Love Unconditional

Myke and Lori, 1977, two of us standing close together, smiling. Lori is wearing a veil on taking her first vows as a Franciscan Sister.
Me and Lori, 1977, when she took her first vows as a Franciscan sister.

What does unconditional love mean? What does it gift to us in our lives? I first experienced unconditional love in my friendship with Lori Slawinski. I have been looking back on my life by going through old papers these last several weeks–my winter project. The other day, I reread dozens of letters from Lori from when we first knew each other. We met when I went to college in the fall of 1971. She was a sophomore at the time, and became the “big sister” I never had at home, my being the oldest child of so many. I haven’t found any photos from that time; this photo from 1977 is the earliest. Very quickly we became best friends, though there was a moment when she hesitated–she said she was afraid of corrupting my innocence. I can’t remember exactly what I said to her, but all I could see in her was her own bright goodness. I think each of us were surprised to be chosen and loved by the other.

Looking back from the perspective of being a lesbian, I wonder about our friendship. We were never sexual with each other, but our letters can only be described as love letters–mostly written on school vacations when we were apart from each other, missing each other, and expressing our affection with such deep passion. I had occasional crushes on boys during this time, but nothing could compare with the love I shared with Lori. Our love for each other was also expressed in the context of our passionate love for God. Lori and I were part of a small circle of friends who were trying to follow Jesus and figure out how to live the gospel in our times. All of it intermingled. From her I felt God as the unconditional lover, and from me she felt that too.

Unconditional love is a transforming energy, a grounding that helped me to believe in myself. Maybe because we weren’t trying to be “in a relationship,” we could grant each other the freedom to explore fully who we were, without expectations? Our maybe it was the spiritual rootedness that provided that freedom. We had a fantasy of continuing forever in our little community, but college is a temporary place. When she graduated, she left to join the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. I didn’t follow her there, but tried another way, eventually discovering the Catholic Worker movement. Lori was very psychic, and I remember it took a lot to claim my own inner knowing, since she always seemed to know me so well. Separating was a challenge, after being so close. But we were able to let each other go, to try to work out our own destinies.

Our lives diverged significantly when I encountered feminism, and found myself leaving Catholicism, leaving Christianity, embarking on a new spiritual path. I imagine it must have been difficult for her, yet we stayed connected. I went to Chicago Theological Seminary in 1983, came out as a lesbian while there, and she came to my graduation in 1986. (It was years later, in 1999, that I was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, but that is another story.) Somehow, the love we had for each other never wavered. We kept in touch via occasional letters and long distance visits. Sadly, Lori died of cancer in July 2012; this second photo was from our final visit in May of that year.

I am so grateful that I was able to experience her unconditional love in my life. I have had other significant loves, and still do, but her love was the root. It enabled me to come alive, to feel joy, to trust the dreams I dreamed and the ideals that guided me. Despite our different paths, that unconditional love remained tangible. Perhaps that is why my image of the divine is rooted in a Larger Love, who loves all of us unconditionally.

Have you experienced such love in your lives? Please share your stories if you might be willing? Each story reminds me of the possibilities that surprise us when we least expect.

Myke & Lori, 2012

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Humbling

Crabapple tree broken at trunk and lying on the faded green of winter lawn, with street behind, houses visible on other side.
Fallen crabapple tree

On December 23rd, a severe rain and wind storm passed through Maine, after also creating havoc with storms and snow in other states. In the early afternoon, I was sitting in the living room, and suddenly heard some sort of clattering outside. I had previously gone out in the rain to right overturned trash barrels, and so I went out again to look around. At that moment, Margy was driving into the driveway from an appointment, and she asked me–did you see the crabapple tree? Going round the side of the house, this is what came into view: one of the ornamental crabapple trees in our front yard had suddenly cracked through its trunk and fell over. It didn’t land on anything or damage anything, which was a relief, but the tree was dead.

A couple hours later, our electric power went out, along with many other thousands in Maine–though only a segment of the people on our street. The thing with power outages is–you never know if it is going to be a brief interlude, a few hours, or a few days. You enter this limbo time of unknown duration. We waited until dark, and then lit our wood stove–thank goodness our house had this wood stove when we purchased it. It is a very fine wood stove, and it will heat the entire house when needed. We don’t usually use it except for emergencies. But in fact we had used it just a week ago when our heat pumps were being repaired. We have a few flashlights and candles, so we lit those too. And I could connect to the world via my cell phone, and Facebook.

However, I have to acknowledge that it felt very dark, the sun setting at 4 p.m., and not rising until about 7 a.m. Keeping up with wood in the stove was exhausting. It was hard to just relax with the uncertainty of it all. After a Friday of warm and windy rain, the temperature dropped on Saturday to a frigid 12 degrees. I was worried about our refrigerator food, and the freezer in our basement. I covered the freezer with a few blankets. I put the food from the fridge freezer into rubber tubs, and put them out on the back deck. Then, an unexpected grace–our neighbor Brian came by, and offered to run an extension cord from their house to ours–they had not lost power. So by this gift, we were able to plug in our refrigerator.

Before the storm, we’d purchased a round shrimp plate for a holiday treat–so Friday dinner was shrimp and cheese and crackers and cucumber and carrots. A little picnic. Margy had also boiled some eggs before the storm, and we had some sliced ham, so those were other meals that didn’t need cooking. On Saturday early evening, I got a text that the power should come back at 7 p.m., but then it did not. I felt such disappointment then, and crankiness, and boredom. Later, we tried to work on a puzzle, but without a good light source, it was mostly frustrating.

It is humbling to realize how difficult I found this time without electricity. I felt disconnected, restless, and bereft. I tried reading the book I had started a little while ago, but it was a heavy subject, and I couldn’t manage it in the midst of everything else. I missed the entertainment and mental stimulation of television or streaming channels like Britbox and Prime. I missed connecting to Christmas Eve services through Zoom. I felt at a total loss. I had imagined that as I grew older, I would become more resilient with age. But I see that I am perhaps less resilient after all, that I am vulnerable and dependent in many ways. When I went to bed, I felt defeated.

For whatever reason, I woke at 3 a.m. on Christmas, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I added a log to the fire, and wrote in my journal. I think then that I surrendered to the situation I was in–that here we were, in the dark, and we didn’t know for how long–and yet, we were warm, and we had food, and kind neighbors, and offers of support via Facebook. We were not alone. I thought about the people in Ukraine right now, also facing the loss of electricity in winter, and maybe no heat or water, along with the devastation of war and bombs–so much loss and uncertainty. I found myself praying for those folks who were facing so much greater hardships. I acknowledged my vulnerability and exhaustion.

By the time the sun rose, I felt peaceful sitting near the fire, drinking some tea after I’d managed to heat water on the narrow five-inch ridge on the top of the wood stove. I was still exhausted, still humbled by the difficulty of my managing in these circumstances, but somehow at peace with all of that. It would be a lie to say that I was not relieved when our power came back on at 10 a.m. But I am glad I came to some peace within my spirit before the end of our 44 hours without power.

Fire burning in the wood stove.

How to find the magic?

Evergreen tree inside our house, decorated with lights and little ornaments, with wood stove to the right in a brick hearth.

Almost Winter Solstice here! We got our first snow the other day, just a few inches, but enough to brighten the ground. It is good. It seems the long cold nights are infiltrating my spirit, and I feel weary. As I get older, it is harder to rejoice in the season of winter–ice has tripped me up on prior walks, and bruised my bones. COVID has limited our ability to welcome guests into our home, and it is too frigid for visits in the garden. Last week, our heat pumps suddenly stopped working, and we turned to our back-up boiler, but it seemed a little clanky from disuse, so we fired up our wood stove. That sounds cozy, but I find the wood smoke gives me headaches. (Thankfully, the heat pumps were repaired in two days.)

I feel old and cranky and tired with this season. It is ironic that pagan myths often assign this season to an old woman. I wonder if the winter crone is cranky? I am wrestling with how to find the magic of this cold dark season.

I didn’t really feel like getting a holiday tree. But Margy did, so we got this tree from our local food coop. I don’t feel guilty for it being cut, because it was grown for this purpose on an organic tree farm. Seeing how many seedlings try to grow into a new forest in our yard, I know that there can be an abundance of seedlings that naturally never grow up–so this one got to grow to eight feet and then be celebrated. I find myself surprised by how good it feels to have this little tree with us in the house, like a connection to the natural world during a time when that connection is harder to feel. I feel grateful to Margy for pulling us into its sweet magic.

That is my question. How to find the magic of this cold dark season? Can I quiet my mind, rather than merely entertaining it with stories in books or on screen? (though this has often been a season of stories) Can I open my heart, even if I am far away from most friends and family and other loved ones? (reaching out with letters and cards?) Can I embrace the sorrows and fears of age, of my age, my sorrows and fears, and give them a home in this moment? (hospitality has many forms) Can I embrace the silence? Let myself sink into it, floating down like a snowflake, bury myself in the silence like the plants are buried in snow? Silent night.

Women’s Herstory

Tall thin woman with big curly hair, in old newsprint photo, singing open-mouthed holding a tambourine.
Me at 29, singing and holding a tambourine

I’ve been going through old boxes from my past, and am currently working on the time I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 1979 to 1983. It was such a different time–not many photos, for example. But I found this one in a clipping from a women’s periodical, attached to an article I wrote about how women’s history is not just reading about women from the past, but an imperative for us to make history in the present–herstory. I still believe that!

My partner at the time, Gary, and I were trying to make history/herstory through non-violent activism, and through running a Catholic Worker hospitality house. We called it Grimke Community, named after Angelina and Sarah Grimke, white southern women who worked for the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s. We opened our house to a person or family in need of emergency shelter, often in cooperation with the local battered women’s organization. The house was in a kind of land trust, and we lived there rent-free. We could pay the bills if one of us had some sort of half-time job at minimum wage.

I held various jobs during those years, from being a maternity aide for a home-birth midwifery group, to visiting women in the local jail, to cleaning houses, to being a library “page.” I was also doing a lot of music those days, and performing in any local venue I could arrange, from nursing homes to social justice rallies. It is funny to look back at my big naturally-curly hair, my extremely thin torso, and my wide-open mouth. I was learning to use my voice!

In early 1983, when this picture was taken, I was trying to make sense of how to follow my calling. It was something like a call to ministry, but still being Catholic, and being a woman, I felt like I had to invent something totally new. Eventually, I was able to take the next steps by going to Chicago to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary, where I was lucky to receive a full fellowship. Gary and I moved to Chicago to take over also, serendipitously, the leadership of St. Elizabeth Catholic Worker House. Those were years of profound transformations. And after seminary, I did invent something new for myself–a ministry which was a combination of activism, offering feminist therapy for women, and leading feminist ritual and community education. (This was years before I eventually was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister.)

Now, looking back at my own herstory, I can feel the continuity between the me of now and the me of back then. But I feel some sadness that the changes for which I struggled, while meeting some success, have also faced incredible backlash and new challenges. Still, I don’t regret any of it.

Lunar Eclipse

I woke at 3 a.m. and saw the bright full moon through my window. I woke again at 5:30 a.m., but could not see the eclipsed red moon because it was hiding low in the sky behind the many trees and buildings around our house. Still, I dreamt about the lunar eclipse all through the night. First I saw it like a giant pale cookie with a bite taken out. Then I was talking about it with others, and talking about other lunar eclipses. In my dream, I told someone about the memorable total eclipse on the night when the Red Sox were winning the world series for the first time in 86 years. That was October, 2004. We lived on Cape Cod. We were watching the baseball game, and periodically, I’d go out the front door to watch the eclipse. In my dream, I talked about how one of the effects of being old was that I remembered other lunar eclipses, and didn’t have as great a need to see this one. In a later dream, a group of people were getting ready to create a ritual to honor the moon–children, adults of all ages–and I was getting a drink of water, and then, trying to find a mug to hold more water to bring to the ritual, but everything in the cupboard was plastic or otherwise weird. Random people, both known and unknown to me. When I woke up, my cat Billie was at the window looking outside, but neither of us could see the moon. Still, we were feeling it I think. Yesterday, Margy and I filled in and dropped off our election ballots at the City Hall dropbox, and then we drove to Kettle Cove to be with the ocean. The weather was warm, sunny. I took my shoes off and waded in the water on the shore, took some photos of rocks and seagulls. We gathered seaweed to bring back to the garden. But mostly, we just sat in chairs on the sand, and listened to the surf, felt the breeze on our skin.
Seagull standing on the sandy wet shore, with surf rolling in on the right side.
A lunar eclipse feels like a transition, an omen–but for good or ill? The 2004 eclipse was good news for the Red Sox. Undoing the reputed curse of the bambino. But election day is not like a sports game, despite the way the media often frame it. Lives are at stake. When I was quite young, I was a sort of anarchist, and I heard the Emma Goldman quote, “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.” I am less dismissive with age. Even if I am voting for the lesser of two evils, I will do so. And I think of the people who died to bring the vote to women and to black Americans. They knew it was that important. But perhaps the quote holds true now, because there are politicians who are trying to make voting illegal–at least for the people they are trying to exclude. Still, I don’t hold with fear-mongering. No matter what, we keep doing whatever we can do, with whatever energy we have, for justice, against oppression, for compassion and respect for all beings. We can’t see the future, we can’t know what wonders might emerge over the horizon. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, that is a source for hope.
Dark gray huge boulders on a rocky shore with ocean water behind, fading out into the horizon.

Prayer to a Migrating Bird

Migrating geese in the sky, seen near the pitch pine.

You are a teacher for a time like this—

you who claim more than one home,

navigating each season by the compass

of yearning planted within your DNA

You know your destinations, no stranger

—I have heard it said—you return always

to the very sedges from which you depart.

You are a teacher for a people like this—

we who hesitate to claim any home,

yearning always, contrary wisdoms planted

like magnets in the dark, stretching

our souls across miles and languages

—strange cries echo in our throats—

tearing our arms apart with reaching.

You are a teacher for a journey like this—

your rhythms carry me through long stretches

in the white winter of my perennial flight

I remember there are seasons for departing

and returning, homes we locate by yearning

—planted like polar gravities in the wind—

your silent languages cry to my wandering wings.

Letting Go

Flag iris leaves in the pond changing color, and reflected

The many-colored transformations of autumn plants remind me of the beauty in the spiritual practice of letting go. As the leaves let go of their green chlorophyl, so their deep colors are revealed. When I feel encumbered by heavy memories, mistakes, failures. When I feel regret for things undone, unsung, I pray in this way. I take all the feelings and memories and release them into the loving hands of Spirit. Ego desires for acknowledgement, success. I let go. Ego wounds from rejections, betrayals. I let go. Loneliness, weariness, I let go.

Spirit, here I am, all imperfect, yet gifted, all hungering for justice, yet broken with this land and country. I sit alone, yet I feel your presence, and I turn to you, again and again. I let go. I am small, but I am surrounded by and filled with your Love. There is a time for action, and there is also a time for surrender. I surrender to the River flowing. In this surrender there is trust and peace.

Someday, I will let go into the mystery of eternity, the mystery that is death. Each night, I let go into the mystery that is sleep. Each morning, I let go of what is not mine for this day, and I open to what blessings and what actions are here for me to take up. I am too small to try to carry the world. And yet, in this surrender, I am at one with all of the beings who surround me, people, animals, plants, spirits. We are all flowing in the River of Love.

Peach Abundance

Peaches are ripening, bright red and yellow, crowded together on the branches.

Those of you who perhaps followed my peach tree saga last year might remember that after hours and hours of tending–including several organic sprays, thinning the small green peaches, putting little mesh bags on the remaining ones–the squirrels ran off with every single green peach, or knocked them off the branches as they tried to get into the bags. We got zero peaches to eat.

Well this year, I didn’t have the heart or energy to do all that tending. I did one holistic spray early in the season. I felt very non-attached to any outcome, since one might assume that squirrels would eat them all again. But that didn’t happen. A few weeks ago, I started picking a few small random peaches, so that others would have more room to grow, and the branches wouldn’t break under their weight–but only a few at a time, not systemically. I put them in paper bags, which is the actual way to help them ripen. (Not on window sills as I had previously thought.) A few weeks ago, the squirrels started eating some peaches too, sitting in the tree, or taking ones with broken spots that I left on the patio table. I found their leavings on the deck railing. It was fun.

Broken peach bits on the deck railing.

But they didn’t take all the peaches. And the peaches started to really ripen. Now they are bright red and yellow, crowded though they are on the branches. Now, we are processing all the bags of ripening peaches in the house, as well as gathering peaches literally dropping from the tree. I have cut them in slices to freeze–first on a tray, and then put into freezer bags. Yesterday I made a gluten free peach cobbler. We have invited friends and neighbors over to share in the abundance. More people are coming by this weekend. This morning, I saw this little bird pecking for its delicious breakfast. There is plenty to share!

Bird eating a peach on the tree.

I feel grateful and humbled by this turn of events. Sometimes gardening feels like a battle between the gardener and the “pests.” I didn’t have the heart to try too hard to fight this battle this season. (And our cucumbers and zucchinis are succumbing to bugs-so it goes.) I was surprised that the peaches thrived so well without my efforts. I was surprised that the squirrels took some, and it seems they felt okay about sharing. Maybe they sensed that we were not enemies this time. Margy and I feel so good to be able to give them away to others. The garden is such a great mystery! I continue to feel humble and grateful by all it teaches us.

Oh, and here is the recipe for gluten-free peach cobbler. I searched the internet, and then adapted this one from several I had seen:

Peach Cobbler: preheat oven to 375 degrees

Slice peaches and place in a lightly buttered 9 x 13 pan. Basically use enough to cover the bottom well, or more if you like. Sprinkle with cinnamon, and a tiny bit of ground cloves.

Whisk together 1 & 3/4 cup almond flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Blend together 1 large egg, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon honey, 1/4 cup Greek whole milk yogurt, and 2 tablespoons softened butter. Add that to the flour mixture and blend, and then spoon over the peaches–it won’t cover them completely, but spread it around as you can. Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Remove and let cool a bit so you don’t burn your tongue. You can serve as is, or with cream, whipped cream, or ice cream.

Peach cobbler in a glass pan, with some pieces removed.

Guidance

Turkey mother and two babies behind plants in the yard

How does the Spirit move? How does the Spirit guide us? Is it like the wind blowing this morning, shifting the trees every which way? Might it come disguised as a turkey mother, with two babies always following nearby, meandering through the yard? Might it be in the doors that close, as well as the doors that open? Might it be in a conversation with a friend, sparking new ideas?

These last few weeks have been hard in our nation. Human rights have been undermined by the supreme court, and the attempted overthrow of democracy has been detailed in congressional hearings; gun violence continues, and police violence against black men does not abate. Heat waves remind us of the continued crisis of our planet, and despite many people acting as if the pandemic is over, the latest variant is more contagious and more severe.

I have felt at a loss for words about the big issues of the nation. I turned 69 last month, and after working for justice all of my adult life, I feel discouraged about the horrible backlash which seems to have taken power. Not surprised really. With the long history of this nation rooted in genocide, enslavement, and violence, it is amazing that we have made any progress at all. But for much of my life, it felt as if things were moving in a better direction. Now it feels like the same issues have to be fought all over again. I feel discouraged personally because I no longer have the physical energy to go to protests or marches, to be out there in the streets making a big noise. And because of that, I feel cut off from the community of resistance, which gives one hope and resilience.

So I listen for the Spirit, try to find guidance for my own little life. I look for signs in the wind and in the creatures who visit. The little turkey babies stay close to their mother, even as they wander through the tall grasses and wildflowers. Am I like that baby turkey? When it gets tired or scared, it jumps right up on the back of its mother. Or am I like the turkey mother, and someone needs to jump up on my back? How important it is that we help each other, and recognize the help that comes our way.

Baby turkey on its mother’s back.

How does the Spirit guide us? At times I am at a loss about what I can do, what I should do. This next chapter of my life is new territory. I don’t always understand when one door closes, but can I trust that the Spirit is still guiding me? Can I keep hold of a “yes” in my heart to the next open door? Can I recognize the sound of the Spirit in all of its guises? I am listening.

“Your body is also a planet”

Catbird in the mulberry tree-a dark silhouette amid green leaves and berries

Two weeks ago, I had terrible cramping in my lower abdomen. Over a few days, it gradually localized to the lower left of my abdomen, particularly when I had to poop. My medical practitioner did some blood tests, and found high inflammation, but not infection, and scheduled a CT scan. They determined that I was having a bout of diverticulitis, which, even as it was diagnosed, thankfully began to ease up. It was scary and discouraging to have yet another illness keep me down for over a week, and add to the complications I already have with eating food. A little research showed that 50% of people over 60 in the US deal with this disease. We must have a cultural taboo against talking about it, because I was very surprised to realize it was that common.

After all that, I explored some herbal options for healing, and discovered that licorice root is one of the recommended herbs–which I have already been using for energy issues. This spring I harvested and dried some from the plant in our yard that I had planted a few years ago. (I use much more than that in a year, but it is exciting to be starting to harvest it here.) I have been drinking tea made by boiling a couple tablespoons of the root in a quart of water.

Dried licorice root-first harvest

Because of all this, I was feeling discouraged, and then I remembered the challenging wise words of Indigenous writer Paula Gunn Allen, in an excerpt from “The Woman I Love Is a Planet; The Planet I Love Is a Tree,” from her book, Off the Reservation

“Our physicality—which always and everywhere includes our spirituality, mentality, emotionality, social institutions, and processes—is a microform of all physicality. Each of us reflects, in our attitudes toward our body and the bodies of other planetary creatures and plants, our inner attitude toward the planet. And, as we believe, so we are. A society that believes that the body is somehow diseased, painful, sinful, or wrong, a people that spends its time trying to deny the body’s needs, aims, goals, and processes—whether these be called health or disease—is going to misunderstand the nature of its existence and of the planet’s and is going to create social institutions out of those body-denying attitudes that wreak destruction not only on human, plant, and other creaturely bodies but on the body of the Earth herself….

“Being good, holy, and/or politically responsible means being able to accept whatever life brings—and that includes just about everything you usually think of as unacceptable, like disease, death, and violence. Walking in balance, in harmony, and in a sacred manner requires staying in your body, accepting its discomforts, decayings, witherings, and blossomings and respecting them. Your body is also a planet, replete with creatures that live in and on it. Walking in balance requires knowing that living and dying are two beings, gifts of our mother, the Earth, and honoring her ways does not mean cheating her of your flesh, your pain, your joy, your sensuality, your desires, your frustrations, your unmet and met needs, your emotions, your life.”

Paula Gunn Allen

It is so easy to identify events in the yard, or in my body, as beautiful or ugly, gifts or challenges, positives or negatives. But coming into a harmonious relationship with all beings of this earth requires letting go of that polarity–not denying the difficulties or pains, but going deeper with my responses. How can I embrace all that life offers, in the yard, and in my body?

We have seen two frogs in the pond, one bold and the other cautious. Yesterday a neighborhood cat was stalking the pond. Today, I only saw the cautious one. Is the bold one gone? The cherries that appeared green in the trees are getting brown spots on them. The cardinal couple seems now to frequent the feeder every day. The robin that abandoned her nest, is back in the nest trying again with new eggs. Today I saw her partner bring her a bite to eat. A dragonfly was dipping her tail in the water, while perched on a lily pad–laying her eggs in the pond. Something took a few leaves off two of my kale plants, but did not destroy the whole plants. Can I begin to see all of it as wholeness, as beauty?

Dragonfly on a lily pad in the pond, dipping her tail in the water.