Snowing

Snow falling near our pitch pine

It is snowing right now, so lovely. We have had very little snow this winter in Maine. Today’s snow will be turning to rain in a couple hours they say, so I take some moments to appreciate it. But mostly right now I am thinking about sorrow and grief. A dear friend’s loved one who just died from COVID. Another friend who is sick from some unknown thing. People within my circle of friends and relatives who are struggling with loneliness and depression and worry. I am holding all of them in my heart today, as the snow falls so gently and kindly.

In Maine, they are opening up vaccination appointments to people in our age group next week. For us personally, this is both good news and not quite so good. We would have already been in the next age group, 65-69, but instead they’ve opened it up to everyone 60-69, so there will be 200,000 people looking for appointments in the next weeks, instead of 90,000. Maine has switched to an entirely age-based plan, aside from health care workers and congregate living elders who also have priority. I feel for my younger friends dealing with precarious medical situations in themselves or their families. Lots of folks are feeling upset that they will have to wait longer, though the hope is to vaccinate all adults by midsummer, and sooner if more vaccine becomes available.

Apparently, from a public health perspective, more lives can be saved by using age-based criteria, age being a major indicator of possible death and serious illness from COVID. (At least here in Maine, which has a significantly older population than some other states.) And more vaccines can be given out sooner if providers don’t have to deal with all sorts of paperwork and screening issues, which would be needed if they were to account for medical conditions. I had my moments of frustration about our spots in the long line, but then was able to shift focus to a wider lens. We, like everyone else, look forward to the day when we can more safely navigate our lives, go back to physical therapy, or catch up on delayed medical care. Not to mention gathering with friends, seeing loved ones, or just going out for a meal. But we’re all waiting, and we are in this together, even as we are feeling so much alone.

So I come back to a sense of patience, gentle like the falling snowflakes, letting go of the merely individual view and taking the wider view of all of us as a people, navigating this terrible pandemic in the best way we are able, together. I feel this patience especially now that our national government is also concerned with the health of the people, and is responding with a coordinated and extensive response. I still feel so angry that the previous administration ignored all the wisdom of public health, left local and state governments to fend for themselves, and abandoned half a million people to die. If they had responded immediately and cooperatively, so many lives could have been saved. Unforgivable. Unforgivable.

I weep for those who have died, and for those who are left behind in grief. I weep for our country, in the throes of its struggle between individualistic power grabbing and collective compassion for all. Today, my sadness is my prayer, and the gentle falling of snowflakes.

Ice Beauty

No matter how many years I have lived, I am still brought to utter delight by the icy beauty of plants in the sunshine, after a freezing rain. There is nothing so bright, so crystalline, so shimmering!

I have lived most of my life in Northern areas of the United States (except for 6 months in Texas when I was seven.) So we here are accustomed to all sorts of wintery weather. But today I am also thinking of my relatives in Texas who are in their own icy cold, so rare in that place that they are dealing with burst water pipes, lack of heat, lack of electricity. I wish for them and all their neighbors warmth, help, and support to face the challenges.

These are the among the dangers we face more and more from climate change, or as some say so accurately, climate catastrophe. I wish we could come together as one earth community to begin to live differently, to live as if our lives are totally dependent on our mother Earth and all of her beings. Because we are. And even working together we will face difficult days ahead. So much has already been lost and altered. And still, we must also be so compassionate during these difficult times, because unless we love, we can never come together as one earth community. And we must keep hold of joy and beauty, or we will lose hope altogether.

So I am sharing these photos from around our yard for beauty. May the beauty of nature help us in all of our troubling times!

Icy tree branches sparkling in the sun.
Icy plants against the fence.
Icy St. John’s Wort through the window.
Icy yew branches just outside the door.

What does an elder do?

I am writing on the New Moon day, while in Congress our representatives are debating the impeachment of President Trump. On the New Moon, I always read my journal from the day of the last New Moon, and I note recurring themes in my days. One recurring theme for me this moon has been feeling empty and lost–I asked in my journal several times, “What is my purpose in this time of my life?” I am an elder now, and because of chronic illness, my energy is limited. What does it mean to be an elder in these times?

One of my images for the Divine Mystery is the River–the flow, the great unfolding of all things, the mysterious energy that holds us in its flowing. So one day, I prayed: I do not know my purpose–I open to your flowing oh River, I open to your flowing, and thank you.

I went outside after that, and there were tiny bits of hail on the dry ground. I started on a walk down the street and around the corner and directly toward the Capisic Brook near my house. Part-way there, I slid on a small patch of ice hidden under the scattered hail and landed on my back and elbow. I was bruised but okay, and even continued on to the brook and back, though I felt shaky about it into the next day, and have been sore since then.

The tiny hail on the ground in our back yard that day.

So reading my journal, I couldn’t help but notice that this fall came directly after my prayer to the River about my purpose, my surrender to the flowing. I wondered, “What’s that about, Spirit? What kind of answer to prayer is that?” I remembered a story about St. Teresa of Avila, who after a bad day had a fall of her own into the mud. She challenged God then, “Why?” and God said, “That is how I treat my friends.” She replied, “That is why you have so few!” (These were the Catholic stories I grew up on.)

I do know that the Spirit has a sense of humor, but might this fall mean something more subtle, like “Now is not the time to move forward or worry about having a purpose?” “Or, what?” And so today I sat quietly with Spirit, and with Billie kitty on my arm, seeking help to understand. Here is what came to me.

Don’t worry. The answer is to live into the answer by a hundred small intuitions. Joy. Love. As an elder, to let go of fixing, to be rooted in joy and love. You learn to end a day, or a life, by living into each day, each life. Feel the feelings. I didn’t knock you over, but it is in the nature of life to fall and to get up, to be wounded and to heal, to encounter hidden dangers without warning, to take time for recovery and to build resilience, to be broken and to be one with the whole.

As an eldest child, you felt responsible for everything. As an elder, you can learn that you are not responsible for everything. And yes, that is frightening. But you can feel the fear and rest in my love. You can lead as you have been leading, by sharing the skills and sharing the responsibility with each other, caring and connecting, just as you are.

And so here I am, in this hermitage life, trying to listen to the flow of the Spirit, learning a new way of being, an elder way of being, not responsible for everything. Even in this hermitage, the storms of the outside world rage into our lives through internet and television, and our power to act is so small. I hope and pray that those who can act, will do the right thing, do the brave thing, will hold fast to the good and resist greed and racism and violence and fascism. I hope and pray for a world in which all people care for each other and care for the earth. It is a frightening time. So I feel those feelings, and remember the next part–to rest in the love of Spirit.

Capisic Brook, the little stream that reminds me of the deep River.

Winter Solstice

Sun shining over brook on winter solstice morning

It is the morning of winter solstice. I take a walk to the brook. The new sun is shining in a misty sky, fresh and gentle. Snow covers the ground here in the homelands of the Wabanaki, the stolen land called Maine. I am awestruck by so much beauty everywhere, grateful for the brook and its trees, for the light of the sun, for this neighborhood walk. Now that the gardening work is asleep under the snow, I am trying to go back to taking walks in the morning.

Kisuhs koti-apacuhse” is the Passamaquoddy/Wolastoqey way to say the winter solstice. It literally means “the sun comes back walking.” So maybe I, too, can come back walking–nkoti-apacuhs nil na. Today I was able to do my 20 minute circuit. Some days ago, I had started with 10 minutes, then 15–by going slightly different ways to the brook and back. For some reason, perhaps a new supplement I am taking, my energy has been returning in the mornings again. It is much easier to walk on sunny days than on cloudy ones. By the way, the sun is also known as the one who walks in the day, espotewset kisuhs.

Tonight just after sunset, there will be a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn low in the southwest sky–perhaps it will be too cloudy to see it here–we’d have to drive somewhere in any case, because the southwest of our yard is thick with tall pine trees. I think of Jupiter as the planet of expansiveness and generosity, Saturn as the planet of limitations and boundaries. 2020 has certainly been a year of limitations and boundaries for so many. So perhaps these opposites coming together give a glimmer of new hope, that we might find our way out of this restrictive place we’ve been in. Ironically, it has been through restrictions that we have had the hope of surviving, but we also need generosity to ensure our survival as a people together, to come out the other side with possibility. Can we learn both boundaries and generosity? Can we find a way out of the individualistic greed demon that plagues our society? I pray we can.

I pray that this Solstice may be a turning toward greater light and truth, a recognition of the interwoven fate of all humankind, all life kind, on our beloved planet earth.

My Lesbian Book

Thirty years ago, I wrote a thesis about lesbian identities and lesbian spiritualities: a lesbian theology of liberation. I didn’t have the grounding and context to publish it beyond my academic program, and I have always regretted that it didn’t make it into a book. Recently, I have been asking myself, could I find a way to publish it now?

It seems in one sense a foolish idea, because so much has changed in thirty years. The realities of then are not the realities of now. But while much of the change has been empowering for lesbians and others on the LGBTQ continuum, some things have been lost as well. There was something amazing about the flowering of lesbian community I experienced during that time–joyful, life altering, transformative.

I first encountered lesbian community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places, and at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival in 1979. This was before my own coming out, and certainly an instrumental part of my coming out, though that process took several years. There was a fundamental intersection between lesbian and feminist communities that was happening then, that opened up this world to me. In 1983 I moved to Chicago to go back to school, and found more lesbian community there.

ADB jam, Women’s Peace Camp, 1985. Photo by hershe Michele. https://peacecampherstory.blogspot.com/2014/12/herstory-028-helen-friedman-aka-helen.html

In 1985 and 86, I lived at the Women’s Peace Encampment in upstate New York for several months of each year, and that was like crossing the border into Lesbian Nation. The photo above is from a musical jam session that was one of many I participated in, though I am not in that particular photo. In 1986 I moved to the Boston area. The feminist and lesbian communities there were large and diverse: they supported–and were supported by–two book stores, several lesbian bars, a women’s community center, a woman’s monthly periodical, and so much more. It was in 1990-91 that I wrote my thesis in the context of Episcopal Divinity School’s Feminist Liberation Theology and Ministry program.

When I left Boston in 1999, it was to venture into a career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, which brought me back into the more mainstream world. I was still out as a lesbian, I was still connected to other lesbians, but being a minister shaped my role and altered my relationship to community. That, and the fact of changing my location, first to Cape Cod and then to Portland, Maine, which were very different places from Boston. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like the lesbian community I knew disappeared. I might have thought this was just my personal experience, but then in 2016, Bonnie Morris published The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbians Spaces and Culture. I haven’t yet read her book, but it has been sitting on my bedside table waiting.

It has only been in retirement, in older age, and perhaps in the isolation of this pandemic, that I have looked back at my lesbian thesis and wondered about it. From thirty years on, I can see how difficult it has been for us to pass on a “lesbian heritage” from one generation to the next. I notice how individuals of newer generations may sometimes find themselves lost and lonely as they try to grapple with sexual or gender identity. I also notice how newer generations re-invent themselves on their own, and in their own ways, very differently from those of us in earlier generations. So perhaps all of that is fine.

But perhaps there might be something valuable in resurrecting the voice of the me of thirty years ago, perhaps it might be useful to someone. After I did an oral history for a program at the University of Southern Maine, a student who listened to the recording was inspired to write a poem, “What if God were a lesbian?” And significantly, that was very like the original question that inspired my own book. What if?

Magic in the midst of illness

Woke up to a misty morning on this new moon day, and started reading my journal from the last new moon until today. It is a ceremony I honor each new moon, and it is a way for my life to teach me.

I was struck by some passages from the time of Halloween/Samhain, that special time of connections to the ancestors. Because of chronic illness and its deep fatigue, I haven’t felt very spiritually focused lately, not much energy for deep ritual. Plus in COVID times, we don’t have our seasonal gatherings either. But it seems like the ancestors and spirits are reaching out to me nonetheless.

I did manage to cook salmon and potatoes for dinner on Samhain to honor some of Margy’s and my various ancestors. I listened to Quebecois music while doing dishes, and drank East Frisian tea. During the night of the full moon/blue moon I suddenly woke at 4 a.m. and saw the moon shining brightly outside my window. The next day, I saw a cardinal–my healing messenger bird–at the bird-feeder–the only time I’ve seen one there all this season. I was watching TV a couple days later and stumbled upon the movie Coco, which (despite its flaws) got me into the mood of Dia de los Muertos.

Marigolds growing self-seeded in our garden strip near the road.

I was looking for things to watch on our Roku and stumbled upon a series on Canadian Rivers. The best episode was on the Moisie River, or Mishtashipu in the Innu language. I had first learned about this river from Innu people who were fighting to protect it from a hydrodam planned by Hydroquebec. They won that fight, partly because there were also rich white people trying to protect their own salmon fishing. It was beautiful to see the river, and to listen to the Innu people who call it home. (And by the way, the word-segment “ship” in Mishtashipu is a cognate to “sip” in Passamaquoddy, which means river. I feel happy to know that.)

All these little threads meandering unexpected through my days, pulled from me this prayer: “Ancestors, are you reaching out to me from the other side of the veil? Even though I have so little spiritual concentration or focus right now? I open my heart to your presence.” I remembered magical moments of other times when I felt the presence of spirit close by. When my Innu ancient-grandmother, Nukum, first appeared, holding a bowl full of the universe. When I was able, despite all odds, to find the grave of my great-grandmother Claudia in Ottawa. When I was sitting right next to my dad as he took his final breath on this earth.

At the tiny headstone of my great-grandmother Claudia.

During those Samhain days, I was also working on a testimony about my family’s role in colonization. I was feeling the weight of the ancestors–the migrations, the wars, so much. I was feeling overwhelmed by that weight, I was feeling that I could not carry that weight, or imagine ways to find healing for this aspect of my heritage. I feel weary even from the weight of my many living relatives who seem trapped in a cult of lies, there is much estrangement between us. And so once again I reach back to spirit kin.

Finally, I hear: “You don’t have to carry the weight. Let go. Remember trust. I am here even when you cannot hear me, in this dark night of the mind and body. You are already in my hands. It was never a question of guilt or innocence. It was always about love. It is okay to trust my love. Breathe in love.”

And so, today, day of the new moon–this new moon which is also considered part of the time of closeness to the ancestors and spirits–I let myself hear those words again. There is room for magic to intervene, even in the midst of illness and fatigue, even when I cannot dance or sing or build a fire. And I am filled with gratitude.

What’s Next?

Fruit trees with painted trunks.

Today I felt filled with an enormous dread, watching the attempted coup by a president who won’t acknowledge the results of a valid election, watching the followers who enable him to keep undermining the vote. I had felt relieved after the votes were counted. Perhaps we were back to more ordinary times and struggles–certainly the struggles were not over, but some semblance of a social order were on track to be restored.

But then I read an account by someone who had lived through a coup in their own country, Sri Lanka, who said that America is already having one right now, and I sank into a kind of terror. I won’t repeat their story here–you can read it via the link. Just to say that undermining faith in the results of an election can disrupt the very fabric of a fragile democracy, and is an invitation to ongoing chaos.

In my dread, I went outside–into a cloudy warm day–perhaps the last of these summer-like days–where Margy was working in the yard. She got in the hammock with me and I could just feel all the feelings of terror, but with the comfort of love, the comfort of the earth and sky. I certainly don’t have the answers for what we can do, what anyone can do, about this coup. I hope someone who might have the power and the answers is talking about it somewhere.

The other thing that, ironically, has relieved my anxieties about the election and the coup is a novel I have been reading about climate change. It is the latest work by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future. Set in the very near future, the title refers to an international agency that is formed to be a voice for future generations in the international arena. It’s a fragmented sort of novel, with each chapter a small piece in a larger fabric, and only a few on-going characters to help keep the thread going. Like in some of his other works, Robinson’s characters are trying out all sorts of ideas to turn around or mitigate the catastrophes of climate warming. Perhaps it will get more hopeful as I keep reading, but for now, it is sobering. So the terrors of a coup are replaced by the terrors of climate catastrophe–but those terrors are more familiar to me.

In the meantime, Margy and I seize the opportunity of our own strange weather to replenish the soil in our little part of the earth–another visit to the beach to get more seaweed, more sifting of compost (to get the roots and stones out) to put near the fruit trees, raspberries, bushes in the back of the yard. As much compost as I can sift, I put it somewhere. As much seaweed as we can collect, we put it somewhere.

For the fruit trees, also, a few weeks ago I painted their trunks white. There is a whole story to this. I had read about painting the trunks of trees white to protect them from sun damage in the winter, to protect from insects burrowing. But when I first read about it, people were talking about using latex paint, and that didn’t feel true to the spirit of organic permaculture.

Then, this fall, searching the web for another project–looking for food safe paints–I came across milk paint. This is the old-fashioned white wash that Tom Sawyer used, that most people used before the modern age. It’s made of natural ingredients: milk proteins, lime, and pigments. It has no VOCs to emit, no scents to be allergic to. It came in a powder that I mixed with water, in the amount I needed for the trees. The powder will last a long time, but the mixed paint only a couple weeks. So I painted the tree trunks. You can use it for lots of things, not just trees. Finding resources that cause no harm to the earth–that help the earth–these are like little miracles that never cease to delight me.

Raised Garden Bed, Part 2

After putting in the structure of my cedar raised garden bed, I have been gradually filling it with layers of compostable material along with the soil I had taken out. This is called “sheet mulching” or “lasagna gardening” and is a great easy method to enrich the soil. In its most complete form, sheet mulching includes laying down cardboard or newspapers on top of whatever is growing on the ground (lawn, etc.) without any digging required. But since I wanted to have a deeper root zone in this raised bed, I did weed the soil and dig down deeper. Autumn is an excellent time to sheet mulch because the bed will have all winter to decompose and be ready for planting in the spring.

This is a form of composting in place, so you alternate layers using amendments rich in nitrogen (called “green”) or carbon (“brown”), but it also depends on what you happen to have in your yard. A basic permaculture principle is that waste is just nourishment for another part of the life cycle. So we are taking “waste” and giving it a chance to grow food next year. We have lots of leaves in our yard, so that is an important source of “brown”, and we also live within a half hour of the beach, so we use seaweed gathered at the shore as a source of “green.” I had a chance to go to Kettle Cove on Sunday to gather a bunch.

Kettle cove beach with seaweed.

Here is my list of layers from the bottom (5 inches below ground level) up, with some photos along the way:

  • soil from the site
  • rock dust: I added some handfuls of rock dust, which adds trace minerals (I had collected a bucket-full a few years ago from a local quarry.)
Rock dust over soil in raised bed.
Rock Dust over soil
  • a bit of old seaweed, collected earlier this year.
  • leaves mixed with a little bit of grass clippings, from Margy’s leaf collecting.
  • a few branches (I remembered this from my hugelkultur adventures) These are good for water retention, slow release of nutrients—I just added a few, and then buried them in the leaves—I could have done a lot more, but also didn’t want to limit the roots.
leaves, branches
  • more soil
  • After my trip to the beach, I added more fresh seaweed, a generous layer of it: seaweed is a great source for nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and magnesium, and many trace minerals. Note, I also added the second layer of cedar planks to bring it to its full height of 11 inches.
Seaweed in the raised bed.
  • more dried leaves with a little bit of grass clippings
  • composted coffee chaff (which was in a barrel we kept next to our compost bin to add after kitchen scraps: after a couple years it composted itself!)
  • more soil
  • a couple inches of composted manure: we have a pile of it from last year, but we have to sift it because it has become full of roots.
  • green cuttings from garden cleanup.
Garden cuttings over compost.
  • leaf mould from leaves left in a barrel for a couple years
  • more leaves to top it off.

And today it is complete! The rest will be done by winter, and soil creatures and time.

Raised Garden Bed, Part 1

I have to laugh at myself. After hardly having enough energy to keep up with the garden all summer, I took on the idea of creating a new raised bed. It was a 3′ by 6′ by 11″ kit with eight planks of cedar and 4 metal poles to insert in holes at the corners, but I bravely decided to add hardware cloth underneath to protect against little tunneling creatures. (And on that note, I managed to catch a glimpse of a tunneler in the act–turns out to be a tiny star-nosed mole. It seems to especially like to burrow under our wood chip paths. But apparently they are not huge hazards to the garden, so that is good to know. They eat grubs and other insects, not roots.)

So everything arrived–kit, hardware cloth, staple gun, staples–and I started to figure out how to be able to assemble the 4 foot wide hardware cloth to the boards so it would go 5 or 6 inches into the ground to make room for deeper roots. After a lot of math, several scratches on my hands, and many staples, step one complete:

Hardware cloth stapled to cedar planks.

Margy helped me move the whole thing over to the 3 by 6 hole that I had dug earlier.

Hole dug in ground with dirt in two wheelbarrow on either end.
Hardware cloth and planks over hole.

I assembled the bed by bending in the corners of the hardware cloth so that the ends of the planks met, and then I secured the planks with the metal poles. But it didn’t fit into the hole I had dug–the hole was too shallow. So I tilted the whole assembly over to stand on its side, while I did more digging, piling the extra dirt on a piece of cardboard on the side.

Cedar planks and hardware cloth assembled and on its side next to hole

I repeated this step several times until finally everything fit. Hurray! I added the dirt from the cardboard into the cedar bed, and called it enough for one day. I still have to add the second tier of cedar planks, and all the contents–but that can be a new post.

Cedar bed in/on the ground

Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle of it all, I was happy to take time to collapse in the hammock with Margy. I am sore and exhausted, but it was a good day.

Two pairs of feet side by side in the hammock.

Autumn Colors

The last few days have been so beautiful in our back yard. The autumn color has come to us. The best times are when Margy and I curl up in the hammock together and just look at all we can see: the trees, the sky, the clouds, the birds, the orchard. When the dusk of evening falls, we see bats fly from the trees into the clearing, diving after insects.

It is raining today, but this past week of sunny cool days I felt some new energy to work in the garden. I am weeding and cleaning up scraggly herb plants under the fruit trees–who knew that oregano could get so so wild? Two and a half patches finished and two and a half to go. The plan is to clean them up, then plant a few garlic bulbs around the trees, then refresh them with more compost. I have already sifted some compost from our very root-laden pile and added it to the hazelnut hedge.

Also, what a difference a good hand held pruner makes! I treated myself to buy a really good one, a Felco #8, which arrived at the end of September. I love it! The pruners I had before never did a good job, no matter how much I sharpened them. Now pruning is effortless. I am using them to cut the woody oregano flower shoots. Our mulberry tree (our second attempt to grow one actually) didn’t do well again–we just got two long side branches, so I pruned off the lower branch and trained and staked the higher one to be a new leader–we’ll try again to help it grow next year.

I also finally cut off the dead flowers from the plants near the street. I should have been dead-heading them all along, down to the next leaves, but so it goes. I learned this from watching old episodes of “Gardener’s World” with Monty Don, now available on Amazon Prime. When I am too tired to do much of anything, I’ve been watching that show. I’ve learned a lot, despite the climate in Britain being so much milder than in Maine. For example, I learned that dead plant stalks can sometimes provide beautiful winter structural elements.

Despite feeling like I didn’t have enough energy for everything the garden demanded this year, I got caught up into a new idea. I blame Margy because she put a cedar raised-bed kit into our Amazon save-for-later list. Now that the fruit trees are so much larger, it hasn’t worked as well to grow kale or other veggies around the perimeter of their circular beds. So after some further research, we purchased a kit for a 3′ by 6′ by 11″ raised bed. (I know most permaculture people buy wood and build their own, but sometimes you just need a kit to make it happen. So it goes in our world.)

We are going to place it next to the hugelkultur bed, with a 3 foot path in between, leaving three feet on the other side towards the hazelnut hedge. I’ve marked the space, loosened the soil there with a garden fork, and the other afternoon, I just sat on the ground slowly weeding out the crab grass as evening fell. Not much energy required, and it felt good to have my hands in the dirt. I also ordered some hardware cloth to make a barrier below the raised bed against the many small tunnelers who seem to delight in our wood chip paths. Once everything arrives, we will fill the bed with layers of seaweed, leaves, compost, soil, and so on, giving it the winter to percolate.

Still too much to do in the garden, but I feel delighted by the autumn colors, and the opportunity to learn and plant and grow, and sometimes just to lay in the hammock as the days grow shorter.