Quotidian Grace

Ode to a CCM Cruiser

This past Thanksgiving, Chris Bullock, a poet-friend, gave a talk on praise that centred on odes. His closing challenge to his audience was to write an ode of their own. So I did.

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Ode to a CCM Cruiser

We glide, you and I, through trees lit up like candles,
your spokes blurred,
your tires humming an earthy melody.
Fuelled by my blood,
kept upright by my inner ears,
steered by my imagination and desire,
you carry me, for the thousandth time, up the hill.
My muscles strain,
your chain squeals in protest,
bits of silver flake off your tarnished wheels
and follow in our wake
until that timeless moment at the top,
an ambered memory.
Then everything changes, fast, and together
we descend,
feel the wind against our skin,
dream of rivers, trees, and journeys
still to come.

 

 

Quotidian Grace · Uncategorized

Be present. Be kind. Be.

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions, perhaps because I feel that to resolve is to set myself up for failure. After all, 35 percent of those who make such promises break them by the end of January, according to “How Stuff Works.” But New Year’s intentions—maybe I can handle that. Although the Canadian Oxford counts the two words as synonyms, resolution sounds a bit too binding, as though breaking one will bring a fine or a jail term or, at the very least, public or self-reprobation. Besides, it’s trendy to talk about intention, and I rarely have the opportunity to ride a trend wave.

So here are my intentions for 2017. I realize they do not lend themselves to being measured, which could be interpreted as a copout. They’re more related to cultivating a certain state of mind. So I still have to figure out how to determine to what degree, if any, I’m carrying out my intentions.

***

Be present. I admit, this has been my intention for a few years now, and my embryonic and frequently faltering meditation practice is part of this. But that’s the thing about intentions—they can be renewed without that sense of failure.

And so, once again, I enter a new year hoping to be more present. To interlocutors, to strangers, to friends, to trees and birds and bugs and clouds. I hope not to be lost in thought while walking under Alberta’s cornflower skies with Dora the Dog on our daily jaunt but rather to be found in the body, taking in, with all my senses, the beauty and brokenness around me. To not be thinking about my “to do” list while someone is telling me about her latest challenge at work and to not be planning my response or my fix for her quandary while she’s talking, but to be truly listening.

Be kind. Yesterday, I read about a guy in the UK whose New Year’s resolution a few years ago was to engage in at least one kind act a day for 365 days. He’d pay for someone’s bus fare in the line ahead of him or help carry a stranger’s groceries to the car—whatever kindness was called for in the moment. And on the last day of the year, he stood on the street and handed out five-pound notes, which he’d saved throughout the year, to passersby.

So … to be alert to opportunities for kindness and then to be kind—that’s what I’m hoping for. But I intend, also, to think of “kind” as something I can be to those far beyond my sphere of immediate influence, those living with poverty, fear, oppression, or with some “difference” that’s judged negatively by those around them. How to do that, what that means, especially in this Year of Trump, will require some serious thought—it goes beyond helping someone pack groceries into her car or holding the C-train gate open for the person behind me.

Be. “Just to be is a blessing,” according to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. And yet I find it hard “just to be.” To lie back on the grass and watch the clouds. To sit on the couch and knit. Living in a world where simply being is not exactly honoured, I feel unproductive when I’m just being. But I intend to practice it in 2017 and to feel the blessing in that.

***

Underlying all of this, I intend to practice gratitude. Among other things, this means not complaining about the weather. That doesn’t mean that I can’t express concern (read: complain, rant) about climate change—climate is not weather, and I just don’t see anything to be grateful about when it comes to climate change. And it also doesn’t mean that I can’t state facts, such as the fact that this morning, I wore 18 pieces of apparel (not counting sunglasses) during my walk with Dora (whose single item of clothing was not worn to keep her neck warm) in -20C air.

The line between complaining and relaying facts may be a fine one, but I intend to stay on the fact side of things. (Please keep me accountable!) After all, aren’t we lucky to be experiencing weather, unlike all of those people we know who left this earth in 2016? It comes back to just being. And what’s the point of complaining, anyway? Like sitting in a rocking chair, it gives me something to do but doesn’t get me anywhere.

Oh yes, one more thing. I’m renewing my intention to read and memorize more poetry. And to start a poetry discussion group, since I need help with unpacking poems. Let me know if you’re interested.

***

I’d love to hear about your intentions, resolutions—whatever you call them—for 2017, or why you don’t make resolutions. If you’d like to write a guest blog, send it to me at jenebah@comcast.net. Or tell us about your hopes for the year in the comments section. After all, we all need accountability: it takes a village to fulfill intentions.

Guest Bloggers

“We’re More Alike Than Different”

By Steve Henry

During an email conversation among friends about a Huffington Post article (“Do Science and Religion Conflict? Yes – And It Matters”), Steve’s response stood out. If you would like to join the conversation by contributing a guest post, please forward your thoughts to jenebah@comcast.net.

***

I first noticed and began thinking about tribalism in the late 1980s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The outbreak of ethnic and religious hatred in the former southern Soviet territories both caught my attention and frightened me. I realized then that the USSR, while not a very good form of government for the governed, had at least kept the lid on this to some extent in Russia and its satellite states. The aftermath of my country’s invasion of Iraq has sadly confirmed this—it appears the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein had held down tribalism and sectarian violence, too. It might be an interesting (though somewhat depressing) does-the-end-justify-the-means debate whether dictatorships are better for controlling volatile populations, but I suppose that’s a subject for another discussion. The realization that this negative form of tribalism is still in full flower was saddening to me. I had thought, or at least hoped, that the human race had advanced beyond it.

The need for a tribe is a strong one. I’ve rarely in my life felt l was part of one, but have always wished for it. I’ve always felt at the edge of things, having thus far lived an interesting if somewhat solitary life. I do have my own somewhat narrower version of Joyce’s “circle of the cosmos” tribe that grew in my mind while pedaling the length and breadth of North America so many years ago, when nearly everyone I ran into was open, friendly, kind, and supportive, no matter what their age, walk of life, or other demographic. Again and again I was touched by the kindness of the folks I ran into and remember wishing we always treated each other as kindly as we do a stranger pedaling his bike across the country.  Thirty years later, I still wonder why it takes a crazy fool biking thousands of miles up and down the continent to soften the barriers we all put up between ourselves and those we see as “the other.”

This thought was reinforced in 2009 when I ran in the Chicago Marathon for the second time. Somewhere around mile 20, after hours of trotting past amateur musicians playing for us, numerous people holding humorous and encouraging signs, hundreds of people manning the aid stations, and the estimated million fans shouting encouragement from streetside, it struck me that this was a shining moment for the human race. I know that amazing crowd of supporters included liberal and conservative, gay and straight, atheists and the religious (many of whom bicker with one another), citizens of many different states and more than a few countries, and quite a variety of races, judging from the faces I saw as I jogged doggedly through Chicago. If we can all come together and pull together so well for a special event, I wondered, why is it so hard for our various “tribes” to get along a little better than we do in the normal workaday world?

It’s an old saw, but I think it comes down to simply getting to know, and therefore understand, people unlike ourselves. Some years ago, a local college hosted a talk by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, an event I made sure not to miss. While the question-and-answer period ended up being much better than his actual speech, the theme of his talk, “We’re more alike than we are different,” has stayed with me to this day. Yet we humans seem forever focused on our differences, on “the other,” and I’m always left to wonder why. Somehow, the author’s blaming the “liberal order … cracking apart” because of its supposed lack of focus on the past doesn’t ring true for me. From the horrifying extremism of ISIS all the way down to the petty political battles going on in my country, I think the problem isn’t so much a lack of interest in the past on the part of liberal rationalism but a too-narrow focus on holding to a twisted view of a perceived “better” past by groups interested in holding onto power—a past that included racism, homophobia, religious sectarianism, ill treatment of women, jingoism, and more. They do this by focusing on differences, on “the other,” to the detriment of society. They also have a great ally in human beings’ strong resistance to change.

***

Steve Henry grew up on a farm in the rolling hills of central Kansas. After earning bachelor’s degrees in marketing and agricultural economics, he served a sentence of seven years in the offices of a large insurance company. Missing the outdoor life, he left the corporate world in 1985 to cycle across the continent twice, including one trek from Alaska to Key West. Since then he has led bicycle and backpack tours, contributed articles to outdoor publications and websites, and written Mountain Bike! The Ozarks and The Best in Tent Camping: Missouri and the Ozarks. He heads for the mountain and desert West whenever he can shake himself loose from the Midwest, and always looks forward to fall and winter adventures in the Ozarks. When not roaming the outdoors by foot, bike, or canoe, Steve sees the country from the driver’s seat of a Peterbilt 379.

 

 

Quotidian Grace

The Improbable Lightness of Porcelain

The gift arrives in the mail, in a six-inch cardboard cube whose weight my hands barely register. I carefully slit the tape with a penknife and open the lid. Another box, embedded in popcorn. More tape. Inside, swathed in bubblewrap, perfectly intact after a flight across the Atlantic in a dark cargo hold, a doll-sized porcelain cup, fine and translucent, filled to the brim with history.

In a factory in Worcester, England, some two centuries ago, the clay took shape under the hands of a potter, who then pressed the bowl into a mould. A turner lifted the still damp piece from its bed and finished the edge and foot on his lathe, and yet another worker picked up a handle the size and shape of my great niece’s newborn ear, expertly attaching the two ends of the handle to the bowl with liquid clay. Whose hands immersed IMG_3100the fired cup in the glaze? Who rested his arm on the sideboard to steady his hand, dabbed his miniscule brush into paint – indigo blue, leafy green, magenta – and created these tiny flowers, joined by stems of gold so delicate, they were surely painted with a single hair? Finally, a gilder’s touch, finishing with a thin gold edge along the lip’s twenty wavelets that top the soft spirals flowing down the sides, inviting a finger to follow them, one by one.

What was the name of the woman who bent over this very cup in the burnishing room, polishing each curve and crevice, a white apron over her high-necked dress, her face lit by the afternoon light pouring through the window in front of her, the ghost of her fingers cupping the bowl under mine?

And how, carrying all this weight of time, can this piece, born of earth, be so light?

As I stumble through the days carrying my own burden of history, I long to walk, even for a moment, with this porcelain grace, feeling lightness and beauty and strength in my steps.

Guest Bloggers

“My Week with Naomi Klein”: A Response

By Lorna Louise

I am excited to read your blog’s unfolding thoughts. I too agitate over how to live in this world. The first time I walked in the midst of an active logging clear-cut – with enormous crawler dozers, feller bunchers, harversters, disc saws, cables, skidders – the visceral response of my body was so strong, I thought I was going to throw up. When I read Andrew Nikiforuk’s books on the tar sands, I plunged into a dark paralysis. Yesterday, CBC Ideas told stories of Haiti, of homes and agricultural land bulldozed over to raise an industrial park; at an Amnesty meeting in Kaslo, a Guatemalan tells of villages burned down so gold can be mined. I wonder if I should be working at a beeswax candle factory where we are complicit in the industrial farming of bees and in using plastics and non-recyclable packaging. On and on it goes.

I’m not bailing out, although my thinking as I try to articulate it may look like it.

What if hopelessness is a practical place to start, maybe even a legitimate place to stay? Give a nod to impermanence (I will die), and to the ever changing nature of everything (I am not in control), and a huge sad despairing sigh to the seemingly endless capacity for humans to be destructive.

And what if despair, the terrible overwhelming that chokes off breath and stuns to paralysis, is not really a choice but a sign of our open attention to the surging wave of pain emanating from the very world around us? What if this sensitivity to the suffering around us could be held and somehow sent back out as kindness?

I do confess one “hope”: that “nothing that is real can be threatened.”

And a relatively new intention, set over and over and over, to extend unconditional kindness (no easy thing, even toward myself).

Pema Chodron, Per Espen Stoknes, and Eckhart Tolle provide seeds for these thoughts.

To be continued…

Quotidian Grace

The Community of Bread

We woke to a foot of fresh powder, the noise of the highway muffled by the heavy snow. A perfect day for baking bread. I’d had a rough week, and nothing comforts me more.IMG_1167 Okay, maybe biting into a slab cut from a warm, yeasty loaf, the butter melting on the roof of my mouth.

I love the resurrection of the yeast from dry dead grains to breathing, foaming alchemists gobbling sugar and transforming it into gas. The stickiness of the dough, the hands-right-in-there-fingernails-and-all of it. The rhythm of kneading. The sudden metamorphosis of the dough from a dead lump to something alive that resists the pressure of my hands. The knowing when is the right time to stop kneading and let the creature rest and rise, and when to shape it into loaves.

What is it about baking bread that’s so comforting? Maybe it’s an antidote to loneliness – the long history of the stuff and the connection it gives us to generations stretching back to a vanishing point like railroad tracks on the prairies. Maybe it’s the universality of bread, with its myriad cultural shapes and textures, like human bodies – soft naan, crusty sourdough, crispy baguettes, spongy Ethiopian injera, chewy bagels. In a world of contested boundaries and conflict, in a time of Syrian refugees risking their lives and often losing them as they flee the horror of war, bread brings us together, reminds us we are family – a levelling, leavening force.

Or maybe it’s the mingling of air, water, fire, and earth, the elements rearranged into a something meltingly delicious and nourishing. I feel like a magician – a few movements of my hands and … voilà! Ah yes, but how many hands came before mine, growing the wheat and flax and sunflowers, processing the oats, milking the cows and producing the butter, running the water treatment plant, ensuring the continued functioning of the electrical system, collecting the salt from Great Salt Lake, working the assembly lines at the appliance factories? How many thousands of people did it take to make these two loaves of bread I’m pulling from the oven?

Parker Palmer, in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life, writes, “Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people – it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”

When I bake bread, I become aware of something that is always true but often forgotten – we’re all connected in a web of community, even when we’re alone.

♦ ♦ ♦

And here’s the recipe I keep coming back to.

Oatmeal Bread

Adapted from More-with-Less, by Doris Janzen Longacre

1 cup dry oatmeal (I use the slow-cooking kind)
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 T. butter
1 T. salt
2 cups boiling water
1 T. yeast
1/2 cup warm water
unbleached white flour (as much as needed – I often add a cup of bread flour)

I almost always add a handful of sunflower seeds, a couple of tablespoons of ground flaxseed, and, if I happen to have them, a handful of chia seeds.

Combine oats, whole wheat flour, sugar, butter and salt in a large bowl, and pour the boiling water over it. (Add the sunflower seeds, flaxseed, and chia here, too.) Stir to combine. Let oat mixture cool completely.

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water (with a pinch of sugar dissolved in it). It has to be the right temperature – if it’s too cool, the yeast won’t “proof,” and if it’s too hot, it will kill the poor critters. I do it by feel, but check out the temperature range online if you need precision.

When the yeast has bubbled up for a minute or so, stir the yeast mixture into the cooled oat mixture. Stir in the white flour, cup by cup. When the dough is stiff enough to handle, turn onto a floured board and knead for about 8 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled. Dump the dough onto the counter and gently deflate it by pushing some of the air out. Shape into 2 loaves and place in greased 9x5x3″ pans. Let rise again, until doubled. Bake at 375 F for 10 minutes and at 350 F for another 30 or so minutes. Take the loaves out of the pans and set them back on the oven rack. Turn the oven off and let them cool in the oven. This will keep the crust from wrinkling as they cool.

Climate Change

Choosing Hope

“It felt like a punch to the gut,” wrote a friend after reading the first chapter of a best-selling book on climate change. And another friend, who stopped reading the same book, wrote, “I choose environmental reading very carefully. If I don’t, I get immobilized into complete inaction.” In fact, my entire book group, for the first time in fifteen years of reading together, decided not to finish the book. It was too overwhelming and depressing.

All of these women are progressives, deeply concerned about injustice. Yet like so many of us, they often feel helpless and filled with despair in the face of climate change. It feels like we’re all in this canoe together on an unstoppable river, moving toward a Niagara Falls of an unspeakably frightening future without paddles.

“We choose hope because the alternative is unacceptable,” says Naomi Klein. But how do we choose hope? What if we become a world of Pollyannas?

I think that choosing hope involves at least three interconnected actions: creating a mindset, seeking knowledge, and taking action.

Creating a Mindset Of Hope

The world is divided, some say, into glass-half-full and glass-half-empty people. But what if we saw this more as a circle with two axes and four quadrants, with a certain amount of freedom to move around in the circle? One axis is the “nature” axis. Happiness research shows that half of a person’s happiness is determined genetically, so it’s likely that hopefulness has a significant genetic component, too. But the other axis is the “nurture” axis. Neuroscientists are now telling us that we can actually change the structure of our brains to some extent. We can move ourselves to a different quadrant of the nature-nurture circle. How do we do that?

My guess is that we choose hope, in part, by controlling, to the extent that we can, what we put into our brains. What do we read, watch, listen to? Who do we surround ourselves with? And how often do we stop to reflect on what has gone into that 3-pound organ and drag some of it into the trash?

Seeking Knowledge

Avoiding Pollyanna-ism means staying within the realm of the real – basing hope on knowledge. Taking off the dark glasses, and the rose-tinted ones, and facing the facts. And some of the facts regarding climate justice, it turns out, are hopeful.

Just before the Paris climate talks in December 2015, for example, Stanford University reported the results of research showing that shifting to a renewables-based economy by 2050 is possible, assuming the political will exists to do so. Yes, that’s a big assumption, but there’s some evidence that political will is growing.

Renewable energy is quickly gaining momentum. Just this morning, I read that “a new industry report warns investors, governments and regulators that renewable forms of energy could outcompete high-cost and high-risk liquefied natural gas projects.”

The swell of support for climate justice is growing, at both the grassroots and political levels. The People’s Climate March in New York in September 2014 brought 400,000 people together, from many peace and justice streams, to march in that city’s streets, with 2,646 solidarity events occurring simultaneously in 162 countries.  It was the largest climate march in history.

On the political front, the talks in Paris in December 2015 – the 21st meeting of the UN Framework on Climate Change – appear to have had qualitatively different results from those of the first 20 meetings. The countries of the Global North, finally and without precedent, acknowledged the climate debt owed to countries of the South and agreed to a legal obligation to provide financing to countries of the South to deal with climate change. The lack of this acknowledgement was what had caused previous climate talks to collapse.

Getting the facts, of course, isn’t an easy feat. They are usually filtered through bias, so the fact recipient must be skeptical – which doesn’t mean cynical. A skeptic applies critical thinking to determine the validity of a claim, while a cynic holds an attitude of jaded negativity, a general distrust of others. Cynicism is seductive. It licenses passivity and fosters inaction. Skepticism is hard work, pushing us to ask questions, to explore, to learn.

And so we ask questions. What news media do I access? Who is producing the news I attend to and what is their agenda? And what’s being left out, often deliberately? Negative news sells, so the many positive stories often remain unreported or are relegated to the back page. Negative news tends to paint a bleak picture of humanity and feeds cynicism.

Taking Action

Despair about a bad situation often decreases when we take some control over it. Despair and depression immobilize me. The darker my interior night, the less motivated I feel to crawl out of my cave and look up at the stars.

We all know of the personal actions needed to begin to move toward climate justice: fly less, eat less red meat, consume less material goods. The list goes on. And many of us try. But does this achieve anything at all? Am I just sacrificing things I enjoy while most others go on blithely consuming, flying, chewing? Maybe.

But sometimes it comes down to simply doing what we believe is right and trust that it will someday bear fruit.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

– Archbishop Oscar Romero

Taking action, however small, can lead to increasing our awareness and involvement in climate justice, if we let it. It can also, of course, simply assuage our climate guilt and stop us from going to the next level – helping to change the economic and political system in which we live, which, most climate activists agree, has to happen if climate justice is to be achieved.

Psychologists tell us that there is “a clear link between political activism and a person’s sense of well-being, . . . that even a very small engagement with political activism can boost one’s sense of vitality.” Taking some control, being active in the struggle, is part of choosing hope, part of getting us out of our cave of despair.

♦ ♦ ♦

 These three aspects of choosing hope feed each other. When we take action, we increase our well-being and nurture our mindset of hope. Seeking knowledge about climate change, about both the challenges and the increasing momentum toward climate justice, encourages action. Getting involved connects us with others whose understanding and knowledge increases our own and fosters collective hope and action.

In the November 2015 National Geographic, titled “The Climate Issue,” writer Robert Kunzig refers to the “unmistakable trace of hope in the air.” I’m going to do my best to ride this ripple of hope. Maybe someday soon, we can call it a wave.