A New Chapter

Here’s what’s been on my mind lately. Stewardship. What is the best use of my time, money, and energy? I work this problem all the time, attempting to follow my soul’s leading and my body’s wisdom.

Which brings me to a new development: A dozen years after leaving corporate life, I’m reentering the workforce. This time around, no pharmaceutical company. This time, my work will completely align with who I am. In fact, I was inspired to apply for a part-time communications position at the nonprofit Central Indiana Land Trust largely because of its stewardship mission. (I start at CILTI May 1!)

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Tulip poplar, Indiana’s state tree because it was used for so many log cabins, stands straight and tall on land protected in perpetuity.

“Stewardship of the kingdom” is a Christian value I absorbed from a young age. In Mennonite circles, stewardship ranks pretty high on an unwritten list of What Makes a Good Mennonite. We don’t discard things lightly at my house, even though I’m years away from my Mennonite upbringing.

I had the example of my parents: Mom who hated to waste air-conditioned air on a wide-open doorway, Dad who contrived creative ways to get the last drip of salad dressing from the bottle. Dad also volunteered extensively with CILTI, finding its vision a match for his passions. So it’s sort of in my blood—this impulse to conserve, tend, preserve.

(These days, I wouldn’t call it “stewarding the kingdom.” That phrase denotes a dominion mindset that no longer rings true. Here in my state, some controversial logging invokes stewardship as a rationale.)

Back to my new workplace: Sunday, I joined a CILTI-led guided hike of the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve, a portion of which is old growth forest. Old growth means it has been forest for thousands of years.

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Love the color of this fungus, which I can’t ID. Anyone?

The preserve was donated to the Nature Conservancy before it was even the Nature Conservancy, and given to the DNR under the 1967 Nature Preserves Act, protecting it from development forever. It’s the site of tons of studies, along with scads of spring wildflowers and ginormous trees.

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Trout lily in bloom at Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve.

It was downright moving to hear executive director Cliff Chapman give the wider perspective on CILTI’s work. And it has everything to do with seeing a tree as an organism, not an economic commodity.

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One of many fallen trees left to decompose as “nurse logs” for other species.

The goal is to buffer the 28-acre old growth forest with new trees, spanning hundreds of acres. Cliff pointed out a nearby field that will soon be planted with trees and monitored extensively.

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A field beyond the border of Shrader-Weaver will be put into trees.

Why undertake such a task? Well, consider the birds. Brown-headed cowbirds thrive in the edges of natural woodlands. They lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and other migrating birds. That wouldn’t significantly affect warbler population if habitats weren’t so fragmented. But warblers fly into places like Shrader-Weaver, and cowbirds fly out. These little underdog birds need to reproduce, or their numbers will dwindle away.

The answer is to unfragment the wild. Bigger patches of habitat give migrating birds more cover.

Beetles, spiders, fungus, all manner of rare plants all thrive in such a place as well. And in what sometimes seems like the last days of biodiversity (how many bugs went splat on your windshield on your last road trip?)—protecting them becomes even more critical.

How do we imagine that humans can thrive when our kin—winged, petaled, myceliated, rooted, scaled—collapse all around us? And who would want to live in that kind of world anyway?

We’ve got to start embracing other species not as “resources” but as organisms. Each has its own life and its own role intrinsic to its being. It doesn’t exist to serve us.

And knowing this can heal some of the painful loneliness of modern life, where we walk around feeling like nonbelongers on the land that sustains us whether we acknowledge it or not.

Speaking of embracing: When Cliff gave a one-armed bro-hug to a big old Shumard Red Oak, I thought: I am joining the right team.

More info: See the CILTI website to learn all about their stellar work (soon to be our stellar work!) Here’s a blog post I wrote about Dad’s volunteer work with this organization.

Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

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You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

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Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

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Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

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I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler

 

Ephemeral Nature

The “radical ephemerality of the mind.” That’s a phrase from yesterday morning’s yoga class, which kicked off a spring day when the snow just fell and fell.

I happen to love snow, no matter when it falls on the calendar, no matter if it’s wet and sloppy or airy and feathery. Snow brings out the little kid in me. Not for me the grousing of most folks confronted with a late-season blizzard.

In fact, I notice that I want a storm to last longer, snow harder, more more more. Never mind if it means I need to shovel longer/harder/more. There’s still this internal clinging. I believe the Buddhists would call that attachment.

It’s just: I like the draping of snow over every twig and berry. I want that to stay. I want to fill my eyes with that clean beauty. It’s even more precious for being so fleeting. (A few years ago when we were in the deep freeze with that Arctic Vortex, I hated the extreme cold but loved the way it preserved the softness of snow.)

Today I woke up to a different kind of loveliness, with wind and sun conspiring to wipe the snow off every limb. I got out for my walk as soon as I could.

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Watching the ephemerality of  nature (and my mind), I noticed my tendency to focus on past and future moments instead of NOW. Like: This creek view reminded me how I walked on it when it was frozen solid a few months ago. That was another moment I wanted to last forever.

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I decided I would continually draw my attention to the here and now, instead of mentally wishing for something to last beyond its particular moment. “Be where your feet are,” is something I remember Anne Lamott saying, and in my Yak-traxed boots, I did my best.

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The same wind that chilled my face and kicked up snow like desert sand had carved gargoyle shapes on top of this bridge railing.

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Is this the last Yak-trak of the season? Would I step less reverently if I expected more?

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What I’d like to do is pay close attention in every moment regardless of its assigned significance. Barring that, I’d like to remember to remember to remember to come back to the present moment… as soon as I remember to!

Dubious Science: The “Talking Killer Whale”

Scientists in France have taught a killer whale named Wikie to make sounds in mimicry of “hello” and “bye-bye” and other human syllables.

An authority is quoted as saying, “Vocal imitation is a hallmark of human spoken language, which, along with other advanced cognitive skills, has fueled the evolution of human culture … The subject made recognizable copies of all familiar and novel and human sounds tested and did so relatively quickly.”

Um. So what?

This gimmick advancement in human-whale relations is supposed to support a hypothesis of social learning in mimicry among wild orca populations.

But really, it seems to me a silly trick, like making a parakeet wear bunny ears or something, just because we can. It reminds me of those disrespectful photoshopped images that goofify furry critters. You know what I’m talking about. People try to make mammals look cuter by morphing their muzzles into smiling lips. Usually with a sappy caption that no self-respecting nonhuman animal would ever “say.”

I mean, animals are brilliant on their own, without needing to jump through our stupid hoops. And they’re plenty beautiful without benefit of Photoshop.

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Photo by “JellyBean” via Flickr Creative Commons

I think of the book by esteemed primatologist Frans de Waal, titled Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and the answer seems to be: No.

Must we demean a noble species by teaching it to twist its vocalizing apparatus in a semi-successful attempt to sound like us? Is that a good use of research dollars? Surely the orca has its own intricate and elegant communications genius, of which the audible variety is only one method. (Echolocation, body language, telepathy?)

If you look up “threats to orca” you find lists like this: habitat loss, chemical pollution, loss of food supply due to hydroelectric dams and other human encroachment, etc. Not to mention being captured for marine mammal parks like the one where 14-year-old “Wikie” lives. 

I won’t lie, I was thrilled with Shamu the Killer Whale as a youngster visiting Sea World. The tricks! The jumps! The splash! But … haven’t we all grown up a bit since the 1980s?

The orca who learned to “speak” lives at MarineLand in Antibes, France, which has been the target of protests and investigations for mistreatment of the sea mammals.

“Bye-bye,” indeed.

Surely we are the ones who could stand to learn from our wild cousins. An apex predator like the orca: Does it kill more than it needs to fill its belly and care for its young? Or does it live in balance with its habitat, like every other creature on the planet with the exception of homo sapiens?

What a step for humankind it would be, if we humbled ourselves enough to consider the possibility of mimicry in the other direction.

Flowers in 2018

A friend posted a simple graphic soon after the start of 2018. If I remember right (I can’t find it just now) it showed two characters, one worried-faced and wringing hands, one kneeling in the dirt. The first gives a litany of worries about the new year familiar to anyone paying attention. So much going wrong.

The second says, still kneeling, hands in dirt: “I think the new year is going to bring flowers.”

First: “Why would you say that?”

Second: “Because I’m planting flowers.”

CIMG3806 (1024x768)Such a simple reminder of two basic facts:

a) Doing something helpful with your hands feels better than wringing them.

b) We all make the future with everyday small acts.

Every choice we make adds up to our personal consequences and our collective reality. It’s easy to slip into believing, in this aggrandizing age, that only the big mouthpiece and the viral video—the people who gain widespread attention—can possibly make a difference. But every single small thing adds up, and in fact there are no small things at all.

The energy of a kiss blown in love is no different from a kind word offered to another or a generous gift affecting hundreds of thousands. There’s no need for “scalable,” for “platform,” for “visibility,” not on the level of karmic consequence.

And for added perspective, remember, in the words of Paramahansa Yogananda:

Infinity is our Home. We are just sojourning awhile in the caravanserai* of the body. Those who are drunk with delusion have forgotten how to follow the trail that leads to God. But when in meditation the Divine gets hold of the prodigal child, there is no dallying anymore. Enter the portals of the New Year with new hope. Remember you are a child of God. It lies with you as to what you are going to be.

*I had to look this up. It refers to a roadside inn, especially along the Silk Road. Body as inn: I like it! (Similarly Rumi writes, “This being human is a guest house” and exhorts us to greet every joy and sorrow as a visitor.)

What shall we plant in 2018? The seeds of flowers, of justice, of awareness, of transformation?

Permit me another quote, from venerable author Ursula K. Le Guin, who died Monday:

“The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!’ ‘Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical…There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.”

Let’s plant the seeds of Le Guin’s brand of strength.

Designing Life in Alignment

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Every year around Solstice time, we build a fire and burn what we’re ready to release, and welcome the return of the light. This year I released my rigidity, and my need to “do it all/do it perfectly/do it at the expense of what really matters.”

This tendency is in full force as I try to scratch my annual (unrealistic) itch to tie up loose ends before Dec. 31. And to plan a stellar New Year—I’m a sucker for a fresh start.

In that vein, I bought a new tool called a Passion Planner. I’m so excited about it that I couldn’t wait for 2018 to start, so I printed out some blank pages from the freebies on the website, and started planning the heck out of the last few days of 2017.

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I bought the eco-version, which is a reusable cover with an insert that can be switched out year to year. Two starter stickers were included.

Irony: I just posted about flowing and obeying internal nudges. I may be crazy, but I think I can integrate structure with flow, and this might be just the tool to do it.

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Opal goes to the petsitter.

So now I’m geeking out. I bought erasable ink pens, some stickers, and a roll of balloon-patterned Washi tape.

I’ve never used Washi tape in my life. I’m not the least bit crafty. I’m way better at writing than drawing. But I’ve started putting goofy little sketches in my planner pages, just for fun.

Now whenever I spend my early morning hour on my writing project, I’m rewarding myself with a sticker. Jennifer Louden blogged about celebrating our daily efforts, and these nerd-stickers help with that.

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Sticker!

 

I also love that the planner has space to write “Good Things That Happened” each week. I’m recording things like a heron sighting, a new client, a neighbor all happy showing me her progress after an injury.

Of course, a planner can’t advise me on the best time for a walk based on the weather and the body’s needs (or the dog’s wishes). It can’t plan for all the interruptions that pop up in life. It can’t magically make my ever-extending to-do list cross itself out.

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Holiday baking

What it can do is:

1. Help me minimize distractions and lower priorities, based on my higher commitments and plans. (A good question: Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?)

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Love the “not-to-do” box.

2. Help me be more judicious in what I schedule, based on a realistic assessment of time. If I see how long something really takes, and block time, I realize that I can’t do the 10 million other things that crowd into my brain whenever I have appointment-free space.

In short, I have to choose. Choosing is always tricky.

Which brings me to no. 3:

3. Help me design my life based on my mission. This particular planner starts off with space to map the most important pledges. (OK it calls them “goals” but as I mentioned before, “pledge” or “commitment” works better for me.) It sets them up in a 3-month, 1-year, 3-year, and lifetime span. With these pledges literally at the forefront—they’re in the first few pages of the planner—I can align my daily choices more consciously.

Very exciting stuff.

But back to rigidity. I can get all tense about my lists and plans. Truly my left brain LOVES these tools. It loves to schedule every minute of my day with the intent of DOING IT ALL. In fact, my left brain reminds me of the greedy villain from every Saturday morning cartoon show of my childhood. After gaining enough power or whatever (in this case list check-offs), “Finally—I shall RULE the WORLD!”.

(I always wondered, why would anyone want to rule the world?)

It’s getting easier to talk back to my left brain, to bring it back into integration with my body and my higher Self (Soul). I can tell it, I know that you had this plan to go like gangbusters all day and check off a million things, so that tomorrow we can get up early and do it all over again, but what we really need today is some open time to rest and integrate. 

Left brain devalues dreamy-drifty time. So does society. But time to noodle is so critical to quality of life. And, it turns out to be absolutely key to my true work as a writer and energy worker.

That’s where internal listening comes in. The roadmap provided by my soul must align with the roadmap I’m unspooling in this planner.

My intention is not more constriction, but more spaciousness in my life, and the clarity gained from working my Passion Planner can help with that.

At the fire, on the flip side of my little wood round where I’d written “rigidity,” I wrote “passion.” On the other side of the card where I’d written my “do it all” refrain, I wrote “I commit to alignment.” These are the things I invoke for this next cycle.

What about you? What do you release, what do you invoke? And does a planner figure into your process? (What kind do you use, and how do you use it? I’m so curious!)

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Cat optional. (But look how imperious he is with his paw on that schedule!)

The Truth About Ease

I’ve been both attracted and repelled by an idea that’s gained traction in our culture: that whatever we are supposed to do should feel easy, as in ease-filled. There should be an ease about our choices, and if something is hard, it might not be the right thing for us.

I’ve always thought: What about the Civil Rights movement, and all the hard stuff people did to gain voting rights, to take their rightful place as full citizens? What about every social movement involving people making choices that revealed the truth and pressed for change? What if they’d espoused this philosophy of “ease”—where would our planet be now?

On the other hand, I love the idea of ease! I love the idea that our choices can fit us so thoroughly that our actions and expressions just flow.

Maybe that’s because it’s taken me so long to get over the notion that whatever’s easy for me must not be worth doing. Must not be a gift at all.

Earlier this year a much-admired community organizer stunned me by cluing me in to my impact. Apparently all the stuff I do that comes naturally—reading, thinking deeply, caring, listening, offering insight and concern, connecting people—has helped his organization in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

Here I thought I was just sitting there being thinky/feely, not really “doing” anything.

It’s so easy to discount our native gifts and think we should do more or be different. As Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz counseled a young writer asking how to find her audience: Do You.

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Photo by Walt Stoneburner, via Flickr Creative Commons

So I am learning to follow ease in that regard, and not think that I must work against the grain to offer something of value. After all, the very things that come easy for me might be the hardest things for someone else. Why not play to our strengths?

However, I don’t believe that nothing we attempt should ever be difficult, or that we’re “doing it wrong” if we run into difficulties. I know that writing a book is hard. I know that showing up and being vulnerable is hard. I know that holding people accountable is really damn hard.

Some of these things, at various times and for various people, might be the exact next right thing, no matter how hard. We can tell if they are by keying into a sense of rightness deep in the marrow of our bones.

My new barometer is less about ease and more about alignment. So if something seems hard but still feels right? That’s the direction I need to go.