving “good for me” activities.

One mid-afternoon after my time in the hospital halls was complete, I distractedly made my way to my bike, unlocked it, clipped in and took off. I had Pandora going that day, which likely meant I was feeling particularly stricken, and the randomly chosen tunes began with a song I now know is called I Can Feel You. The lyrics were particularly what I needed to hear in that moment:

The wind and waves surround me
And I’m tossed, feel like I’m drowning
I am tired, I am weak, I need You here with me
‘Cause I can feel the rising tide
But I don’t have the strength to fight
I feel clouded and confused, I need You here with me

In the chaos of the storm,
I have drifted far, far away
But I call out Your name
Cause You are just a breath, a breath away

Then through the shadows Your light appears
I’ve known You’re with me, but now it is clear…

At about this point in the song, I had left the hospital parking lot and crossed the bridge to the prairie area I would shortcut through. There, seemingly materializing out of a lumber pile was a fox, brighter than any I had seen before. Looking almost red, his tail fanned out behind it as he once again trotted away into the underbrush. At 3:15, in the afternoon his appearance immediately struck me as a uncommon and as I skidded to a halt, taking off my headphones and jumping off my bike, he watched me, his head peering up from behind an earth mound covered in blowing prairie grass. He ducked down then and was gone. I walked through the grass, ducking through the low trees, hoping for another glimpse but again he was only there for that moment.

The third time fox arrived in my liminal space was in the middle of the night outside our cabin in Canada when I was attending the third Orphan Wisdom School. No one else heard him that night, but there is no mistaking the fox when he is calling in the night. I had never heard one before, and I didn’t see him. But he was there, and his screams launched me out of bed with my heart pounding.

Most days, I welcome my furred and feathered visitors as they are, knowing they are not there for me per se. They are doing their thing and I am doing mine, and hopefully I am as alert to them as they are to me. Our meeting is a gift for that moment, a welcome hello, and a most profound reminder to me that we are in this together, each of us dependent on this land for our life, doing what we do to survive. I don’t read into these brief passings too much, as waking encounters are different than what it might mean when my subconscious conjures them up in my dreams. But it is worth noting that on that day sunny afternoon in 2017, as the music playing was just what I needed to hear, the fox crossed my path, or I interrupted his (at a time of day when he would have normally been hunkered down in his hole), and I was left particularly dumbfounded. By what, I wasn’t sure. The next day, Kat sent me a link about what Fox might mean:

Those who are escorted by the soft footsteps of Fox are found to be dedicated, involved, initiative, genius and foresighted workers. In love and relationships they are supportive and attentive to their partner’s feelings. There are many types of foxes that can be found across most of the world. The common fox we are familiar with is also known as Red Fox, due to the color of its fur coat. This dominant energy of the color red connects us to the Base Chakra, vitality, survival and blood-relations. Perhaps this is the reason why American natives perceive Fox as the healer and protector of the family. The safe-guarding of our dear ones necessitates the ability to conceal. In nature, puppies usually bear more strongly camouflaged colors than their parents. Keeping the safety of the family requires alertness and intuition from the adults. LINK

 

Family, protector, attentiveness, survival, dedication. Pieces coming together to make meaning. I wait, arms open, in gratitude for what this land and LIFE offers to sustain me.

Elders are MADE

For over ten years now, I have been contemplating the nature of elders, elderhood, and the near absence of what I have come to believe is essential to carry forward as a culture that has some semblance of sanity and some glimmer of what is needed to live in right relation with these lands we call home. Mostly due to fortune and receiving, and a little to my own tenacity and intense hunger, I have found myself in the company of numerous true elders… many elderly (or “olders”) too. By now, I know the difference. And I have some sense of what is needed to engage in, now, in this time in my late-thirties first-half-of-life grappling, to set myself on the path to be an elder one day.

I have, through the winds of fortune, been gifted to have the opportunity to attend the Orphan Wisdom School, founded by Stephen Jenkinson and elder of these times. I encountered him September of 2015 on Wisconsin Public Radio one morning as I drove the 8 minute drive in my car to the hospital, on one of the mornings that I didn’t ride my bike, and one of the mornings that I didn’t listen to Pandora, and one of the mornings that I wasn’t running 10 minutes behind, the day before he was doing a rather once-in-a-very-great-while presentation in Madison the next day on his book Die Wise. The man with the well-considered words spoke of the death phobia of our Western culture and the work of dying well. Being intentional with the dying time already had it’s grip on me after two years of chaplaincy and I knew the voice of an elder when I heard him. Those eight minutes changed my life. Funny how this happens when we are paying attention.

Three years later, I was able to enroll in perhaps one of the last classes of OWS that Stephen may lead and it just so happens that the man who I came to because he was an elder well-versed and well-schooled by attending to the dying in their final days, has written a book on what it might mean to be an elder and what has come to pass that we live in a world where elders are so hard to come by. The book, Come of Age, feels like holding a treasure, like “sacred text” for the world we live in (much like Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul felt like when I began immersing myself in it). These kinds of books live in a category of their own. They can’t be categorized, unless bookstores had a shelf called “Books that will F*** you up” or “You will no longer be the same” or “Books that will leave you running for cover only to lead you out to change the world.”

With that here is a beginning of hopefully an endless address on the need for elders and the shit-storm that is Western civilization without elders and so many elderLY. Stephen writes:

There are young people, hosts of them, watching the self-absorbed bulge of boomers passing from this mortal coil bedraggled and betrayed by the old promises of limitless potential and self-actualization and personal growth, and retirement savings plans. They see the retreat centres full of retreating, the gated communities full of retiring, just at the time when everything points from bad to worse, from anger to apathy, from vexation to the vast, vast extinction of What For? A good many of these young witnesses seem full of disdain. They rightfully are, but secretly they seem to be wishing they are wrong about the old people in their midst. Some part of their grievance wants to be wrong. With no faith that can stand the tests of the market place, still some of them seem not quite capable of going it alone, or of wanting to go it alone, another youth cult, the Sixties again.

They don’t have generations anymore. That’s already gone. They have decades instead. The breathless ramping up of change, of excess and extirpation, of chronic must-havery and limitless gadgetry, drives many of them to polygamy and peyote and the business casual, gold star, private priority lane of anything. “Is there anybody out there?” they are asking “Is there anybody to ask?” How has it come to pass in the era of more old people per square kilometer than the world has ever seen here in the dominant culture of North America they have so few elders? Has it ever been like this? Where’s the wisdom? Has it always been like this?

…And this…

The smart money, the dot-com money, is on eternity, cancer-free life, and Mars. You know it is. And that programme is being driven and funded by people in their thirties and forties, trying to engineer a better deal than aging while there’s still time. You know that’s where modernity is headed, if it has its way. It banishes elderhood. It leaves behind what can’t keep up. It sneers at limit.

I am one of those young people asking, “Is there anybody out there?!?” Who can I come to with my wonderings and sightings of how things came to be the way they are? It is my generation that will design the tech to defeat death all together. It is my generation that will find a way to live without limit, to use and use and use, to consume the lollipops of the digital world. We will make experiences virtual, intelligence artificial, and the olders who could have been elders if they would have only been shown how by generations before will be left behind.

But not in my corner of this land. Not in my family. Because I will have spent the years inviting those who can be the elders for my children to be elders, speaking to them about what my boys will need one day and organizing opportunities for us as adults to be with youth. I will have spent years showing up and welcoming the young people to wonder with me and to me. I will have conjured elderhood to those who are going out from this world, telling them that they can still step up, better late than never. It will be harder for the olders because truthfully, elderhood is not something that is granted simply by age but is granted by those who come to you and this takes time, energy, commitment, showing up, and an adamant “No thank you” or even “Fuck YOU!” to the American Dream for retirement. Elders are MADE, people. They are made by the sands and the waters, the winds and the rains, the grasses and the stones, the scores of young people that they invite into their company until their ears drip with trouble and their hearts ache with grieving. Elderhood takes time and forethought. Start now. Study those who have been doing it and dream big. Humanity depends on it.

“I wish I didn’t have special muscles…”

“I wish I didn’t have special muscles,” Brendan said to me as I struggled to pull both him and his younger brother through the Farmers Market, with those damn wheels that don’t turn. “I can’t run like Owen can. I can’t jump off things or climb things either. I wish I didn’t have special muscles, Dad.” Maybe he has been putting things together for some time now and after seeing Owen for a few weeks at gymnastics club, all the people walking past him while he was in the wagon finally drove it home. He also had the C.A.R.E. Day event last week for kids with special abilities. Whatever the factors, this was the first time he ever said this and it has been with me for days.

IMG_20180519_094428819 Buddy, I wish you didn’t have special muscles, either. I wish this wasn’t the hand you were dealt. You didn’t ask for this and neither did we. I know I said right away that it’s true, you can’t do all those things… but there is so much you can do. Reading, playing board games, your art, your singing. We can do these things together, and it’s true, you are so good at these things… but truthfully, I haven’t figured out how to give you what you need and give Owen what he needs at the same time. I’m trying to figure this all out, too. How can I be the Dad you need?

I think I might have said to you that sometimes we have things that make life more difficult and we just have to work with what we’ve got. Sometimes, we are given really really shitty luck. This won’t be the only difficult thing you have to deal with. I wish I could see it all as a gift. I say I see everything as a gift, but some gifts I want to give back, that’s for sure… and your DMD is definitely one I would return if I could.

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I don’t know what goes on in your little (or big…) mind. Your brother, either. This has to be so hard for you guys to navigate and some days, when I have enough compassion, I can recognize your tantrums, screaming, breaking things, and aggression as a cry for help. You don’t have the years of getting through tough stuff to know that there is more to life than this. This IS your life. It’s your whole life, and I’m sure there are many times you just don’t know what to do with it. Well, I’m lucky I get to go through it with you. I’m lucky I get to be the one to hold your hand when you cross the street so you don’t trip and fall in front of traffic. I’m lucky to be able to help you get your pants on or to lift you into and out of the car every time. I am lucky to pull you to school in your wagon, to play board games with you, and to take you fishing even though you get tired after holding the pole for five minutes. Our futures are tied together for the time being and I’m glad for that. God goes with us, the land will hold us up, and whatever life we have and receive together can be full and abundant with joy and love.

Yesterday, when we were late for school, I told you that we were not likely going to beat your buddy, Oscar, to the classroom. “It’s okay, Dad,” you said. “We don’t have to beat Oscar every day. Sometimes it’s okay to go slow.” Wow… I don’t know that you knew all you were saying in that, but it’s true, buddy. You can go slow, and often you will see more when you do. And I’ll be there to go slow with you.

 

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Spiritual Direction and reflections on Life, Trouble, and Heartbreak

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