Winter Winnowing

At work in the basement with shredded paper, photo by Margy Dowzer

Every couple days I go down into the basement, to sort through my old boxes. I cover up with an over-shirt and apron, cotton gloves and mask, to protect me somewhat against allergies to dust and old paper. I pull out a box and open it up to reveal treasures and trash, scribbled notes and carefully typed poetry, cherished memories and forgotten moments. I have no idea when I might finish, but it helps to think of this as my Winter Project.

Sometimes I think of it as death cleaning, as in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a method of organizing and decluttering your home before you die to lessen the burden of your loved ones after you’ve passed. But I am not following any methods put forth in this book. What connects is that I am weighing everything against the question “What value might these things have, after I am gone?”

When I became a feminist in 1979, I became aware of how women were hidden from history, how most written history prioritized the deeds of white men in power. Wonderfully, feminist historians, and those of other marginalized communities, have been bringing to light these hidden histories/herstories for several decades. Along the way, I internalized the belief that our own lives are part of history, too. My life is part of history.

As a childless lesbian woman, I won’t have descendants that would value my writings. But that makes it feel even more important to preserve my stories, especially those of lesbian activism, lesbian community, lesbian spirit. And so I have been thinking about what might be valuable for an archive, and in fact, I have already communicated with an LGBTQ archive that expressed interest in my papers. So this becomes an important measure for what to save, and what to shred.

But beyond what value these papers might have after I die, it has also been so valuable for me as a method to reflect on my life as a whole, revealed in what was saved, deliberately or accidentally, during various parts of my life. So far I have been going through boxes from the time I lived in Boston, from 1986 to 1999. I guess I started in the center of my life. There is a lot of shredding-I reduced the first three boxes to just one. I think after I finish with Boston, I will likely go back to the earlier boxes, and only then return to the more recent ones. Perhaps then it will be easier to put it all in perspective.

I don’t know why it has taken so long to begin this project. I don’t know why now seems like the time to do it. But in the middle of winter, in the midst of a pandemic, in this liminal time after retiring, my spirit feels called to this remembering, this winnowing, and so I keep going down into the basement to see what I will find.

Advertisement

Courage

Photo: Female cardinal at feeder, with three smaller birds nearby.

I am finally embarking on a project to go through all of my papers, now in boxes in the basement. These range from files that I brought from my office when I retired 3 1/2 years ago, to boxes that I have carried around since college. This week I have been going through a box of writings–poems, essays, and an almost book, dating from about 1986 to 1996. During those years, I lived in Boston, surrounded by lesbian community, making a living in what today might be called the gig economy, while focusing my time and energy on activism, writing, feminist spirituality, and social change.

It was a scary time, financially, just getting by with no safety net, no health insurance, moving from rented apartments to other rented apartments in an increasingly difficult housing market. It was also, for a while, a joyous and exhilarating time, creating chosen family through collective living with other lesbians, wrestling with issues like classism, racism, and sexism, all the while imagining justice, mutuality, and queer beauty.

Reading the many words I wrote brings me back there, and I am impressed by the creativity which filled those pages and filled my life and the lives of those around me. But there was an undertow that sometimes threatened to drown me–a shift when housing got harder to find, when joyful cooperative situations became uneasy roommate situations, when loneliness began to plague me. Still, poetry and Spirit sustained me even then. I found this poem that seems worth sharing as 2021 comes to an end, and 2022 is about to begin. May you find the courage to follow the road where your heart leads you!

1/13/93

If there can be power in a word
the word “courage”
gets me out of bed
surrounds my heart in hard times.

There are many poverties.
Each moon waning, as I just get by
financially, I find my true despair
lurks in the isolation
which has covered the walls of my days
like some asphyxiating new paint
and I feel I can’t breathe
and I feel I don’t belong here.

I remember when I set out on a path
to transform the world.
We sang then, the joy of our
meeting filling our mouths
like lovemaking, our visions
changing us into new beings.
We laughed at how we didn’t fit
our chains anymore, and big as life
we set about to craft a new home.

There are many poverties.
Loneliness is the unforgivable sin.
I have always felt I could survive
the insanity and cruelty of the world
any poverty or hardship or struggle
if only I had companions to share it.

But here I am.
Loss and need my only mothers.

If there can be power in a word
the word courage
gets me out of bed.
Courage rests her cheek against my heart.
Courage squeezes my hands into her pockets.
Courage plants her feet into the prints
of my solitary steps
as if of course this is where the road
must go and I am still
that traveler.

Death and All the Stuff

Prompted by sheltering at home during the COVID 19 plague, the question came up: maybe it’s time for Margy and I to update our wills and other legal documents which we last visited in 2012. The basic purpose for us in these documents is to protect each other and make sure that we have the power to make decisions for each other, and inherit from each other. As a lesbian couple who are not married, this is what protects our “next of kin” status.

But each of these documents also has a secondary feature.  What if one of us is not available or able, or dies first–what then, who is next? That has always been a more challenging part of the process. In this age of plague, it is not outside the realm of possibility that both of us could succumb.  Who could we ask to take on the role of health care agent, or financial agent, if we were both incapacitated?

We don’t have children, and our family members are far away, and not always supportive of our identities. We have several good friends, but not a “best” friend, and many live far away. Can we ask any of our local friends to take on these roles? Are they close enough, or not too busy, or would they be overwhelmed by such a request? Who would bury us if we both died? Who are our people?

Similar dilemmas confront us with our wills, and who would inherit if we both were to die. I find that I have new concerns now that didn’t show up in the last will. What would happen to our land and garden that we’ve been so carefully tending? How could we ensure that the land would find new caretakers who would love it as we have? And who would have to sort through all the stuff that fills our little house? My natural temperament is to live simply, to possess little, and treasure those few possessions.  But somehow over all these years, I’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff. (How did that happen?)

In the past few months, my mother has been preparing to leave her own house, and move into the home of my sister.  She officially moved yesterday.  All of her nine children and multiple grandchildren were invited to consider things we might like to take from her lifetime’s worth of stuff. But, aside from a few mementos, most of it has nowhere to go.  So even more likely, my own stuff will have nowhere to go.  It occurs to me that if I want to share mementos with people, maybe I should just send them as gifts now.

When I first did a will, I noticed that I most cared about my writing–I wanted there to be a way for thoughts and words to survive, for journals, sermons, essays, to live on in some way, to be a legacy.  That is still true, though now that I have actually published a book, I feel less anxious about it.  It feels like something of me will endure, this book child. But I also have five archive boxes full of journals that I have saved, countless sermons, another unpublished book, and even these blog posts. Sometimes I imagine them in an archive somewhere, discovered by some future historian who will be intrigued by my story. Might I be a spiritual ancestor to someone?

What fuels my need to save the writings? What compels me to write in the first place?

I wonder, does anyone see the whole story, does anyone see each of our stories, whether written or unwritten? Are our lives inscribed in a Book of Life somewhere?  When I was a child, we learned that God could see everything we did. It was somewhat scary then.  But now I find the idea a comfort–I want my life to have a witness. I hope my life will be inscribed in a Book of Life.

Hawk Talk

Hawk – Version 2

I was sitting outside in a little park writing in my journal, and a young hawk started vocalizing at me–almost like a bark or squawk.  She flew across the little grassy area, and was sitting in the tree when I took her picture.  She came back to the tree above me, and then flew off with another bird.

Meanwhile I was writing in my journal and working on a part of myself that I’ve been troubled by.  I was trying to sort out how to stop being critical, or thinking I know better than someone else.  Rather than try to get rid of a part, a more helpful practice can be to befriend the parts that we don’t like.  So I decided to name that part Athena Advice-giver.  Since the goddess Athena was born from the head of her father.  And I know my critical self was born from the critical side of my father, and from the critical side of his mother.  I asked Athena what she needed.  I wrote a lot.

And then the hawk came back again squawking at me, and flying around the park.  Getting my attention.  She really did seem to be talking to me, rather than occupied with something else.  Maybe she was just annoyed that I was sitting there.  Or maybe she just enjoyed my being there.  I got up from my writing and took pictures of her with my phone, and a video so I could remember her calls.

And writing again, another voice of wisdom came to help Athena evolve, to honor her essence, and bring it to a deeper maturity.  It said:

If you keep thinking you have the best way, you don’t get to learn the wisdom in other ways.  If you stay open to all wisdom, your own will grow–remember that. The wisdom of the hawk, the wisdom of the white pine, the wisdom of your partner, the wisdom of the groundhog, the wisdom of the drum, the wisdom of the desert.  Remember your curiosity.  Curiosity can be the antidote to criticism.  

Let yourself be curious and honor the wisdom of all beings.  They are your teachers.  Each being is wise.  And you are not the only one to deal with these challenges.

When I walked back to the apartment, my friend Virginia Marie told me that hawks represent transformation.  They often appear when we are in ceremonies of transformation.  My writing is a form of ceremony, and this time in New Mexico, a ceremony.  So I give thanks!

Unexpected Magic

River MagicI am beginning to wonder if the book I have been writing (whether I publish it or not) is creating a kind of unexpected magic to manifest the visions within its pages. Yesterday, for the new moon, I read my journal from the last new moon until this one–a practice I do every new moon day.  This particular month has been a time for spiritual restoration.  But I noticed something rather curious as I read.  Old rituals and practices are finding their way back into my life after a time of absence.  And it seems related to the writing of the book, Finding Our Way Home.

In one chapter, I write about the practice of diving into water every day, which came into my life when I lived on Cape Cod.  But for 11 years, there was no body of water close enough to where we lived for me to do that anymore.  And I didn’t imagine there would be in our new house, but then we learned about access to the Presumpscot River just ten minutes away.  So now it is a possibility again.

In another chapter, I write about dance as a form of prayer–physical, emotional, a way to experience the energy of the divine in my body, and find joy in the midst of struggle.  When I lived in Boston, I was part of a women’s spirituality circle that danced as a part of our rituals.  But I haven’t had an easy or collective way to do that for a while.  Then, this month I found a community group that meets for free-form expressive dance every Sunday morning–not always so great during the church year when I am occupied most Sunday mornings–but for the summer it is accessible to me, and once a month on my Sunday’s off during the year. So now that is a possibility again.

And then I started thinking about how I had written about wanting to use less oil, to have a house that was zero-carbon–I wrote about it before I could imagine any way that we might really find a way to live in greener housing.   But this past year we started an intentional search for greener housing.  Our new home is not all the way to zero-carbon, but with our solar panels and in-town location we are using so much less oil than before.

Journaling DSC01316I also write about the spiritual practice of writing–and the book as a ceremony of reconnection to the earth, to each other, to the spirit within all.  But the magic I have been noticing this month was completely unexpected, beyond my wildest dreams, and uncanny in its particularity.  I wonder if when we write our hopes and visions, when we express our gratitude, when we imagine and tell the stories, there might be an energy that starts to percolate. What has lain dormant wakes up and tries to find a way to express itself.  All I can say is wow, and thank you.

Little Beautiful Changes

DSC02932

The new windows!

The carpenters are busy at our new house, creating some beautiful changes.  One has been to create a double large window in the back bedroom, where there was only one small window before.

DSC02893

Before

It is a balancing act for green housing, because any hole in the envelope is a hole in the envelope–but these are on the south side of the house, and will let it a lot of light, and connection to the yard.

It made an immediate difference!  This will be my room where I also hope to put a small desk for writing.  My files will be in the basement, but I wanted to write where there was a lot of sunshine. Today I was looking for a sunny spot in our current home, to read a little for my sermon this week, but a sunny spot was hard to find… I am imagining how nice it will be to sit in the sunshine of these new windows.

I am so glad that in our search for greener housing, I learned how important it was to me that there be beauty in my home. Perhaps otherwise it would have felt too extravagant to include these windows in our plans for making the house our own.

Here is how it looks on the outside, before and after.
DSC02898

DSC02949

How Everything Changes

Since my last posting, so much has happened with the book that it is a new being.  Last summer I cut up my draft, and rearranged everything, cut many things, and shaped it into a new kind of flowing.  I also update the sub-title, and decided to use that for the blog as well.  I am on sabbatical now, and revising and editing, and trying to begin a book proposal to find a publisher.  The revising and editing is a joyful process, but the proposal is very hard.  It is a great challenge to the ego–who am I to share my words with the world?  Hard to describe the book in a few words, hard to describe myself in a few words, hard to imagine how to “market,” when what comes up in my heart is the desire to transform the world so that we rediscover our connection to all beings.  The process of writing has also brought me more deeply into the brokenness we live within.

I have been thinking I might come back to some occasional posting here, just to remind myself of the marvelous wisdom all around us.  Today I am excited about a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer which I just recently started reading, called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.  I felt such a great sense of kinship with the writing in this book, and inspired by the stories she tells, and the possibilities of learning from so many of our fellow beings on this earth.  I have read several chapters so far, and am savoring each one.  Get this book!

New Ferns

New Ferns

Pause for Consideration

Egrets MJ DSC02113_2I began this blog to share ideas that have been brewing in me for some time, which I had been gathering for a book about spirituality.  Each post was part of the third draft of the book.  The blog was structured based on the chapters of the book.  You can find out more about that on the about page of Finding Our Way Home.  

I have been thrilled to share these ideas in this format, and to connect with readers who have followed the blog, liked or commented on posts, and shared their own thoughts and feelings.  Thank you!  I have now posted everything in this draft of the book, and have come to a crossroads–what next?

Do I continue to blog on waking up to the earth, to each other, and to the mystery with new entries?  Or, do I take some time off to work on the book as book again, and see what I can do to turn this draft into the next draft?   Do I repost the original entries and share the book all over again in that way?  I have noticed that it is rare for someone to read a post, and then decide to read the rest of the blog.  It doesn’t really function like a book.  Yet it has its own appeal. There is a certain momentum that a blog creates, that is hard to let go of.

But in any case, I do need to pause, to have some space to listen to what the next steps will be.  And so I wanted to let you know what was brewing in me, and ask for your blessings on this writing journey.

The Partnership of Human and Tree

When I write in my journal, I do it on paper, and what is paper but very thin slices of wood? Each time I write, I enter this old partnership of human and tree. We join together to create a magic of exploration and memory which neither of us could do alone. Think of the vast store of human wisdom and history found in libraries around the world. All of it would have been impossible without trees to hold our words in their keeping.

Beech Tree Close Up 133650001Many years after I sat in the beech tree, I discovered another link. According to Gilbert Waldbauer, the ancient Germanic peoples would carve their runes on thin slabs of beech wood. These were sometimes laced together with thongs to create what they called a Buch, which is the German word for both beech and book.

The tree is our original text, the bearer of all text. When I sat in the beech tree, I was face to face with that perennial yearning of humankind to leave our mark. I too had a yearning to leave my mark on paper, writing my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and memories, creating something new with the magic of words.

Trees have been the foundation of so much human life and culture. The first fuel of many of our ancestors was wood. Our houses are made of wood. The floors, the walls, the ceilings, the window frames and doorways. We are surrounded and held up and sheltered by the gift of trees. Our musical instruments, our tools, our boats, many of our foods and medicines, all are possible because of trees. No wonder we say “Knock on wood” when everything is going well and we wish to protect ourselves from bad luck.

Trees also play a significant role in the crisis we face today for the health of our planet. Deforestation has contributed to global warming, and planting new trees can contribute to reducing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere. I am inspired by the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, founded by Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Beginning in 1977, she organized poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees, and learn small scale trades that benefit the environment while providing a living. Over 40 million trees have been planted in Kenya in the last thirty-six years.

Sometime I wish we Americans could go back to the old European pagan approach to trees. They didn’t believe it was wrong to cut down trees or use their products for their needs. But the old pagans taught that before cutting a tree one must ask permission of the tree. To request its consent acknowledges that we have a relationship of mutuality and respect. Some might say that asking wouldn’t alter the act of cutting the tree. But just compare how consent and respect differentiate acts of lovemaking from acts of assault.

To relate to a tree with respect will change the nature of the use we make of it for our survival needs. I believe that a tree is not merely a tool and resource for human needs. The tree is a sacred Other, with its own inherent value and meaning. How do we know that the tree does not have its own sentient life? Recently I learned that trees emit low frequency vibrations that human ears cannot detect. My lack of knowledge about its language, does not determine that the tree is without a language of its own. 

Writing as Dialogue

Along with journaling, another form of writing that has been a part of my spiritual journey is to write to someone I care about—not to be sent to that person, but to express what I need to express to them. This can be especially powerful when we have lost someone we love to death. My first romantic partner, Gary, and I were together for six years. After we had been separated for a few years, he was killed in an auto accident. I still loved him, and my heart felt broken at his passing. There was much that had been left unfinished in our connection. I found that I could write to him in my journal—I could tell him all the things that had not been said between us. It was a way to find healing and bring closure to our relationship.

Another side to this writing is to write in the voice of the other person or being. Here is an example of what I mean. I ask a question, whatever question is deep in my heart. One of my perennial questions is “How can I learn to live in harmony with the earth?” I write it down. Snow on Branches DSC05758Then I let the voice of the trees answer the question. I do this literally. I write, “the trees say:” and then keep writing. Here is what came out when I asked this question most recently: “The trees say slow down, stop running everywhere, feel the wind on your face, feel the sun on your skin. Don’t be afraid, you can do this. You belong to the earth.”

It wouldn’t have to be trees. It could be birds, the ocean, the moon. It could be myself at the age of eight. It could be my old love Gary. On a psychological level, in all of these exercises, what I am doing is tapping into parts of myself that hold wisdom. On a spiritual level, we are not separate from trees, birds, the ocean or the moon—so who is to say that if we open our souls we can’t hear the wisdom they might have for us? Writing connects us to the depths of our own hearts, and our hearts connect us to all that is.

Anne LeClaire, a writer I met while living on Cape Cod, said we must take up our pen “like a heat-seeking missile… aiming it for the territory of truth.” We must go to the places we are afraid to go. We so often try to keep our hearts hidden, afraid to expose our secret selves. But LeClaire challenges us: “The heart of the universe is always within our own hearts if only we can be brave enough to expose it.”

Writing is a journey we take to discover who we are and what in us is true. Writing will surprise us. We don’t know ahead of time what will come out on the page, what will emerge within our souls. Like the magic of the ancient runes carved in trees, writing reveals secrets to us.

Quote from Anne D. LeClaire, “Writers and… Risks,” in The Cape Codder, Nov. 3, 2000.