Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Monday, December 8, 2014
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
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
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
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. 
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.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Monday, January 11, 2010
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.