Friday, December 28, 2007


Well, we ended up having a lovely holiday.

After preaching my "Blue Christmas" sermon (see post below), I decided it was worth the extra $$ to leave Charlie at home with his babysitter while I ran errands for the last ten days before Christmas. And that was it. As enthusiastic as he was about the holiday, we didn't have a single tantrum after I stopped taking him out into the commercial arena. On the 25th we had a hard time convincing Charlie to open all his presents--he was much more interested in putting them on his sleigh and toting them around the house as he played Santa.

For myself, I decided to scale back even further on the amount of holiday preparations. Stressed out about the bread? Stop baking. Everyone enjoys a holiday with a happy Mum and store bought bread more than one with cranky Mum and her delicious, homemade limpa. Still, it was hard to let go of expectation. It's part of my continuing journey as a feminist and as a spiritual seeker to learn how to say "no". I'm lucky to have such a wonderful, spirited toddler to model it for me.

Santa in his sleigh, complete with reindeer:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Blue Christmas

Delivered at the UU Church of Halifax, December 16 2007

Christmas is my favourite holiday. Because I love irony.

Let me give you an example of what the month of December has been like for me so far. My three year old, Charlie, is obsessed with Santa. And we don’t even really do Santa, at least not in the “be good or he won’t bring you presents” way or in a sit on the lap of the Macy’s Santa while an elf takes an $18 picture way. As parents, our choices about how to present Santa are limited are by the extreme Santification of the world around us. There are Santa mannequins at the grocery store, Santa decorations at the library, Santa ringing a bell on the street corner, Santa cookies at the bakery, Santa’s mailbox at the post office, and Santa’s sleigh on the neighbours’ lawn. There isn’t a Santa free zone anywhere.

The other day I needed a set of washers at the hardware store. I took Charlie with me because if I used my alone time to go shopping I’d never have the time to write a sermon or anything else. When we got to the store there was a ginormous fully decorated Christmas tree in the entryway. Charlie threw himself down on the ground to examine all the gifts underneath. “Pesents, Mama!” he exclaims. “Whit one id po’ me?” and then picked out his favourite while I explained that they aren’t really presents but empty boxes wrapped up to look like presents and even if they were presents they wouldn’t be our presents and we have to go buy some washers and we’ll make some presents out of playdough when we get home—that works sometimes, but not this time. He isn’t listening to a word. Instead he’s busy beaming his love on the presents he knows are for him because Santa knew he was coming to the hardware store today and look! What he left! For Charlie! Silly Mommy.

Sometime we leave these situations happy and tearless, after a lot of effort on both parts, and sometimes we leave not so happy. I could really use a low-key elf to help me out. I still don’t have the washers I needed. When we got home Charlie put on a Santa hat and went around the house with a pillowcase collecting presents, which is pretty cute. Then he had a meltdown because I wouldn’t let him climb up to the roof to visit his reindeer.

I didn’t grow up Christian, but I did grow up Christmas, in a big way. This is my smallest and most pleasant Christmas ever so far--and it’s not small and it’s not really pleasant. My poor kid may well explode from excitement before the 25th. It’s so ridiculous that I’m tempted not to celebrate at all. But I can never resist the twinkling of those little lights.

Having a holiday season at this time of year is a response to the darkness. December 21st is the darkest night of the year, the 22nd is the shortest day. We create light in the darkness to battle the cold and the naturally occurring sense of difficulty and despondency at this time of year. It is a strong and fierce time, when we fight against the dying of the light.

Many of our modern Christmas practices originate in Scandinavia, where people spend most of their waking hours in darkness at this time of year. Ancient traditions surrounding Yuletide ritually address darkness and depression. Take holly, for instance. Evergreens were cherished at this time of year as a natural symbol of rebirth and life amid winter whiteness. But holly was particularly prized to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces because of its prickliness -- to snag and capture evil spirits before they could enter and harm a household. Sort of like flypaper for faeries.

When Charlie goes off the deep end with the modern incarnation of Santa it gives me great comfort to reflect on the Scandinavian origins of Santa. Long back before Nickolas popped up his Saintly head there were the red-cloaked Shamans of ancient Iceland, who would imbibe fly agaric mushrooms, most often by drinking the urine of reindeer that had eaten the mushrooms. The Shamans would then climb down the smokehole of a doorless sacred dwelling to experience visions from the gods. Hallucinations of flying reindeer were commonly reported. Sometimes when I’m feeling really exasperated with today’s commercial Santa I feel tempted to make comments to other shoppers about it. "“You know how he got so jolly.” But I bite my tounge. They already think I’m strange enough in Lunenburg. They don’t need me telling them that Santa drank Prancer’s pee.

The whole town of Lunenburg lost power this past Wednesday for several hours. Not knowing how long it would last, we went out into an oddly quiet world to wrap up our business while we could. As the lights in the sky faded, I lit a fire and some candles. My family congregated around the hearth. The quiet of winter surrounded us. We had some bread and cheese and tea. John and I talked about our days while Charlie pretended to be Santa and gave presents to his dolls. Eventually he fell asleep and we, his tired parents, watched his hair gleam in the flickering light as he lay across from us, dogs curled at our feet. It was five o’clock. We were experiencing a natural, normal end of the day for this time of year.
And then the lights clicked back on. In that first second the glare felt unnatural and harsh. It was a thoroughly unpleasant feeling to be sensation to be plunged from natural night to modern day. I sat there a moment, reluctant to give up our peace. Then John ran to check his e-mail and I ran to check my e-mail and we were off to the races again.

Many of our lives feature a second shift at five o’clock. We surround ourselves with bright lights and push through weariness into action, cooking nice dinners and helping with the homework and doing the laundry everyone needs for tomorrow and checking our email and paying the bills and shopping; shopping for food and shopping for Christmas and shopping to get ourselves a little something as a reward for doing what we ought to despite not feeling like it in the least. Even those of us without major obligation to fill or nine-to-five jobs taking up the bulk of our time have overly active evenings this time of year. This whole electrical light thing is very new in the scale of human history. It is great for productivity, but evolutionarily it’s maladaptive. We are resisting strong biological cues to rest in calm. Your place in the family of things is in the dark.

Animals, after all, have biological rhythms that change with the seasons. Including us. I recently read The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness by Jeff Warren. He’s a former producer of The Current on CBC. Has anyone read it? Warren has some fascinating things to say about the brain. The one that most captured my imagination is his description of a state of consciousness he calls “the watch”. To understand the watch you have to step back a bit to look at human sleep patterns through time and place. In our culture we tend to think of sleeping through the night as optimal behaviour. We go to bed 8 or 7 or 6 hours before we need to get up again. We look for ways to encourage infants to sleep through the night. When we have trouble sleeping through the night, we take medications or natural remedies to help ourselves do it. It turns out, though, that sleeping straight through the night is a very unusual human behaviour, pretty much specific to contemporary times. Whether it is a particularly healthy pattern or even a realistic one for many people is highly debatable.

I suspect that sleeping right through the night is optimal for industry and efficiency, but not necessarily for human health or contentedness. We are missing the very concept of the watch, which is a state of very calm wakefulness in between chunks of sleep. When humans experience darkness for 14 hours in sleep experiments, much as we would currently have without electric light, almost all subjects spend a long night in bed and experience an extended period of restful wakefulness in the middle of the night. This is the watch—a calm, floaty, time out of time when there is nothing to do but lie cuddled in warm blankets and let your thoughts wander . While we do not need to experience “the watch” to function, it seems that in evolutionary terms it is part of optimal functioning for humans and especially at this time of year. The author suggests that many people who experience insomnia and wakefulness are resisting this natural pattern, and indeed researchers have found that by framing this type of wakefulness as a positive event for insomniacs has a powerful effect on their ability to relax, enjoy periods of wakefulness, and eventually drop off back to sleep.

Ever since reading the book and paying attention to my sleep patterns, I have noticed that I do indeed experience a watch hour around 2 am. Rather than struggling to get back to sleep as I have always done, I simply enjoy it. It has become a cherished, restful time. A time to just be, drifting in peaceful darkness. The more darkness in the sky, the more peaceful watch time we should expect to have. Christmas ought to be the most watchful time of year, rather than the least, as we tend to experience it. Both in and out of bed, this is a natural time of year for quiet and reflection.

So, once upon a time, winter was a time of quiet, dark, and scarcity. Today our food supply is relatively unrelated to the cycles of the season and the harvest. Once, Yule or Christmas was a big bang of a feast that stood in stark contrast to careful conservation both before and after the holiday, and that certainly isn’t true any more. Our big bang has gotten bigger, louder, and more blinding, and often far past the point of being enjoyable. During the solstice we are thrashing upstream like salmon to find joy.

How did that happen? Well there are layers upon layers of answers to that question... but I’m mostly going to blame Calvin. Now I’m not Luther’s biggest fan either, believe me, but I really can’t stand Calvin, the author of Protestant Predestination. Predestination basically means that God decided at the beginning of time what would happen through all of history, so that when you are born the question of whether you are saved or damned has long since been decided. There’s nothing you can do about it—faiths, works, nothing. What a bad idea. But also a very popular one. As a public theology, Calvinism has had a truly immense influence on religious, social and political developments, particularly in Europe and North America.

To the Calvinists, material success and wealth was a sign that you were one of the Elect, and thus were favoured by God. If you are saved then the evidence of God’s grace will show in your life. Ill? Destitute? Signs of God’s disfavour. Wealth and good health? You must be one of the elect. So whenever the chips are down the Calvinist doesn’t have just the presenting difficulties, but the deeper concern over what those problems mean about eternal salvation. Well, guess what, the natural reaction is to assuage that anxiety by creating the appearance of well being, the form but not the content. And here we have the single largest and most powerful motivation for Keeping Up Appearances. For prioritizing looking good over feeling good. It’s not something that occurs on a conscious level. It is deeply woven into the weft of our society.

This has so much to do with the way we currently celebrate Christmas. In many ways it has become a show of Official Happiness separate from our actual feelings. The celebration is disconnected from its roots in darkness and despair. Those beautifully wrapped empty boxes under the tree at the hardware store are an elegant symbol of the Protestant tradition. I heard that the corporate offices of Mastercard have a statue of Calvin in the lobby. They certainly have enough to thank him for.

Christmas isn’t some magic panacea of ills. The stress of extra activities, stress of cleaning and cooking and buying presents and dealing with the expectation of being happy as opposed to how we really feel most of the time dealing with all this stuff. We get locked into our overproduction, into creating a false scarcity of time and energy. The sense of scarcity that we create is particularly ironic for us our current culture. We overconsume and our overconsumption adds to our stress.
People who weren’t doing particularly well at Halloween tend to keep on not doing well at Christmas. People fight at Christmas. People hurt each other at Christmas. Loved ones are estranged at Christmas. People get ill at Christmas, and people die at Christmas. People who have died earlier in the year or even years before surprise you unpleasantly by not being there at Christmas.

It’s a season of love, when many of us don’t feel enough love in our lives. It’s a season of giving, but many of us simply don’t have a lot left to give right now. It’s a season of joy, when many feel numbness or despair. It’s not exactly the best time to start untangling big problems or launch a new fitness program. But when you can’t do anything else, you can breathe. You’re doing it anyway. We’re multitasking right now!

You can breathe into the face of exhaustion, of pain, of depression. Breathe into disparity. I find there is nothing so pressing in the holiday season that it can’t wait while I take three deep, slow, renewing breaths. Not even that schmuck in front of me at the post office who is painstakingly looking over every box the post office sells for the unwrapped present he brought in with him. I breathe through the schmuckiness. I think of my aunt Merry, who loved Christmas so that she changed her name from M-a-r-y to M-e-r-r-y and I breathe through the pain of her absence.

I invite you now to sit comfortably, breathe deeply, taking a long exhalation, pushing the air from the bottom of your lungs out. Allow fresh, clean air to flow in without sucking. Breathe slow and long. Breathe down the excitement. Recognize the darkness. Know that your internal state is okay to feel, whatever it is. It doesn’t make some kind of statement about you, what kind of person you are, or whether you are doing things “right”. It just is.

I share these words, paraphrasing Thich Nhat Han:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.

Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment

Breathing in I feel my tension
Breathing out, I release my tension

Breathing in I recognize Expectation
Breathing out I feel free

Life grinds on, through stress and strife. Even Santa had a long journey of chafing and bumping his way to find a fit. And, btw, if you think Santa had it made after he hooked up with the elves then you need to invite me back to read How Santa Lost His Job.

We celebrate the holidays to battle the darkness without and within at this time of year. If you are depressed despite this, you are normal. If you are depressed because of this, you are normal.

As longest night draws near, may we open ourselves to the night. Let the quiet of winter surround you. Many of us feel lonely at Christmas—but we are not alone right now. In this time and this place may you appreciate the people in the chairs around you, and treat one another with love. Let love be your legacy. Let the peace of darkness find a home in thee. Breathe.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Maternal Presence

It's true, what they say. Becoming a parent changes you.

I have become smarter, better, more organized. I have had to be, as I also become more tired and forgetful. I am now permanently tired and forgetful. I go to the store with a grocery list of military precision, written in the order of our journey through Atlantic SuperStore, because if I don't keep moving constantly my toddler will abandon cart and make for the hardware aisle with unerring speed and accuracy. (Why go for toys when there are adult tools available? Especially those exciting sharp blades!)

The way that I experience consciousness has changed. 3 years into a nursing relationship and going strong, the way that I experience sleep--and wakefulness--may be forever altered. Time will tell.

More than anything, I find that I have adopted a way of being in the world that is distinctly parental. At any time and in any situation, the idea that my thoughts, behaviours, and actions affect my child is omnipresent. Even when he isn't.

In many ways it is similar to the pastoral presence I learned to cultivate in seminary and especially during my work as a hospital chaplain. There are many important differences, as well--but the main similarity is this: Whatever is going on, it's not about me. No matter how much it seems to be in the moment, no matter how involved and emotionally attached I am--Not. About. Me. Quite freeing, actually.

It is instead about being witness to my child's journey, to help him with emotions too big for his small experience--to support, to listen, to help... and mostly to back off as needed.

Into maternal presence, I breathe. Support me, Air. Support me, Earth. Support me, Mars bars.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Toddler Koan

Question: Why, now, has Gorilla Munch cereal manifested itself in the bathtub?

Answer: Is life not sweet? Kill the Buddha! (But not the toddler.)


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Welcome, Everything

Note: This entry is a work in progress. An advantage of my low readership!

“It is my thesis that what schools do not teach may be as important as what they do teach. Ignorance is not simply a neutral void; it has important effects on the kinds of options one is able to consider, the alternatives that one can examine, and the perspectives from which one can view a situation or problems. The absence of a set of considerations or perspectives or the inability to use certain processes for appraising a context biases the evidence one is able to take into account. A parochial perspective or simplistic analysis is the inevitable progeny of ignorance.” ~ Elliot Eisner

Unitarian Universalism, affirms inherent worth wherever we find it... which is everywhere. We celebrate diversity, and recognize the humble scantiness of our knowledge in proportion to what might potentially be known. We always have much to learn, and part of our journeys is the search for meaning in any environment.

We recognize that every individual has a unique lifelong path.

We also understand ourselves as life long learners. We learn and grow throughout the course of our lives, and as we learn and grow in all aspects of self, of course we do in spiritual understanding. Our beliefs deepen, or drop away, or shift focus. Our understanding of the world changes. Our spiritual path continues, for all of life. Each breath continues our journey.

We further understand that no one can dictate the path of another, or convert another. We value freedom highly, and conciously chose to be supportive of each other's varied and unique journeys.

We believe in opening oursleves up to all the wisdoms of the world, our own heritages and the unique and inestimable perspectives of many peoples different from ourselves. Nothing is cut away. No knowledge is restricted. There is no One Right Way To Be.

The null curriculum (1) is eliminated.

1.null curriculum

Dia De Los Muertos

My grandmother Zena could not cook worth a damn. One of my fondest memories from childhood is of watching her stand over a stove in her chic Chicago condo, elegantly dressed and coiffed, cigarette in one hand, as she haplessly poked at a hunk of meat in a pan. Five minutes later we sat down to eat. The meat (and I could not now or at the time tell you what animal it came from) was nearly inedible; but the dining room was a work of art unlike anything in my pokey hometown. The same could be said of the conversation.

I didn't really get to know her until I was an adult and living in Chicago myself. We would meet for bitch sessions over tea and Thai take out. She loyally affirmed all my complaints against my seminary professors. We had the same exact opinions of Mayor Daley, of Bill Clinton, and especially of the whole Monica Lewinsky debacle (and we both read the transcripts with voyeuristic fascination). She was the kind of the person to whom I could quote George Jean Nathan's "Art is the sex of the imagination," and she would respond, "exactly!"

The village in Russia where both her parents were born was razed to the ground during The Great War (and then again in the next one). To her, that was the heritage of her Judaism. A staunch atheist from birth to earth, she nonetheless felt that her children deserved information and perpective on religion. So one day she marched into the office of Rev. Leslie Pennington at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago and announced, "I'm an atheist, but I want to bring my kids here so they can learn about religions." "Great!" he replied. "We need more atheists. We're a little low at the moment." And so began a lovely friendship. 50 years later I preached my first-ever sermon in that church, with my grandmother in attendance.

This week we celebrated Dia De Los Muertos in our household, "Day of the Dead". We sipped black tea in honor of Zena, and ate strawberries in honor of John's father. I showed my son pictures of the great-grandmother he never met. He won't grow up with Zena, but he'll grow up immersed in the pictures from her life, the books from her shelves, and the stories we shared. Her love passes through me to him, dripping into the future, like a river that seeks the sea.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Wait a minute, what's the point again?

The creative geniuses who brought us South Park break it down.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mind! Brain! Mind! Brain!

In recent years I have become most interested in states of consciousness, neurobiology, and the effects of meditative attention to breath. Imagine my delight to find all three interests artfully addressed by Jeff Warren in The Head Trip . I can't recommend this one highly enough. There just aren't that many folks out there who can successfully combine humour and science like this guy. Trust me, you'll never think the same way again about your dreams again.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

True confessions: I spend far too much of my computer time surfing sites like Etsy. I struggle with balancing my consumption level (and my finances) but some cute things are awfuly difficult to resist. Today's cute thing, however, embodies the best of both worlds: The RolyPig Composter .

And as much as I love getting close the the earth, rolling a pig around the yard sure beats turning compost with a shovel. Here's hoping Santa brings us one.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Art of the Word

This is a randomly generated "cloud" of writing from the blog. Thanks to Still Snarky for showing me how!

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Minister's Garden

This sunflower is a visitor, very different from the junior dwarfs that I grew from Naomi's seeds. I suspect that one of Svenja Dee's boys spit out a seed in my garden. She's beautiful!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Comfort Me With Apples

Delivered at Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax on September 16, 2007

Narrative One
I’ve been out of seminary for a few years now, really. I loved Meadville Lombard, and I hated it too, at times. One thing I can say for sure is that I learned a lot in the classroom, and I learned even more outside of it. Gossip in the hallways was one of my richest resources for learning how ministry actually works. I learned public speaking skills shouting across crowded tables at the Divinity School Coffee Shop, and picked up a fair bit of theology over the wine-infused worship services at vespers. But my very favorite real world classroom was the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, Wisconsin. My dear friend and classmate Naomi and I would get up at 3 in the morning and drive for hours on the flat midwestern highways in the dark. We wanted to get to the market before anything ran out, before the crowd became impossibly thick, and while the pain au chocolat was fresh from the oven at L’Eoile. We would wander around the courthouse square where the market was held, and complain about our professors while we scrutinized vegetables and got excitable over new cheeses. (Wisconsin really does have some exquisite artisanal cheeses.) By 10 AM we’d hop back in the car with duffel bags full of whatever was in season. The conversations with Naomi touched on theology, permaculture, agriculture, and the complexities of culture in general. The produce was itself an education in complexity. Garlic, 14 varieties. Lettuce, 18 varieties. Potatoes, 28 varieties!

Apples. 54 varieties.

54 varieties! I was astounded by the sheer diversity of them. There were red ones, brown ones, green ones, yellow ones, one that was almost black and tasted like almonds. Some were as small as olives, and a couple varietals tipped the scales at five pounds. I had grown up feeling like I was really sophisticated because I ate Granny Smiths instead of Red Delicious; I’d had no idea of the range and number of apples in the world. The market was my school. 54 varieties! Each time we visited the market I would buy more than I can eat, just one or two of each variety, in a doomed effort to sample all the apples.

It was particularly futile when you consider how many apples there actually are in the word--upwards of 20,000 cultivated varieties. It’s a little difficult to keep precise track at that order of magnitude. Apples are ubiquitous is Canada, as they are many other places. How did there come to be so many? And so popular, both in our mythologies and our pantries? How did the lives of humans and apples become so entwined? Well the answer is terrifically complicated, but we’re going to make a stab at it. Let’s start at the beginning.

8,000 BCE—Nomadic hunter/gatherer societies undertake early agriculture and begin to settle throughout the fertile crescent from the Nile through the Tigris and Euphrates. As both trade and military expeditions begin among these earliest civilizations, apples begin to spread. Originating in the forests of the Tien Shan mountains in what is now Eastern Kazakhstan, they quickly carve out a cultural and ecological niche nearly everywhere they go.

5,000 BCE—Feng Li, a Chinese diplomat, writes "The Precious Book of Enrichment”. This text promotes apple growing as a commercial venture and relates detailed grafting techniques.
1500 BCE—A tablet found in northern Mesopotamia records the sale of an apple orchard for the significant sum of 3 prized breeder sheep. Hittite Law Codes specify a three shekel penalty for anyone allowing a fire to destroy an apple orchard. And that’s back when a shekel was worth something!
800 BCE—Homer's Odyssey recounts the memory of his fruit orchard to his aging father:
"12 pear trees bowing with their pendant load,
and ten, that red with blushing apples glow'd". . .
401 BCE—Greek historian and essayist, Xenophon is so inspired by walled fruit gardens throughout the Persian empire that he establishes one on his own estate in Greece. He then proceeds to coin a new Greek word from the Persian pairidaeza, or walled garden, later becoming the Latin paradisus, and finally the English paradise.
100 BCE—Roman poet Horace notes that Italy has nearly become one big fruit orchard. Apples moved west with the rise of the Roman empire as the Romans adopted the apples and orchard skills of the Greeks and Persians before them. They proceeded to carry apples to the far reaches of the Roman Empire including continental Europe and the British Isles where previously only crab apples were known.
50 BCE—Cicero, author, statesman, and philosopher urges his Roman countrymen to save their apple seeds from dessert to develop new cultivars.
79 CE—Pliny the Elder in his Natural History describes 20 varieties of apples.
100 CE--The Lady or Api Apple, is first cultivated. This apple is still being grown today.
200 CE--Greek physicians Galen and later Hippocrates, recommend sweet apples with meals as aids to digestion and sour apples only for fainting and constipation.
400 CE—Saint Jerome, founder of Monasticism, tells his monks to spend more time grafting and budding fruit trees "to escape sloth and the devil".
1100 CE--As the Roman Empire declined, however, so did apple growing. In fact, many of the varieties and techniques would have been lost had it not been for the monastic orcharding traditions of the Christian church through the twelfth century. In the East, apple growing flourished under the rise of Islam, which encouraged botany and raised it to an art form.
1240 CE—Albertus Magnus of Cologne, bishop, naturalist, and influential philosopher, agonizes in his text De Vegetabilibus over whether a fruit tree has a soul. Discarding the scholastic concept of fruit as a ready-made product of creation, Albertus held that cultivars developed from wild forms, thus foreshadowing Darwin.
1470 CE—Hugo Van Der Goes paints The Fall of Man. By portraying the apple tree in the in clear detail of both leaves and fruit, Van Der Goes sets the standard interpretation of this biblical fruit tree.
1618 CE—William Lawson of Yorkshire, writes A New Orchard and Garden. It is the first book in the English language about the practical aspects of apple growing. He is often quoted on his sensual observations. "All delight in orchards," says Lawson. "For whereas every other pleasure fills some one of our senses, and that only with delight, this makes all senses swim in pleasure". "What can your eyes desire to see, your ears to hear, your mouth to taste, your nose to smell that is not to be had in an orchard, with abundance of variety."
And we’ll stop there with world history. Later we’ll pick up the timeline in Canada, but for now I invite you to rise as you are comfortable and join in singing:

Hymn # 175: We Celebrate The Web of Life

We’re exploring apples from a few different angles today. The science of them is one of the most fascinating. Nobody says it better than Michael Pollan in his book “The Botany of Desire”, so I’m going to quote him directly.

Slice an apple through at its equator, and you will find five small chambers arrayed in a perfectly symmetrical starburst—a pentagram. Each of the chambers holds a seed (occasionally two) of such a deep lustrous brown that they might have been oiled and polished by a woodworker. Two facts about these seeds are worth noting. First, they contain a small quantity of cyanide, probably a defense the apple evolved to discourage animals from biting into them; they’re almost indescribably bitter.
The second, more important fact about these seeds concerns their genetic contents, which are likewise full of surprises. Every seed in that apple, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents. If not for grafting—the ancient technique of cloning trees—every apple tree in the world would be its own distinct variety, and it would be impossible to a keep a sweet, tasty apple around beyond the life span of that particular tree.

And as mentioned previously it was the Chinese who first perfected grafting, as they did so many other things.
The botanical term for this genetic variability is “heterozygosity”. While there are many species that can be termed heterozygous, including human beings, in the apple the tendency is extreme. More than any other single trait, it is the apple’s genetic variability that accounts for its ability to make itself at home in places as different from one another as Nova Scotia and New Zealand. The site of origin of the apple, in Kazakhstan, is named Alma-Ata, “father of the apple”. The vast variety of apples in the world are reflected in miniature in these forests, where every tree is unique in nearly every aspect.
Wherever the apple tree goes, its offspring propose so many different variations on what it means to be an apple—at least five per apple, several thousand per tree—that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home.
The botany of the apple—the fact that the one thing it won’t do is come true from seed—meant that its history would be a history of heroic individuals, rather than groups or types or lines. There is, or at least there was, a single Golden Delicious tree, of which every other Golden Delicious tree has been a grafted clone. The parent tree stood for decades on a hillside in Clay County, West Virginia, where it lived out its golden years inside a padlocked steel cage wired with a burglar alarm. Where the original Red Delicious grew a granite monument today stands between rows of corn on an Iowa farm. Whether for sweet apples, or a lovely scent, or simply for genetic information, each individual apple tree is unique and deserving of note, for it will never come again.

Medical Advice
Human beings and apples are entrained as species. What does this mean in practical terms? In other words, how does eating apples affect us? Does "an apple a day keep the doctor away"?
Apples have many healing qualities, in fact. For most people, they are to digest and can correct over-acidity of the stomach. They are particularly rich in pectin. In the body pectin helps to regulate digestion. It forms a protective coating in the intestines and soothes inflamed tissues. Apples are also highly recommended for balancing blood sugar levels, as they moderate spikes and lows.
Apple tea, prepared by infusing minced fruit or peels in hot water, increases uric acid elimination and is helpful as a supportive remedy in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic conditions. An apple at bedtime improves the quality of sleep and helps to control night sweats.
Apple blossom petals can be infused as a tea to treat feverish conditions, especially those that affect the upper respiratory tract. Apple blossom tea also soothes and calms the nerves.
Apple cider vinegar is also excellent for a whole host of health conditions. It is rich in calcium and can help to improve calcium deficiency related problems such as loss of concentration and memory, weak muscle tone, poor circulation, badly healing wounds, general itchiness, aching joints and lack of appetite. Apple cider vinegar detoxifies by supporting the eliminative function of the kidneys. Thus, it is a helpful supportive aid for arthritis, gout, rheumatism and skin conditions. It is also beneficial for sinusitis, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic exhaustion and night sweats. To drink apple cider vinegar, dilute one tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 oz of water. This may be sweetened with honey.
Apples are useful to us in so many ways, as we are useful to them. Like many other domesticated plants, the apple trees have found a niche in which humans will do the work of propagating their species for them. They return the favour in many ways. Having evolved together for these many millenia, we belong to each other.

Hymn #317 We Are Not Our Own

Narrative II
The varieties of apples that you find in most supermarkets are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most delicious or nutritious, the most fragrant or freshest apples available. They are instead the apples that ship the best, keep the longest, and look the most appealing on display. Red Delicious apples are particularly renowned for looking lovely—and retaining salability--long after the peak of flavour. Now don’t get me wrong, the Red Delicious is a fine apple. Many supermarket apples will do, mind you, or even do nicely, but if you have the choice I highly recommend patronizing your local grower or farmer’s market.
When I first moved to Lunenburg, I felt very excited to visit the farmer’s market. I wanted to feel the bustle of the crowds as I walked down aisle after aisle of produce. Except that it wouldn’t really be right to say that there was even one aisle… it was more like a medium sized cocktail party, with people milling around an open space with carrots and baguettes in their hands instead of martini glasses and appetizers.
For a while, I didn’t know anyone, and then I got to know the Svenja Dee, the florist. Svenja and I were pregnant at the same time and we smiled encouragingly at each other’s bumps for months before we actually started talking. Once I did get to chatting with her, she brought out a jar of a wonderful local honey from beneath all the bouquets. It has since become a staple in my kitchen. And after a while Svenja introduced me to Kevin Veinotte. Kevin has a farm with lots of happy cows and even more happy chickens. We eat his meat and eggs nearly every day. Kevin also just won Woodlot of the year for all of Nova Scotia. He’s having an open woodlot day in a couple weeks, if any of you would like to come down to Lunenburg county and visit some ecologically sustainable Christmas trees with me. I’ve offered to cook a picnic of local foods beforehand for anyone who makes the trip. The details are on my blog.
So anyway, it was Kevin who introduced me to Bruce Zwicker, the fruit and vegetable king of the Lunenburg farmer’s market, and that fall it was Bruce who sold me my first Honeycrisp.
Now I have always loved apples and I have especially always loved crisp apples, the crisper the better. I prefer my apples on the sweet side as well, however, and I’ve never been able to quite satisfactorily negotiate the tension between those two attributes. Until I encountered the Nova Scotia Honeycrisp. As firm and crunchy as a Granny Smith, a good Honeycrisp can compete with the best of the Supermarket sweets. It immediately rocketed to the top of my list of favorite apples and has stayed there ever since. When I eat one, I try to take a moment to go deep, to bite mindfully, to seek a sense of how the apple drew nourishment through the sun and earth, through roots and stem. I allow the apple to call me into the now, and the crunch and the juice and the smell of the flesh—this is spiritual practice.

Role Call of Canadian-Grown Apples
Crimson Beauty
Dudly Winter
Golden Delicious
Golden Russet
Granny Smith
Jersey Mac
Northern Spy
Paula Red
Red Delicious
Red Rome
Royal Gala
Yellow Transparent

Unfortunately, no Canadian apples that begin with zed.

Canadian Apple History
I spoke with Bernice d’Entremont at the Musee Acadien this week about the apple trees in their heritage garden. You may have read about it in the Herald. They have replicated a late 17th century Acadian garden, replete with apple trees. The varietal? Belliveau apples, from France. She told me that they look for apple trees on old pre-expulsion farmsteads as a sign that they are Acadian, for they were known for having lots of apple trees. When I asked her whether they were cultivated sweet apples or apples for hard cider, she allowed that since they drank plenty of beet wine and parsnip wine they probably did drink hard cider. I have an easy recipe for hard cider, if anyone’s interested. I’ll post it to my blog. In addition to the apples, though, Acadian settlers highly valued apple trees for their wood—strong and durable, apple wood is terrific for building and fencing. It’ll burn hot and long on a fire on a cold winter’s night.
In the 1860s, Nova Scotia apples started receiving rave reviews from Britain. By the 1930s, Nova Scotia was exporting 75% of its production to the UK, but that changed dramatically with the outbreak of war, and by the time the war ended, Europe had beefed up its own production.
In the late 19th Century a New Brunswick man, Frances Peabody Sharpe, developed two varieties, the New Brunswick Apple and Crimson Beauty. The Crimson Beauty is still grown in many Canadian orchards today.
Even before 1850 there were established orchards in several areas of Québec. Most of the trees were grown from seed, so again, they were used for cider. Fruit growing areas found in the Isle of Orléans near Ville de Québec date back to the days of France's presence in Québec.
Historical records in Ontario indicate that apples were grown in the Niagara region as early as 1790. The first McIntosh tree was discovered in 1811 at Dundela, Dundas County, Ontario by John McIntosh, the son of Scottish immigrants. Today, McIntosh are cultivated in nearly every apple growing area of North America.
Apples were introduced to Manitoba in 1874 using stock from Ontario and Russia. The harsh prairie climate discouraged growers, however in the 20th century, breeders at University of Saskatchewan and the Canadian Department of Agriculture research farm at Morden, Manitoba, developed some hardy varieties.
Apples were introduced to BC by the early settlers with seed that they carried with them from Fort Vancouver as they explored the interior. By the 1850s there were plantings of small orchards in the lower Fraser Valley. A fellow named Thomas G. Earl established the first orchard at Lytton. Cold winters forced Earl out of business, but other growers, including an Oblate missionary named Father Pandosy, had discovered the Okanagan Valley. Pandosy planted his first trees in 1862 where the City of Kelowna now stands. Dry soil proved a barrier to production until growers rigged pumps and open flumes to direct water from lakes and creeks into the Valley. Today, from Nova Scotia to BC, apples constitute the largest tree fruit crop in Canada.

Hymn # 77 Seek Not Afar For Beauty

Long before Christianity was born the apple tree was widely adored as a symbol of immortality. The apple represented the sacred heart of the Goddess of eternal life. In Celtic tradition the western paradise was known as Avalon, the isle of Apples.
To the Romans, the apple represent omega, the end, just as eggs were thought to represent alpha, or the beginning. The ideal meal for Romans began with an egg and ended with an apple. Wild boars were roasted with an apple in their mouths to represent eternal life and resurrection.
In Greek mythology, Gaia presented a tree with golden apples to Zeus and his bride Hera on their wedding day. Guarded by Ladon, a serpent who never slept, the apple tree was in the garden of the Hesperides, daughters of the Evening Star. These golden apples popped up time and time again, from the abduction of Helen of Troy to the defeat and marriage of Atlanta.
Apple trees were sacred to the sun god Apollo; in fact, the name Apollo comes from the same root as the modern English word apple. Dionysus was the patron of cultivated trees and specifically of the apple.
Ramses III offered 848 baskets of apples to Hapy, the Egyptian god of the Nile. Among the Norse, Iduna safeguarded a store of apples. When eaten, the apples gave the gift of perpetual youth to the goddesses and gods. It is said that certain Norse priests were forbidden to eat apples, due to the fruit’s legendary lustful properties.
A sacred Shiite drama written around 900 CE featured a dying Mohammed who inhales eternal life by inhaling the scent of an apple an angel had brought him. Centuries earlier, Aristotle was said to have kept death away by holding an apple and inhaling its life sustaining fragrance. Finally and consciously he dropped the apple, thus releasing his soul.
Today, apples are still offered to Chango among the Yoruba.
During the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten in hope for a sweet new year. A traditional food for Passover is Haroset, a mixture of apple, nuts, wine and spices, representing the bricks of mortar the children of Israel were forced to use to build for their captors during their captivity in Egypt.
In China, by contrast, the pictogram for apple has the synonymous meaning of peace. Thus presenting someone with an apple is to say: 'peace be with you'.
And finally, during the apple harvest in many parts of Britain apple farmers traditionally engaged in the custom of 'wassailing', a kind of tree blessing that invoked the fruitfulness of their trees, chased off any evil spirits or demons that might have liked to steal their fruit, and gave thanks for the harvest. This was celebrated with good quantities of cider and apple cookies as well as with fireworks or gunfire.

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel--bushel--sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

Stand fast, root! bear well, top!
Pray God send a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big:
Every bow, apples enow!

adapted from From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of apples
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Apples

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
apples we devour, dusty peel and all,
comes the familiar dust of autumn, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of apple.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Narrative III

The title of the service today comes from Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, a rich and bawdy bit of the book that many modern day folks would rather not highlight. It’s also the name of a terrific autobiography by Ruth Reichl, the current editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine. I highly recommend it.
According to the King James, The verse in Song of Songs reads, “ Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick with love" (2: 5) . A more probable translation of the original Hebrew is "Sustain me with raisin cakes, refresh me with apricots." Sadly in this context an apple in not an apple, but another fruit with a reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Apples are as sweet and impossible as my friendship with Naomi, as the delightful little community of the Lunenburg farmer’s market, as all of life. Life is limitlessly divine, every scrap and corner.
We have only scratched the surface of apples here today. We have barely peeked under the peel. I guess in the end, what I so love about apples is that they are so manipulated by humans to be what they are. We have evolved together as species, and continue to evolve together. We have evolved cultures winding around the hard wood of the apple trees that surround our houses. We are an aspect of nature partnering with another aspect of nature, creating histories together, impossible blossom to impossible blossom.

Throughout time and place, apples have been the fruit of love.
In this time and this place we create a community of love.
May you again leave nourished and renewed.

Want to learn more? Here are some of the texts I used in creating the service today:

Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen.

Kurlansky, Mark. Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History.

Luard, Elisabeth. Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment.

Patraker, Joel and Schwartz, Joan. The Greenmarket Cookbook.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.

Thoreau, Henry David. Wild Apples (essay).

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Carrot Soup

We're been reading voraciously this week. Charlie is completely taken with Carrot Soup by John Segal, wherein an unsuspecting rabbit is feted by friends of every ilk with (cue drumroll) carrot soup. There's a recipe in the back. Guess what we made today?

Charlie's Carrot Soup (An adaptation)
As many carrots as Mom has the patience to wash, peel and shred (maybe a pound and a half?)
4 old cubes of chicken bouillion in water, even though there's an organic chicken carcass in the fridge begging to be made into stock. We'll plan ahead next time.
1 large onion, chopped
A big dab of butter
Fleur de Sel and cracked pepper
Some dill that Shirley gave us from her garden just yesterday

1. Dice and sweat the onions in the butter and salt. Remember the ocean when you add the salt. Add the shredded carrots and broth. Bring to a boil.
2. Reduce heat and simmer for about a half hour.
3. Puree the mixture in a blender.
4. Add pepper and minced dill to taste. Serve to Daddy with love.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Cup of Tea

"Judgement", as a general concept, keeps popping up in my recent meanderings--particularly in reference to how judgement blocks understanding. I think this koan sums it up pretty well.

Nan-in, a Japanese master, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!"

"Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can you learn unless you first empty your cup?"

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Slow 'n Easy: Honey Garlic Roast

1 Roast for the Crock Pot (at the Lunenburg Farmer's Market, ask Kevin Veinotte what cut he recommends)
A Cup of Honey (we like the one Svenja Dee sells--the bees visit our flowers)
A Cup of Soy Sauce (still scouting a local source)
A head of Garlic (Try the hardneck garlic from Dot at the Mahone Bay Farmers Market--to die for)
A Splash of lemon juice (OK, not a lot of native citrus in Nova Scotia!)
Cayenne power to taste (er... planning on growing our own peppers next year)

1.First thing in the morning, sear the heck out of the roast in an iron pan. Get it smoky and a bit carbonized on the exterior. Do not fear heat! It is the friend of taste--plus the smell will help wake up any late sleepers in the household.
2. Put all ingredients except for garlic in crock pot. Put on low. Forget until lunch.
3. Press the garlic into the crock pot; swish everything around a bit with a spoon. Relid and reforget.
4. Hungry for dinner? Make some rice, a veggie, and voila! a tender, spicy, succulent repast is yours.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Foodie Food

If you told me a decade ago that I would be freaky about eating local
and treating myself to a compost bin for my birthday (the better to
grow my very own veg)--well, I'd have coughed Marlboro smoke in your face
with derision. But then I went to seminary, and I started going to
farmer's markets around the same time, so of course I got all
theological about it. Common UU parlance is "right relationship",
although I prefer "balanced relationship".

Despite the fact that everything we eat comes from living creatures,
American and Canadian cultures objectify food. We quantify it--
counting and controlling calories, nutritional content, portion
sizes... despite our obviously limited understanding of the
amazingly complex ways that we enteract with food (like breastmilk,
for starters!)

For me, unschooling is about letting go of control and
being fully with my child in our relationship as it unfolds. Slow
food is also about letting go of a control-based relationship and
participating lovingly with the world around me.

I cannot force myself into balance. I cannot have a qualitative
relationship with corporatized food. I can, however, foster a rich
sense of self and community through slow/local/organic food
practices. I think of it as feeding the whole self.

NOW don'tcha wanna come on my picnic?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Squeezing the Cheese

Ever since we moved here from Tucson, John and I have been bemoaning the lack of queso blanco, the Mexican cheese that is essential to making (or in absence, breaking) Mexican food. Last night I was curled up reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and came across her account of making queso blanco with ease at home. So we thought we'd try it. A half hour at the stove with a thermometer, a pan of milk, and a little bit of vinegar, and today...

Maravilloso! I made an omlette this morning with bacon and my own cheese, and it actually tastes like Mexican food! I can't believe how easy it was. Now I just have to round up a few supplies and I can make my own local, organic mozzerella, ricotta, and mascarpone. For starters, anyway.

You know you want to sign up for that picnic!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Greening the South Shore

Congratulations, Kevin Veinotte...
Nova Scotia Woodlot Owner of the Year!

For those of you who attended my Canada Day service, Kevin is the bear-chasing farmer who sells us our eggs, beef, chicken, and Christmas trees. All organic and free range (well, I suppose the trees don't get very far). He's having an open farm day the last Saturday of September. If any of you dear readers are interested in taking a field trip to see what sustainable agriculture looks like, I'm organizing an expedition! A delicious local foods picnic is in the works...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Spiritual Compost

Charlie and I went to the Lunenburg County Recycling Center and bought a home compost bin today. Our "Earth Machine" is settled comfortably against the pines lining the back of the yard. It looks like someone buried Darth Vader in the ground with his head sticking out.

I was pretty excited to be taking the next step up (or parhaps it would be down?) into relationship with the earth. Oh, boy. A decade ago I would have coughed cigarette smoke in your face at the very idea of growing my own produce, much less going hoppy with joy over creating my own dirt. The woman who sold us the bin seemed a little unnerved by my request. The pile of dusty, black bins in the corner looked like a theory no one ever planned to put into practice. We were on our way out the door when she said, "Oh, wait!" and handed us our "responsible consumer" bonuses... a lovely green LCRC reusable shopping bag for me, and for Charlie a Halloween-themed plastic pumpkin goblet made in China and purchased at Dollarama.


Well, perhaps not the greenest gesture, but it was offered with a genuine smile and loving intent. So for the eleventeeth time today I returned to my breath, thanked her, and took bin, bag, and goblet home for a shebang of a compost ritual. We sang "Return Again" and shook in some starter scraps of organic, local produce and coffee grounds, then tossed on a handful of last year's pine needles for good measure. It's cool and foggy out today; the air feels soft on our skin. The garden is lush. The foghorn is sounding in the background while the birds sing to a far off sun. It's a wonderful day to stand in front of Darth Vader's head, drink cheap wine from a Halloween goblet, and pray for next year's potatoes.

Return Again
Return Again
Return to the home of your soul.

Return Again
Return Again
Return to the home of your soul.

Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are born
And reborn again,

Return Again
Return Again
Return to the home of our soul.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Watch This Space

I'm working on a new sermon in my Nova Scotia series. The working title: "Is Frenchie's Divine?" It should be up in the next week or so. In the meantime, take a lookie at what Calvin Trillin has to say about Frenchies...

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Whose Canada?

Delivered July 1, 2007 at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax

The July 1st holiday was established in Canada in 1879, under the name Dominion Day. But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that regular celebrations entered cultural practice. In 1982 the name was changed to Canada Day. Canada Day is a celebration of our country, but even more it is a celebration of our nation. Well, what is a nation?

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.

According to Stalin, that is! Lucky for Canada, Stalin’s not in charge of defining our nation. Nor is any other one person or group. "Nation" is a tricky word. It can be defined by common language, culture, religion, or by voluntary choice. We do not rely upon common language or culture as a standard. Canada is a land of many peoples from the First Nations to the most recent immigrants, and the many generations of immigrants in between. We are unquestionably a "voluntary choice" kind of nation.

We have even chosen to define a nation within a nation. A motion passed last year by the Canadian House of Commons "recognizes that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada." Canada is a nation of many immigrants. Like me. I immigrated as a spouse from the States, which as far as immigrant experiences go is about as gentle and easy as things can possibly get. And which is still really pretty difficult. My husband and I originally planned to move to Montreal, and had been looking at houses there for a couple weeks before coming to Nova Scotia to visit his mother who lives in Bridgewater. While we were here John’s best friend from childhood, Jim MacCleave, took us around the South Shore. We drove into Lunenburg on a snowy day to get lunch at Magnolia’s. Everything was white and peaceful, with colorful Victorian houses peeking out under snow hats and a calm harbour. Magnolia’s serves this crazy good creole peanut soup and, well, there you go. And here we are.

We hadn’t been in Nova Scotia very long when I got pregnant. We didn’t know many people. I joined an on-line due date club for community and support. This group of expectant mommies spanned the US and Canada. We’ve been chatting on a nearly daily basis for over three years now. We’ve celebrated births together, mourned deaths, and helped each other out through divorce and medical emergencies. We talk about our kid’s development, the cute things they often say and the aggravating things they occasionally do.

Recently one of the mothers in my group, Raquel, wrote with big news. She had been minding her own business at the bus stop in the (large, American) city where she lives, when a woman she did not know walked right up to her and her son and started talking to him. The stranger got right up in the boy's face and touched the top of his head. Rachel didn’t know how to react. This never happens to her. I had no idea what to say to her, because it never doesn’t happen to me! I can’t leave the house without a dozen people talking to Charlie. Many of the other mums in our group responded with a pithy anecdote about a time when some complete stranger dared to speak to their child or (gasp) touched their child, and I got a jolly good reality check about how, er, communal my community really is. Living in Lunenburg is like being in a constant conversation that ebbs and flows throughout our days. Strangers talk to Charlie at every turn. They pat his cheeks and compliment his shoes. "Hello, Charlie!" says Crispin at the Lunenburg Save-Easy. "That's some big bunch of broccoli you have!" "How are you today, Charlie?" asks Flora at the post office. "Package for you in the back!" I keep an eye on Charlie to gauge his comfort level with strangers, but as long as he’s okay then I’m thrilled for him to be engaged in the world around us.

It seems like I lived here a long time without a very strong sense of connection, sort of like an odd, extended vacation. Community snuck up on me from behind. I had some unexpected and delightful company this week. My best friend from seminary came to visit en route from a ministry in New York to one in Florida. (I guess she’s taking the really scenic route.) Together we explored just how many people I have gotten to know in town.

Thursday morning we walked down the hill to the farmer’s market, like Charlie and I do every Thursday morning. We stopped along the way to say hello to Nilanjana and her children, Keya and Rohun. We chatted about a reading I'd gone to with local author Ami McKay. Fantastic writer, and truly conversant with Nova Scotia history. I highly recommend her novel, The Birth House. Nilanjana is the librarian for the mobile unit that serves rural Lunenburg county. We can never resist the opportunity to talk about books. Rohun and Keya are ten and fifteen, but they both love to play with Charlie and will entertain him for the many hours that it takes us moms to chew over our latest reads.

At the market we first bought bread and cheese from Isabelle, an African-born French citizen. She once asked me to wear my clerical collar to the market to "prove" that I’m a minister. I actually have a clerical collar but when I went to put it on I found that it doesn’t fit me anymore, so I took it along and whirled it around on the end of a baguette. She considered that sufficient proof. Isabelle helps me with my French. Then we went over to see Svenja, a horticulturalist from Germany. Naomi and I wandered up to her flower stall. Without saying a word, Svenja reached behind an impressive display of tumbling wildflowers and pulled out a neat pile of very small pants. I reached into the basket of my stroller for an equally small, somewhat less neat pile of pants and we exchanged them. Svenja and her husband Hans live three blocks away from us and have a son Charlie’s age. We take turns watching the boys on weekday mornings. Inside or out, Charlie and Jonas both seem to extraordinarily dirty and wet when they play together, and end up going through several outfits apiece.

There was a quick hello from Katja another German mum in town, and then we went to buy coffee from Deborah and Steve. Deborah’s both a fair trade, organic coffee distributor and a documentary filmmaker. I took a few minutes to talk with her about the possibility of putting together a committee to get Lunenburg certified as a Fair Trade Town. And perhaps challenging Nova Scotia to become a Fair Trade Province. And, perhaps, making a film about the process. In our free time.

We got lemon tarts from the Julian’s vendor. She colludes with me in calling a bran muffin a "cupcake". Charlie loves getting his cupcake at the market! Our last stop at the market was with Kevin, my organic beef and egg supplier. He hadn’t been at the market when we arrived. When I teased him about being late, he solemnly informed me that he’d been held up by bears in the meadow. They were scaring the cows, so he had to chase them off before he could load the coolers of frozen meat in the truck.

On our way home we said hello to a very elderly gentleman whittling on his front porch, and he hailed us over. "You the folks at 211?" he asked. I said yes and he replied, "Oh, I used to mow the lawn there. That was when Gunk Tanner lived there, eh? Liked his shortwave radios. Fell to death on the basement stairs going to get a beer in the fridge down there. Yep, that was Gunk all right. Have a good day now."

Lunenburg is no idyll, and I haven’t always been a great neighbor myself. We make mistakes and try again. Participating in community is the key, not that we do it perfectly. One day I had my son at the park down the street. A man there was swinging on the swings, back and forth in great arcs that shook the base of the structure. I got all worked up and mama bear-ish and oh I’m gonna protect our parks from this troublemaker--I marched up to him and said, "The sign says the swings are for people twelve and under. How old are you?" He turned to me slowly and just said, "You’re not from Lunenburg." The conversation went downhill from there.

No, I’m not from Lunenburg, and everybody knows it. The man turned out to be the park supervisor for the town, by the way. He was doing a safety check on the equipment. I'll never know what it would have been like to move to Montreal, but it was very… American of me to think I could fit in easily in Nova Scotia. I’ve had a steep learning curve. There are will always be people here who don't want CFAs around, and I've run into plenty of them. But there are far more people who've welcomed me with smiles and the casual "dear" of Nova Scotia, who accept me and my family in their community despite our strange ways.

I know Lunenburg is not Canada nor is it representative—although in such a diverse nation, no place can be said to be representative. This particular corner is it’s own flavour of Canada. I have traveled around a bit, though and there are a few elements of Canadian culture that have struck me to be true everywhere. More than anything I’ve noticed that people really do say "sorry" if you bump into them. It charms me to no end. It can literally mean "sorry" of course, but I’ve noticed it can also mean, "I’m opening a conversation with you and I’d like to make it a friendly one from the start."

Whose Canada is it? I guess I would say that it’s everyone’s who has a stake it it. Citizens of the country, non-citizens who live here. The Cambodian teenager who lives in a tin shack and sews socks for Walmart sold in Canada has a stake in Canada. The fisherman sailing into Lunenburg Harbour with his catch. The American who looks north for models of justice. Canada is more than a country. It is a nation. "Country" is the government. "Nation" is the people. Being democratic means that we have an imperfectly realized ideal of the people sharing the governance of the country. Being a nation means that we, the Canadian people, create caring community together, that we then might extend to the world.

The English word "nation" is derived from the term nātĭō (stem nātiōn-), meaning the action of being born. A people who are born, constantly regiving birth to ourselves, creating ourselves, this is a nation. We can choose to do so mindfully and in joy. So at root, nation is a social construction. I was discussing this with a friend of mine from Alberta who observed that "nation" is really just a wider cosmos of the family. What we create in ourselves, we create in our family. What we create in our family, we create in our nation. What we create in our nation is what we create in our world, our universe. All my neighbors together construct a reality for my child, and I am profoundly grateful for it.

The spiritual practice of being with each other, of creating something together that promotes freedom, well-being, consensual relations with other is a profound one. We are growing. We are creating space for others to grow. We enjoy bounty as we learn to balance. I celebrate the Canada that we are, but far more I celebrate the Canada that we may become. Like our nation, "Canada Day" is still taking form. Taking a holiday to celebrate a sense of who we are and how we are growing is timeless.

The official ceremony inaugurating the new Canadian flag was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on February 15, 1965,
Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, said : "The flag is the symbol of the nation's unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion."
From the seed of a maple a great tree grows
Gracing us with sweet syrup and sweet air
From the seeds of our being a great nation grows
Gracing the world with gifts of sweet justice
Breathe in the air of Canadian forests
Breathe out, release fear.
Breathe in community holding you in a network of care
Breathe out, release strife
Breathe in connection
Breathe out anxiety
Breathe your heart boundless
Breathe and know that we are many people and one people,
Many nations and one world.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Race Reframed

"I no white," announces Charlie as he watches Little Bear.

"No? What colour are you?" asks Betty

"I Charlie colour," says Charlie.

And he is.

(To explore the paradigm shift behind this vignette, I highly recommend Learning To Be White by Thandeka, or Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon if you want to be old school--but still visionary--about it.)