Today I spent some time pruning the rhododendron and some shrubs I cannot yet name in the yard of the house we rent in Stony Brook. Last fall I took some branches off the maple, pine, dogwood and sycamore trees in the front yard, lifted the verdant ceiling of the place, pruned the windows back to light. The previous occupants of the house were ancient and ill and had been in the house since the 60's. The original plantings, all, I am sure, well-placed and proportional at a certain point in time, had been allowed to mature in situ undisturbed. Over the years the couple gradually hid themselves from their neighbors. When we were house-hunting in June last year, the house was the only one in the development we could not actually see on Google Earth.
The yards, front and back, are deeply shaded now, though we see the evidence of a vegetable garden from the sunnier past and a few determined spring bulbs struggle to bloom in the minimal light the old beds still receive. It is a hard scene for a garden-loving renter, but I am doing my best to support what's here and gratify the neighbors. Truth be told, though, I like a sunny yard and sun-loving plants.
Roses, for instance. I love roses. For many of my young adult years in Cincinnati and Virginia, I grew dozens of miniature roses at a time inside under lights. Some of the varieties I grew were no bigger than the palm of my hand, little jewels in their blooming time. My paternal grandmother and my mother are responsible for my attachment to roses. Each in her lifetime saw to the care of the "Dorothy Perkins" ramblers that have grown for as long as I can remember on the split rail fences around our place on Cape Cod. After their spring bloom every year, they have to be rescued from the bittersweet vines, pruned and weeded and then redirected and resecured onto the silvered cedar fence rails. I learned the art as a teenager, and after Mom died, the care of those roses fell mostly to me.
Pruning is the springtime art of shaping a plant for healthy growth and maximum bloom. The goal is threefold: to remove the dead and diseased growth, to open up the center of the plant so that light gets in and air can circulate, and to shape future growth by cutting just above buds that are headed in the right direction, stimulating their growth.
With pruning, as with other gardening tasks like thinning seedlings, you often destroy much more than you keep. But with experience you learn that you will regret any mercy. Pruning is tough loving. You have to let go of the old in order to make room for the new. Those of you who are in the process of moving or redecorating, changing jobs or reconfiguring your wardrobe, grieving a big loss, beginning a family, going back to school, cleaning the garage or basement -- you know what I mean. You've got to have a rule and stick to it. If it is not serving life, lose it. If you don't, then useless possessions, outdated ideas, uninterrogated habits and assumptions, meaningless activities, dead relationships -- well, they choke out the light. The breeze doesn't blow through. Mildew and blight set in. All kinds of flotsam and jetsam get hung up in your overgrowth. Gets so people can't find you inside all that tangle and darkness. Even you can't find you.
The springtime art of pruning is the art of choosing again and again to be fully alive, to let go of everything that is not a celebration of life. Light. Openness in the center. Simplicity. Elegance. Health. Direction. Flower and fruit. Come back to life.
Happy Spring, dear ones,
A relative newcomer to the Fellowship joined the regulars in Spirit in Practice for the first time right in the middle of the series "workshop #5 -Mind Practices." Afterwards, he told me how moved he was to have found himself in such welcoming and openhearted company. "It is so rare," he said, "to be able to relish a conversation like that, one that goes deep, where there is room to listen, put new ideas together, take risks."
That evening we had looked at how subjects that, over the course of our lives, have drawn us into serious study, were often linked to our process of becoming ourselves, to our spiritual growth. He's right. That's not a topic you're likely to explore on line at the grocery store or at coffee hour after the Sunday service. It takes a safe space, a covenant to guide the sharing, a quality of listening, some courage, a few shared "wow" moments, and a growing line of trust. There are other groups here that support this kind of conversation, the kind that has the potential to transform lives. You leave those rooms with a new piece in its place, with an insight that lives in you for days, with a question that intrigues you, with a bond with a stranger whose story you also have lived.
Whether you are new to Unitarian Universalism and UUFSB or an old hand, the Belonging series, our orientation to the faith and our Fellowship, is the place to found new friendships on conversations of substance. Tell the story of your spirit's journey to this place, talk about how you want to use the resources you find here to learn and grow and serve. Learn our history, be a part of our future.
This is how we weave community. One real conversation, one surprising connection, one stirring insight at a time.
Find yourself here,
About now in what still appears to be the middle of winter, something in or around us begins to feel springy. As I write today, Valentine's Day, we are sidling into a warming trend after this awesome series of serious snow and ice storms. When the smashed, gray-green grass shows itself again under the icy snow-melt, gardeners, even ones like me who haven't played in the dirt for a while, can't help but think about peas and potatoes and onions and kale and broccoli, the early crops of the gardening season.
It is time to start seeds, order plants, set up the lights, draw the plans. And even if you can't buy them or start them or bed them, you sure can eat them! With the first signs of spring human bodies begin to crave a spring tonic - those spicy green things. So here in the middle of February, I offer you this delicious harbinger of spring 2011, a recipe for Leek and Potato Soup from my tattered learning-book Molly Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Mollie and the Roanoke Natural Foods Coop (http://roanokenaturalfoods.com/) conspired, in the 80's, to teach me how to be a good vegetarian cook. This recipe was a favorite, and so easy. I have served it to the Board and others already. You will love it.
3 fist-sized potatoes, peeled, 1-inch chunks
3 cups leeks, cleaned and chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
4 Tablespoons butter
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup stock or water
3-4 cups of milk (and/or extra stock)
Snippets of fresh herbs (or maybe dry)
Freshly-ground black pepper
- Place potatoes in a saucepan with the leeks, celery, carrot and butter. Add salt. Cook the vegetables, stirring over medium heat, until butter is melted and all the particles are coated (5 minutes).
- Add the stock or water, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until the potatoes are soft (20-30 minutes). Check the moisture-level occasionally. You may need to add a little extra stock or water if it gets too low.
- When the potatoes are tender, remove the pan from the heat and puree its contents in the milk (use a blender or a food processor.).Make sure the mixture is utterly smooth. Return it to the saucepan.
- Add optional herbs (or not). Grind in some black pepper. Taste to see if it wants more salt.
- Heat the soup, gently, covered, until just hot. Donâ€™t let it boil. Watch out that it doesn't burn on the bottom (scorch -- Blech!). Serve right away. ENJOY!
Bon Appetit, my friends!
Some of you have told me that you worry I am working too hard and maybe neglecting my own self-care. "We don't want you to burn out, get sick, leave us." It is true that I can check a lot of boxes on the stress inventory! As I adjust to a new role in a new congregation, to a new marriage and a new family in a new home in a new town, to a new regime for my R(heumatoid) A(rthritis) and a new diagnosis (fibromyalgia), I am, by definition, off-balance and vulnerable. And, I know, yes, I know, oh, how I know: if I want to care for you responsibly, I need to take care of this body and soul. Part of my job as minister is to model (ugh!) a way of living that honors the body, sustains the spirit and builds mental and emotional IQ.
I Confess: I am not very good at listening for and to the voice of this aging body. My body's messages often express inconvenient truths, easy to miss or dismiss. I hear them and, often, I ignore them: "I'm thirsty!" "Gotta lie down!" "Let's take in a movie tonight." "How about a swim?" "Ow!" "Please give me some real food!" "Can I just have a minute to think this over?" Somehow, again and again, I allow even the most minor urgencies of the daily scramble to override the wise longings of my body. But this body, at nearly 55, is neither as tolerant nor as resilient as it used to be. Neglect is increasingly risky.
I Promise: I am on the path. Recently I made a personal commitment to strengthen my relationship to my body, to listen to her messages and honor her needs. My emerging strategies address the needs of the whole Margie -- body, spirit, mind, and heart. I want you to have a partner in ministry who is as physically fit, as spiritually fortified, as mentally sharp, and as relationally present as she possibly can be.
I've started working with a personal trainer and cardio-training at my target heart rate regularly. For the time being, I have eliminated most sweets and desserts from my diet. I am drinking more water, and practicing Michael Pollan's "food rules." (Google it!) I am honoring the Sabbath - Wednesday, my day of rest. Friday and Sunday afternoon and evening are working out to be family time. I participate in the newly-formed UUFSB Buddhist sangha, my "church." I have plenty of personal, collegial, medical, spiritual and continuing educational support. And rest happens! A couple of vacation weeks are coming up in February (13-20) and May (15-22). (They'll be spread out and earlier next year.) This summer I'll have two additional weeks of rest, recreation and restoration and four weeks of study leave for reading, spiritual renewal and preparation for the new church year.
So, my friends, you will see me getting better and better at taking care of myself. If I am for you (and I am) then I must be for myself. And it works the other way as well. Love the bodies you are and make them strong. We are partners in a ministry that calls our best selves, body and soul, into rigorous service.
Strong in this faith,
Here is something I have noticed about you as a community: you are hard and dedicated workers. Once you set your mind to something, you accomplish itâ€”and with uncommon flair. You commit to a product of very high quality and you will wear yourself down to a nub in the process of cranking it out, whatever it is you promised to do. And I feel that I am in good company here, because I am like that too. Between us, we can haul the loaded wagon of our ministry quite a distance before we all drop from exhaustion.
So you see the problem. Our all-out alliance has some uncomfortable implications. A roomful of "nubs" is a pretty shocking sight even when the food has come in and the fire is out, as Marge Piercy puts it in her poem "To Be of Use." We are made to be of use, to have "work that is real," but we must also have rest, play, fun, nourishment. We must be fed by our work, restored and renewed. Best case scenario, in fact - ”our work together produces more energy for life than it expends!
Some of you may have seen me rolling a three-shelf office cart up and down the halls of the Fellowship from meeting to meeting. It took me awhile to get it all together, but now I can bring to you single-serve coffee (caf or decaf), white and dark hot chocolate, spiced apple cider, herbal and black teas and an electric kettle, different kinds of sweeteners, half-and-half. This hot drink cart is a symbol of my intention for all of us. We will take care of ourselves. We will take on work we love that will grow us as individuals and touch lives beyond our walls. We will have a full complement of partners in that work so that each component job is perfectly doable. We will celebrate our accomplishments. We will eat and sleep and frolic about and laugh a lot. We will bring what we make together to the world and we will bask in the light we make together.
I have lots of strategies up my sleeve. Here is another one. This winter and spring on ten Mondays and Tuesdays, I will be offering a series of workshops called Spirit in Practice, an exploration of the meaning and nature of spiritual practice in our lives. This is NOT about dipping into tai chi in one session, yoga in the next, journaling and mindfulness meditation after that. This series will help you name your own experiences of the holy and discover spiritual practices that already sustain you in your life. Might you identify others in the course of the series? Yes, certainly, and there is much more to learn and share. So join me 7-9 PM, February 1, 7, 22; March 1, 7, 22, 29; April 5, 12; May 3 in a Fellowship room TBA. I'll bring the hot drink cart. We'll pool some snacks. If you come hungry and cold in spirit, know you will be fed and warmed in good company.
Happy New Year!
Deb Little sat in the back seat of the car as Pat Killian drove me back to the ferry after my interview with the search committee last spring. She wanted to know my thoughts on congregations as instruments of social justice in the world. How could minister and congregation work together most effectively? We'd barely begun the conversation before I was out the door and dashing down the pier toward the boat and a stunning sunset.
Complex congregational issues are embedded in Deb's question. How important is social justice to our mission as a Fellowship? What is the relationship between politics, social justice and religion? What legal boundaries apply to us as a religious institution? How can minister and lay leaders use our free pulpit responsibly in addressing social justice issues before a diversely aligned membership? When can minister, individuals and groups speak for the congregation as a whole on issues? How do we balance charitable responses to injustice with advocacy and action for root change? Can we use the power of our numbers to increase the effectiveness of our social justice initiatives? Will the day come when members and friends support the Fellowship through annual pledges and every dollar from public congregational fundraisers funds our social justice efforts? I hope we will be able to discuss these and other questions in the New Year.
Meanwhile, the Social Justice Committee is undertaking something new and different this winter: a "common read" of a book on the topic of immigration. Delegates at the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis selected "Immigration as a Moral Issue" as our Association's 2010-2014 Congregational Study/Action Issue (CSAI). A CSAI is not a statement. It is a question, an invitation for congregations to confront this topic, reflect on it, learn about it and respond to it - each in its own way.
Our common read, The Death of Josseline, begins with the story of a 14 year-old girl who died in the Arizona desert as she tried to bring her 10-year-old brother to their mother in Los Angeles. We begin our four years of engagement with this CSAI with a collection of stories about real lives in the context of one immigration dilemma. From there we will take our inquiry deeper and wider. The read will begin this month. Buy or borrow your book. Read it after the holidays. Engage in one of a number of discussion opportunities in January and February. Participate in a collaborative Sunday service on the topic in March.
I, like most of you, just ate my way through a holiday that reminds us of the perennial tensions that immigration inscribes on a culture and a land. The Christmas story gives us another such story. Is there room at the inn for a stranger to be born among us - a prophet and teacher of peace, compassion and hospitality?