Conundrum

It’s not easy being a person of conscience, of ethics and morals and decency. It’s really not. Your own particular brand of conscience may require tithing and public prayer before digging in to your chicken fried chicken at Black Eyed Pea (90s me), regular donations to Public Media (00s me), monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood not because you think abortion is a party but because you hate the idea of women bleeding to death from botched back-alley abortions (10s me).

Your decency might be to support the US flag, no matter what the circumstances. You might believe, honestly and truly, that patriotism is unquestioning.

Your morality might include sponsoring a child through Compassion International, a fantastic organization which I still happen to support monetarily, even in my post-church life.

You might volunteer in a soup kitchen, you might always tip 20% because you comprehend that those in the service industry need to buy groceries; you might even drive a Prius.

And if you’re like me, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you refuse a plastic bag in favor of your reusable one, or hand the paper-wrapped straw back to the drive through window attendant while explaining to their puzzled faces that you carry your own stainless steel straws with you, it just seems like it’s never enough…

because it’s clear that no matter what choice you make, it’s going to have a harmful, unintended consequence somewhere in this great big world.

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The genius TV sitcom “The Good Place” is handling this conundrum with a deft touch this season. As Michael, so brilliantly played by Ted Danson, and his posse of afterlife wanderers is realizing, the most innocuous choices can have magnificently terrible consequences. A simple tomato purchase is rife with opportunity to wreck a distant life in an accidental and unavoidable ripple effect: pesticides and underpaid laborers, for example.

Here lately, I find myself stymied by the quest for toothpaste:

the tubes that normal toothpaste come in are not recyclable. So when I throw them in the bin, where do they end up? Land fill.

I could order the chewable tablets that you bite down on, they’re packaged in glass, but then there is a truck that has to deliver them to my house, which creates more exhaust fumes, and thereby a larger contribution to global climate change.

Baking soda just tastes gross.

I have settled for a brand that touts itself as good for the groundwater, and it comes in a tube that is made from plant material and is recyclable.

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But then I am plagued by the follow up thought: I hear that recycling is at a near-halt because the Chinese are no longer buying and shipping our waste to China, and American waste companies can’t afford to actually recycle the volumes of plastic and cardboard that are now stacking up in warehouses.

What about the turtles, fish, and ducks, friends? WHAT ABOUT THEM?

And can we talk relationships? I spent a good hour today worried and upset and angry. Like so many others, I posted the video of the red capped teen staring. I try to keep my social media political posts to a minimum- just a couple a month, normally. My life’s work is about finding joy and sharing peace. Not about stirring up discord.

But this incident of the Catholic high school boys and the Native American elder really bothers me. Maybe it’s because I taught high school. I am familiar with that smirk, I have been cornered by a high school boy who threatened me harm out of the sight of security cameras, I have been hit by a student, I too have found myself in the midst of an unruly group of inadequately supervised teens and known the fear of turning every which way only to realize I was at the mercy of the “Lord of the Flies” adolescents.

But those aren’t the relationships that upset me today. Not tribal elders, not smartass teens, not their school leadership. And yes, I have seen the opposing arguments that we don’t know the real story, and to be frank, I am not buying most of it.

No, today it came from an old friend. A friend who is so staunch in her conservative world view that she posted a response that I could not even begin to handle. I deleted the whole thread, which I was planning to do anyway, but once the conservative mommy blog link was shared, I churned. I churned all afternoon. I would gladly have had an actual dialogue with this friend, but what I was unequivocally not willing to do was read a right wing mommy blog.

And here’s where I am stuck: What happens when our own particular value systems are so firmly at odds with each other that to compromise feels like we are cutting a piece of our gut out and laying it on a table as blood sacrifice?

There’s a lot of talk that goes: “We all, at the most basic level, share the same values. We just want a safe and happy place to raise and love our families.” Yeah, well, that’s the easy and obvious one. But if you go just one step deeper than that, to ask the questions about what justice looks like, what good citizenship looks like, how money should be spent, which lives have value and where people should be able to breathe freely, things get more complex. And those values are as essential to our humanity as loving and providing for our families.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said:

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

Those rude teenagers in Washington DC are not my enemy. And that gentleman beating the peace drum is not the enemy of the conservatives.

When does keeping the peace with friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and relatives, at the cost of staying silent on issues we feel passionately about, begin to erode our souls? How do we compromise when to compromise feels like betraying everything we hold dear? Or does it even matter, except in the voting booth? Does dialogue about issues matter?

I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that my own worry about which toothpaste to use is a microcosm of everything else that I am fearful about right now. It just seems like a decision about freedom and equality is too tough, so I’ll debate the merits of my organic toothpaste purchase. Shall I buy mint or vanilla flavored?

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Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

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This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

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