Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mother to Mother: A Bilingual, Interfaith Funeral

Roberto died at High Valley, our center, after a long illness. During his last weeks, his friends Karen and David cared for him there, joined by his mother Luisa from Venezuela. Until her recent move to a nursing home, Karen and David shared a house with my mother-in-law Olga, also from Venezuela. Olga’s last years at home coincided with the years Roberto, a musician from New York, stayed at High Valley frequently. Whenever he visited, he played Venezuelan folksongs on his Cuatro for Olga. In her nineties and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Olga knew all the words and sang along, tapping her feet to the rhythm. Olga and Roberto were more than compatriots. They came from the same island, Margarita, and spoke the same dialect. With his music, Roberto restored Olga’s memory of her earliest years.

Roberto requested that his ashes be scattered at High Valley, the place of his deep friendship with Karen and David, the heart of an earth-centered community in which he joyously took part whenever he was present. The morning of his funeral was warm and clear, the air full of birdsong, floating seeds and blossoms. The chaplain from hospice, a Roman Catholic nun who spoke fluent Spanish, came to officiate. Of those gathered, five spoke only English; three were bilingual, and Roberto’s mother spoke only Spanish.

Sister Maria was dressed in a simple suit with a cross on her lapel. She had been making visits to the family for the last two weeks when hospice services were put in place. She was quiet and confident; she had created a simple structure for the ceremony that left ample room for spontaneity. Her translations were seamless, her ways of including others, sensitive and inspired.

Karen opened a book of poems at random and happened on one addressed to a mother who has lost a child. At Sister Maria’s suggestion, Karen read a line in English and Roberto’s cousin translated in Spanish. Then Sister Maria read in Spanish the Gospel story of the disciples recognizing Jesus in the breaking of bread. “And so,” she concluded, in Spanish, then in English, “when you hear music, that is how you will recognize Roberto, our hermanito. You will know that he is with us.”

Spontaneously we sang a chant that Robert had loved and that we had sung to him in the last weeks. “We are opening up in sweet surrender to the luminous love light of the one.” Encouraged, Roberto’s mother then sang a hymn to the Virgin Mary calling her to guide Roberto’s spirit. We all joined in the chorus, “Ven, Maria, ven!” One of the most powerful, intimate invocations of the divine mother I have ever heard.

Sister Maria then told us it was time to return Roberto to the Mother Earth. Luisa became very calm and still. She took the bag of ashes and went to a metasequoia tree that Roberto had loved. She flung his ashes; the wind caught them and lifted them into light before they fell among the roots. With sureness and strength, Luisa moved to the lake and gave ashes to the water, and then to the fire pit where Roberto had cooked arepas many times. And finally she walked to a huge copper beech that she called “el arbol rojo.”

At Sister Maria’s instruction, I had fetched a pitcher of water, “so that she does not have to wash her hands at the sink.” Underneath the red tree, where the last of Roberto’s body had been returned to the mother by his mother, Sister Maria poured water over Luisa’s upraised hands, murmuring prayers that needed no translation.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Becoming a Prayer

We usually think of praying as something we do, a prayer as something we say or perhaps read, aloud or silently. But if a singer is one who sings, a writer one who writes, a dancer one who dances, and so forth, we could say that a prayer is one who prays. If we pray, we are prayers.

The daughter of an Episcopal priest, I grew up with the sonorous, sometimes terrifying language of The 1928 Book of Common Prayer. From the General Confession this phrase has always stayed with me. “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickednesses.” (I still love that plural.)

Quaker Meeting was my first experience of silent corporate prayer. In what I called “the womb of silence” different images of the divine emerged, especially feminine ones. In time, longing for music and ritual led me out of Quaker Meeting to form a non-institutional, earth-centered community. At length I also became an ordained interfaith minister.

Here are some things I have learned/am learning about praying/being a prayer:

If you pray for someone (or something), prepare to be part of the answer.

Raging at the divine is fine. Go for it at the top of your lungs. Exhaust yourself. Then…listen.

Help! Help! is a good prayer. The answer may come in bizarre (often humorous) forms. Be alert.

You can pray with your body; you can pray with your breath; you can pray with your touch; you can pray with your presence.

Singing and dancing and drumming can be prayers.

Aligning with the elements, the waxing and waning moon and sun, the seasons of the earth, the plants and animals is prayer.

Gratitude and kindness are always prayers.

You do not have to have a belief system to pray. You do not have to have a fixed opinion about where the divine resides or if the divine as a noun exists. All our words and images are metaphors to help us connect with the mystery, the intimately known and unknown.

Writing a novel can be a prayer. Dreaming can be prayer. Cooking can be prayer. Eating can be prayer. Making love can be prayer. This list could go on and on.

A recent experience of prayer:

Something I am calling “world sorrow” for lack of another term, when the boundaries between you and “all that is” disappear for a time, and you sorrow with the earth, as the earth. Many people have become this kind of prayer during the oil spill disaster and other world sorrows.

A recent definition of prayer from my tai chi teacher who also teaches shamanic practice:

“When you pray for someone you become, for a moment, the creator.”

I remember those moments when I have seen someone without the filter of my hopes or concerns for them, which can all too easily take on the tinge of judgment or control. Those moments are startling, illuminating, humbling.

Praying without ceasing:

If we become prayers, we can. If we become prayers, we are.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Howl if You Love Gaia: Cristina Eisenberg's The Wolf's Tooth

I thought of titling this post “Howl if You Love Jesus,” although Cristina’s Eisenberg’s in depth survey of the effect of keystone predators on a wide variety of ecosystems, makes no mention of Jesus or of any religion. The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity is all about food webs. And I found myself thinking of Jesus saying to his disciples: Take, eat this is my body. If you think of the earth as the body of Christ, then all its members are important: the predator, the prey, the trees, the grasses, the birds, insects, fish, the forests, the rivers, the seas, and all their myriad forms of life.

A scientist with a poet’s command of language, Cristina Eisenberg writes with precision and passion. Her own ongoing research focuses on wolves as keystone predators, what happens to various landscapes when wolves return in sufficient numbers to drive a trophic cascade. Wolves affect herbivores, for example elk, not only by limiting their numbers but also by causing them to be vigilant, thus changing their browsing patterns. When herbivores no longer over-browse, young trees can grow to maturity. When the forest and other plants are renewed, songbirds, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians return. Forested river banks hold their soil, preventing erosion and contributing to the health of rivers. The herbivore population also benefits, having a more reliable and renewable food source. Wolves are called keystone predators, because their presence or absence has a radical effect on a whole complex eco-system. When a system is healthy, biodiversity flourishes.

In Part One: Web of Life, Eisenberg takes her reader on a breathtaking, sometimes heartbreaking tour of the planet from the Gulf of Maine to the Amazonian rain forests, the tropical coral reefs to old growth forests of the Northwest as well as rivers, lakes, and wetlands. At each stop she introduces us to the work of fellow scientists who are studying these ecosystems and the effects of disrupted food webs. As someone with no science background at all, I found the wealth of information not only accessible but riveting.

Part Two: Mending the Web surveys public policies and projects, both private and public, where keystone predators have returned or are being reintroduced. In this section Eisenberg also ponders the place of the human being, how to balance human uses of land and resources with the need to preserve wildness for our own health and the health of the whole planet. When too many species become extinct or compromised our own survival as a species is at stake, as we are being sharply reminded with the oil spill now threatening life in the marshes of Louisiana.

In order to survive in the wild where she works, Eisenberg herself has had to find her place, and learn to understand the language of wolves, grizzlies, and cougars and to defer to them when appropriate. As a species, we seem to have taken umbrage at the very idea of other predators who threaten us and our livelihoods. We have demonized them and many of us still seek to destroy them. In doing so, we have, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps with the best of intentions, caused harm to this sacred, beloved body of which we are all members.

Eisenberg quotes pioneer ecologist Aldo Leopold:
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to the layman.”

Eisenberg’s powerful, beautifully written book, already in its second printing, has the potential to open many people’s eyes, minds, and hearts.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Celebrating Beltane: Courage in Hard Times

This year, as the festival of Beltane (April 30th) approached, I was aware of feeling anxious. Our community celebrates by leaping bonfires, dancing the May Pole, then gathering boughs and literally bringing in the May. We festoon the rafters of a barn with blossoming branches, and then we crown each other with ribbon, adding violets, periwinkles and daffodils wherever they can be tucked in. Use your imagination. We’ve been celebrating the holiday at High Valley for fifteen years, and I always watch closely and eagerly as Spring unfolds from the first snowdrops and crocuses, to the shadblow, the forsythia, daffodils, quince, and then tulips and the first bloom of apple and dogwood. This Spring everything bloomed three to four weeks early. I kept wondering, what May will be left to gather in?

This might not sound like cause for angst. As I fretted, I discovered many people do not keep such close track of when this or that plant blooms. And isn’t an early Spring (fast turning into an early summer) cause for rejoicing? Perhaps, if it was just an anomaly. But I can’t help feeling that this early Spring is connected to the climate change that is bringing us melting icecaps, disappearing islands and coasts, changes in monsoon patterns, violent freak storms. This year, for whatever reason, there have been five earthquakes and a volcanic eruption. The recent coalmine disaster and the ongoing oil spill serve as immediate and dramatic reminders of the havoc our human dependency on fossil fuel is wreaking. The greenest of us is part of this juggernaut.

On May Eve, we managed to find some dogwood still blooming as well as narcissus, a few tulips and plenty of violets. It was a beautiful, warm, clear day. As my husband and I gathered boughs and flowers and set up the bonfires and the Maypole, I pondered how to acknowledge grief, not just personal grief of which there is always plenty, but planetary grief and yet also open to joy, to possibility, to surprise. Spring, even when it is not early and connected to ominous change, can break your heart. Spring challenges us to begin again, open again, risk coming to life again.

For me celebrating the Wheel of the Year is about connecting with my community, human and non-human, aligning with the rhythms of waxing and waning light, cycles of fecundity and death and regeneration. It is about remembering that we are the earth, we are made of earth, air, water, and the fire of the sun. If I am earth, there is no shame in feeling earth’s sorrow in my body. But it is also important to know joy, to embody joy.

On Beltane morning I wrote a tanka (a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern):

The Beltane moment
~forsythia, shadblow, quince~
passed some weeks ago
still we gather this May Eve,
blossoming boughs of courage.

And that evening we did gather, some seventy strong. We acknowledged sorrow, then danced with joy. We brought in the May and as we crowned each other we made the last line of the tanka into an improvised chant. Over and over, till everyone was radiant and festooned with flowers, we sang:

“We are the blossoming boughs of courage.”

May our courage bear good fruit.

Coming next week, a post on Cristina Eisenberg's new book The Wolf's Tooth: Keystone Predator's, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity