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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was watching Jesus Christ Superstar this evening, starring John Legend as Jesus. He is a wonderful Jesus! Each time I see it, it pulls me back to a time in my life that was so deep, so intense. I think of Lori and Tom, the best friends I met in my first week of college, and how the three of us were so in love with Jesus, and all he represented–a life beyond the ambition and greed of our society, something radical, something full of love, a life that let go of material things and chose a different kind of joy. We three were in love with all that. But we often asked each other, how can we follow Jesus’ way in this day and age? And so the song, “I don’t know how to love him,” touched something of that powerful confusion and desire in our hearts.
Now, Lori and Tom are gone, dying too soon, so I have no one with whom to reminisce; but the music calls to mind the idealism and passion we inspired in each other. I have very few pictures of us, maybe none from college. We were so young then. This picture was taken about a year or two after graduation I think, when Lori was making her vows as a Franciscan sister. (Francis of Assisi was another one who inspired our best dreams.) That was how she tried to love Jesus.
Me, Lori & Tom, 1977 or so?
Jesus Christ Superstar had debuted on Broadway the year of my high school graduation. We were lucky enough at Aquinas College to have as a professor a Catholic priest, Fr. Philip Hanley, who brought it into our theology class. He said that Jesus Christ Superstar asked all the questions that people had been asking for centuries about Jesus. And that was what theology was all about. Fr. Hanley is dead now, too, but I still remember how he encouraged us to ask all the questions, how he opened up our minds and hearts.
Lori was a nun for most of her life. Tom worked for the church–it was complicated because he was gay. But eventually he was working for the church and living with a long time partner, so that was a blessing. A few years after that photo, I found the Catholic Worker movement, the best example I knew of people trying to actually live the values of the gospel in our day and age. Radical, and a different kind of joy.
Then, in the midst of our peace activism, I found feminism and needed to launch on an even more radical journey that brought me out of the Catholic church, and into a spiritual movement with women becoming free. I came out as a lesbian, and named myself a witch, and eventually became a Unitarian Universalist minister. All of that brought me far from the paths that Lori and Tom had traveled, so we were not as close in later years, though I visited Lori when she was dying from cancer, and our love for each other went beyond all those differences.
The thing is, that idealistic and passionate young woman is still inside, however the years have transformed me. And listening to the musical this time, when Jesus/John Legend sang, “then, I was inspired; now, I’m sad and tired…” it resonated. We had such hope for changing the world, back then. It is hard to see the fruits of our labor as the backlash against social change movements rocks our nation. I don’t know if my life has lived up to the hopes and dreams I held in those days. Did it all mean anything? Yet Jesus asked those questions too, in Jesus Christ Superstar.
And it is complicated for me now, sorting out where Jesus fits into my life as a witch. But he hasn’t gone away. I remember him encouraging me as I set out on my feminist journey. I am still wondering how to love him. Still wondering about that radical way of living and loving. It brings tears to my eyes, even as an old tired woman.
Spring is here in its northern way, with unexpected delights and disruptions–the wild turkey toms proudly displaying in the midst of old snow and random automobiles–a flock of starlings taking over the trees in our yard—two ducks hanging out in the brook. A small group of us celebrated with ritual on the Equinox to welcome these disruptive forces into our lives, to undo the stuck places we’ve found ourselves, and make room for new growth, new movement. We used a frozen bowl of ice, in which we placed candles, to symbolize the thawing times.
We do still have snow or ice over most of the yard, but each day another small patch of brown grass appears; our neighbor was already out raking in her snow-free yard. In the middle of this, two days ago, my car was rear-ended as I was driving the on-ramp toward the highway after grocery shopping in town. No one was hurt, thankfully, though my car is now in the shop waiting for the insurance bureaucracy to authorize repairs. I was able to drive it home from the scene, and take out the groceries, being careful to go through and watch for broken glass in the bags.
Still, it shook me up with the vulnerability that is life. We never know which day might be the last. And meanwhile I’ve been watching a show on Netflix called “Last Chance to See” which follows Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine as they make a journey in 2009 to visit endangered animals that were first documented twenty years earlier by Mark and Douglas Adams (author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Stephen Fry brings a comedic voice to their adventures as the urban klutz who doesn’t usually traipse about in nature. (I recognized his voice from the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide.)
But underneath that veneer of comedy is wonder and grief. The final episode was originally going to be about the Yangtze river dolphin, but the dolphins were declared extinct in 2007. So instead, they search for blue whales. Mark tells Stephen that blue whales, the largest animals ever on the planet, have been here for forty million years. Forty million years. And now they are endangered, along with so many others.
I was caught up in the awe Stephen and Mark experienced in getting up close to these majestic beings. I was filled with amazement at the beauty of this complex interwoven planet that we have been blessed to inhabit. And I tapped into the grief that has been haunting so many of us these days. Grief for the demise of so many beings. Grief for the losses that are being propelled by human activity.
I feel so powerless to stop this roaring train that “western civilization” has become. Perhaps there is nothing we can do to save all that is dying. All I could think to do was to let myself choose conscious gratitude and love–gratitude and love for the utter wonder of life on our planet. Gratitude and love for the animals and plants that are our elders and companions. Gratitude and love in the midst of grief.
Today is a day when I chose to stop my plans and just love my body and follow what it needed. My teachers were our cats Billie and Sassy who were having a cuddle and a nap in the sun on the bed, washing each other’s faces. I lay down next to them, and took a few photos with my phone. Sometimes, even in this desperately wounded world, we must honor the demands of our bodies, first of all. This I what I am learning about illness or whatever it is that has taken hold of my body. My own tendency is to want to figure it out and fix it. But some things can’t be easily figured or fixed. And so we are faced with other choices.
When my partner Margy and first I got to know each other, she had been dealing with chronic illness for a long time already. She has been my teacher in what that means, and how to cope, how to live in the midst of it all. But in that process, I took on the role of the “well” one, the one who would carry things when she could not. But now, I also have some sort of chronic illness, and it’s a new chapter for us, a new chapter for me. I haven’t really ever identified myself as having a chronic illness, because that was her identity. I know that sounds a bit illogical, but it never seemed that I had it bad enough to call myself ill.
But then there are these days, more now than before, when I just can’t follow my plans, can’t work in the garden, can’t go to the beach. When I ache all over, or feel weary and slow. As I said, mostly my impulse has been to try to figure it out–what did I eat? what did I do?–that might have triggered all this. What can I do to make it better? But today, I thought, just follow the lead of the body, just love the body and do what it wants to do. Rest, lay in the sun, watch mysteries on the television. No shoulds.
I am remembering Paula Gunn Allen writing about this, and I found the quote, an excerpt from “The Woman I Love Is a Planet; The Planet I Love Is a Tree,” from her book, Off the Reservation. I love how she links our love of the body to our love of the planet–even when we can’t even go outside.
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.
My father Richard Johnson’s funeral is today, and one of my family members will read this story I shared in my book:
I grew up with a father who was a mystic. My father didn’t merely believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart too.
My father later described to me his own pivotal experience, which occurred when I was about eight years old. He told me that one day in prayer he had offered his life to God unreservedly. A few days later he was lifted to a state of spiritual bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. It was during the time when the Russian cosmonauts became the first human beings to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and when he tried to explain what had happened for him, that became his metaphor—he was lifted out of this world. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.
Living with a mystical father was a powerful gift for me. From my earliest memories, I was familiar with the idea that God could touch our lives. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation someone was listening. God lived in our house like another member of the family. God was talked about as a source of infinite Love. I experienced moments of being held in the care of a strong and cherishing presence.
On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.
I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.
Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.
Outside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.
I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.
It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed. It is a great and easy plant to care for. I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979. My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us. We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families. In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.
One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.” When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center. That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988. Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom. That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death. It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.
So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms. And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days. A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him. My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005. Most of us live at a distance. A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.
Life is mysterious. They don’t really know what will happen next. It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life. I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay. Which is true. And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides. May all of us be held in love.
I woke early in the morning, anxious about yet another radon test at our old house, as the rain was coming down and the wind was all stirred up. We’ve had two failed radon tests, before and after upgrades to our mitigation system. The other day, the mitigation folks were checking on why the radon levels had doubled after their upgrades, but everything seemed fine, and their instant test meter was showing no problems. They suggested that perhaps it was an anomaly, and we should retest.
I had read online that radon tends to be at its worst in the winter and/or when it is raining. So I wondered whether that had affected the tests. According to the mitigation folks, it shouldn’t matter that much. But both of the tests happened during stormy weather, the last one including a rare winter thunderstorm, with an inch of rain and high wind levels. Now, here we are again, testing, with the rain pouring down, and the sale of our house to these buyers resting on the outcome. Why was it raining once again?
But then my heart took me to a deeper place this morning. I realized that deep in my subconscious I was still attached to that old myth–that when good things happened it was a sign of blessing or favor from the great Mysteries, the Spirits, the Divine benevolence. And its counter: I believed that when bad things happened it was a sign of abandonment or disfavor. So I was troubled with the Rain and Wind, the Thunder–Why are you not helping us? I thought. I was wondering if the Rain and Wind were angry with us.
But then, they brought me to a deeper reality. That myth of blessing or abandonment is the quintessential American myth. But it is not really true. Otherwise, what does that mean for the people who have faced many troubles–so much bigger troubles than radon or house sale troubles–are they abandoned or in disfavor with the spirit? What of every child who has lost a parent, or parent who has lost a child? What of the people who lost lands and cultures to the genocide of the early explorers and settlers? What of the people who were torn from their own countries in chains? What of those who are torn from their homes today, in the wake of war and terrorism? It is not the Spirit who has abandoned them, but perhaps their fellow human beings.
The Spirit remains present with us through everything. Whether we face happy outcomes or troubles. Love enfolds us in its widest embrace. That is the truest reality. Whether we pass or fail the radon test, the Rain and Wind and Thunder are still our guardians. I have to let my small heart open wide, to move beyond the idea of prayer as an attachment to things going my way, or the easy way, into prayer as an entryway into perceiving that all-embracing Love.
And in the light of that Love, don’t we want the best for the people who are hoping to buy our house? Don’t we want them to be safe and have the best possible outcome for their home search, even as we hope it for ourselves? If there is a radon problem in the house, don’t we want it to be solved for them? And radon, or a house sale, are so small in the great scheme of things. There are so many bigger challenges that are facing our world today. Challenges of water and air for all people. Challenges of climate change and war and xenophobia and oppression.
This journey is rooted in an intention–to live in a more beneficial relationship with the earth and all beings. Each step of the way can be imbued with that intention, and can bring us closer to that vision. Along the way, reality will be reality, and if that phrase, “all will be well,” means anything real, it is not dependent on test outcomes or house sales. Now it might be time to take a walk in the rain.