Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust

 

The Climate Change March on September 21 intends to be the largest one in American History. I have so many hopes for the march that I hope I won’t sink it! I hope for a huge new investment in renewable energies and a cessation of investment in the dead ways. I hope for a resacralization of the desacralized, which includes the shale and the seeds, the water and the air and you and me. I hope Americans will come to see our place in nature as much as now see our place in history. And I also hope for a renewal of the way we die, right down to the words we use.

 

Consider one example of change that comprehends the entire agenda above. I’ve been saying “Ashes to Ashes, Stardust to Stardust” at funerals I officiate for the last year or so. I have been astonished at the response. It is pervasively positive. The language just slipped out of me after I watched Carl Sagan’s show Cosmos light up the night sky. Cosmos reminds us that everybody who ever was is already up there overhead, blinking. When we die, we become a star. Why use the word “dust” when “stardust” binds our genome to a biological evolving eternity? Why frack when we can use sun or wind? Why stop when you can continue, even if in another form or way?

 

A renewable and renewing imagination need not start with the material, although God knows we have to do something about how gassy we have become. It can also start with spiritual practice and spiritual language. Spiritual practices are more like solar energy than anything else. They shine. They are an energy that creates more energy. Like solar, many people think they can’t afford the long-term investment. Thus we stick to electricity or Lent or Sundays or candles. And of course, these spiritual surrogates are terribly, dangerously fragile. They are lightweights in a time when we need weight bearing spiritual practices. Those who can’t pray or renew or see will find somehow that they wish they had thanked or relaxed or seen. Those who think they die as dust will soon realize how much more fun it is to die as stardust. Plus, dying is one of the greenest activities of all. We recycle and compost our very selves

 

Prayer and meditation are emphatically renewable energy. They change us. They also change the Way of us, our habitat, our soil, our environment, our cosmos. Similarly, changing the language of a memorial is a spiritual practice. In changing the spiritual, we give the material a way to change. Spiritual practices are things that people use to be spiritual. They practice, as in rehearse, the way we want to be and reflect the best way that we are. The words “Best practices” don’t apply only to the workplace.

 

A spiritual practice is a deepening of the always and the everyday. It is washing the dishes as though you liked to or flossing your teeth as though you loved your teeth, rather than just keeping the dentist from guilt tripping you. A spiritual practice is also pretty much anything that tussles with the pragmatic and takes pragmatism into something deeper than its obvious and worthy utility.  Watch out dust. You are on your way out.

 

Practice is not the opposite of pragmatic so much as its underwear, what you wear close to your skin. Spiritual practice knows what ashes to ashes, stardust-to-stardust means.

 

Lots of people turn spiritual practices into confections. They are not confections. They are defections, when we disrupt the normal absurdities on behalf of the deeper absurdities. In those deeper absurdities, truth is lurking, with a patch on its eye. Or a star’s twinkle, high above us.

 

Maybe my hopes for September 21 are too small, not too big, especially if the energy we need is right here in prayer and in the stardust.

Olive Ayhens' ONTIME / Grand Central

Olive Ayhens’ ONTIME / Grand Central at 100
In the New York Transit Museum at Grand Central Station.

Great Designer, we give you thanks for the Beaux in the Arts, the clock in the center, the station grand and central by design, the tick of the clock rushing us to track 19, leaving no time to buy a Zabar’s or an oyster or a slush.  We give you thanks for large visas in crowded places, for the way Apple has snuck its logo into a logo free place, causing us to admire that massive energy that made way for trains.

For the 100 years of the grand centralizing station, and all the people we have met under its clock, we give you thanks.  So often our prayers are pastel with nature.  Today we thank you for the black and grey of industry within industry within industry, for the lanyard of it  and the way we coil to make our train and uncoil when we have made it.  So many things are made small by what they exclude and separate.  Thank you for letting the grand and central Includer continue to gather and connect.  Thank you for the grand in the grand. And get us to our next train with time to spare. Amen.

 

Aging and Seeding and Seasons

As I age, I want to notice what I think I have already seen.  As the planet ages, I want us all to notice what we think we have already seen.  Otherwise, we go to seed without seeding.

Once, I saw the deep blue wine berries of fall differently than I had seen them before.  Often considered a weed, they are blousy and fat, dominating and unplanted.  They look like those shelves in antique stores where blue glasses and vases and pitchers cling together for color.  They have a way of getting whatever nourishment they need wherever they are.  More leaf than berry, you have to sleuth the blues.  They self-plant and self-seed, the way Vandana Sheva says Indian women did before Monsanto tried to criminalize their sustainable skills.  The same weekend I had seen fall watercress in the market.   I hadn’t seen watercress for years, not since one Pennsylvania dawn when the green challenged the white snow on the ground. I realized that I know joy in the morning and the watercress, the weeds and the blues.  When I give myself the time to to notice what I have already seen, I often get to the refreshment stand, where I can drink gladness without paying for it.  The green of watercress and the blue of wine berries may be all I need to remember.  That plus my time and place, my here and now, my then and again.

 

So many of us have spiritual Alzheimer’s. Many of us fear we are the last generation, with the last seed.  We remember when the mail came in envelopes or you had to get up to change the TV channel. We even thought of eventually writing a memoir.  Then Arianna Huffington announced she doesn’t want to write a memoir because dead people do them.  And Momofuku adds, “Memoir is written from leather armchairs with scores settled.“

 

When blue wine berries and green watercress can still surprise us, we aren’t dead and our scores aren’t settled. We are just saving our seed.  I may be 66 but I am an early feminist.  I may be an aging hippie but I prefer the title Senior hippie.  I was well advised to tell my grandchildren to call me Bubbe instead of Grandma. “Grandma” would make me feel old, “Bubbe” would amuse me.  You get my drift, coded in apologies for having gotten old while I wasn’t looking.  I still want to be the next Verlyn Klinkenborg.  I want his perch as a country writer to whom city people listen.  Or to be the chaplain at Google and let them know how much pastors know about privacy and confidentiality.  I want to retire without becoming retiring, age alert to blues and greens.  I want to know season as well as a fall wine berry does.  I want to emerge from the cold with the courage of the water’s cress.  I want to be able to remember without distortion and to save seeds, knowing one time and place is always yielding to the next.

 

Jesus at Table

 

I read something about transubstantiation in the New York Review of Books. Transubstantiation is the idea that Jesus is real in the mass, substantially, and that a kind of magic happens in the mass, performed by a priest, that changes bread and wine into Jesus.   The NYR article was part of a review of Gary Wills new book, Why Priests: a Failed tradition“, A Challenge to the Church,” by William Pfaff, May 2013.   It got me to thinking.  In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it.

 

First of all, it is unlikely that the mainly secular readers of the New York Review are interested in Jesus.  They may be interested in food and table but not in Jesus. Second, how come we are still battling the Aristotelian notion between the substance and the accident of things and the Augustinian notion of the mass as something that originated in a leaderless communal meal?  What are these two guys doing out of their pen or with their pens? Why would we have to fight about Jesus?  Or tables?  Or meals?  Third, how come the Protestant ordination I participated in last weekend ended up with a communion meal, with the new ordinands serving up bread and wine as though it were a really big thing, now that they were truly empowered to do it.  Fourth, how come I don’t value more that power in my ordination?  For almost forty years, I have been presiding at communion tables.  I never experience Jesus and always experience the memory of Jesus and the presence of his spirit.   Why do I confuse the table with the table, the meal with the meal, the bread with the bread, the wine with the wine, Jesus with Jesus?  Am I am accident or a substance here?  Or just ordained into the “consubstantiation” tradition, the one with less magic attached to it?

 

How come I just can’t get into the fight about the power to preside at the table?  How come I’d rather have a holy meal, sometimes in diners and sometimes in churches?  How come I’d rather eat with nuns (those who have adamantly no power to preside) than with priests (those so adamant about their power to preside)?

 

I can defend my naïveté or simplicity (choose your category) by remembering the original definition of “Presider.”  It is one who literally stands in front.  “Proestos” is the word.  When a person gives a meal to someone else, of course there is power present.  The power to cook, to clean it up, to make it good, to not overdo how you cooked it, cleaned it up, made it good.  Standing in front is what priests do but seriously, why over do it?  Especially in the name of Jesus who took understatement to new heights.  Jesus, for me, refused certain kinds of power, the over against and “top” kind, on behalf of other kinds of power, the with kind and the among kind.  I like to enjoy a meal with him.

 

 

Patterns and the Landscape

 

My favorite book is called A Pattern Language: Towns Buildings Construction.   Published in 1977 by Oxford University press, for architects and designers, it argues a Western version of Feng Shui.  What is around us matters.  If a house has a window seat in it, that will matter to the psychology, spirituality and freedom of the inhabitants.  If a room has windows on more than one side, energy will flow through it.  If a room has only one window, energy will get stuck there.  My friend just said she’d rather have an office with a window than a raise. I understood.  She inhabits her office, and inhabitant is a wonderful word.  She is the one who dwells there.  She is the one who habits there.  She wants the energy to flow.  She wants to be comfortable there.

 

Many us have become patterned to discomfort.   We imagine the commute will be rough.  Traffic, we say, what else is new?  We imagine that there will be a Starbucks and a Subway on every corner, and guess what, there is.  I often wonder what has happened to our sensibilities so stoned are they by similarity.  I wonder what happens to stuck energy in a cubicle where the air can’t find a place to inhabit or circulate.

 

A drive through my beloved South Carolina long ago patterned me profoundly. I went to pick up my deceased father’s car and to deliver it to my son in Connecticut.  I was practically in tears the whole time; the tears were not just for my father. I had been so looking forward to getting the car.  The year was 1997.  I took the train down and was going to drive the car slowly back North.  I was on a sentimental journey, and I intended to inhabit it. I wanted something like an energy exchange, as well as a car exchange.  I wanted to inhabit the grief of losing my father, through his car, with windows on all sides.  I wanted to inhabit the way life goes on by driving South to North to give my son my father’s car.

 

The car still had the red soil of the red clay on it.  There was something living about my father and his last car.  For moments I could sense his smell in it.  But then as I drove up 301 and gave myself the gift of the back way, I realized I couldn’t really tell where I was.  Everything was the same, even back then in 1997.  Every corner.  Every traffic light.  Every strip mall.  My eyes began to hurt.  My heart hurt.  There were no watermelon stands.  There were no silly signs, advertising “home cookin’.”  The landscape had become another pattern.  It was McDonald’s, Burger King, Hess Oil, Seven-Eleven, and “Comfort” Inn, stripped into malls, stripped into mall after mall of franchises.  They frightened me.

 

I know many of these “fast food” places and “fast sleeping” motels are franchised.  They aren’t completely owned by the Great Discomforter.  I want to try to like them.  I certainly don’t want nostalgia, for my father, his car, the red clay, to get in my way of being a MODERN person.

 

On the other hand, I need help.  I need a window seat on the future.  I need to be comforted by the land and its pattern.  When blight blights our spirits as well as our roads, and our energy gets stuck in cubicles stripped of energy, forced into conformity, that wonderful word that means ONE FORM, something happens.  It is not good for us or for the land or for the great energy in the land.

 

What could be different?  We could insist on different food at each exit, in each “service” “center.”  Spanish at Exit 17, Lithuanian at Exit 18, Brazilian at Exit 19.  We could have hostels and hotels, B and B’s and camping sites.  All overnight lodging need not be in the same box or serve the same waffles.  And if we can’t find these patterns patterning us to wholeness on the main highway, we’re just going to have to go deeper into the back roads and sleep overnight in our father’s cars, while hoping for a better life for our sons.

 

I hope you know Renee and her seeds.  Located at 6060 Graham Hill Road in Felton, California, or on line at http://www.reneesgarden.com, she has the best lettuces anywhere.  I highly recommend the Jade Gem container lettuces.    The sunflowers aren’t bad either — bright bandolier and cinnamon sun both worked very well in Fishkill last summer.  This year I am going to try sun Samba and sunzilla.  But I want to reserve my highest praise, my A Plus, for Mrs. Scott Elliot columbine seed.  For years I had looked to replace the columbine I had seen at the International Culinary Institute in Hyde Park.  It was tri-color and had a flirtatious nature that required me to return to steal seeds at the right moment in late August.  Those seeds didn’t work much to my irritated sadness.  BUT then I ordered Renee’s.  They not only took, even in my shady window in my New York office.  I nursed them along all winter with ice cubes to keep the city dryness from devastating them.  They grew  and grew and grew and now I have six plants upstate and three in containers downstate.  Our flirtation is not over but just begun.  Columbine is particularly fertile when it gets going.  I am so grateful for Renee and her profligate seeds.

There is a moment that comes at 30,000 feet when your stomach requests assistance.  Usually this happens about five minutes after your back has requested the same.  You remember that you have brought frozen black bean soup from the freezer.  You thought it would thaw and be good cold, even without the Mexican cream and chopped chilis it so richly deserves.   You thought you could get it frozen through the Homeland Insecurity Department.

You have also brought a spoon, and remember the time you forgot the spoon and the flight attendant allowed you to use hers.  As you fondle the spoon, you realize something else.  Plastic freezes and cracks at certain altitudes, rendering the plastic bag in which the cracked container was housed to be full of black bean soup.  The container has had its limit.  As has your back.  And your stomach.

That’s when you ask for the airline “menu.”  You order the roast beef sliders with the package of horseradish sauce that requires your seat mate’s hands, and a pair of pliers,  to open.  There are two “sliders”, slider being a word for a small sandwich.  A very small sandwich.  Both sandwiches appear wearing a “bun” that should have stayed in the freezer.  You say a small prayer of thanks for what there is, which prayer refrains from mentioning what isn’t.

The Left Behind

Beach Stones, Unidentifiable Mushrooms, Driftwood, Starfish: What We can’t take with us

The Japanese restaurant on the corner of 21st and Geary in San Francisco has a labyrinth at its center. By labyrinth I mean something that circles and confuses beginning and end. On the circling, revolving tray: sushi wearing designer clothes, salmon eggs wearing seaweed outfits, octopus in a variety of sartorial predicaments and much much more. Think Horn and Hardhart. If you wanted something, you grabbed it off the circling cart. Your check was made out by the collection of plates next to you at the end of the meal. A Mexican woman wearing a Japanese cloak joined a Japanese man and woman wearing same to replace whatever you took, in such a way that the circle was always full, never empty.

For a new year with such convenience, such amplitude, such fusion of culture, such deliciousness of bite, I pray. For such a small check at the end of such a large meal, I also pray. For a new year that confuses its end with its beginning, likewise, I hope.

I have had my eye on those five mums in Brooklyn on the street near 7th and 5th for about two months now.  One, in her prime, was golden, the other red, a third gold and red, a fourth a kind of purple and the fifth a plain old mauve, the kind I already have.  Then on Christmas Day, I realized they were still there, dead in that way that mums die after blooming: dry, all color drawn, half green and half brown.  We were coming back from the park, letting our three year old grandson lead the way home.  (He does know his way.)  I decided they were orphans and that I could take them.  Now they are in my New York backyard, ready for their Easter.  I hope the mauve surprises me enough to help me give thanks for the colors I already have. 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,523 other followers