Symbols Matter

I want to make a public confession. A little over two years ago, I was in a conversation with a close friend in which I defended the “Heritage Not Hatesymbol of the Confederate flag. I was still living in the Pacific Northwest at the time, and I described my feelings of pride and identity with the South which I had always felt when growing up in Kentucky. I grew up along the Ohio River (literally on the border of what separates “North” from “South”), and I was always proud about which side of that line I lived on. This whole region-at-large is thick with “Urban Appalachia,” and Cincinnati is rife with rhetoric about “leaving your shoes at the state line when crossing the bridge into Kentucky.”

I frequently visited my grandparents in the foothills of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains as a child, and I always romanticized an Appalachian/Southern identity for myself. In that area, a little more often than in Northern Kentucky where I lived, I frequently saw the Confederate flag held high. And through my young eyes, I saw it as a symbol of beans-n-cornbread and biscuits-n-gravy; of bluegrass music and earthy self-reliance; of visceral, mystical practices of faith and belting out “Rocky Top” as loud as I could sing it with my grandpa at Tennessee college football games. I was proud of these parts of my heritage, and so I was sympathetic to a symbol that I associated with them.

Only a few days after the conversation where I defended the selective use of that Confederate symbol, on June 17, 2015, a young white man named Dylan Roof murdered 9 black people during a prayer service at their African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the regional and national effects of that disgusting act was a renewed firestorm about whether to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings and monuments across the South where it still flew. And in the midst of that firestorm, my same friend called to ask me, “Have your feelings changed at all about the Confederate flag since our last conversation about it?” Yes, they had.

Let’s be clear: I was wrong. Not at all about there being positive traits to celebrate about Southeastern culture, geography, food, or faith; I was wrong about the possibility that the Confederate flag can ever be effectively championed as a symbol of pride in those things.

On July 2, 2015, less than a month after Roof’s abhorrent acts, CNN published an article entitled, Poll: Majority sees Confederate flag as Southern pride symbol, not racist. However, after leading with a title like that, the article included this piece of data:

While 75% of Southern whites describe the flag as a symbol of pride and 18% call it a symbol of racism, those figures are almost exactly reversed among Southern African-Americans, with just 11% seeing it as a sign of pride and 75% viewing it as a symbol of racism.

Tell me, please: Can we honestly call the dissonance between the title of CNN’s article and this quote from it anything less than clear, contemporary institutional racism? Is it even possible that this is other than a selective misrepresentation of statistics to maintain the status quo when the people who are most vulnerable to this symbol overwhelmingly witness it as a symbol of hatred and exclusion? For that matter, what’s the journalistic story here – that the overall majority of Americans see the flag as predominantly representing Southern pride, or that such an overwhelming majority of African Americans don’t? If you’re like me and white, can you even imagine what it would be like to be a person of color who read that headline – would you believe it to be true – and would you ever fully trust that news outlet again?

Fast forward to today and the symbols I keep encountering in social media since the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend (8/11-12/2017). I’m utterly ill when I watch Vice News Tonight’s video of those protests, Charlottesville: Race and Terror – the venom spewed from the mouths of white supremacists and the footage of the car driving over counter-protestors in the street [please watch that video]. AND. I also feel ill when I see the symbols championed by many progressives and activists in response on social media, even from some of my fellow chaplains and ministers: Captain America and Indiana Jones punching out Nazis; glorified WWII invasion photos with captions like, “We literally had a war about this.”

To those progressives and activists, I implore you, sisters and brothers: PLEASE STOP. Look. Listen. Those are the drums of war you are beating, and you’re taking the bait dangled in front of you by the very forces you claim to diametrically oppose. Those neo-Nazis didn’t rise out of the mud like Orcs from a Tolkien story. They were molded, radicalized, emboldened. What’s more, they are the face of forces that have always been a part of the American story. The difference is that today they feel like they can take their masks off and stand up tall. They are the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. They’re the literally hundreds of broken treaties with Native American tribes – and their wanton genocides. They’re both the centuries of African slaves and the ensuing decades of Jim Crow in which countless black women, children, and men were brutally murdered in our country without a shadow of justice. They’re the fact that we Americans have the highest incarceration rate in the world today – and they’re the grossly disproportionate number of African American men among those incarcerated, too.

We’ve literally had lots of wars about this – and we need to carefully examine what our country was fighting for in all of them.

In that same video I referenced above [seriously, please watch that video], a local Charlottesville activist named Tanesha Hudson told her own story in her own words:

Not many of us have come out until it’s too late… This is the face of supremacy. This is what we deal with every day being African American. And this has always been the reality of Charlottesville. You can’t stand in one corner in this city and not look at the master sitting on top of Monticello. He looks down on us. He’s been looking down on this city for God knows how long. This is Charlottesville.

Please, friends, look and listen: symbols matter.

Now is not the time to clench our fists as we close our eyes and ears, to glorify violence because we think the enemy is finally bad enough to justify the gratuitous release of our pent-up anxiety, anger, and frustration. Nor am I suggesting that violent would-be ethnic-cleansers deserve to be heard out. Our first amendment rights don’t enable us to run into a crowded theater and shout, “Fire! Fire!” And that’s exactly how heavily armed people who show up in the streets demanding genocide ought to be treated, too.

But is a masked white man who’s thirsty for combat and wrapped in the American flag the hero any of us need right now, whoever the foe? I had a different idea while writing this piece: if I had the artistic skill, I’d draw a picture of Captain America sitting down in front of a mirror, mask in his hand, and the exposed face looking back at him would be… Hitler? Trump? I’m not sure yet, but I hope the point is there – Captain America needs to take a long look at himself and how he has emboldened or radicalized those same Nazis he wants to punch in the face. How have symbols like Captain America molded them throughout our country’s entire history?

By contrast, over the last few days, I’ve been reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and I’ve found it to be remarkably appropriate to what we’re facing again today. There’s one line that particularly stood out which reads, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

I’m especially concerned with that third step right now, self-purification, and how it might fit with what I’m addressing here. The King Encyclopedia at Stanford’s website had this to say about it:

Self-purification is the cleansing of anger, selfishness and violent attitudes from the heart and soul in preparation for a nonviolent struggle. This is a fundamental aspect of Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of active resistance/civil disobedience. The practice is deeply spiritual and philosophical and it is not simply ideological. This is an important distinction as it differentiates this type of action from other forms of ideological or revolutionary behavior.

If you’re among those today who discovers that you’re grasping at models of foreign saviors in WWII imagery or iconic nationalistic heroes, may I please encourage you to reread that quote – maybe a few times. Digest it. Look inside yourself and see what you find. And then do it again – because it’s an ongoing process, a practice.

I believe that we can (and must!) smash white supremacy without literally punching Nazis. And that to do otherwise would be to lose ourselves in the fight. We must differentiate nonviolent struggle from other forms of ideological or revolutionary behavior. And then we must move on to Dr. King’s fourth step: direct action.

Please get started if you haven’t already. This struggle is well underway. And your purified heart and soul are both needed here.

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If a Tree Falls in a Forest…What Happens to the Other Trees?

You’ve most likely heard the old thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” It’s a question derived from a treatise by the early modern philosopher, George Berkeley. But today, I’m personally more absorbed with a twist on that question: “If a tree falls in a forest…what happens to the other trees?” Allow me to explain.

Five days ago, on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, a 36-year-old man was killed in an avalanche at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State. His name was Morgan Miller, and he was one of the closest confidants I’ve ever had. I was fortunate to know him as a colleague, too, in outdoor education and wilderness guiding; but perhaps the richest part of our relationship was the shared purpose we had in our respective pastimes and professional lives.

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Ski cuddles in an autumn mound of ripe alpine blueberries. North Cascades, WA.

I called Morgan my fellow “evangelist of the mountain church.” As mountain educators, we were driven to introduce our clients and students, not just to our sports and gear and lifestyles; more importantly than all of that, we were driven to introduce people to our very gods, our personal doorways to the Divine. And those modalities that we taught like climbing and skiing and endurance movement through tumultuous terrain – those were our shared spiritual practices, our ascetic acts of gnosticism, of mysticism, by which we viscerally encountered the Divine together. Again and again. To study efficient movement and snow science and weather and topographical maps was to study our scripture, that we might have a greater mastery of our craft in order to have a deeper experience or closer contact with the Sacred in our next adventures – our embodied theologies.

Morgan and I first met through rock climbing, my first love among the many practices of movement, adventure, and athleticism. But it was in skiing that we both found the perfect practice. In the Seattle Times article about Morgan’s death, his girlfriend, Brigit Anderson, is quoted as saying, “his goal was to find the smoothest line possible and ‘telemark ski like Jerry Garcia plays a guitar — just floating down the slope.’” She rightly called telemarking his “pure joy.”

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Morg on his “pure joy” rig; “bliss-touring” the summer corn with the author on the east side of Mt. Rainier, WA.

The very first time I wore a pair of planks under my feet, I was with him, and it was a classic Morgan-and-Kirt adventure. This was many years ago, before either of us had grown into our skiing practice, before I had earned my avy 2 or avy 3 certifications and before Morgan had skied in Italy or Alaska or Chile. I was wearing a pair of rented cross-country skis (with no metal edges and a pair of shitty neoprene Nordic boots on my feet), he was in his old alpine touring setup (before he even learned to “free his heel, free his mind” on tele-skis), and we covered something like 16 miles of terrain in that first tour, with me falling all over myself every time our route got steep enough that I had to try to turn those skinny, edgeless little sticks. I was sore for days, but I forevermore had the need to ski pumping through my veins.

When I recall moving through “the home court” mountains with Morgan, I think of the Battlestar Galactica character, Anders, a pro-athelete-turned-freedom-fighter who once said, 

Perfection. That’s what it’s about. It’s those moments. When you can feel the perfection of creation. The beauty of physics, you know, the wonder of mathematics. The elation of action and reaction, and that is the kind of perfection that I want to be connected to.

The difference between Morgan and me, however, and where I think Morgan was more like Anders than am I, is that Morgan wanted to be connected to that perfection 100% of the time, to exist in it. I, on the other hand, am more inclined to subscribe to the philosophy of the late mountain educator and theologian, Willi Unsoeld (who, himself, died in an avalanche in Washington’s Cascade range in 1979):

…Why don’t you stay in the wilderness? Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles. The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people. If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your life – then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s failed. You go to nature for an experience of the sacred…to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively. Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of people might be realized.

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On the approach for our inaugural climb of The Tooth, “Home Court,” Snoqualmie Pass, WA.

And here I sit now, in “the world of people” in my new-ish home of Louisville, Kentucky, a father and husband and graduate student of Divinity seeking to develop myself in new ways of fulfilling my calling of bringing the “mountain church” into the lives of people who may never find their way to my cathedrals, almost 2,300 miles from “the home court” mountains where Morgan was killed and my heart still lives. And the thing is, I’m pretty happy – or at least getting there as I relearn what life is like when the mountains aren’t right next door. I hope to live next door to the mountains again, but not at the cost of these other parts of who I am now – a father, a husband, and (if all goes according to plan) an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister.

But I’m not writing this piece to discuss my differences with Morgan – hell, we talked about Unsoeld’s life and philosophy and career countless times with a shared admiration; and I’m definitely not writing this piece to suggest how I think Morgan “failed” in mountain philosophy nor in any kind of goddamned armchair accident analysis of the avalanche that killed him. I’m trying to write about the intensity and specificity of the depth of our connection.

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Trailhead smiles after a big, successful spring ski tour on Silver Peak at “the Home Court,” Snoqualmie Pass, WA.

I’d be remiss in discussing the “specificity of the depth of our connection,” though, if I didn’t also mention the silliness and playfulness that went with all of that mountain mysticism between us. I need to recall all of those Wednesday nights when Morgan, his former wife, my wife, and I would tailgate in the ski area parking lot, sometimes with other friends and sometimes not, for an after-work dinner and maybe a beer before riding lifts to ski the “hippie trees” of the mellow terrain together – no training objectives nor mission destinations, just turning-turning-turning our boards through playful topography under the lighted slopes, chasing each other and playing games and laughing as a weekly ritual. Or the New Year’s Day when the four of us and our 2 BFF dogs came upon a little igloo someone had left intact out in the side-country near the highway, so we all crawled into the little thing to pour some OJ into a bottle of cheap champagne we’d brought along and pass around the “mimosas.” These were among the ways we specifically blended the sacred and the profane to create our mountain church. Which brings me back to my original question: “If a tree falls in a forest…what happens to the other trees?”

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You see, the 18th century thought experiment from which I’m deriving my own question is an inquiry into the relationship between perception and reality: Is there any such thing as “unperceived” or “absolute” reality; and if so, how would we know? In A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (circa 1710), George Berkeley wrote, “It takes very little enquiry into our own thoughts to know for sure whether we can understand what is meant by ‘the absolute existence of perceptible objects outside the mind’. To me it is clear that those words mark out either a direct contradiction or else nothing at all.”

With that possibility in mind, I try to convey in these words that Morgan understood a part of my soul differently than any other person in this world, and I know that I understood a particular part of his unique to all others, too. So, now that one of my “soul brothers” is suddenly gone from this life, one important piece of my loss is that a part of my own soul is no longer seen. I am very relational in the way I live my life, and I’m thankful to have a rich tapestry of people I call family all over the country and beyond; but not one of them gets that particular little part of my soul in the way that Morgan did. And so I’m left to wonder, if that piece of my soul is no longer perceived, is it still there? Did I literally lose a piece of myself when I suddenly lost my fellow senior pastor in the great mountain church?

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Spring skiing in mid-winter conditions, Silver Peak, once more back in “the Home Court.”

Or to reach a bit more currently than the 18th century, I’m considering the Observer Effect, “one of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, [which] states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.” And, as another writer put it,

Though many scientists have understandably avoided public discourse on the mystical implications of the observer effect, it is, indeed, the elephant in the room.

I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions, especially writing this piece only five days after my brother Morgan was killed. Just as I believe that there’s no such thing as “moving on” from a deceased loved one, only “moving forward” and integrating our loss into our story, so do I also have the hope and belief that I’ll be seen in new ways by new “co-pastors” in my future forms of mountain- and mystical-ministry. I still hear my calling to connect people and planet, to grow the state of Love in the world, and to practice my embodied theology through a visceral, wallowing, wrestling relationship with the wild Earth and the Divine.

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Sierra and Midnight, our BFF mountain dogs, if ever there was a pair.

As for that exact piece of me which was uniquely perceived and understood by Morgan, and the question of its existence in his absence, I was struck late last night with an appropriate source of inspiration: the Zen Buddhist notion of Satori. I call this an “appropriate source” because Morgan and I particularly shared a love of the writer, Gary Snyder, who spent formative parts of his upbringing in “our” mountains before becoming famous among the beat poets, a notable “mountain madman,” and a student of haiku and Zen Buddhism in Japan intermittently for many years. I think it would be fair to suggest that Snyder’s process and style of blending Zen Buddhism, Pacific Northwest Native cultures, and a modern white American man’s approach to environmentalism and the mountain lifestyle did much to inform both of our own.

Satori, in one definition, is “seeing into one’s true nature.” It can be likened to enlightenment or a true

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“satori”

understanding of non-permanence, a lack of grasping at or for outside relationships or activities or practices to improve one’s state of mind and being. So, as an attempt to use the notion of satori to answer my question about whether the part of my soul which was only perceived by Morgan is no longer here because Morgan is no longer here, perhaps the answer is no. That part of me is not gone, although it may be diminished for a time. And when I reach a time when I can really move forward and integrate Morgan’s death into my own life and story, perhaps I will regain that part of myself which only Morgan truly saw. It will once again be perceived, which will bring it back into being, and that perceiver will be (if no one else) myself.

So, all I need to do is to move forward through my grieving process in order to reduce my sense of grasping for my deceased dear friend, and then attain such an enlightened state of self-awareness and seeing into my own true nature that I can be the archetypal observer of my own whole, intact soul, bringing all parts of myself most fully into being! Easy, right?…

I can hear Morgan now, laughing at me and the way I’m so paralytically stuck on questions like these today as I mourn him. And that’s exactly why I not only miss that dear mountain mystic; I miss that obscene, goofy ass of a man, too.

Looks like I won’t be reaching satori anytime quite too soon.

I miss you, Morg. I always will.

So it goes.

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Hitching a ride on an “Olympic Mountain Chairlift” in the storm on an overnight adventure. Hurricane Ridge, WA.

A Letter to my 2 Year Old Daughter on the Day After the Election

Dear Everly,

It’s late on the night after the election that sent Donald Trump to the White House, and I’m wide awake. I have spent most of the day today in a numb-and-tingling state of shock – not so much surprised that we as a country were capable of allowing a federal trifecta to be formed by the inhumane likes of Trump and his ilk, but the kind of shock that is a response to an experience of trauma.

Over the course of the day today, words and phrases have passed through me as the immensity of the last 24 hours really sank in. This election may affect (and, in some cases, annihilate) so many aspects of our health and safety and rights: Roe v. Wade; access to healthcare; access to education; marriage equality; degradation of our air and water and Earth; the permanent losses of public lands – and their pillaging; the high incarceration rates of our citizens (and the much higher incarceration rates of our citizens of color); the increased militarization of our police; and abuses of all varieties to be heaped upon women, LGBTQ+ peoples, Muslims, Natives, Latinx, refugees, and all other people of color. To name but a few.

Many people will die because of this day; and because of this day, many more people crying for help in the face of eminent demise will be responded to with…a tall, cold wall.

Tonight I cry, foremost, because the thing I want least in the world will happen due to this election: you, my dear child, you will suffer because of this day. I’m no psychic with the vision to tell you exactly how and when you will suffer in the years to come; but I do have the vision to see what is in front of my face, and that is fairly apparent evidence that this will hurt before it gets better. A lot.

I want so much to tell you what others on social media have been telling me all day today, that it’s going to be okay and I will protect you. I want to quote MLK (quoting Thomas Carlyle) and say, “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” But I can’t. Because that’s not what feels true, at least not today.

However, my daughter, these things I will vow to you today, with a renewed sense of urgency and resolve:

  1. I will protect you or else I will give up everything I have trying.

  2. I will teach you how to protect yourself, who to tell and who not to tell when you need help.

  3. I will insist that you are in charge of your body, and I will be the first man to respect your choices for your body.

  4. I will love you. I will show you and your mother that I love you everyday as long as we’re blessed to share this life together. And we will be instruments of Love in the lives of others, together, in these hard days, too.

  5. I will show you how a man can cook and clean and care for his children and animals, as your mother shows you how a woman can thrive as the income-earner for her family (we’ll each show you the opposite, too, but you’ll see plenty of those models every time you watch a movie or tv show or step outside the house).

  6. I will help you to see the sameness and the differences in other people, because you need to know how interconnected you are with all your human siblings; but you also need to know how intersectional oppression works, to wrestle with how you carry the privileges you’ve been born with.

  7. I will help you to build regular practices to connect with yourself, your family/community, Nature, and the Divine – however it is that you come to articulate what you call Divine in your life, whether or not it’s the same as me. What matters is that you know that you belong in each of these ways.

  8. I will show you that it doesn’t matter if we can see exactly how an injustice directly affects us; what matters is if we see injustices at all. I will ensure that you know what Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Instead, we will see sickness where we find it; we will speak out about the sickness and heal it from a foundation of Love; we will link arms with those whose lives are bound with ours, and we will smash those evils which make our society sick in the first place.

I’ll be honest, little one. I’m relieved that you’re still young enough that I didn’t have to explain to you what was happening last night or today. I see my friends whose children, some only a little older than you, were too scared to go to bed last night or were confused and upset over breakfast this morning. And, like my friends, I didn’t even know what to tell myself, let alone how I could explain it to my kid. My highest hope is that, by the time you’re old enough to understand everything in this letter, it’s closer to a history lesson than a current event.

May we all find the fortitude and cooperation to see to it that this death throe of an archaic way of relating to other people and the Earth is over quickly.

As Dr. King said in that same address,

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.”

Love always,

Dada.

Truly Amazing Grace

In my spiritual community, we use the hymn Amazing Grace in our ceremonial “songbook” (the quotes are because there is not a printed official songbook in our largely oral tradition of song-keeping). It is possibly the only old Christian hymn that we reach for with any regularity in my Earth-centered pantheistic community. When we sing it, though, it is usually hummed except for the last line, “was blind but now I see.” Most often, it will only be in the final round of the song that we will use those lyrics as an indicator that the song is closing – after any number of rounds. I did not initiate this practice, but I have led it that way many times now.

Recently, I was turned on to a movement called Beer and Hymns through one of my classes in Divinity school. If you haven’t heard of Beer and Hymns, you can see a 4-minute video here about an emergent community in North Carolina that’s getting started with it, or you can look here and here for some videos of a pretty enthusiastic Beer and Hymns crowd at a festival in Britain.

A scant peek around the comments section of these Beer and Hymns videos will quickly paint a picture which is common to nearly any emergent spiritual community (Christian or otherwise): these new practices aren’t exactly universally popular. Some call Beer and Hymns embodied practice or talk about how it immediately brought them to tears; others call it blasphemous, heretical, and debauchery masquerading as worship. Even among those who are into the Beer and Hymns movement, there seem to be as many impressions of it as there are participants. Among my classmates in grad school, some talked about how they appreciated the way the movement shows that the faith is alive among so many people, that so many believers of the old traditional scriptures are creating new ways to worship.

But that’s not at all what I’m seeing (pronounced “projecting”).

Beer and Hymns resonates with me because I see people who, like me, may have been raised on these hymns and are longing for a feeling locked deep in the gut of their memory associated with these songs; but, in this environment, they may have found a method by which to shed those ideas and allegiances and politics which, at some point or another, got in the way of that old feeling from growing up.

I carry a lot of wounds from my religious upbringing, a statement which resonates with many people with whom I practice, and most of us were raised in various Christian denominations. In my case, a sense of personal reclamation of the song Amazing Grace was one of my earliest breakthroughs in reconciling my religious past when I returned to any kind of spiritual practice in community after many years of walking away from it altogether. I discovered new ways to own my positive, meaningful feelings with such embedded visceral memories of music without allowing all that other shit to get in the way and strip those feelings away from me.

For me, the lyrics to Amazing Grace are a veritable minefield of triggers which don’t represent my theology: original sin, a relationship of fear with the imago Dei masculine God, dogmatic acceptance of belief as an avenue to salvation, among others.

But that song hits me deep. In a good way. I immediately conjure memories of singing in a pew with my grandfather, a man who couldn’t carry a tune to save his life, but when he was feeling the spirit he had a full set of lungs ready to let ‘er rip to the rafters – and that song was one of his favorites. I also played that song on trumpet for my grandparents’ church when I was in the sixth grade and had only been playing for 2 or 3 months; my performance of the song was straight terrible – I was cracking every other note and really hadn’t even mastered any kind of tonal quality in the first place. But that congregation was so gracious afterward in their gratitude for such a truly youthful contribution to their worship service.

So, that’s my reconciliation: Owning those rich old connections with Spirit without worrying about the specifics that don’t work in my cosmology any longer.

I sometimes hum Amazing Grace as a lullaby for my little girl in the same way that I do in ceremony. I hope that she develops the sort of grounding and calming association with that song that her father has; but I also hope very strongly that she doesn’t develop any of my baggage with it, too. And I’m grateful that, today, that’s a line I feel empowered to walk.

the Eagles and the Duck

I was out running one sunny afternoon last spring in Seattle’s Seward Park, a preserved peninsula set in a protected little corner of Lake Washington. The majority of the peninsula houses one of the few healthy, old forests left within the city limits, so it provides a home for an impressive assortment of native wildlife, including a couple of eagle nests which are re-inhabited every year.

On this day, I was running along the paved trail which traces the perimeter of the little peninsula. As I came around a bend, I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks, struck by an intense commotion in front of me. There, not fifty feet from the shore, a pair of mature bald eagles took turns circling and diving hard at the water. As I stood and stared, a small duck came up for air, shrieking and flapping before swimming furiously back beneath the safety of the waterline. In short succession, again and again, this pattern played out, and I just stood and stared.

Intense feelings of anticipation washed over me each time one of the eagles struck down at the water; and as the eagle flapped back into the air with empty talons, I let out a sigh, suddenly conscious that I had been holding my breath.

As this scene replayed rapidly, I realized that I didn’t know who I was rooting for, the eagles or the duck. Every time one of the eagles turned down to take another hit at the water, I felt that same tension well up in my chest; but still, was I anxious to see the eagle emerge empty-taloned once more or to have a small, dying duck in his grasp?

Watching on, I tried to rationalize my experience: I had been monitoring both of the eagles’ nests in the park every season for the six years that I lived near the park, and I knew that there was at least one little eaglet in at least one of the nests this year (since eagles’ nests tend to be very wide and deep, and set high in a tree, it’s difficult to get a good glimpse at the little eaglets until they’re fledgling; so this early in the season, I only knew that they had youngsters by the nesting behaviors of the mated pairs of adults). I speculated that these two must be hunting for a hearty meal for their little ones, and I would have loved to change course for the rest of my run to head toward their nest and see if I could watch them feed a fresh kill to their progeny. On the other hand, ever the fan of the underdog that I am, I loved watching the seemingly helpless little duck slip out of the grasp of the comparably ginormous predators time and again.

So, which was it? Was I feeling these waves of tension and release as I was transfixed by the scene before me because I was on team duck or team eagle? In that moment, as the question of avian allegiance loomed heavier than the two enormous raptors a shy fifty feet away, I suddenly remembered one of my favorite quotes from Joseph Campbell:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Perhaps that describes what was actually demanding my gaze so irresistibly, the rapture of being alive. I had been in my practice of presence in breath and body and nature as I had been running around the lake before I approached that bend in the trail; but suddenly here was something much more gripping, demanding my complete awareness and leaving no room for drifting thoughts or the music in my headphones, no room to care about how I hadn’t paused my run-tracking app on my phone for this unscheduled stop in my workout. I was suddenly gripped with another animal’s – three other animal’s – fight for life in the throes of the rapture of being alive!

Could this simple quote capture so much more of a nearly universal yearning we humans feel for the proclivity to seek close encounters with wildlife, especially those of us who live in a world where our day-to-day goings on seem so separated from the natural world, from natural time and the rhythm of the life which surrounds us?

I say yes, it does.

And by the way, the underdog won the battle in the end. As one of the eagles was coming up from yet another unsuccessful dive for its prey, the little duck saw its window of opportunity and flew hard and low against the surface of the lake to escape to the safety of some tall grasses or a raft of other ducks with which to reacquire some strength in numbers. And the two large, hungry bald eagles flapped heavily away to look for another source of food elsewhere while I plugged my headphones back in my ears and tried to remember where to find my breath and body as I continued my last lap around the park.

Ritual Risk Management

Risk management influences our contemporary ritual practices in ever-growing ways: communities eliminating potluck meals because of questions about food handling safety in people’s kitchens, Christian congregations eliminating handshakes from the sign of peace out of concern for influenza transmission, pre-portioning and individualizing communion servings of bread and wine out of concern for spreading diseases, and the list continues.

Ewwww! They’re touching!

You may see these as smart choices or you may see them as signs of cultural hypochondria. Regardless, it is critically important that we engage the question, at what point does our withdrawal from physical contact in ceremony reflect an emotional, metaphysical, or spiritual withdrawal from one another and, ultimately, from the Divine?

The thing is, I get it. I have my own boundaries in these conversations, especially when it concerns how I manage groups in the wilderness – a sacred environment and experience, to be sure. For example, how important is it to you to be barefoot outdoors, especially on the beach? Can you imagine a beach vacation in which you never had that visceral pleasure of wriggling your toes through the wet sand as the shallow surf rhythmically buried your feet a little deeper? Among many outdoor educators (myself included), this sort of experience is downright sacred. But, now let’s apply that sacred experience to a backcountry environment with youth participants, and weigh the value of (1) allowing the youth the experience of barefoot connection to the Earth against (2) best management practices for safety in a remote environment.

Mystical experience or accident waiting to happen?

A number of years ago, I was working as the lead guide for a 3-week wilderness rite of passage experience for a group of teenagers. During our first leg of the course, while thru-hiking Washington’s Olympic Mountains, I elected to allow the youth to go barefoot while we were swimming in an alpine lake. The organization I was working for had no policy about full-time footwear in the wilderness, and I was feeling flexible around this question about connection with the Sacred. However, the next night it became apparent that two of the participants had cut their feet while swimming the day before; since neither of them told anyone it happened for more than a day, another guide and I had the less-than-pleasant privilege of irrigating their wounds by headlamp after dark. We were about 20 miles from the nearest trailhead, and their wounded feet had been in their dank, dirty boots and socks while hiking all day (talk about squeamishness around ritualistic foot washing!).

In the end, we were able to irrigate and bandage both of the participants’ feet well enough to prevent any infections and they were both able to stay on the course for the remaining 2 weeks. I have not allowed any of my wilderness program participants to swim barefoot in the backcountry since then. However, anytime the question has arisen, I make sure to give voice to my own struggle with my policy – it is important to have visceral connections with the Earth, particularly in the sacred environment and heart space of a wilderness experience. And we are sacrificing something when we can only connect with the Earth through the rubber soles of our shoes, but not as much as we’re sacrificing when a member of our party can’t walk due to a foot injury and we’re twenty miles away from the nearest road.

So, how do we apply the same kind of risk management to our front-country experiences with our congregations and spiritual communities? If we continually make choices to reduce our physical connections with one another during ritual experiences in the name of hygiene, how do we honor the sacrifice of sacred intimacy which we are committing as a result? And how often do we revisit the cycle of reflection and revision to those choices in order to reexamine the tipping point between these different measures of health for our communities?