Tying A Rope To The Barn

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In the Mid West, every winter farmers used to tie a rope from their back door to their barn. During blizzards, when there were no landmarks, no paths, no visibility, and no sound except the roar and howl of the storm, they clutched the rope to make their way out to the barn to feed their horses. Then they followed that lifeline back home.


I learned about the winter ropes from Parker Palmer whose wonderful book, A Hidden Wholeness, describes various practices for engaging the storms of life.


It’s been a stormy week. On Wednesday, as I was hefting a pot of chili off the stove to bring to a soup supper and concert, my phone buzzed. The county emergency services department had issued a flash flood advisory.  We were cautioned to avoid travel.


Should I go out or should I stay home? On one hand, it would have been wonderful to sink into an armchair, toss a log onto the fire, and start reading the mystery that had just arrived in the mail. And I had a perfect excuse!  My phone had buzzed. The county had spoken. I felt like a kid who’d gotten a note from my parents excusing an absence.


On the other hand, I’d signed up to bring soup. People were going to show up hungry, expecting supper. I wasn’t the only soup provider, but what if the other cooks stayed home too? Additionally, what about the local high school chamber choir, all 32 of them and their teacher. What if no one showed up for their Christmas concert?


The county-wide flash flood advisory did not really apply to my situation. Honestly, I knew that.  The warnings pertained to steeper areas that had lost vegetation because of wildfires.  Those areas were in danger of flash floods. My route was not. I could drive safely to church, on well paved back roads.


Reluctantly, I shrugged into my rain coat, hauled my pot of chili out into the storm, and drove slowly, watching for deep puddles.


To my surprise, the church basement was full. Everyone who’d signed up to make soup was there. And the salad and the bread makers showed up too.  We had so much food the parents of the chamber singers could eat too.


After dinner we marched up the back stairs and packed into the pews.  The young singers were brilliant, glowing, accomplished. For more than 20 years they’ve consistently won gold medals at national competitions, largely due to their teacher’s dedication and vision.  Every one of the singers was there.


My take away is not that it is good to ignore travel advisories. Rather, my take away is that it is good to hold myself accountable, to exercise independent judgment and to take calculated risks.


The rain this week was a low-risk opportunity to test my rope.  Connection and community led me out into the storm. Soup, song and gratitude nourished me on the way home.




Delacroix, Wild Horse in A Storm, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Legros, Man Watering A Horse, courtesy of National Gallery of Art

Posted by admin in community, personal reflection

The Not-So-Near Death of A Mini Dachshund and Events in Ferguson

R-20110118-0006.jpgLast week I was anxious and sad. Although I kept going with ordinary life, I feared our old dog was dying. Mysterious yelps, sudden bulges, listlessness and clouded eyes reminded me of every dog I’ve had that died from cancer. I held off going to the vet, avoiding bad news. Finally when a tennis-ball-sized swelling appeared overnight, I took him in. The vet lanced the abscess, gave him antibiotics, and today he’s skittering around like a puppy.


I should have known better. I’ve worked for years on facing fear. But I’m taking the episode as another lesson in assumptions.  Because I assumed he was dying, I delayed going to the vet, causing him extra pain and jeopardizing his health. Assumptions cloud our judgment. They blind us to truth. They get in the way.


I’ve learned this lesson before. In addition to experiencing it in life, I was trained to notice assumptions during my spiritual direction internship program at Bread of Life. Walk down the ladder of inference, we were told repeatedly. Try to get to the level of concrete details.  Do this not only for yourself, but with your directees.


What did you notice? What did you see? What feelings did it trigger in you? What did you say or do in response? From this foundational level, grounded in observable experience, one can carefully create a safe container within which to search for truth.


As I’ve watched events unfold in Ferguson since the shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown, I’ve grieved for the absence of such a container. Many factors are at work in the tragedy being played out, but I believe the destruction has been magnified by the speed of people’s unconsidered responses.


The facts about what actually happened are unknown at this point. Conflicting stories are being told. Information is being released in small, disconnected bits.


Into this factual vacuum, emotion, assumption, judgment, and fear have rushed. Using strategic and partial bits of information, all sides have made pronouncements, presenting their points of view as if they were facts.


Around the country, on city streets and at kitchen tables, the violence continues, as we square off against each other, not even knowing, exactly, what we are fighting about.


Into this maelstrom stepped Captain Ron Johnson, now overseeing security in Ferguson.  Johnson, a commander in the Missouri Highway Patrol, grew up in the area. His first step was to walk with the protestors through the streets. “We are going to have a different approach and that approach is that we are in this together. I am here to protect and serve everybody.”


Johnson removed the heavy riot armour and SWAT trucks that had so enraged the citizens. He met with residents on the streets. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he told a young man with a red neckerchief. “Just like you and me are doing.  We’re talking. We gotta start with me. And we gotta start with you. We’re gonna be alright. We’re going to continue to talk.”


Unfortunately, violence has continued to escalate in Ferguson.  Peaceful protests have turned violent. Riot armor has returned to the streets. A curfew has been imposed.  Looting continues. Last night the police command center was attacked. The governor has called out the National Guard.


On Sunday morning Captain Johnson attended Greater Grace Church and spoke to Mr. Brown’s family and the congregation. “My heart goes out to you, and I say that I’m sorry. We need to pray. We need to thank Michael for his life. And we need to thank him for all the changes he is going to make.”


I’m following Captain Johnson’s advice. I’m praying for the people of Ferguson, for Captain Johnson, and for all of us, praying that we will open our eyes, ears and hearts, listening for truth, listening for wisdom, listening for guidance about how to heal our brokenness and live in peace.



Burial, Walter Gramatte, 1914, Germany courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Posted by admin in community, Current Events, spirituality


The Pont Neuf, Eugene Atget, 1923, Getty Museum


Yesterday I flew back from my nephew’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding, celebrated in the same little stone church where I’d been married 36 years earlier. And the reception was very festive, with the dance floor crowded all night.


I’ve been thinking about ceremony, how important it is, and how hard it is to do well.  Last week, before flying to the wedding, I’d attended a funeral. It was a particularly sad funeral, for a young man who’d drowned while on a solo sailing voyage.


His parents are our friends. My husband was the first to hear the news after the Coast Guard called, and we waited it out with them during the terrible hours and days of the search, until finally his body was recovered.


What can anyone do during such tragedy? The answer is not much. Nothing to change the outcome or affect the flow of events.


Yet, the little we can do is of great worth. We can listen. We can cry. We can just sit with. We can walk the dog, order pizza, make sure cell phones get charged, do some laundry. We can pray. If you ever doubt whether you could make a difference to someone in crisis, ask yourself what their experience would be like if they were alone or if you were not there. The answer is immediately clear.


Our friends asked for help to create some kind of meaningful ceremony to honor his death. They are not a religious family, although Andy was very spiritual, a quality his mother shares. But they don’t have a faith practice or a community to help structure a funeral or memorial service. There was just a huge hole. A gaping void.


It was at this throbbing edge of emptiness that they found some solace in a ceremony that

1. honored the sea that Andy had loved

2. included powerful music, poetry and appeals to a greater source of meaning

3. invited people to share stories and memories of Andy, and

4. provided abundant, delicious food (Andy loved good food) and drink.


Aboard a boat, as the family scattered ashes, they felt they were releasing his physical remains to the greater currents. Back at the house, with almost 100 people gathered, they felt his spirit was still present in his impact on others and the memories shared. And the ceremony became an uplifting celebration, buoyed by love, kindness, laughter and connection. The memory of that day will be a light in dark times ahead.


I’m starting to think that ceremony—whether joyful or sorrowful—rests primarily on community, a community that is intentionally gathered for a shared purpose. We become one for a time.  We come together hoping that the old truism holds.  A joy shared is doubled.  A sorrow shared is halved.


Posted by admin in community, spirituality, story

Taste of Hope

R-20100106-0003.jpg  Hope

I certainly received it—a taste of hope—at The Ruin last weekend. The Ruin is a wondrously made outdoor environment built by Gabe and Sarah Acrich at their home in the Sierra foothills. Envision a very large living room, made of rock walls, minus the ceiling and fourth wall, so the space is open to the sky and fields. Now imagine that the walls slope downward, lined with tall glass votive holders, and pierced with niches, so the perimeter is dotted with candle light. Within this powerfully moving space, Sarah staged a play set in a Nazi concentration camp: Taste of Hope: A Play in Three Courses.

Hope and concentration camps might seem mutually exclusive. But the profound territory that this play explores is how hope was kept alive in a hopeless situation.

The Acrich’s have a personal connection to the Holocaust; Gabe’s grandfather survived Mauthjausen. When Sarah read In Memory’s Kitchen, A Legacy From the Women of Terezin, a nonfiction book based on recipes secretly collected in a Czech concentration camp, she was immediately inspired to work with that material, family material, and other Holocaust stories to create a play affirming the faith, strength, love, and courage of the women in the camps.

Sarah is a woman of extraordinary vision, creativity and energy. Not only did she write the play, create The Ruin, recruit talented actors and musicians (drawn from friends, students and family), she also cooked latkes, matzo ball soup, carmels and honey cake—recipes which the women discussed fervently in the camp. After each act, the audience was served a hearty taste of these dishes, which were now soaked in meaning, significance and wonder.

I was seated next to a Jewish woman. Her husband did not attend; Holocaust events are too raw for him. She, however, was delighted with the play, and during each course shared with me how she had learned to cook that dish, family variations in recipes, and memories of the holidays. I was thus privileged to experience the continuity that the women in the camp desperately longed for and dedicated themselves to insuring.  

The play worked with the theme of continuity by having three areas always present on stage: a modern kitchen, with a contemporary mother and daughter cooking and occasionally  talking; a kitchen from the pre-war era with a grandmother instructing a granddaughter; and the main focus of the bunks, where four starving women prisoners engaged in intimate dialogue.  I would have found the concentration camp conversations almost too excruciating to bear, if not for the silent testimony of the past kitchen anchored in tradition and the modern kitchen witnessing  to ongoing life.  In this way, the play’s structure beautifully gave us a paradigm of time’s effect on suffering, evil, and healing.

In a further amplification of the themes of food, community, and hope, each performance was a fundraiser. There was no admission fee; all donations received went to hunger-relief organizations.  The performance I attended was an Empty Bowl Project in support of the Gathering Inn, a private nonprofit serving the county’s homeless. 

After the play, audience members lingered in the ruin, licking honey cake and carmels from our fingers. A slender moon hung overhead.  “Puts things in perspective,” someone said. “Made me think about hope,” another affirmed. And then there was mostly the crunch of gravel as we made our way down the driveway, our flashlights flickering in the dark.

The sketch above is Giacomo Cavedone’s Clasped Hands, 1612, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The photograph was taken during a performance.


Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, religion

Life From Death

Recently I encountered Kate Munger at a conference. Kate founded the Threshold Choir, which sings at bedsides for the dying.  I told Kate about about a life-changing experience with the choir.

It began in tragedy, when a young man drove into a tree, and 3 passengers were killed, including his brother.

This tragedy rocked our small community. So much death. So much loss of life, of youth. And the fate of the driver, who agonized in jail, completely bereft, perplexed us all. Three lives had been lost. Was a fourth life, that of the driver, to be lost as well?

The driver’s mother sang in the local Threshold Choir. His father sang in a performing choir.  The parents of one of the deceased sang in the same performing choir. The four parents had volunteered at a local school; they’d sung together; they’d been friends. How were they to encounter each other now?

Song was part of the answer.

Several weeks after the crash, mutual friends invited the couples to come to their home for their first face to face meeting after the tragedy. The driver’s mother asked the Threshold Choir to come and surround them with song. The choir’s music is spiritual but not explicitly religious and sung without accompaniment. The music is lullaby-like, archetypal in its evocation of love.

I was one of the four or five singers who gathered at the bottom of the driveway that Sunday afternoon. We rehearsed a few songs quietly. At the appointed time, we started up the driveway, singing Ubi Caritas, our voices blending in a soothing chant. We opened the back door, still singing, and filed slowly through the kitchen, into the living room. One couple sat on a couch under the window. The other couple sat on chairs opposite.  The hosts were in between.

We never stopped singing, moving seamlessly from one harmony to the next, creating a surround of song. The music filled the space, weaving a connection. The parents sat with eyes closed. Tears ran down their faces. Their hands reached out for each other.

We sang for about ten minutes, then walked out and continued singing all the way down the driveway. We didn’t talk much once we reached our cars. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the parents and their decision to work towards forgiveness and healing.

This took place several years ago.  Last December, at the performing choir’s annual concert, I saw all four parents embrace. The young driver was miraculously given a merciful sentence, in large part due to the request of all the parents of the deceased.  He now works with high school students, sharing his story as part of recovery programs and prevention efforts.  Life has come from death. I know of nothing more inspirational.


Lilies, Eugene Atget, 1916-19, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, spirituality