Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Fledgling's Fateful Decision

    I saw the fledgling as soon as I went upstairs to work in the attic of the old general store we are restoring. It had flown out of its nest above the back window, hungry, head back, beak open, and waiting for its mother to drop in food as she had done since it hatched.
    The mother had flown around me for several days on her way in and out of the attic, squawking at my unwanted presence. I had raised both windows so she could easily enter. I assumed she had at least one baby in the nest.
I carefully touched the fledgling, who didn't resist at first, possibly hoping I'd feed it, but once lifted in my hands, it squawked and tried to escape my clutches until returned to its nest. My hope was that the mother would return and continue feeding it.
    The fledgling didn't wait long as it was hungry and so flew out again, and I again I put it back into the nest when I left for the day.
    The next morning, it was out again, still hungry, and I didn't know how long it could live because it seemed the mother had abandoned it. I went to put it back once more when it flew through the open window and landed on the roof of the nearby garage. I looked at it but didn't know what to do. At first I thought about catching it and trying to raise it myself, perhaps by feeding it with raw egg which is weird considering the baby had started as an egg itself.
    Still, I knew the futility of trying to raise a robin in captivity as they generally die. The mother was still around, looking for food on the newly mown grass, but it was only for herself as it was obvious she was done for now with raising babies and had moved on. So the fledgling was clearly on its own, but could it survive? It only knew how to open its beak and wait for food to drop into its mouth but, with these changed conditions, that could only mean death.
    I realized this was an existential moment, perhaps the most significant this bird would ever face and one that all wild birds must confront. Unlike domesticated fowl like chickens, who stay on the ground and show their young how to scratch for food, young wild birds are completely on their own as their mothers never have the opportunity to teach them how to feed themselves by pecking for seeds and looking for insects to eat. Wild fledglings are fed in the nest, and then suddenly they are out of it and with no foraging skills to help them survive. This is the major turning point in the life of every bird, when it realizes its mother is gone, when there's no more food, and something has to change for it to live.
    This is when genetics must kick in, when the fledgling's encoded DNA has to direct it to feed itself by doing something it's never done before: peck for food on the ground. Its self-contained genetics are the only teacher this bird has, and every bird on the planet faces this moment on its own, and what a dramatic moment it is, to go from being fully dependent on its mother to being fully independent, and in the space of a few hours. The bird has to turn its open beak from the sky down to the ground and use it as a tool for survival. It's an amazing moment of transformation and transition that not every bird survives as it's forced to adapt to changing conditions. Perhaps it's fear of starving to death that stimulates the change and forces the fledgling to try something it's never done before.
    Whatever it is, as I left to make supper, the fledgling was still on the roof, utterly alone and probably utterly confused in what had changed from a safe, known and secure world to something completely different and terrifying. The next morning, it was gone from the roof and perhaps it died. But I like to think it found its way through the crisis and made it to the ground to teach itself how to eat. Then it had to find a branch off the ground to safely make it through the night so it wouldn't be eaten by prowling animals like raccoons, foxes and our own farm cats.
    A bird's life is hard, especially at this moment of transition, but I hope that one of the robins I see here at the Hermitage is that sweet young fledgling I held in my hand, and who now knows how to feed itself.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

I am the Other

     I heard the truck before I saw it, a clinking, clanking, clunking sound that came closer and closer as I weed whacked along the dirt side road. Finally it appeared, a rusty old farm truck leaning to one side due to a flat tire that a young man was driving on the rim. The engine was chugging badly and lacked power to get up the steep slope by the barn. I watched as the truck came back down and the driver backed it into the side road near me. I went over and asked if I could help. No, he cheerfully replied as he called someone on his cell phone to bring the tools he needed to make the necessary repairs.
     I returned to weed whacking and soon two other trucks driven by young men arrived and it was a team effort to fix the vehicle. I left to make supper and eventually heard all three trucks come up the slope and past the pond on their way to the upper end of the valley.
     Soon my brother rushed to the patio, where I was grilling, to angrily say that one of the trucks had struck and killed an old male Muscovy duck who stayed at the edge of the road each evening. These older ducks are heavy and can't move quickly, so if the driver expected it to get out of the way in time, he was mistaken. And, rather than avoiding it by going around the old fellow, he simply struck it.
     Another possibility that we know from many previous experiences is that the driver deliberately killed it. Either way, it was no accident but a callous disregard for life, for “the other”. We see this repeated daily and countless times by so many and all across the planet and against all kinds of life. We see it in a white cop kneeling on the neck of a black man until death; we see it in straight men abusing women; we see it in the callous murder of queer youth; we see it in the rape and pillage of the planet for profit. We see it everywhere we look and always against who and whatever “the other” might be. What the perpetrators of such heinous acts don't seem to understand – perhaps because it has never been explained to them – is that there is no “other” or, rather, because they are “the other”.
     These acts exist in a world of separation, where each life, each object, is distinct and apart from everything else. But the world really isn't like that illusion. The world is actually a single organism. Visualize a giant human body in which I could be a bone cell and you a brain cell. Or maybe you're a finger while I'm a toe. Now we are no longer apart from, but a part of, the same living creature; we are contained in it. The result is that what I do to someone or something else I actually do to myself. It puts our lives in a new context with a changed perspective.
     There are many ways to conceive of this new relationship: the world as jewel of which we are facets; the world as one of those aspen groves in the Utah mountains that cover acres, yet all share a single root system and are actually a single tree.
     I like to see the the world as a single flowering plant, rooted in soil, growing into the light with a beautiful bloom on top. Like all plants, it grows where it finds itself, but grows best with fertile soil, sufficient water and warm sun to become the healthiest flower it can be. As humans, with our self-awareness and our physical ability to shape the world around us, our job, if we recognize and accept it, is to nurture this giant flowering plant spinning in space. The plant, the planet, can care for itself through us.
     The Muscovy duck couldn't move in time to avoid the killing machine that crushed it. Even for humans, sometimes we can and sometimes we can't. Sometimes there is an implacable knee on our neck; unwanted lips forced on our mouth; shadowy figures calling us names and chasing us down dark alleys; a polluted and desecrated world in exchange for consumer goods we really don't need. It's time to change such outdated thinking. It's time to recognize we are parts of a giant, beautiful flower spinning in space.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Memorial for Erdmuthe Dorothea von Zinzendorf

Memorial for Erdmuthe Dorothea von Zinzendorf
November 7, 1700 – June 19, 1756

     Today is a memorial day here at the Hermitage for a most remarkable eighteen-century century woman about whom most people have never heard. She was Erdmuthe Dorothea, wife of Moravian leader Nicholas von Zinzendorf, and mother of Christian Renatus, the leader of our brotherhood. What made her remarkable, however, were her other achievements.
      The wedding of two fiercely-independent, strong-willed, aristocrats who burned with Pietistic fervor was cast in terms of a warrior alliance as Erdmuthe and Nicholas saw themselves as evangelical equals, committed to spreading an increasingly unique and non-conforming version of Protestant Christianity.
     Missionary work was the crux of their vision, and Nicholas took lengthy trips across Europe and even came to Pennsylvania, leaving Erdmuthe (whose name can be translated as Earth Mother) in charge both of the family's vast estates and of the rapidly growing number of congregational towns that grew like seedlings in the wake of her husband's extensive travels, as well as his sermons, writings, and conferences with religious and governmental officials.
     The budding sect, called the Unitas Fratrum or United Brethren, was basically a family concern, and Erdmuthe grew into the job of being both an effective financial manager as well as a capable church administrator.
     The church, despite its gendered name, was a place where women, either as Single or Married Sisters, found, for the times, a liberating sense of equality in keeping with Nicholas' idea that the spirit spoke directly to each person regardless of race or gender. In keeping with what Nicholas thought was the communal emphasis of early Christianity, women were in charge of their own residential system of living and working according to age, gender and marital status.
     One of Nicholas' most striking and original contributions to Christian theology was his concept of the Holy Spirit as a mother. Since the brethren already believed that Christ lived among them, most obviously in the form of Christian Renatus (Christ Returned), there was no need for a ghost of someone who wasn't dead, and Nicholas realized, on some level, as the psychologist Carl Jung would recognize two centuries later, that incorporating the divine feminine into the godhead provided a much-needed gender and psychological balance. 
     Nicholas instituted Holy Spirit as Mother festivals (which we will celebrate today ourselves here at the Hermitage, with a second one on her birthday in November). Many church members at the time saw the Zinzendorf family as earthly representatives of their new conception of the Trinity, with a holy family of father, mother and son.
     Another aspect of Erdmuthe's legacy are the hundreds of hymns she wrote, most of which have never been translated from their original German, a work we have started ourselves in versions adapted to our own Harmonist spirituality. The hymn below is an example.
     So today is a day to recognize and to celebrate Countess Erdmuthe Dorothea, with descendants still living from her daughters. Hymn writer, administrator, mother, wife, and spiritual mentor to her son, which is another story for another day.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dancer at his Dance

I heard from a friend in California who told me about the saddest thing he'd seen during the pandemic. He drove past the empty parking lot of a defunct Kmart and saw a lone parked car. Near it, a graduating high school senior in cap and gown was dancing by himself, his very own senior prom.

I'm not sure a kid missing his prom is sadder than the deaths of 100,000 people in this country alone and, anyway, I look at the event differently. I see it as an inventive response to a situation over which, otherwise, the lad has little control. He adapted to the situation of no official prom by devising his own which, to me, is an impressive act of both defiance and affirmation. I like to think he also informed other classmates so they could all dance together at the same time, in their own spaces, to create a moment of true solidarity in the face of a changing and changed world.

At any rate, my own high school prom back in 1969 was actually pathetic. As a severely-closeted gay kid in the Texas Panhandle, I only attended the prom at my parents' insistence, and “with a nice girl, please.” Actually, I didn't know any other kind. So there we were, dancing with each other while casting longing glances at the ones we really wanted to be with. Now, that's pathetic. And I lacked the imagination, and the courage, to dance by myself in an empty parking lot at Kmart.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Uncommon Sense -
Finding Wholeness in a Shattered World

Imagine a world of wholeness, where everything is contained in everything else and we are all part of each other, like drops of water in a pond. On that imaginary planet, the reality is that things are not what they appear to be: objects are not separate, apart and solitary, but all are part of the same thing, like facets of a jewel. And everything sensed and experienced on that planet comes from a shared and common ground of existence, as the inhabitants realize that they are all manifestations of an incarnating, creative spirit or, from a naturalist perspective, the result of binding an underlying sea of energy into building blocks of particles that, in turn, form larger, visible objects.
Of course, I'm saying that imaginary world of wholeness is actually our own planet, that all of us are part of each other and, indeed, are part of the earth itself. We are generally unaware of that basic underlying fact because at least three things sustain our illusion of self-hood, of being alone and apart when, actually, we are not that way at all.
1. Language divides the world into separate subjects and objects, operated on by verbs.
2. Our senses - touch, taste, small, vision and hearing - indicate, on a physically built-in level of awareness, that each of us is a unique individual separated from everything else, which we apprehend through the senses.
3. Social custom and tradition reinforce the idea of being alone and isolated from each other and the world. We are trained from early awareness that this is the way the world is and have little encouragement to consider other possibilities for explaining how reality works. Even questioning the basic tenets of the world view we inhabit can seem absurd and heretical.
In fact, I cannot convince you with words or mathematics to reexamine the foundational premises and axioms on which our shared world view is constructed. There are no logical theorems or mathematical formulas I can use to convince you to change your mind, nor can I ask you to take what I say even on faith, because each of those methods relies on higher cognitive functions while the underlying ground of being to which I'm referring operates on a much lower, nearly pre-cognitive level because it is the baseline of our existence. So, how do we get there?
I suggest going into nature, wherever you can find someplace to be completely away from other people, whether it's a forest, a desert, a river bank, the sea shore, a high plateau, a mountain ridge, even a park, someplace, any place, where you and you alone can immerse yourself in nature and, in that isolated place, ask one question: "Is this all there is?" Meaning, is what you're experiencing at that moment the sum total of existence, all this vista and creatures around me? Then be quiet and just listen. If the answer you hear is "Yes," then you've simply had a hopefully enjoyable experience outdoors. And I include in this answer any traditional religion, philosophy or spirituality that divides the world instead of uniting it.
But if the answer is "No" or "Maybe not," then you begin a journey of miraculous discovery and you will never be the same again. You will realize that you are not just connected to everything else, but are actually part of, and contained in, everything else. Your very values will change, as you will want to unify, to enlighten, to harmonize and to heal with the world around you and of which you are now a conscious part of and not apart from. You will find yourself on a new path on which you will increasingly want to interact with yourself and others with kindness, patience, humility and respect born from unity and harmony.
In that society of newly-changed people, we will seek cooperation, not competition, because what sense does it make to compete against others when all it means is that we are working against ourselves? By working together, we can heal the planet instead of just using it, because we are healing ourselves as well.
Instead of consumerism, we need communalism, with the entire planet as our community, where everyone has shelter, food, health care, education, transportation, and engagement in productive activities. All of that is possible by working together and not against each other. We can finally have lives of accomplishment measured not by how many things we can make and sell, but in the amount of good we accomplish for each other and the planet. And we can get paid to do it because a market economy values whatever its users value, and now our values are changing. Let us achieve projects instead of making products.
Let robots and artificial intelligence make the widgets we need for a civilized life as they will eventually take over all production anyway. That will free us to nurture the planet, which makes sense if we think of it as a giant flower, with us as its gardeners, providing fertile soil, nutrients, clean water and fresh air so that the flower grows into its fullest potential as a strong, healthy, beautiful, vibrant plant and planet.
So go into nature, ask the question, "Is this all there is?" and follow the answer wherever it leads.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

      He came into my heart when I needed him most. The early January death of Riley, though expected, was nearly more than I could bear, and here I was, a dog man without a dog. It was not a good place to be and wasn't healthy as I found it harder without a dog to take me outside myself. I was trapped with my sorrow. Though Dido was still here, she also missed her brother, as did Zephram, her human companion.
     I waited four months before feeling emotionally ready for another dog, and Zephram took me to a local SPCA kennel. I was cautious but eager; what would I find? We walked to the first outdoor pen, and this face looked up at me, and I saw Riley in it, and I knew this was the dog Riley wanted me to have. He leaped up and into my heart. He chose me as much as I chose him. He had already been returned by two different families and we soon found out why with his rambunctious energy that would not make him good with children. He did bond with us, but there were issues. For a small dog he was strong, and, in his eagerness to explore and to run, he pulled his leash out of my hand several times on walks, then I had the joy of watching his curly-haired butt bounce down the road, having no idea where he was going, yet also not caring. Fortunately we caught him each time, and realized it would take time before he could be trusted to run free with us. Even now, six months later, that is only done on a limited basis and only when the 15-foot tie-out is securely fastened. Zephram and I are too old to be chasing Chief for long.
     Still, he has greatly improved. He taught me that he needed to poop immediately after supper, a lesson we learned many times the hard way. We took him, perhaps too soon, on a family trip to Maine in July and everything was new and needed to be barked at. It was a long trip in many ways, but we made it and he never ran away.

                                                           On the way to Maine with Dido

    He loves Dido, his bigger, older sister, and probably more than she loves him as he wants to play with her long after she's worn out and wants to be left alone. We're still working on that. In the evening, Chief assumes his drag name of Champagne, that's Miss Champagne to you. And he knows it as well as he does Chief. He's learning to rest during the day between walks and drives as he has an entire sofa on which to lay. He follows me upstairs at night and joins me in bed. Unlike Dido, he doesn't like to be covered up, even with his thin coat of hair which doesn't look that warm to me.  Now that it's winter, he sits in front of the coal stove and worships the fire god.

     He's learning our daily morning route that takes the dogs and I along the creek, and even in the creek when it's low enough. There's a path through the woods we also follow, at least usually, since he is easily distracted by smells and the neighboring farm dog who often comes over to join us. He is not good with other people, perhaps because he rarely sees them. We had old friends as Christmas guests and I thought at first things would go well when I let him greet them, but something happened as he suddenly turned and ferociously attacked Chuck,. even to drawing blood with a claw. I hastily put him upstairs where he and Dido stayed the rest of the visit. However, Michele later sent a beautiful water color she made of him.

     So that's where we are now. Chief is a beautiful incarnation of the spirit. Sometimes I try and project myself into his psyche, to get an idea of how the world looks through his eyes, since we are all facets of the same jewel. It's good practice to extend myself beyond myself and the illusion of separate individuality. I rejoice in him daily.

Friday, January 17, 2020

     It was a dark and stormy night. A truck was racing along a slick, leaf-covered lane, turning a corner in the rain. Suddenly, there appeared a lump on the road, then it moved. Brakes squealed as the truck skidded to a stop just in front of the figure that now had stopped moving. As the driver got out and approached the form, he noticed that it was a mass of matted fur, laying prostrate in the middle of the road. He picked it up and a limp head rolled back, showing a tiny, bony kitten whose legs moved slowly as he held it. 
     He brought it to the truck and got in, holding the kitten close to his neck as he began to drive slowly away from the curve in the road. Suddenly, there was a sound. The kitten yelped and came to life, clinging to the warmth of the driver's neck and pushing its head up under his chin. 
     This little creature had reached his solstice, the darkness of its brief existence and then, miraculously, began its journey towards life and light again.
     The kitten was named Chancey, saved by chance, and in a few months grew into a great, fluffy ball of fur, with yellow eyes and a flat face and an inquisitive personality. He followed us everywhere outside, discovering the world for the first time, every experience new and exciting. 
     Chancey's long, thick fur was brown and grey, striped along the back in an intricate pattern of golden swirls. He was a Celtic Seelie Wicht, a lucky cat from the other world, come through to charm and brighten our lives. 
     He is a reminder to me of other times of darkness that we pass through, always alone, unknowing if we will reach any form of light or clarity again, but knowing that we are no longer what we were going into the darkness.
     At this later date in our lives, we approach this new solstice with a seasoned eye to more change and loss, more death around us. We remember more than we hope, but this experience of going into the darkness one more time is the possibility of a magical change, a hand reaching out of the wet, cold darkness towards us, picking us up off the road as we lay unconscious, and offering us new life, a life beyond clutching for survival. 
     Nature shows us the cycle that our lives follow, and guides us slowly to our fate in the unknown, passing into the longest night, from the shortest day. 

From the brothers at the Hermitage, our best to you this holiday season.