Under Development

My husband and I own vacant land at the very edge of far west suburban Chicago. We presently live 40 miles west of the city; the acreage is another half hour further west, just a little bit past a few scattered subdivisions but before you get to the extensive corn and soybean fields and fields in Illinois’ flat northwestern quadrant. It’s wooded land that adjoins the Fox River and a state park. We’ve been dithering for years about building a home on the property. We’ve had dozens of excuses over a dozen years for not doing anything: Can’t commute from there. Too remote. Not sure the schools are good enough. The neighbor’s house is too blue.

The kids are grown, the end of the commute is in sight. The river is still there, and you can see it in the winter when the trees are bare. You can also see the neighbor’s big blue, also still there.

My husband and I have been talking to a builder, and today, on an unnaturally mild February day when it was 65 degrees out and sunny, we walked our vacant land. We interred a cat out there years ago and paid our respects to her; Harley is pushing up weeds and wildflowers now. Under layers of leaf litter and fallen limbs (not all the trees are standing vigorously upright on our wooded land) little green things are emerging, maybe confused because it’s been so warm. We find something that looks like rue foliage. Here’s a black walnut; we look up to see which skinny tree has yielded it.

Scrubby understory is everywhere, brambly bent berry branches I recognize and varieties of weedy junk I can’t recognize without leaves. I let out a deep gardener’s sigh. Bill says he’ll bring a chain saw later in the season to clear a walking path to make it easier to descend to the river, which is downhill, a blue ribbon we see through the lanky trees. We need educated eyes to help us figure out what to keep and what to remove. Surely we’ll never need firewood. Two boulders halfway down to the river could make good sitting spots or points of orientation.

We leave a rope that outlines one possible edge for the house, one tiny dent in the uninhabited woods, a little wedge for the imagination: here’s where the house would stop, so this is what you would see. That is helpful; my mind’s eye can’t see much beyond this raw patch of skinny trees and leaf litter.

img_0002 At the edge of the property, close to where development has laid in the road we will someday be using to get home, my husband installs a birdhouse. It’s designed for bluebirds, and we locate it at the edge of where the trees begin; bluebirds prefer the open. He mounts it; we hear, one, two, three chickadees overhead. Hard to say if they are just being their nosy selves or eying the new real estate development.

We’ll see who moves in.

On hospitality

My seminary classmates and I recently concluded a two-week in-depth introduction to the Quran. These classes are called intensives for a reason; all one really has time for after class is reading, writing, eating, and sleeping. (OK, I did some laundry and got some exercise, too.) We closed our discussion with reflections about the experience of being a guest in someone else’s religious home.

The metaphor is rich. Depending on whom I am visiting, I might take off my shoes. I say thank you. I’m not rude. I don’t say the food is awful or the décor is ugly. I don’t offer alternative recipes that I find superior or suggest the place would be improved if they only hung different things on the wall. I find things to admire and enjoy. I offer compliments and curiosity: how did you do that? Can I get the recipe?

My host has welcomed me and graciously shared something of value. I recall a time of literally being a guest in another culture, when strangers in Castaner, Puerto Rico, opened their home and shared a meal. We spoke two different languages but connected through a translator and through hospitality. Hospitality is what opens doors for strangers and prompts hosts to give. Generosity is a matter of course and a matter of kindness.

1910_558109703_1149054_mughal_ewer_41  Hospitality is about turning those who aren’t known, and might be potential threats, into those who are known, thereby establishing rights and relationship. It’s the opposite of closing doors. Hospitality in the ancient Middle East was a matter of life and death. As America now attempts to close its doors to perceived threats from the Middle East, it is acting inhospitably.

I did not set out to critique when I first began to reflect on the subject, only to explore a practice and situation that is easy to relate to. In the abstract, hospitality is about a set of rules for getting along: respect for and gratitude to a host, sustenance for a guest. It’s a mutual relationship that leaves both better off, and dials down the threat level as well.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware.” The Bible, which originated in the ancient Middle East, is replete with stories of hospitality (as well as its violation). The Quran is also aware of these ancient rules for obtaining sustenance and establishing safety. Hospitality establishes safe zones, it would seem.

There is a way forward in times larded with suspicion. Can I get the recipe?

Witness

When I was first trained at a journalism school in the 1980s, I was taught that journalism was about witnessing. I quickly learned that it wasn’t possible to see everything, but my eyes didn’t lie. I trained my eyes and ears and memory to see and write down and remember and write it down fast. The eyes don’t lie. It’s important to be there; journalists call it shoeleather reporting. It’s work; you don’t guess but you could be wrong. That’s why it’s called the first draft of history.

Here’s my first draft on the Chicago Women’s March on Saturday, Jan. 21, and I am glad I didn’t have to file this right away. I was in the crowd of an estimated 250,000 marchers, standing in the street on Congress Parkway, a couple blocks south of whatever was going on by way of a program with speakers. There were signs, signs, signs, and the best ones were homemade. My favorite was “Toddlers against Trump,” written on cardboard in red crayon and smeared with crayon. YUUUUUGE MISTAKE was good. The Devil Wears Pravda. Paws Off Women’s Bodies (this from a pug in a backpack, with bonus joke #puglife). Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Human Rights. Reading the signs was better than hearing the program; they roared with wit. My own sign was pretty staid: Diversity is Reality.

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As has been reported, they did cancel the march but we marched anyway, flowing down Congress to Wabash to the main stream of marchers on Jackson to LaSalle. Yes, there were grandmas and strollers and a Muslim man whose sign said “I respect my wife and her rights.” I was attuned to the symbols of religion: clerical collars, a woman wearing a kippah and a prayer shawl and pushing a stroller. I’m white and I saw young and old African-American women, young and old white women, young and old white men. I didn’t see a lot of young African-American men, but there was much I didn’t witness in a crowd of a quarter-million.

This wasn’t my first demonstration, but it’s been a while. I decided fairly last-minute to go after figuring out how to travel so I could get to work immediately afterward. I thought the event would be predominantly angry, like my Facebook feed has been. But the crowd was cheerful and polite and I couldn’t stop laughing at the clever signs. It was easy to talk to strangers. For a while now I’ve been growing slightly fearful of strangers, anticipating some sort of hostility or contempt. On Saturday I chatted all the way back on the train with my seatmate, Cindy, a preschool teacher who had been to the march. I love being able to talk to strangers and smiling at them. The march was an antidote to some sort of social toxin that has been accumulating in my system, in the air somehow.

I marched to get my own energy back and so I wouldn’t miss history. I marched for my children; my older one Adrian has lately been the marcher, but she had to work. I marched for, and with, my best friend from college. I marched because black lives matter, especially the lives of my friends. I marched because I don’t want the planet trashed or the DPAL built or the EPA gutted. I marched because I don’t want my Muslim friends having to register. I marched for my journo friends and a world of real facts, not alternative ones. I marched because I don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. I marched because I love flowers and peaceful classrooms and playgrounds and streets for kids.

I cried for a little bit while marching. It felt like all these people had lifted a weight. We can do this. Si se puede.

Vision

Fasting is a spiritual discipline. Muslims do it every year during the month of Ramadan. Catholics do it every year during the 40-day season of Lent. Fasting’s purpose is to get one to think less about appetites and more about God, about our dependence on God. For Catholics, the fast of Lent is also understood as a period of waiting. The resurrection is coming, but the road to it is long, and suffering is going to happen along the way.

I am fasting this week as part of #Fast4Power, which I stumbled onto through social media. It struck me as a good way to hang out with people of faith as our country moves into a new era that will be shaped by lots of people with whom I vehemently disagree. More bluntly, I fear a time when it is socially acceptable to be mean. But the point here is not to spin out apprehensions and anxieties but think about how to be ready to resist whatever marks a retreat from the goals of justice and common good.

I have found fasting to be harder than I anticipated. The rules for fasting resemble those for a Ramadan fast: no eating between sunrise and sundown. Muslims are also expected not to drink liquids, but that was not asked here. In spite of the short days of January, it was difficult to go grocery shopping while fasting, hard to not hanker for some of the fragrant pea soup being served at Quaker meeting meal on Sunday. Ironically enough, I find myself thinking more about food. But then I have a chance to think about the power of the thought and how it comes to preoccupy me. Recognizing that it’s a thought and not an actual hunger is helpful, and a step toward letting go of the thought or countering it. These mental machinations are familiar to me from meditation, so it is like using mental muscles to redirect the flow of thought.

I have also found it helpful to reflect on my favorite Bible verse: The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (For those who don’t recognize it or unfamiliar with Christian scripture, it’s Galatians 5:22-23.) My self-control needs work, and that muscle too is getting exercised. Self-control also comes to my mind as I reflect on and remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What kind of training, courage, and self-control did it take to face police dogs and police with clubs and fire hoses? And those were just the legal barriers. We could ask Congressman John Lewis, who was there. I wasn’t, but I was born, so this is not history but memory. I was part of the larger web of connectedness, learning in my youth about the world.

The other part of #Fast4Power is community. It’s not just about the self. Ramadan is supposed to work in part because it builds awareness of ummah – the world Muslim community. It has certainly helped that my husband is doing this. The #Fast4Power organizers, We Say Enough, have a daily online meeting to provide food for thought. Some servings have been better than others; the poetry has been especially palatable, and the teaching about community has made me more aware of my white individualism. It’s not my agenda, and I am here in solidarity. Thinking about what solidarity means has been a good lesson.

Which comes back to fasting. As a spiritual discipline, its purpose is to express solidarity with those who don’t eat well or enough – those who are involuntarily fasting. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are women and children, according to the World Food Programme.Reflecting on the 795 million people in the world who are chronically is perspective-giving, well beyond American shores. It’s a basic exercise in empathy: not everybody lives like me.

Community simply means we are in this together. Given the multiplicity of interest groups and issues these days, I am not sure who is included in “we.” But I know this is true, courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” My pre-sunrise tea came from England, but it surely wasn’t grown there. Today’s #Fast4Power question dealt with vision. I dream of a world where everyone has a beautiful and bountiful basket of fruit of the spirit, to sustain them when they hunger.

What do you dream of?

#Fast4Power

I’ve been thinking about food more than usual today. I started fasting as part of a movement called #Fast4Power. I would certainly not have done it alone. I joined because I was looking for a group of people who wanted to take a morally principled stand of resistance to the bad things happening in our country today. Uppermost in my own mind because of the timing is the inauguration next week as president of our country of a man who brings out the worst in people and who doesn’t really seem to have any principles. He’s a bully who does what we teach our children not to do.

But I don’t especially want to rant. I joined the fast because I am tired of ranting; it wears me out to do it and to listen to it. My Facebook feed is a rant factory. Paradoxically enough, however, I learned about this online and have joined a group of strangers, hoping to be in the company of people who are fasting instead of ranting.

Fasting is a physical and spiritual discipline. It’s a demand, but not mean. It seems to me to be like a form of active meditation, in which I become more aware of what’s going on with me: I am looking forward to the last of the Christmas fudge… The rules of the fast are only during daylight hours, like Muslims during Ramadan. What a snap, a thought to myself: it’s January, and the days are only eight hours. If it’s too hard, I can just stay in bed, right?

But it also gives me a little extra time – no breakfast, no lunch – to be reflective. Food is important to me; it provides pleasure as well as nutrition. Fasting is a little practice in saying “no, thank you.” In being aware of routine and autopilot, of the difference between need and want.

Joining a group of strangers for an online meeting was not as weird as I anticipated (who put the I in introvert? I did!). The group I saw was mixed and people spoke from different religious orientations, which is exactly what I had hoped for. A lot of the talk was about the group effort. I do feel more committed, knowing others are doing this.

I have a picture in my mind of Martin Luther King speaking and acting from a moral center. He is my hero for that reason, and I think he was effective for that reason, and I am not alone in that opinion. It gave him strength. If fasting with a group of strangers helps to nudge the movement for social justice or resistance just a little more toward a moral center, it’s not that hard. The fudge can wait. I can wait.

On first looking into the Quran

If I were one of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, this might be a rite of passage for me. But I am an American Quaker Christian studying the Quran at my seminary. I’ve been to mosques, read books, attended numerous iftars (fast-breaking dinners during the holy month of Ramadan) and interfaith dinners, heard panels and lectures, and learned from my Muslim friends. So I am using a sympathetic lens informed by more than two decades of exposure to Islam.

But I’ve always been a little frightened by the Quran with what I anticipated might be its judgments and commands and justifications. (Sacred texts have a reputation for that.) It stands there in my imagination like a very tall man I met many years ago from Kuwait. He was dressed in traditional garb, except for the wingtips on his feet. He looked down at me during our conversation about Islam and asked, “Now that you have seen the truth, why don’t you accept it?”

His question rings for me when we discuss at seminary the “truth claims” made by religions. When in the Gospel of John the Roman governor Pilate asks his prisoner Jesus “What is truth?” I have a certain amount of sympathy for that even though I know Pilate is supposed to be the bad guy in the story. I have taken biblical studies courses and have found myself able to at least dogpaddle in the deepest waters of centuries of interpretation. But the Quran, and its centuries of tradition and multiplicity of cultural heritages, comes at me like a flood of foreignness, surprising me with my own assumptions as well as its teachings.

The Quran is written in Arabic, a language foreign to me, and I know next to nothing about the history of 7th century Arabia. But familiar characters appear: Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), Maryam (Mary, the mother of Jesus). Maryam is more developed in the Quran than in Christian Scripture; I want to enter the text through that inviting open door. Central themes are also familiar: justice (adl), mercy (rahma), beauty (jamal). What the believers ought to believe is threaded through the text, of course.studyquran

My beautiful text (The Study Quran, a beautifully designed edition) comes with footnotes, as all study versions of sacred texts do. They promise to be helpful when I come to the texts of terror, to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. But she didn’t get that phrase from a study of the Quran; that comes courtesy of close reading of the Scripture that Jews and Christians share. (Significantly, the Quran offers an alternative merciful reading of Hagar.)

While knowing biblical texts helps, I am also leaning on the poet John Keats, who wrote memorably about his encounter with Chapman’s translation of Homer. Poetry is (or was?) my first love, and phrases from Keats have popped up for me mentally throughout my life. I may be a writer but I cannot fully explain the power of being struck “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” I’ve spotted a new world that is all the horizon there is for so many, thrilling, intimidating, and vast, vast, inviting contemplation.

 

The Last Roses (I Think)

I have hung up my garden hat after planting another row of garlic. It’s been nice, in a freaky sort of way, to postpone freezing weather in this part of the Midwest. But it’s unnatural, although maybe the natural order is changing a wee bit in this, which is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. Astonishingly, I did harvest a few tomatoes in rather paler colors than their intense August hues, and my roses are still blooming. Today 72 degrees. Tomorrow, a low of 32, they say, followed by lows of 25 degrees on the weekend. So I cut the last roses of fall to bring them in and shelter them. They are too beautiful to blast.

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Gardeners know that seasons change, nothing lasts, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. Poets and reflective people are inclined to see plenty of metaphors in gardening and the march of the seasons. I love it that there are so many meanings, diverse ways of understanding what is beautiful and what is natural. I also love it that there is a science to gardening. There are things you must do: I need to water the new hackberry tree planted on my lawn and not just wax romantic about how only God could make a tree. God may have made it, but this particular tree came from a local nursery and the city planted it and it is now up to me to tend it. The poets and philosophers need to join hands with those wearing gardening gloves. There is always work to be done. It just differs by season.