Beloved Community

This post is adapted from a message shared January 15, 2023 at Islands Community Church on Bailey's Island, ME.

There are a few vital elements necessary for gathering and sustaining community – choice, practice, and the seed of awareness that instigates them — the seed of awareness of the sacred right in front of us.

Last month, at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine where I work, we had our first in-person retreat in two years. As 28 people came together for a weekend, we had opportunities to recognize our differences of belief, disposition, and upbringing and we celebrated our shared humanity and common commitment to nurturing the spiritual life in ourselves and each other. We paid attention to the evidence of the divine among us.

Our retreat theme was Beloved Community and, as we stepped toward one another, we had ample opportunity to nurture both the resilient and the fragile places in our community. 

Beloved community is a term popularized by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It refers to a community in which everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger, and hate.

We are a long way from realizing Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community in our nation and in our world, but we can continue to raise up the vision as an aspiration and a promise… and we can actively strive to cultivate the beloved community in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and here within this church.

At the ChIME retreat, in service to the vision of living in beloved community, there were tears and laughter, whispered conversations and raucous conversations, meals and stories shared, sunrise meditations and sunset walks, messes made and messes cleaned up.

Ultimately, we all left the weekend exhausted and clear that we had only just begun. Community requires ongoing effort and commitment. It requires choosing to step toward one another again and again.

adrienne marie brown describes community this way:

“Community is a place to practice and participate in care, attention, knowing and being known, being protected, having room to make mistakes and still belong… not just allowed to be there, but be valuable…to heal. To recover. Community feels responsible to each other. Community is a choice. More precisely, community is an accumulation of choices made every day, a set of growing practices.”

To this definition, I would add that community is woven one intentional relationship at a time, with attention and care. And we each all belong to several or many communities throughout our lives. Each of your communities may overlap in many ways, or they may only overlap in one place – in you.

For me, a sense of community is deeply personal — more a felt sense of being connected than a logistical or practical one — and that sense of community extends beyond the human to all the beings and forces that sustain and encourage me.

Last summer, Thomas and I took a hike in the White Mountains. The weather was beautiful, trails were dry, and bugs had not yet hatched at those elevations. Hiking conditions were perfect for just giving myself to the scenery and becoming one with the forest. After a busy spring tending to the needs of our family, and our work families, I was craving this re-connection to the wider web of life.

But the trails were rocky and seemed to be either straight up or down. I was constantly looking at my feet or looking around for rocks or trees to help me pull myself up or lower myself down. My knees ached and the amount of attention required by the technical trail kept me in my head and isolated from the ecosystem that I longed to connect with.

On the third day, on a long descent, I reached out to steady myself as I stepped off a tall rock. The bark of the birch tree was smooth and, as I reached out to it, it seemed to be reaching out to me. Growing as it did alongside that trail, it had likely been steadying hikers for decades – and would continue to. It accepted me in my vulnerability, and I recognized its strength and generosity… This encounter was an invitation to reciprocity. I had been reaching out to helper trees and rocks for the entire trip but I had not been paying attention. They had been offering me their groundedness. The least I could do was offer them my attention and gratitude.

Now I was on high alert. Each time I reached out for support from a trailside tree or rock, I acknowledged its integrity and gave thanks for its presence. My vulnerability and physical needs suddenly became an opportunity to recognize myself in relationship with dozens of beings along the way. Each time I reached out, I was received. One relationship at a time, I was feeling my way back into awareness, back into community.

Charles Eisenstein offers, “community is not some add-on to our other needs, not a separate ingredient for happiness along with food, shelter, music, touch, intellectual stimulation, and other forms of physical and spiritual nourishment. Community arises from the meeting of these needs.”

Today, I invite you to consider the awareness, choices, and practices at play in your own experience of community.

Where do you notice divinity? To whom or what do you extend welcome? From whom or what do you receive welcome? How do your personal communities of belonging and responsibility resonate with Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community?

I will close with a poem by Joy Harjo that reminds me that I am always intimately connected within a vast and timeless beloved community. Just like you.

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.

Joy Harjo, Remember

Milkweed Seed

Milkweed is a food source for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. You may remember that I left a few stalks to grow in the garden this year. Those few stalks have turned into a dozen or so. They are now going to seed and each stalk holds the potential for hundreds more plants. The seeds are blowing into every other raised bed in the garden as well as into the surrounding field. I suspect I will wrestle with whether or not to leave the milkweed or plant vegetables next spring. For now, I am appreciating the abundance of the dispersal. On this crisp and sunny fall afternoon, I spent a few long minutes sitting with the seed pods and seeds.

In the field and in the garden, 

milkweed pods are dry and cracked open.

Bursting with potential,

each pod holds hundreds of seeds.

They hang now in clumps,

expanding and loosening

as the sun and wind fluff and dry

the silky hairs that extend from each seed.

When the time is right,

the wind will nudge them, one at a time, into the wider world.

As they each float away from the mother plant,

I notice that no two move the same way.

Some rise up and travel a long distance

before gently floating to a resting spot.

Others descend almost as soon as they are launched,

caught in nearby leaves and stalks.

 

Watching this dance of holding and release,

drifting and floating,

appreciating the abundance and

possibility both held and scattered,

I consider the bulging seed pod of human potential, 

Alive in each of us. Alive in me.

 

I am waiting patiently (and not so patiently)

For our seed pod to crack open, 

and our goodness to pour out on the wind.

I am summoning the courage

to release the gifts I have held dear

and give them freely to the world.

I am trusting the wisdom of our collective

to know when it is time to rise in action

and when it is time to lay quiet.

I am honoring the turning of the season

around me

and within me.

 

Greeting Autumn

This morning, I was up before the sun. I lit a candle and a fire. I imagined the sun recognizing the kindred flames in my house as she climbed higher into the eastern sky, casting first light on the oaks and the chickadees at the edge of the field. I watched the light rise, slowly and steadily birthing a new day. What an honor to witness this passage.

This daily miracle is one that I often miss in the summer. The sun rises early in the summer, very early. But now, just a week after the autumnal equinox, I am rising with, or even before the sun. I am grateful to be in such good company. The light and heat of the sun beckon me to meet the new day with fresh eyes and heart. May I be a beacon for someone somewhere as well.

A few hours later, I pulled on a wool sweater before heading out for a walk. At the first touch of the cool air on my face, I felt a wash of nostalgia. The combination of the crisp, cool air, bright blue sky, and warm cozy sweater ushered in comfort and familiarity. In a flash, I recognized the 49 years of autumn that I have lived and thousands of years of autumns that predate me. This season of transition invites me to re-member my place within an expansive cycle of being. May I also offer an opportunity for connection and remembering to the human and more than human beings around me.

For dinner, I made homemade soup. Chopping vegetables and simmering the stock slowed and calmed my senses. The dozens of things on my to-do list fell away as the pace and rhythm of dinner prep took over. Sitting by candle light to eat my simple (and delicious!) meal of soup and bread, I give thanks for the teaching and nourishment of Creation. May the work of my life also nourish and sustain.

I end the day as I began, by candlelight. The sun set a few hours ago and the glow of the computer glares harshly in the dimly lit room. But I am inspired to write and reconnect with the readers of this blog — and I am grateful for the inspiration. I do not know what is ahead in this fall season and if it will lead back to a more regular rhythm of writing. I do know that I have welcomed the new season thoroughly today. And, it has welcomed me.

How have you noticed this new season arriving in your life?

Garden Inventory, July 13

Asparagus – 2 beds, gone to seed
Basil – Teeny and yellowish. They didn’t get off to a healthy start.
Beets – Ready to pick. Will anyone eat the greens?
Black flies – Gone. Phew!
Broccoli – Wants to produce. Need to review harvesting tips.
Brussel sprouts – If we keep bringing them water, we will have sprouts through Thanksgiving.
Cantaloupe – It doesn’t look like this will be the year.
Corn – 4 feet tall, robust
Cucumbers – 4 fruits on 3 plants, all stunted. Will they grow bigger if we bring them more water?
Delicata Squash – small plants, blossoms beginning
Fennel – One delicious bulb eaten in stir fry. Three more waiting to be picked.
Flowers – Zinnias, calendula, cornflower, and strawflower scattered throughout. Currently blue, orange, pink, yellow and purple beauty! A mystery plant almost ready to bloom.
Horseflies – Aggressive!!
Kale – Abundant – keep picking!
Lettuce – 4 more heads ready to harvest. Salad anyone?
Snap peas – Juicy, swollen, sweet. I wish we had planted more.
Mosquitos – Nowhere in sight.
Potatoes – Past flowering. Robust plants. No potato bugs!
Tomatoes – bushy plants, green fruit, over-crowded bed again
Water – Two wheelbarrows full of buckets and watering cans will keep the plants alive. Is it enough to  keep them healthy?
Watermelon – It doesn’t look like this will be the year for watermelon either.
Zucchini – None planted this year. None will be wasted.

Of all the miracles happening in the garden, I want to spotlight three of them here: the milkweed, the horsefly, and the asparagus.

The horsefly wants something from me. It has attempted to bite the front and back of my right knee, left thigh, left ankle. Each time he lands, I swat him away. I try an experiment. Let him land and have a solid bite. Perhaps it will satiate him long enough that I can linger a little longer. I am seeking a common ground for the horsefly’s need for the physical sustenance of my body and my need for the spiritual sustenance of the garden.

The asparagus had arrived in May to announce to me that gardening season had begun. Before I had added compost or turned any of the other beds, the first spears had poked through the soil. As usual, I had been watching and waiting for several weeks, but that anticipation does not dull the surprise and joy that I felt when we spotted that first spear. The asparagus beds fed us (and neighbors and friends) for over a month and now we have left them to rest. We stopped cutting while the spears were still coming up strong. The tall fronds that bloom now are feeding the root systems below and, next May, those roots will again feed us.

The “Tea Bed” has a bumper crop but, this year, it won’t become tea. The bed holds perennial chamomile, mint, and lavender and, as an experiment, I left a few stalks of milkweed when I was weeding early in the season. The milkweed is now taking up more than half of the bed. It just bloomed and it smells heavenly, warm and sweet. Among the dozens of flying beings on the blossoms, I count 1 hummingbird, 3 different butterflies, 4 different bees, and more than a handful of insects I don’t know how to classify. As I gaze into the cacophony of life in the milkweed today, I celebrate the interrelationship of many beings.

I am grateful to be both a witness and a full participant in Creation’s co-mingling. With renewed attention, I step anew into the opportunity and the responsibility of the dance.

May I show up to each new day like the pollinators, ready to feed life as well as be fed by it.

Open to the World

The paddle board offers access to a whole new world, the watery domain of loon, heron, eagle. I try to be a good guest.

Standup paddle board

Carries me to a new realm.

I am humbled, stunned, 

Amidst the watery depths,

Heron, loon, eagle

Are fishing, swimming, flying.

morning reverie.

I paddle more and

more slowly until I stop.

How can I go on?

Here, in the middle of the lake, suspended between the vast sky above, and the watery depths below, I interrupt the stillness of the lake. I simply cannot move without creating a ripple. Water skimmers dance across the surface of the lake, creating a v-shaped wake behind them. I too am creating a wake. 

As I glide silently under the pine tree where a mature bald eagle is roosted, it flies away. I notice an immature eagle and another mature eagle that have remained situated, slightly higher and farther away from the shore. I linger for a moment, staring up to take in their size, their stillness, their majestic stature. Then, worried that I might cause them to fly too, I paddle on. 

I spot the sharp, pointed head of a great blue heron rising above a stand of reeds. She is slowly walking through the watery vegetation near the shore. I am in the middle of the lake channel, but studying closely as she stalks her breakfast. Then, suddenly, she flies. Perhaps I’ve come too close. I’ve certainly given her more attention than she cares to carry on her skinny shoulders.

As is often the case, we hear the loons before we see them. Their loud echoing call fills the air with mystery and my heart swells with awe. A loon call is haunting — and promising. Loons are an indicator species and the presence of nesting loons indicates that the water and shore conditions are sufficiently healthy for raising babies. As we approach, I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Lead” in which she invokes the loon’s story to invite our hearts to “break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”

As our paths cross, the loons dive, wary of a passing stranger. They are wise. I’d be wary of me too. Despite the ways in which I try to be “one of the good ones”, humans are making a mess. We are not to be trusted. And, sometimes, despite my good intentions, I make a mess too.

I have been paddling slowly, quietly, gently so as not to disrupt the others. And still, my presence has had an impact. I have interrupted breakfasts, mating, and morning meditation. Participating in the human family at this time in this culture creates an impact. I strive to make that impact as positive as possible when I can — and I have a lot to learn.

As we continue to paddle, people who reside in the camps, cabins, and houses along the lakeshore are waking up. There are moms and boys fishing, dads and toddlers building in the sand along the shore, a woman in a rowboat, a family in a fishing boat, elders watching the lake wake up from their lazy boys behind the picture window.

What would be the impact, if we all started from the Hippocratic oath premise of “do no harm” ?

Better yet, what if we all started from the Leave No Trace ethic of “leave it better than you found it”?

What if “it” referred not only to the human family, but also to the heron, the eagle, the loon, the lake?

I am as glad as anyone to have a 3-day weekend but, in the interest of aligning my intent with the positive impact that I hope to have, I am tending an Independence Day that matches my values.

I will work for independence from the systems and beliefs that perpetuate violence and harm to others.

I will honor bodily autonomy for all ~ no matter the gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or species. 

I will lean into the interdependence of individuals, species, and ecosystems.

I will celebrate both you and me and the beauty of our connectivity. 

What will you celebrate today? And tomorrow? And the day after that?

Together, we are co-creating a new way of being human in the world.

(Read other musings about independence and interdependence here and here.)

Beltane Brilliance

dew on grassLast weekend, we celebrated Beltane, the midpoint between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. A phoebe outside the window has been trying to wake me up earlier and earlier the last few days.

Today, I responded to the invitation to rise earlier. Stepping into the glistening world, I was brought to tears by the brilliance of the sun reflecting on and through drops of moisture on each blade of grass. Everywhere I looked, life teemed with freshness, possibility, and newness ~ and I recognized myself as an undeniable part of this whole. The recognition arises in my body and my heart – a knowing beyond language or belief. I am invited. Indeed, my full participation is required in the rising evolving Creation, holy one and sacred all.

On each blade of grass

Drops of life light converge

As a new day dawns

Each dew drop calls out

“You belong. Welcome back home.

You are one of us.”

As I fall into

their glistening liquid spell

I re-member truth.

I am Creation

Light and Life, Singular and

Collective, whole and complete

Born anew each day.

dew on grass