We had a spring teaser day today, with temps in the upper 50s so Margy and I went to Kettle Cove to take in the sun, the breeze, and the sea. We got a special treat when we saw these lovely birds in the water and on the shore. At first I thought they were ducks, because they were that size, but they were also somehow similar to Canada Geese but not quite. When I got home I searched the internet until I found them. They are Brant Geese. The Maine coast is part of their migration route. Here are some of the ones we saw. Margy Dowzer and I shared the camera, so I am not positive which photos are hers and which are mine.
This was our hugelkultur bed on June 13–the zucchini plants were coming up nicely. The green beans I planted never sprouted–must have been too old. In the back you can also see a kale plant that is doing great. And then, in the next two weeks, the zucchini plants just exploded with growth. Here below is a photo from yesterday, June 27. The plants are as high as the hugelkultur mound.
In the background of this photo you might see towels hanging on the side of the deck–we went to the beach on June 26 for our first swim of the season. It was so great. We arrived about 4 p.m. and very few people were there–we never had to be closer than 20 feet from anyone else, though we wore our masks as we walked to the beach. Sand, water, wind, waves, and that restoration that comes from being in mother ocean. So needed!
If you look very close in the photo, or just jump to the next one, you’ll see that yesterday I also found huge yellow flowers inside the zucchini plants.
And then, today, we could already see tiny zucchinis forming behind the flowers. I know that people joke about the prolific nature of zucchini plants. But this is my first time growing them, and it is truly amazing how quickly they grow and flower and fruit, and how huge and beautiful they are. Hopefully, they will stay healthy and we’ll be those people asking all our neighbors if anyone wants some zucchini.
We’ve begun the time of social distancing in the age of COVID 19. Someone else called it physical distancing, since we need to keep reaching out to each other in other social ways. Margy and I are both over sixty and have various health issues. So we are among those with elevated risk. But going outside is very much permitted and helpful during this time. We went to Kettle Cove on Saturday–beautiful ocean, sunshine, stones on the beach. It was very windy and the brisk cool air felt bracing to our souls.
I often like to look for sea glass when I walk on the beach, but this time I only took photos–photos of water, photos of Margy, photos of stones. So I was surprised, when I was looking at the photos later, to notice what looked like two pieces of sea glass–and they were the rare red and orange ones! (I have never found them on the beach before.) Can you see them in this photo? I just want to reach in and pick them up. It is both exciting and a bit frustrating to see them right there.
But perhaps they are an apt metaphor for times like this–we can see (and hear), but not touch, all those we love and like, all those with whom we are bound together in community. We still have the virtual connections of phone and internet. In the past few days, I’ve reached out to distant and local friends by phone and text and Facebook and email, and others have reached out to me: checking in on each other, reaffirming our bonds, our love. That is something else we can do in this age of COVID 19.
We are so interconnected, all of us, in such a myriad of interdependency. The last time I was out and about was to grocery shop on Thursday at the Portland Food Coop and Hannaford, trying to use hand sanitizer as much as possible of course. Thursday was the day Maine reported its first tested case of COVID 19. (And of course, without testing available, there were likely many other cases unknown.) But then we had an emergency–our hot water tank was suddenly spewing water out into the basement. So thankfully, a plumber came out Thursday night to help shut everything down, then came on Saturday to install a new hot water heater, with a helper. It reminds me that plumbing emergencies don’t take a break during pandemics.
So there will continue to be interactions that are vital for life. As we seek to limit such interactions, we notice them all the more. I feel such gratitude for plumbers and electricians, for people working in grocery stores, for those delivering packages and mail, those keeping gas stations open so we can drive to the beach, those keeping phone and internet systems functioning. And my prayers each day go to all the workers who have to keep on working, to put food on the table and pay the rent. And my prayers go to those caring for elders in nursing homes, those working in hospitals, those bringing food and shelter to people without homes, and all the other front-line soldiers of compassion. My prayers to all the front-line soldiers of compassion.
Yesterday late afternoon, with the weather up to 80 degrees, I went to Crescent Beach. Would it be the last day warm enough for me to go in the water? Maybe, maybe not. But without expectations, I set up my chair on the sand, and walked down to the edge of the water to feel the cold splashing on my feet. Its temperature was mildly cold not frigid, much warmer than early summer. There were a few more waves than usual. Only a small group of children were in the water, jumping into the waves as they broke on the shore.
I have become a bit timid about waves, as I have gotten older. The tide was low, and there were lots of round stones to walk over, so I came back to my chair and put on some swim shoes, so I’d have better balance. Then I walked back out and stepped right in. I moved quickly through the breaking waves and past them to about my waist level. The rhythms of the water rose up to my shoulders, and then back down, lifted me up and down, too, but gently. I dove into one wave to cover my head, but then I just stood facing the sea, watching the waves come in, letting them carry me up and down.
Here’s the amazing thing: after being in the water, the waves, for a long time, and then staying longer still, I began to be washed in a sense of joy and happiness. It felt miraculous because this whole past week, I had been feeling exhausted and achy–a classic flare up of the auto-immune conditions I struggle with. But somehow the water washed all of that away, and I was filled with a physical sense of well-being and playfulness.
When I go into the water, I usually pray to the Mother Ocean, I give her my worries and struggles. She is one kind of divine presence, larger than I can ever be, and the source of all life. But it wasn’t my small prayer that shifted me–it was the very energy and power of her presence all around me, it was the waves dancing with me, it was my body responding to the waves. It was unexpected.
Filled with this lovely happiness, when I came out of the water, I walked along the shore looking at stones and shells, and I found several pieces of sea glass. I love that the ocean can transform these broken bits of human invention into tokens of beauty. Since I have been thinking lately about the ancestors, it came to me that sea glass is a kind of gift from people who came before. I’ve read that it can take 20-40 years in the waves, sometimes longer, for glass to be tumbled to create this patina. So someone a long or short time ago made the glass, touched it, discarded it. I am holding this connection, broken yet made whole again, and so I prayed for friends and family who needed healing.
After my walk, I sat in my chair and ate some yogurt mixed with cocoa, honey, cacao nibs, and blueberries. I started reading the novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx, which begins with French settlers in Quebec taking down the forest. (Another way to try to understand colonization.) Isn’t it a picture of happiness, to read in a chair on the beach, sun on my shoulders?
On my walk back to the car, one more fun surprise. This colorful monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant just past the beach roses.
I wish I could share with you the happiness of being in the ocean, of walking on the shore finding sea glass, of reading on the beach on a September evening, of finding a monarch on a milkweed.
But the happiness was triggered by actually being in the ocean with its waves dancing me up and down. So if you are feeling timid about walking into the waves, whether literal or metaphorical, please know that on the other side little miracles might happen. Joy might find you.
Margy and I watched the New Year sunset at Kettle Cove. It is one of the few beaches we know of on the east coast of Maine, where you can watch the sun set over the water, in winter. (This is because the beach at that point faces southward, and the sun is setting further to the south than in summer–a perfect alignment.) In 2019, I intend to visit the ocean more often. It is so close to us, and yet it is so easy to forget to drive 30 minutes to experience this beauty.
Despite all the hard things that are plaguing our beloved world, may we remember to seek out beauty and joy each day. May we remember color and light and shade and darkness and shine and curve and flow and rhythm.
One evening, during my first year in college, my best friend Lori and I were sitting in the quiet candlelit chapel of our campus. A few other people were also there, scattered about the pews. I remember feeling we each seemed so isolated in our private meditations. I was moved to reach out and take the hand of my friend. Little did I realize, at that very moment, she had been wrestling with her own inner spiritual struggles.
Feeling a certain despair, she had just prayed, “God if you are real, I need a sign. It doesn’t have to be a miracle; I just need you to touch me in some way.” Then, I innocently took her hand, and it was the touch of God she experienced.
I shared this story with my colleagues last week. From Wednesday through Friday, I was on retreat with other Unitarian Universalist ministers at Biddeford Pool, by the sea. They had invited me, because of my upcoming retirement, to share my “Odyssey,” my story of ministry. So on Thursday evening, I talked about the long path and the many transformations that have been a part of that ministry journey, starting with this story of my being used unknowingly by the Spirit.
Years ago, even as a child, I had opened my life to that Spirit, that Mystery, that flowing River of Life. Ministry has meant, for me, at root, that opening to be of use. At different times in my life, that has included many different types of work. Most lately, as a minister in a congregation, I have been preaching, offering pastoral care, teaching, writing, going to many meetings. But ministry is not always about our intentions or our plans or our activities.
I shared another story that happened only a few years ago. At that time, I was planning to join my congregation at our annual retreat at Ferry Beach. We were happy to be including a visiting UU minister from Burundi, and I was going to drive him to the retreat. But then I got sick with a bad cold or flu–can’t remember which. I called a member of the congregation to see if she could give him a ride instead. She did, and later she told me that it had changed her life. She was transformed by hearing his story, and she eventually went to visit Burundi with other UUs.
I was struck by how even our limitations–even getting sick–even being missing–can be an occasion of unknowingly triggering a blessing for someone’s life. If we are in the flow of Spirit, the flow of the River, even our flaws can be of use. This gives me great comfort as I deal with health issues that drain my energy and interrupt my intentions and activities, and are the impetus for my decision to retire this year. I remind myself to trust in that same Spirit who has been undergirding my life and my ministry for all these many years. Trust in the flow of the River.
Margy and I went to Crescent Beach late yesterday afternoon. As we were leaving, a harbor seal pup came onto the shore. What is it about our species that we so love these encounters with other species, with wild species? Is it the kinship we feel when we look into their eyes gazing back at us? Or the otherness we feel, the differences magical and intriguing?
It was our first time this season going into the open water. So cold! But after some time in the water, it was delicious. The ocean itself would have been enough yesterday–the way it transformed my body chemistry into a greater sense of ease and well-being. And then, sitting in the sun warming up on the sand. Since I have had thyroid disease, it has been harder for me to warm up after swimming, but this time I wore a light hoody, and the air was still warm at 6 p.m. so I was fine. Later, I changed back into dry clothes and sat and read, while Margy went in for another swim.
I had carried some of our stuff to the car about 7:30 p.m. when the seal pup first arrived. As I met Margy heading into the changing room, she told me about it, so I went back to down to the beach. The little group of twenty or so people who were still on the beach were gathered near the pup at a respectful distance. Someone had called the proper wildlife people to let them know. The pup just lay there looking at everyone, calmly, perhaps resting, perhaps wondering what to do.
After several minutes, they turned around and started heading back toward the water, moving slowly and steadily over the sand. As the pup reached the waves, they turned as if to say goodbye, (or maybe, “I don’t think this was where I meant to land”) and then slid right in and swam away down the beach.
Who can resist those eyes?
El Nino weather has meant no snow in Maine and record warm temperatures. Yesterday, Margy and I went to the beach.
Our search for greener housing has brought me an intense focus on a worthy project and a burning desire to bring it to completion. But one of the side effects of this project has been that I easily lose track of my attention to this present moment. It is as if I am hovering between the present and the future, and my feet can’t find the ground.
I took a walk this morning in my neighborhood. A short way down the road, I found a frog that had been killed by a passing car. As I moved its body into the grass, I was reminded that we never know when we will meet our own end. It won’t wait for us to finish all our projects. This moment is all that we have for sure. How can I live in this moment, even when I am involved in working on a goal?
One of the best ways I know to return to the present moment is to enter through the door of gratitude. I am grateful for the full moon that was golden in the trees as it was rising last night. I am grateful for cuddling with my love after watching a movie together on the couch. I am grateful for diving into the ocean yesterday after time setting up rain barrels at a Permablitz in South Portland. I am grateful for people who care about the earth and each other enough to gather together to help new friends fulfill a permaculture design for their garden.
I am grateful for local sausage fried with green kale at breakfast. I am grateful for the sun shining through the clouds during my walk. I am grateful for the turkey who crossed the road in front of me. I am grateful for the chirping of the chipmunk who greeted me on my return, and then hid in the rain downspout extension. I am grateful for one more day to be alive in this beautiful earth.
My journey into emptiness brought me four kinds of emptying: first, to clear away some outside clutter of unfinished projects; second, to let go of the inner residue of unresolved emotions; third, to let go of habits of character, tools of maneuvering that kept me from merely being with myself and others; and fourth, to let go of the roles I occupy.
Perhaps by numbering these steps, I give a wrong impression that the journey was linear or planned out. As I looked back over my journal writings, I found a winding and twisting path, with bits and pieces of each of these interspersed with the others.
Thomas Merton writes in one of his journals:
“In order to arrive at what I cannot understand, I must go by way of that which I cannot understand.”
I started out on the journey with a hunger. I did not plan the four kinds of letting go. Rather, I encountered them in the pathway, as I meandered down the road, led by my hunger to find the heart of my own soul. If you took a journey into your emptiness, it might be completely different. But perhaps, by my sharing, you might recognize a few turns along the path.
The journey into emptiness led me into a sense of wholeness, a sense of being with and in my complete self. A sense of openness and relationship to larger being. I didn’t stay there. I got busy with work again. But I learned that I need that periodic emptying in order to be happy in my life, and to be happy in my work. That emptiness is the source of creativity and insight and serenity. That emptiness is the place from which to experience Mystery.