Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Winter Gardening

We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, that peace and abundance may manifest for all.     ~ Dorothy Day

The winter rains have found us. After three years of enduring dryness that seemed to turn every stem and leaf a sickly sort of brown, that sucked all semblance of moisture from the soil, that caused many a farmer and gardener sleepless nights and wrought furrows in brows deeper than those in fields, we are gurgling in winter wetness. Sodden sandbags stand guard at entryways, bracing for the next downpour. Water eddies and pools amidst the obstacles posed by leaf matter and soil runoff. And Mother Nature sports a hundred shades of green  - tiny blades of grass appear where before was barren earth. New growth gleams brightly on meadows and hillsides. The deer and coyotes are abandoning survival backyard picnicking for their preferred wild foraging. Even winged creatures seem to have a new lightness to their flight, relieved by the languor of dry, desolate days that had turned meals to tasteless morsels, cozy bedding to prickly, poking furniture unfit for even the grumpiest of visitors.

Abundance is a word befitting harvest time or, in this precious Mediterranean climate, the height of summer rather than the dead of winter. Yet Mother Nature laughingly shrugs at the calendar. “Now!” she seems to say, with glinted eye, “Abundance cannot be hemmed in by season or custom. Always is the time for new growth and rich harvest.”

Her wisdom is legendary. I’m trying to take it to heart.  

Dorothy Day’s words guide my heart’s musings and my heart’s homework, especially in these weeks when shameful acts of injustice, violence, unfathomable cruelty, and mind-numbing irresponsibility grab headlines. Rather than dwell on what inevitably springs from these – “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence . . .”, MLK observed – I prefer to invest in sowing the seeds of nonviolent speech, considerate and compassionate action, words  and actions that repair and renew so that they may be fed by these winter rains and multiply a thousand-fold.

Dr. King went on to counsel, “We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” Nature has shown me how rainwater has the capacity to re-new – to make new again – and to re-generate – to join tiny seeds and lifeless and struggling plants and animals to the life force that so essentially nourishes them so that they might experience vitality and abundance.

It’s hardly the season for sowing, though I know many a diligent farmer who is nonetheless meticulously tending upstarts. After all, Nature sometimes laughs at the calendar, and wise farmers take their lead from Her. If we can’t all be sowing, why not make time for weeding, for tending the soil? During this season of honoring darkness, perhaps each of us could look into the darkness in our own hearts, identify any weeds rooted there that might be ripe for removal, and set about the difficult but satisfying work of weeding? Perhaps we can participate in cultivating our healthy crops by tenderly yet decisively uprooting the seeds and shoots of malice, violence, judgment, pettiness, and fear so that these don’t proliferate in our gardens?

Just maybe, when the rains have run their course and sunlight’s again heaped generously upon us, we will glean mended relationships, softened hearts, mutual understanding, forgiveness, tenderness, and the peace that comes from having engaged wholeheartedly in good, hard work. What abundance that would be . . . 

Monday, December 8, 2014

In recent weeks, I've found myself enthralled by tiny beings:  infinitesimally small spiders; avocado-sized baby coots; perfectly etched miniature Japanese maple leaves; thumbnail-big sand dollars; spritely evening grosbeaks, with their inspiring yellow throats. Perhaps it's the waning of light that's prompted me to ponder the beauty and gifts of smallness, or perhaps my earnest search for ways to assert more bravery in the face of big emotions and big questions about how to deal with the violence, ignorance, divisiveness, and destruction in our world, or maybe just my subconscious acknowledgement that bigger is not always better, that mass and volume are not the only markers of greatness . . .

I sat for 20 minutes in a rain-soaked meadow on Sunday morning following the aerial choreography of a microscopic ebony spider. She effortlessly glided through the air, eschewing contact with saturated stalks of meadow grass, avoiding the byways offered by thistle stems and countless green blades of new growth. Suspended by an invisible filament, she propelled herself, the air itself her highway. An intrepid explorer, she evidently delighted in free floating. Then, as if the second hand of some great Nature clock lagged, I observed her slow, elegant collision with a sodden golden stalk. Contact - matter beneath feet - seemed profoundly disorienting. Sprite-like meandering through open air turned to effortful trudging, the ascent of the 10-inch stalk requiring minutes rather than milliseconds. Would that I could find such grace and surety in the face of wide open possibility, of no ground beneath my feet.

This morning, I beheld the bundle of exuberant curiosity that is the tiny black coot. Boldly ranging beyond the concentric circles cast by her Momma's progress, she purposefully seeks the deepest water. Mid-way between shores, where the chasm is greatest and the predators most likely to eyeball her delicious backside, she dips and dives and dives and dives. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven seconds I count, the water now bearing no trace of her watery pike. My peripheral vision finds her next, restoring herself to surface, continuing her fearless exploration. The prehistoric form of brother Pelican looms overhead, dangerously near and frighteningly large. She appears unperturbed, happily making her watery sojourn in search of novelty and nourishment, no need for sign of Mother or shore.

Now I am delighting in the yellow-throated grosbeaks conferencing outside my window. Oblivious to the cacophony of city noises - table saw and siren, jackhammer and pick axe, hammer and horn - they share their secrets as they savor bright orange berries. "The world's a crazy, bountiful place," they seem to chatter, and "Aren't you glad we have each other?"

As I muddle through my days, these little creatures help me to see the merits of curiosity and community. They encourage me to abandon fear for fearlessness, chide me to trust that spaciousness and possibility can harbor more opportunities for freedom and creativity than stability and security. In their own way, to paraphrase Brene Brown, they show me that vulnerability is the clearest way we have of measuring courage.

Friday, December 5, 2014

My soft early morning eyes follow the chubby tuxedoed bodies of Buffleheads plying the jade surface of Richardson Bay. I watch. A poofy cottonball head and small gray beak tilt forward, puncturing the water’s skin; fat black and white rump slip noiselessly after. The water ripples out in concentric circles that give way to glassy stillness. In my somewhat unfocused line of sight, all is momentarily unmoving, silent. Submerged, the bird works his underwater duties, gleaning nourishment for the day, counsel for others about where real treasure lies.

She stands at the shoreline, elliptical body balanced on pencil-thin ebony legs, graceful neck folded neatly at its midpoint, watchful eyes observing, thoughtfully consuming. Motionless, long schooled in moving at nature’s pace. Her wedge-shaped beak begins a descent, lowers millimeters at a time, almost imperceptibly. Neck slowly unfurls, trailing golden beak. A momentary hovering, stillness gathered and held. At lightening’s speed, mouth drops to water, jaws open, shut. Gullet takes over, efficiently processing the morning’s latest morsel. Thirty seconds pass, gullet and figure working in seamless harmony. Gradually, she again assumes regal stance, presiding over the green Bay, the Mallards and Grebes, the Snowy Egrets. Pale eyes resume encompassing gaze.

Round and round she travels, rhythmically, purposefully, gossamer strand trailing then artfully catching a cross-thread, lending the work its telltale shape. Her squat gold and black body pushes along her eight deft weaving tools, forelegs gingerly guiding the thread’s placement – just so – before engineering a change in direction, a coupling of the new strand with a cross-thread to sturdy up the new home. Her path spirals inward, each revolution tighter, more focused. A silver dollar-sized eight-sided ring culminates the masterful weaver’s work. Noiselessly, with practiced efficiency, she crosses to the two o’clock corner of the web and settles in rest. Almost motionless, I can see-hear-feel her breathing. The sun finally rounds the girth of the eucalyptus grove and, warmth unfurling, casts its autumn morning light on the weaver, the web, and the witness.

Earlier this month, I spent three days and two nights camping in a meadow edging the Pacific. The meadow rests among the 17 acres that comprise The Regenerative Design Institute’s patch of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Design Institute is a 2-acre permaculture garden and varied patch of wild lands within the park’s marvelous expanse. While the prospect of three days of camping in such a scenic refuge sounds idyllic, the weekend entailed more than lounging under my tent’s safe nylon canopy lulled by the waves’ music.  Rather, it involved more than 30 hours of solitary and group exercises, reflection, journaling, and activities otherwise aimed to facilitate a stock-taking of my life. The days marked the opening session of a six-month program called TheEcology of Leadership, or EOL. Per its website description, EOL aims to “awaken our unique gifts and [support us] to more fully participate in the extraordinary cultural and planetary transformation of our time.” For those familiar with the activist ecologist and philosopher Joanna Macy, the program responds to the opportunities inherent in what Macy describes as “The GreatTurning” – the turning away from an industrial growth society toward a life-sustaining civilization. For me, the program appeared as if by Grace, another step stone on this path to align my work and the daily pattern of my life to be synchronous with my belief in the interconnectedness of all beings and my desire to be a more active and effective healing resource. In truth, the program also provides me with a way to direct my energy from the despair and isolation of mid-career unemployment and uncertainty to pursuit of my vision of a wholehearted life of integrity and meaningful contribution. It enables me to commune with other seekers trying to discern their proper place on this Earth, yearning to discover and take up their particular and significant work in the world.

I count my new practice of sitting quietly in nature among the gifts already gleaned from EOL. In addition to nurturing a daily meditation practice, I have added the daily discipline of sitting quietly for 20 minutes in the same “sit spot” bordering Richardson Bay. There, I am instructed by my guides from EOL to simply observe. From this practice and my summer of farming, I am slowly learning that soundly immersing myself in our natural world helps me to re-member my place within the unfolding fabric, to claim my membership in the family of things. Observing the Great Blue Heron and the Bufflehead, I am re-learning the significance of standing still and diving deep. From the Great Egret, I am discovering that open and watchful waiting yields rich desserts, that I need not muscle and strive to earn my daily bread, that there is always enough – and often abundance. From the Robins outside my kitchen window, I take the lesson that small morsels consumed thoughtfully accrete to sufficient food for the journey, and that companionship and community are as important – if not more so – than a ready supply of bright red berries.

As in the practice of meditation, my sit spot practice also invokes the most basic onboard tool – the breath – as a means of restoring my attention and emotions to the here and now. Now, I’m finding it helpful to envision myself breathing alongside the regal Egrets and Herons, humming through my activities propelled by the self-same breath imbibed by Buffleheads and Mallards, respiring with the formidable stillness of Redwoods and Cypresses. These visualizations readily guide me into my Heart’s center, to its beating, which mirrors that of the Creator that sustains every living being. By consciously settling into silence, resting in breath and mantra, I hope that I am gradually becoming more adept at listening and responding to the way life continuously evokes us forward on a path with Heart. If it’s good enough for Mary Oliver, it’s good enough for me.

And so I try, moment by moment and day by day, to keep moving forward. I invoke the company of my breath and of faithful companions on this journey toward awareness, non-violence, and service in healing the earth. I sometimes falter. I sometimes check out. I've been known, too, to stumble and lose heart. It’s then that I close my eyes, find my breath, conjure the faces of those who encourage and inspire me. It’s then that I take myself to the edge of the Bay and regard the Buffleheads and the Blue Heron. I am learning to join them on their path, to rest and trust in abundance, in revelation, in nourishment enough for the unfolding journey.

And when I need further cajoling to re-join the path, to re-engage in the practice of slowing down and opening up, I turn to poetry - what David Whyte describes as, "Language against which we have no defenses." My recent sources of sustenance have come from Whyte’s latest volume, Pilgrim. A poem that led me back to the light on a recent wet winter day evokes the metaphor of the Camino del Santiago de Compostela, a well-known path of pilgrimage. It’s called Santiago.

The road seen, then not seen, the hillside
hiding then revealing the way you should take,
the road dropping away from you as if leaving you
to walk on thin air, then catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall,
and the way forward always in the end
the way that you followed, the way that carried you
into your future, that brought you to this place,
no matter that it sometimes took your promise from you,
no matter that it had to break your heart along the way:
the sense of having walked from far inside yourself
out into the revelation, to have risked yourself
for something that seemed to stand both inside you
and far beyond you, that called you back
to the only road in the end you could follow, walking
as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice
that by night became a prayer for safe arrival,
so that one day you realized that what you wanted
had already happened long ago and in the dwelling place
you had lived in before you began,
and that every step along the way, you had carried
the heart and the mind and the promise
that first set you off and drew you on and that you were
more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way
than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach:
as if, all along, you had thought the end point might be a city
with golden towers, and cheering crowds,
and turning the corner at what you thought was the end
of the road, you found just a simple reflection,
and a clear revelation beneath the face looking back
and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse:
like a person and a place you had sought forever,
like a broad field of freedom that beckoned you beyond;

like another life, and the road still stretching on.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Mutuality of Nourishment

As 2009 opened, I was issued a challenge – extended by my youngest sister to each of her six siblings - to make at least 500 pb&j sandwiches for the local soup kitchen or outreach center of my choosing. After strong-arming my Solstice partygoers into a couple of hours of focused sandwich making, my wife Christine and I had a mere 150 or so sandwiches to our credit. I dutifully dropped them at Santa Cruz’s Homeless Services Center and noted the rather lukewarm reception that greeted of our collective labor of love. Turning our Corolla-turned-meal-wagon into Trader Joe’s parking lot to restock our sandwich making supplies, I began to question, “What does it mean to truly nourish people?

This seemingly innocent line of inquiry took on a life of its own, spawning a new round of meal preparation that seemed more in keeping with our community’s needs. Over the following weeks, Christine and I lovingly (if sloppily!) prepared 75-or-so bag lunches – complete with small bean, cheese, and salsa burritos, tortilla chips, and cookies – and distributed them to the omnipresent row of Latino men walking the day laborer line. Tentative at first, the guys shyly scooped up brown paper sacks with mumbles of, “Gracias.” The task became equally fun and fulfilling, but I still pondered whether there might be a more meaningful way to foster community and address basic nutritional needs with my rather limited culinary skills (but abundant desire and energy!).

By April, I managed to expand my query enough to identify a couple of folks equally keen to spread nourishment and – joy of joys! – a community that exuberantly offered to participate in our foolhardy act of gastronomic kindness. Former pb&j sandwich makers and dear friends Karen Lambert and Clay Madden agreed to join me in making lunch each Wednesday for a team of organic farming trainees and the staff of the Homeless Garden Project (HGP – see www.homelessgardenproject.org). Our little café would use primarily ingredients grown on the HGP’s 2.5-acre organic farm and distributed to HGP’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscribers. Indeed, we instantly became contestants on Organic Grab Bag Iron Chef, charged with generating a tasty, nutritious meal for 12 – 18 people with the veggies tucked in the walk-in fridge in a large brown grocery sack every Tuesday evening. And we agreed to do this for approximately 28 weeks: the duration of the trainees’ apprenticeship on the farm.

We enthusiastically showed up our first day with a steaming, humongous pot of spicy black bean chili-n-greens with a side dish of cornbread and farm-inspired salad, all of which were devoured quicker than you can say, “Homeless Garden Project.” We learned early on not to begrudge any ingredient that would lend a little fire to the meal, and that fire was best calmed by sugar, preferably delivered in the form of homemade cookies. When enthusiasm threatened to devolve into lackluster meals, we called in the reinforcements. Christine became my faithful sous-chef (OK, at times substitute chef!) and Karen & Clay’s daughter, Kendall, routinely rescued us with batches of lovingly-prepared cookies. The Triple C Double K Kitchen seemed to garner rave reviews. Secretly, though, I think that our panel of organic farming trainee/judges had bonded to us with such fondness that they became compromised critics! Mike – talented sculptor of the spiral garlic & onion bed, gifted carpenter, and wise mentor – offered to start a cookbook called Imagine Flavor based upon some of the dishes we dreamed up. Carmen always had stories of her four year-old’s achievements and antics for us, and we delighted when she shared the news of finding secure housing. Floppy sun hat-bedecked Barbara, skirt billowing in the ever-present coastal winds, frequently sent us off with armfuls of the farm’s brightest flowers.

Habitually slow to emerge from the greenhouse or tiny farm office, Susie would inevitably appear. Sandy gray-brown hair loosely caught in a rubber band, brown weather-kissed skin catching the sun, she’d squint up at us and inquire what delectable feast we had fabricated. Should she not appear, I would wander toward the greenhouse and find her carefully finishing off a seed tray, deep in concentration. As we walked toward the makeshift kitchen/dining area, she would lament that the frenetic pace of the season – which had started without the farm’s co-directors in place – meant that she did not have time to be present to people in the way she deeply wanted to. Seemingly in perpetual motion, I always took it to our credit that Susie actually paused to savor our Wednesday lunches for a good 10 or 15 minutes, which seemed luxurious. Ultimately, this proved to be enough time for us to shape a friendship based squarely in laughter, grousing, and shared admiration at the everyday miracles that abounded at the farm.

Mid-season, she added a few mouse-hunting (OK, rat-hunting) kitties to the farm’s small menagerie. Susie derived no end of pleasure from watching the girls (as she called them) learn the art of pouncing, which they perfected on each other and on assorted inanimate objects . . . She looked after the kittens as if they were her first born, balancing care and attention with the benign neglect that they needed to become true farm kitties. In this way, I glimpsed Susie’s knack for parenting. I was honored to meet one of the prizes of her true art of parenting when her son, Tashi, visited the farm with his girlfriend, Caitlin. Confident and kind, outfitted with Susie’s disarming gentle smile, Tashi warmed up the farm every time he visited. Susie seemed not to take her eyes off of him while he was there. It was clear they shared a remarkable bond, one which any single mother who has had to sacrifice much to hold her family together can speak to.

Among my brightest memories of this grand experiment in mutual nourishment – because Clay, Karen and I soon began to look forward to our Wednesdays at the farm as one might anticipate a great meal – I will never forget the sight of Susie standing in the buffet line at the 20th Anniversary festivities at the farm. Cloth-covered tables and chairs spread in a pattern out behind her, she beamed at Tashi and laughed her deep, resonant Susie laughed at a shared joke, eyes twinkling. She seemed in her element, surrounded by years of friends and the land –both of which she had taken pains to cultivate – and gazing upon the extraordinary produce of her efforts: the buffet of glorious dishes and the family she so dearly loved. Gazing at Susie and the entire HGP community – some of the two decades of formerly homeless HGP trainees, current and emeritus staff members, donors, friends, and children and pets galore – I thought, “This is what it means to nourish people.”

Susie MacMillan, ripened to 57 years of age, was somehow called back to the Creator in the wee hours of the morning on December 26th. She died when fire consumed her haven of peace, a trailer tucked on the far edge of a winery approximately 8 miles from town. As I think about her death, the lyrics of a favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter song ease into my mind: “I keep thinking I’ll flame out/ Leave noone with a doubt/ That I was meant to fire like a rocket.” Susie had far too much sparkle to die a conventional death. In this, I take great comfort as I try to honor and propagate her inspired commitment to hard work, to live ‘til it hurts, and to nourish the land and its inhabitants with every particle of one’s being.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Nurturing Silence in the Midst of Deafening Noise

Few of us have occasion to reflect deeply on something as significant to us as the air we breathe – our liberty – and yet the ability to move about freely, to associate with whom we please when we so choose, and to be the author of one’s days are yearned-for luxuries for those who live lives in confinement. Several members of our 10 year-old meditation community have had an intimate experience of connecting with men who lack these luxuries, which has given us a newfound appreciation for the capacity of meditation to liberate one’s mind. Over the past two years, several members of our meditation community have facilitated weekly meditation sessions for a group of men serving criminal sentences within Soledad Correctional Training Facility in central California. During this time, our small community of inmate-meditators has grown tremendously, both in the depth of their commitment to practice and in their sense of membership within a broader community of people who use meditation as a tool for awakening.

These inmate-meditators are housed within facilities that occupy a somewhat legendary place among states in terms of their inhumane conditions. In California, more than 172,000 adults are imprisoned in 32 prisons designed to accommodate 90,000 individuals. Additionally, California’s prisons reflect the further travesties of racial inequity and social injustice. Among the nearly 200,000 inmates, 93% of are male and almost three out of every four prisoners (an incredible 73%) are either black, Hispanic, or some other racial minority. [1]

Despite a corrections budget in 2007 of a staggering $8.75 billion - exponentially more than the GDP of a host of low-income countries – rehabilitative programs within California’s prisons are woefully underfunded. According to the California Catholic Conference, the chaplain ratio for California’s adult prison population is 1 per every 5,385 inmates. The sad status of California’s state budget has been used to legitimate cuts in programs aimed to teach prisoners employment skills, advance their education, and equip them with improved communications’ and basic relational competencies, among other types of rehabilitation. Cuts result in “warehousing” – confining inmates to their cellblocks for longer and longer durations of each week. In response to these diverse factors, volunteer-run programs have literally become the lifeblood for men eager to turn their lives around and re-enter society as more whole, healthy, and sensitive human beings.

More than 2 years ago, our small, faithful, longstanding meditation community spawned a group of approximately 10 men and women who have been sharing Christian meditation with men at Soledad Correctional Training Facility, a maximum security prison approximately an hour’s drive from our home base in Santa Cruz, California. Once weekly, a pair of team members travel to Soledad to share a 50 minute-long session with the men: 25 minutes of silent meditation followed by time for a prepared reflection and group discussion. For the past year, we have additionally incorporated yoga sessions into our visits once each month, using the practice as a form of “body prayer,” another tool for the men’s spiritual toolboxes.

Many of the inmates at Soledad are “lifers.” These guys have already passed the equivalent of two or three decades behind bars, and many contemplate the possibility of serving that many more years before their release. Though hardened by the circumstances of their lives, we have witnessed time and again as these men exercise openheartedness, humility, and trust in our shared practice of meditation. There’s Tao, eyes flickering with intensity as he tells of his life being completely transformed by meditation; stoic, pensive Lee, as deep as a mountain lake, whose questions probe the depths of what it means to be a child of God; Steve, eloquent and self-deprecating, who is an obvious leader and example to others; and Gerald, whose passion for mentoring translates into gentle adjustments to the budding yoga students in the group. These are among the many others who have become our meditation community behind bars.

In 2009, out of a shared desire to deepen and extend the men’s commitment to meditation and to foster the type of mutual support that community invariably provides, our team offered its first day-long retreat. On November 5, 2010, a team of eight of us – four men, four women - offered our third day of retreat for men who have chosen to cultivate meditation as a means of deepening their spiritual journey, achieving a more tranquil mind, and awakening more deeply to God’s presence in the midst of their noisy, chaotic reality.

The theme for the November 5th retreat day was Meditation & Healing, a natural extension of topics covered in our retreat earlier this year on the theme of Forgiveness. Indeed, forgiveness is a priority concern for many of our regulars; they earnestly discuss its complexity at every opportunity. We have come to understand and try to honor their need to hear again and again that nothing can separate them from God’s love. With the men’s support and participation (a small group serving as their representatives in the retreat planning process), we chose to develop the November retreat around the theme of Healing. In so doing, we invited the men to experience more profoundly the healing qualities of silence, of prayer, of various types of breathing and movement, and of community.

As quiet music played in the prison’s cavernous gymnasium, men trickled in to collect their nametags, admiring a banner crafted by our team that welcomed each retreatant by name. We did our best to establish an atmosphere of silence within our space; indeed, one man remarked:

[I]t was as if I was walking into another dimension. The expressions on peoples’ faces, the aura, and the presence of the hold spirit were so very obvious. Many of us have been incarcerated for over 20 years and do not have the opportunity to spend time with people who treat us, let alone see us, as human beings. Walking in here today felt like walking into a room filled with family.

He went on to acknowledge the significance of the climate silence, safety, and trust we had painstaking tried to nurture. He said that the atmosphere and his interactions with our retreat team members and his peers, “. . . helped me see myself in a better light, gave me more confidence and showed me that there are people who support me in making better choices and living a spiritually productive life.”

Approximately 40 inmates shared in the retreat, including our “regulars” from Thursdays and a number of men who routinely attend Tuesday evening meditation and yoga sessions offered by Buddhist volunteers. Indeed, our group has differentiated itself by welcoming and encouraging a spirit of openness and ecumenism as we have built our small community of faithful meditators. Our November retreat day was graced by the presence of the long-time coordinator of the Buddhist volunteers and an experienced yoga teacher familiar with Hindu rituals. We feel that these subtle but significant partnerships model our belief in cultivating strong, faithful practices that promote awakening and our desire to learn with and from various faith traditions even while maintaining our touchstone of Christian meditation.

The day consisted of several prepared talks on the topic of healing and meditation interspersed with periods of silent meditation. We had allocated time for small- and large- group discussion, yoga, pranayama (healing deep breathing techniques) and journaling. A member of our team who is a certified spiritual director spent one-on-one time with nine inmates in addition to leading a guided meditation. We closed the day with a healing ritual led by one male and one female member of our team that involved blessing the hands of each inmate and volunteer with holy oil provided by the Catholic chaplain. This ceremony closed with a song especially recorded by the lay deacon of Resurrection Catholic Community, one of the parishes from which our volunteers are drawn. Each man also received a small paper bone – a symbol of the “dry bones” referenced in Ezekiel – with a handwritten, personally signed promise of prayer from a fourth grader at a local elementary school

At the day’s end, the retreatants completed feedback forms, which we have drawn upon previously in planning our retreat day agenda. Several men commented that the day felt like “getting out of jail” and being restored in their humanity. One spoke of being moved to tears, particularly, by the children’s thoughtfulness and care. The spiritual director amongst us commented that she was privy to tales of profound transformation that the men attribute to faithfulness in their practice of meditation and participation in our small community.

In closing, we share this excerpt from one of the men’s comments on the day:

In this our third retreat I am again reminded of what a blessing you all are to us. You are the very disciples our Good Lord commended in Matthew 25. I am deeply grateful of your dedication, openness, compassion and willingness to share your time, friendship and wisdom with us struggling souls. I am especially thankful for your sense of acceptance, not just tolerance, of each and every one of us. Words are inadequate to fully express my gratitude. Suffice it to say that I will always carry your love and example with me throughout my life.

The silences we share in these retreats is precious. It gives us a brief glimpse into our true peace and helps sustain us in our struggles. The insightful and wise talks from the presenters give hope and strength to those of us who cry out with the author of Ezekiel 37:11.

May you, too, perhaps be inspired to venture behind bars and have your beliefs, myths, and assumptions held up to the light for potential transformation.

[1] http://www.cacatholic.org/index.php/prison-facts.html

Monday, May 24, 2010

More musings on the theme of NOURISHMENT. . .

Back in late March, I made the rather audacious commitment to rustle up lunch for approximately 18 people every Wednesday from early April through late autumn. As my finger hit the "SEND" button, relaying this promise to Darrie Ganzhorn (the Executive Director the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz - www.homelessgardenproject.org), the "Oh, s&%#!" response flooded over me like a tidal wave. "What if I'm out of town? How will I cook for nine times my current meal planning ratios every week? What can I cook for that many people besides pb&j? What if it's rainy/cold/windy/hot/stormy? etc. etc." The "what ifs" seemed endless as I weighed the responsibility associated with my spontaneous act of bravery.

And so I sought accomplices. Someone (or two, or three. . .?!!) to lighten the load, to commiserate and, most importantly, to co-create!! The Universe seemed to chuckle at my predicament and, charmingly, served me up a pair of willing soulful cookers. YAY! (My partners, in truth, also confessed to suffering through Oh-S&^#dom upon consigning themselves to accomplices in this perfect "crime!") Each week since April 7th, then, my buddies Karen & Clay and I (aided by my chief rescuer, Christine) have somehow managed to furnish a wholesome, organic meal for a family of 18 (give or take a few). In response, we have been nourished beyond our wildest imaginings. I am constantly struck by what a rarity it is in today's world to see men and women working alongside each other as equals, as complementary parts of a larger whole. Perhaps that's part of what makes being a part of the Homeless Garden Project's community each Wednesday such an affirming, uplifting experience.

A grin breaks over my face as I struggle up to the kitchen shed, soup pot in hand. I'm met by the Jill-of-all-trades, Susie, who's dropped a hoe to begin the lunch set-up process. Over the past six weeks, Susie has demonstrated such grace under pressure, such seeming control over multiple unpredictable variables (not the least of whom are a cohort of a dozen new organic farming apprentices!!), such resiliency that I can't help but smile. She's a shoulder-to-the-grindstone with a huge heart.

Next, I see the familiar shy but warm grin of Leigh, her pregnant belly now almost pulling her horizontal. Whether tending to the mountain of compost or delicately transplanting baby seedlings, Leigh seems to radiate kindness. I soak it in and feel nurtured by her mothering. Deborah makes her way up to the kitchen shed's counter, her floppy hat just shading her face. Though I rarely see Deborah grinning, appreciation and determination seem to have taken up residence on her countenance. She always expresses such sincere gratitude for our time and the meal we've prepared as she glances at her watch, making her way back into the field at precisely noon. Rainbow-haired happiness strides up next, in the person of Amanda. Always a story to tell and an appetite to offer -- with round after round of thanks. Moises follows, his characteristic swirl of dreadlock wrapped just 'round the back of his head and nestled behind his right ear-plugged ear. His smile always disarms me -- radiant as the morning sun and just as healing. He's followed by New Hampshire-speakin' David, whose sense of humor and groundedness anchor the whole crew. . . He serves up doses of garden and life wisdom in exchange for spoonfuls of hot soup. Michael follows, allowing Angelika to step in the lunch line before him. A bear of a guy, his grin sits atop now famous t-shirts that describe his character perfectly: "DON'T PANIC - I'M ORGANIC!"

In the midst of these fields, where rainbows of chard sit comfortably next to stickerless blackberry, women and men appear to labor harmoniously. They use natural strengths to complement each others' efforts and, in so doing, the gals become stronger, more confident. The guys seem to learn honestly that muscle's not always what's needed. A community of peers develops, where wisdom is sought equally from seasoned hands and newbies, like me! I can offer my chili recipe in exchange for advice on how to keep my cucumbers safe from snails. Clay can admire the artistic design of a circular bed while Michael describes what it takes to maintain it. At the end of the day, each feels a sense of playing a vital role, of making the Earth a little brighter, more sane, a bit more peaceful. That's the type of community nonprofit that truly empowers us all -- women & men, old & young, monied & penniless. . . And it's where you'll find me every Wednesday just as the clock chimes 11:30 a.m.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Got Dirt? (Or so much depends on a Rusted Green Wheelbarrow . . .)

I had dithered for a full 30 hours, making every excuse why I could not expend the effort to give our fledgling gardening project a boost by gathering a FREE wheelbarrow-full of excellent soil from a new friend. She had exuberantly and generously offered both dirt and means of conveyance; I had only to muster the energy to collect it. I hemmed and hawed about how I might not soil the interior of our ill-suited Corolla with the delicious soil if using it as the preferred means of transport. I scrolled through my mental rolladex, searching for a pick-up owner to cajole into lending me wheels.

Finally, needled gently and kindly by Christine, I hopped astride my faithful Dolce (i.e., my beloved bicycle) and pedaled 11 blocks to confront the Dirt. There it sat, unpresumptuously, comfortably settled in its perfectly-suited temporary home: a sturdy, well-loved, generously rusted ol' wheelbarrow. The shock of green lawn unfurled beneath it was like a taunt: "You have to start with soil if you want to surround yourself with green, living things," it seemed to whisper. I slowly wheeled my bicycle to a safe spot out of sight, delaying to inspect Angie's garden, wonder at her little projects unfolding, admire the unselfconscious array of antique patio furniture. . . And then I turned to confront the Dirt.

Knees bent, back braced, I raised the load and gave it a good push down the lawn. "Oh, boy. It's gonna be a long 11-block walk." The 'barrow (thankfully!!) wheeled easily under my guidance, as I effortfully steered around a low-hanging branch, up 'n down driveway demarcations and -- at last! -- toward the end of the block. "Two blocks down, nine to go," I thought. Now striding along the sidewalk bordering a main thoroughfare to the beach on a glorious 68-degree afternoon, I felt a little conspicuous. I imagined curious onlookers gawking and guffawing, "What's she think she's doing with THAT load?" I felt perspiration begin to stream from my underarms and paused to remove a layer of clothing. My right forearm throbbed and my triceps felt as if they were in some sort of Olympic challenge.

Cooled and rested, I lifted the load anew, settling into a more comfortable pace and allowing a little grin to cross my face. "It's DIRT. A precious heap-full of our good Earth soon to become home to more intentionally-settled little living things. It's soil, gifted by a friend who shares my enthusiasm for growing things. It's brown GOLD." My little brain starting spinning out, perhaps under the weight of the exertion of it all.

I approached one of the busiest intersections in Santa Cruz (Bay & Mission), thankful for a red light and trying not to look too odd as the busy flow of Sunday traffic whirred past. The light changed and I nonchalantly pushed the wheelbarrow out into Mission Street, eyeing the safety of the corner 10 feet ahead with great determination. Next, across Bay Street I proceeded, trying to navigate carefully so as not to lose the load for a variety of understandable reasons, not least among them my pride. I continued up Bay Street, single-mindedly pursuing the peaceful interior of Trescony Garden, where Christine promised she'd rescue me.

Peering through sweat droplets now streaming from forehead into eyes, I observed a cheerfully rolling, wheelchair-equipped woman rolling capably, effortlessly toward me. I (gratefully!) pulled the wheelbarrow toward the right and set it down, clearing more of a pathway for my fellow wheeler. She rolled past with a big grin and a warm, "Thanks!" and left me to confront the wheelbarrow full of its now seemingly not-so-onerous load. Here I had been kvetching about pushing a few tens-of-pounds of dirt 10 city blocks toward my accomplice, Christine, and this woman had spent what appeared to be the better part of her life daily - literally - wheeling around her body weight. I felt the deft blow of self-pity and self-absorption smack my perspective back into some semblance of humility and gratitude. Renewing my union with my load, I pushed my beloved dirt a little more lightly toward Trescony Gardens. Looking up, I could see artichoke bushes pushing skyward, the tops of fava bean growth just cresting the fence line. I marveled at the elaborate trellises some gardeners had carefully constructed to ease sweet peas and green beans into graceful growth. And I glimpsed the smiling face of Christine pedaling toward me on her bike -- my rescuer!

Swapping bicycle for wheelbarrow, Christine took up the pushing responsibilities as we covered another 2 1/2 blocks, chattering about the lusciousness of our free dirt and envisioning the herb garden soon to call it home. I resumed wheeling duties for a couple more blocks, ceding the final push to Christine. With great exuberance, we hand-troweled the load into our half wine barrel, watching it fill up to just-the-right height. Ahhhhhhh!! Rarely have I felt such a sense of contentment, gratitude and satisfaction at an hour's labor.

So much depends on a rusted green wheelbarrow, the kindness of neighbors, and the gift of human encounter. . .