Wondering

Isobel canoeby Isobel Arthen

On this day when so many people are celebrating science, I wanted to share some reflections I’ve made over the past couple months. When I was young I really thought science was the antithesis of spirituality. I didn’t put any faith in something that I thought tried to explain the unsolvable mysteries of the world around us, and I resented it for defining natural phenomena when, to me, something like fire is so much more than just a chemical reaction. In 9th grade when I started learning about ecological concepts like interdependence, food webs and cycles, I realized that science may not be in contradiction with spirituality. In fact, I discovered that it compliments it in some very potent ways.

Many of you know that I have spent my adult life immersed in the study of science, and specifically ecology. I have found that the more I understand the world around me, the more I can appreciate it. Since starting work as an educator at the Franklin Institute, I have had many opportunities to learn about how to best communicate science to museum guests, including one session about how the brain actually interprets and stores information.

This training left me with a lot to think about, but one thing especially stuck out. At the beginning, we were asked what we had always wondered about the brain. The group answered with a popcorn of questions that piqued my curiosity about every question someone else had asked. We were told, later on, that the question was specifically intended to prime our minds for learning—that inspiring inquiry, or wonder, releases dopamine in the brain, thus improving attention and focus.

After that activity I have been thinking a lot about that word, “wonder.” What a word. It is used to describe a state of inquiry and curiosity, a way of seeking new information— “I wonder why those ants walk in a line?” But it also describes a state of amazement. To stare “with wonder” is to perceive something so astounding that it is almost unbelievable. I have come to believe that “wonder” is that place, that liminal space between science and magic, and as a scientist and an animist, that is where I want to live.

To gaze with wonder at the night sky is so much more if you know that there are about as many neurons in one brain as there are stars in our galaxy, and that there are about the same number of galaxies in the universe. To handle soil means so much more if you know that it took hundreds upon hundreds of years to develop, and that it is home to billions of living beings right in the palm of your hand. What do you miss if you look at fire and just see a combustion reaction? What do you lose if you don’t notice its ability to transform and destroy, or the way gazing into a flame can transport you to a whole other place?

I am disappointed not to be at the science march, but like every day at work, I have spent today bringing science into people’s lives. I have asked guests to wonder with me, to come up with questions, to try and notice and discover new things about the world we so often take for granted. I share this with you so that maybe you’ll make a point to come up with a new question today (if you do, let me know what it is!). It seems to me there is no better way to celebrate science than to take some time to wonder.

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Holding Fire

by Sarah Lyn

Last May, I stood in a field during a large community ritual, swathed from head to toe in gloves and sunglasses and hat and veil. I was fully protected from the sun. I was standing in the field. That was a feat for me.

Just six months earlier I had been in a freak accident. I had been on fire. I almost died. I almost lost my legs. I was in a coma. I woke up. I have fought every day since for my strides back towards independence.

Strands of a web were rolled out, followed by calls for those who would hold specific energies for the community, both in ritual and in the world-at-large after. These people were invited to come and hold the end of a strand.

They called for those who would hold Fire for the community. I was the most surprised when I stepped forward. One foot in front of the other, I began walking across the field. A few people around me gasped. I understood.

There I was, walking slowly but surely across the field to hold Fire for the community that so tenderly and urgently assisted me and my wife with deep, death-defying healing. I held the strand so that we could build a web of community. For me, it was a physical manifestation of the web of healing energy that had been created for me.

I could hold Fire for them. I had already become it and survived it.

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Photo by Trevor Hurlburt, used under a Creative Commons license

I can’t lie, though. As I was walking across the field, even before I held onto that ribbon, I wondered how I would hold it over the course of the coming year. It’s easy to be brave in the moment. How could I hold Fire when I was actively trying to heal from it?

What work would Fire and I do together through the year?

As far as outreach goes, I have been actively promoting and educating about fire safety, even though it was not a factor in my accident. Awareness matters. And I am currently on the search for the first responders who saved me. I want them to see that life exists on the other side of the fire. I want them to see the life they saved. I imagine they don’t always get the chance to see the good outcome. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.

The other work I have been doing with Fire has been simple and personal. I had been partially devoured by the elemental. No one lives through such trauma without fear, but I was determined not to allow that fear to creep into the spaces the fire cleared away.

I am pagan. I do not blame the fire for being fire.

I understand the fear others felt for me, for my life, for my mental health. There was reason for that fear.

But my community used that fear as a catalyst to come together in prayer and healing for me. I felt it. It pulled me out of the darkness I was drowning in. I stepped up to the challenge. I answered fear with love. The speed of my healing was unexplainable. Miracles happened. Not just for me.

Fire devours, but it also ignites. It sparks transformation.

I had to hold myself accountable for being the catalyst for my recovery. If it was going to get better, it had to start with me. Every time I stood up, even though I couldn’t feel my legs beneath me, mattered. Every time I walked an extra lap mattered. Every time I thanked those who were taking care of me, even when they caused me pain, I changed the trajectory of my journey. Every morning I get up and get outside and walk means I will recover.

Many times, in the hospital, the nurses commented about what a supportive community I had. One of my favorites went so far as to say she thought it said a lot about me, that people were so eager to help. But you get out what you put in. You become part of a community by plugging into it, by helping where you see the need. You become a strand of the web.

It was an honor to step up and hold the fire for a community that holds me.

Join us in holding this year’s web at Rites of SpringOnline registration is open through May 13.

Loving the land, leaving the land

Loving the land, leaving the land

This post is by Alison Mee, who has been part of the EarthSpirit community since 1999.  She lives near Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.

photo by Alison Mee

photo by Alison Mee

A year ago, as events in our lives unfolded, both logic and intuition told my husband and I that we needed to pick up and move our family from our home of 18 years, to somewhere new.    We felt about as sure as we could be, that the move was right for us, that we were moving toward greater joy.   But that didn’t make it easy for me to leave the land.

I had allowed myself to fall in love with the land on which I lived.   I had connected to it as deeply as I knew how.    One summer, I decided that every single solitary day, I would eat something from my land.   I started with the chives and the fresh onion grass of spring.   Then, with my relatively meager gardening skills, I grew some vegetables, and brought snap peas with me when I traveled, keeping them carefully and eating one every day.    By autumn’s figs, I was feeling the land as part of myself.

I went through retreats, of staying on that land for a week or so at a time, spending time outdoors, but not going beyond that piece of land.     I composted the story of my life, into the soil:  apple wood from the home where I grew up, branches from the woods behind my grandmother’s house, flowers from funerals and weddings.   The first time we placed each of my children’s feet on the earth, it was there.   I brought bits of the land — soil, moss, pine needles — with me when away from home.

How could I leave?    I could leave, I found, with love, appreciation, and intention.

As soon as we knew we were going to be selling the property, we had a family ritual with the land.     We thanked it for it’s support of our family, and rejoiced in all the great years we’ve had there.   Then, I opened up the thicket, the space that I had set aside some years ago to be mostly free from human intervention.   I wouldn’t be protecting it in the same way anymore.   Our relationship would be changing.

Then I sought to use my connection to the spirit of the land where I had been living, including the local river, to reach out to the land I was moving to, to help me find my correct path.    Somewhere, I knew, was a place that could give me what I was needing, and likewise, could need me.     I wanted to let the land  reach out to me, as I searched for it.

When we were looking for our new home, I paid as much attention to the land as I did to the houses.     We explored all over the county, and I smelled the dirt.   At first I was shy and kept trying to do it when the realtor wasn’t looking, but eventually I got used to his attentiveness and he got used to the fact that I spent more time on the land than in the house.   I stopped worrying about his opinion of me.   Finding the right land was more important to me than not weirding out the realtor.

If I weren’t going by smell, I’ve since learned that I could have gone by field guide maps.    It turns out that what smelled so good to me was biodiversity.   Where we live now has a huge variety of plants and animals.

Now that I’m here, I’m falling in love again.    Instead of plowing in with what I think should be here, I’m waiting and letting the woods show me their paths.    I’m watching to see what’s going on.   Who has been living here before me?    What needs to be done?   What’s been waiting for me?   What would rather be left alone?

I bring water from my old home, to my new home.     And earth.   And sap from the white pine which used to be my meditation spot.    If I were moving very far, I might worry about bringing non-indigenous plants, insects or microorganisms.    But it would still be acceptable, generally, to bring vegetables grown in one home, and then compost them into the land in the new home.    And in this way I’m bringing the story of my life forward, weaving together the connections.

Now it is spring, and I am seeing the emergence of new flowers, hearing new birds, connecting deeper with the spirit of this land.

And tasting the sweetest onion grass in the world.     I’m home again.

Shadow and Brightness

Leaf by dancingwolfgrrl

I went to a pagan workshop in another state last month.  In it, we were led in a beautiful guided meditation that brought us to a pool, where we met and interacted with our shadows and our brightness.  Afterwards, the facilitators asked for comments, and every single person, including me, said that they were more comfortable with their shadows.

Shadows, I admit, are one of the things I love about my spiritual traditions.  Throughout the Pagan movement, I see people standing up and acknowledging the power in our anger, our guilt, our sexuality, our sensuality, even our deaths – all of the parts of our lives and our selves that are too often denied or ignored in mainstream Western culture.  It took me years to learn how to be really angry, and I value those lessons deeply.   (A wise man told me that I would have to scream to do this.  I told him I didn’t want to scream, which was true, but he was right.) But my experience at that workshop made me think about what we’re still excluding.
Taking on my shadow side felt to me like courage and power in ways that I knew how to identify.  I thought I have to be brave and face your fear and do it anyway.  Just do it!  is a style of engagement whose virtues are sung from billboards worldwide.  Often, its siren song helps me to avoid thinking of myself as a victim when in fact, I just don’t like any of my choices, and that is no small gift.
But for me, engaging my brightness is a much more difficult endeavor.  My brightness holds my most tender parts: my openness, my willingness, my yielding, my yearning to see and be seen, to love and be loved.  Even to write those words on a page is vulnerable.  To try to feel them as fully as I learned to feel my anger sometimes seems impossible.
And yet, I find that this, too, is courage and power.  Much of the deepest magic I have known comes from being able to stay with a practice or an experience that is uncomfortable, choosing not to set myself against it, but to make space for and breathe into it.  The feeling of discomfort, I’ve learned, is the feeling of possibility shifting inside me, looking for a new shape to settle in.  I always have the option to make a choice and shut down that potential, and I often do so, just to make myself more comfortable, but sometimes I try to make a different choice.  I don’t get up from my chair when the writing gets tough, or throw my camera in the lake after the 500th completely boring photo.  I say “that sounds so hard” to a struggling friend instead of changing the topic, and I mean it.  I go back to my practice, again and again.
This is the challenge brightness offers: how far are you willing to open? To what are you willing to yield?  I dare you.  

Offerings

by Katie Birdi

The world is (among other things) a cycle of give and take. We breathe out, the plants breathe in. The plants breathe out, we breathe in. Offering doesn’t have to be about sacrifice. It can be joyful gratitude for the bounty we are surrounded by, a connection with our prayers, a gift of service, and the passion we are compelled to express.

My offerings come in cycles, as a part of my daily practice. I offer something daily, weekly, monthly… and they connect me to different rhythms in my life. Daily, I offer my breath to the plants, keenly aware that their existence, and my own, is locked in an elegant (covalent) bond. Weekly, I offer a bowl of rice to the spirits of the land I live on in respect and gratitude for the Unseen Ones that populate this place with me. Monthly, I donate newborn and preemie hats (knitted with love) to the local hospital. Every other month, I also head downstairs to donate a pint of my blood, a very physical offering, and one of my favorites. I give thanks that I am healthy and strong, watching my blood flow out of my body, and wish with each drop that whoever receives my blood also be healthy and strong. I do my best to stay open and aware, and I give other offerings as they seem appropriate. I do my best to do it with a clean, clear heart, and with respect and honor to the world which is my home and family. One of my favorites is to leave nuts in the holes of trees. I will do this to give thanks, sometimes in supplication, and sometimes just because it feels right to do.

Offerings come in many forms. Gifts of service are particularly humbling to me. I have friends who host gatherings, musical performances, and I have one friend who consistently does the dishes after a group meal. What an amazing, oft overlooked offering! I am touched each time a person holds the door for me, offers water to a dog that needs it, chooses to ride a bike instead of drive a car, or offers to help someone change a flat tire. Recognizing these offerings makes each moment of my life sweeter.

My son turned two in February of this year, and we enjoy frequent walks in the woods. I am so glad to have the opportunity to show him all the wonders that the world so passionately expresses. I was dismayed at first, that my son was most fascinated by the trash he would find in the forest. Running past a snail, a fallen tree, a pine cone and a forest of fiddleheads, he triumphantly points his finger at a smashed plastic cup and its blue straw, sticking up pathetically from the wreckage. “Bwoo! Bwoo!” he says, looking for affirmation that he has correctly identified the color of this amazing thing he’s found in the forest. “Yes, blue” I say, proud that my son is developing in language, awareness, and ability. I’m also dismayed that the forest I’ve brought my son to, hoping to teach him about the sacredness of the Earth, is filled with trash.

It occurs to me that the trash I’m surrounded by is an offering. The people who have left these offerings have shown, with their actions, how much they value the Body of the Earth. What are you offering? Is it the best of who you are and what you have to give? If offerings are a prayer, what are you praying with? What sorts of unspoken things are you saying to the world and your community with your habits? If the only offerings we make are the convenient offerings of coffee cups, wasted food, and misprinted copies, we invite similar energy into our lives. Take a moment. Take a breath. Take only what you need, and give of yourself in return.

I do my best to help my son learn the vital lesson of the Thank You letter. Gratitude is something I wish to nurture in his nature. I do my best to teach him that an Intentional Offering isn’t always a thing. Sometimes it’s money, food or goods, but sometimes it’s an offering of time, skill, or consideration. Sometimes it means inconveniencing ourselves for the good of the World. Carry a reusable water bottle. Enjoy your reusable mug. What do you “throw away” on a daily basis? Where does it really go?

When we go shopping, my son has his own, toddler-sized reusable shopping bag, and his own toddler-sized water bottle. Children learn by imitating adult behavior, and as Mama carries a reusable bottle & shopping bags (offerings of consideration), he needs one of his own. One of his first chores was to help Mama sort the recycling. We talk about reducing, reusing, and recycling every day. The concepts are clearer to him now than the words are when he says them, and I am a Proud Mama…and now our walks in the woods include a bag for the trash we find, which we sort for recycling later.

Practicing Paganism

by Morwen Two Feathers
Like a lot of other people, I got laid off during this last recession. When it came it was a blow, though I realized later I could have see it coming if I was looking. It was autumn, just past Equinox, time to slow down, turn inward, and that I did. Looking back, I saw that I had been seriously out of synch for a couple of years. My creativity had slowed to a crawl, and even in the warm growing season I’d felt curiously stagnant. Time for attunement.

When I first began to walk the pagan path more than 30 years ago, I was driven by a desire to connect with the sacredness I’d always felt in the woods. Although my studies in psychology, sociology and anthropology gave me a deep appreciation for the power of symbol, story, metaphor, and community ritual, I was not so interested in Deity or ceremonial magic. My investigations led me to a series of practices that were designed to align my life’s energy to the systemic cycles of the earth, moon, and sun. I found that careful attention and an intention to align myself with the cycles of the seasons and the moon, along with the life cycles of the animals and plants in my environment, helped me keep my life in perspective. And when I was attuned to the natural world in this way, the Universe delivered an endless stream of good fortune and synchronicity into my lap. I could not articulate any scientifically acceptable reason for this, but it worked out that way nonetheless.

It is easy to fall out of practice under stress, and the last couple of years have been filled with stresses including aging parents, a child hitting the teenage years, a changing primary relationship, and conflicts at work, not to mention my own dance with menopause. I just felt I didn’t have time or energy to stick with my daily meditations and attunements. As my practice slipped, though, my beliefs didn’t. I thought I was just as connected as always, until I was shocked awake by a layoff notice. And even then it took a winter of forced hibernation to make me realize just how disconnected I had become.

Nearly all the choices I make in my life are grounded in my pagan beliefs, including my volunteer work on sustainability in my town as well as my choice to seek work in the nonprofit sector, my consumption habits, my parenting, and more. Yet being forced to stop and take stock has made me realize that for me paganism is more a practice than a set of beliefs. And an interesting thing happened when I began practicing attunement again. Spring Equinox came, and I could feel the sap rising in the trees and in my own soul. And after months of sending out resumes with nary a peep in response, a week after Equinox I was contacted and asked to apply for three different jobs in one day. As I write this it’s still in process and I’m not sure where I’ll end up. But it’s good to feel the energy moving again, and to know that practice, not belief, is the key.

***
Attunement Practice for Connecting with Food:

With your plate of food in front of you, come to inner stillness. Meditate on the source of each ingredient in your meal. Where was it grown? How did it get to your table? Be aware that all food comes from the Earth, and ultimately from the Sun, the source of all energy on our planet. Be thankful for all the human hands that brought the food from its origins to your plate.

Say:

“Mother Earth, bless this food.
Fruit of your body, fruit of your womb.”

Enjoy your meal mindfully. Over time you may find your choices of what to eat shift. Listen to your inner wisdom.