Tribalism Run Amok

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The current political climate is filled with an embarrassing level of vitriol. Too often, people gather their information about the world and form their opinions about important legislation from uninformed sound bites within dangerously biased echo chambers of propaganda.

There’s entirely too much shouting and very little listening. Empathy seems dead. Our ears are too full of our own perspective to have any space for the stories of the other. Humility and human decency have fallen by the wayside and the worst of our arrogance and disregard for basic kindness is on full display in our online political discourse as tribalism runs amok.

Tribalism can be a healthy thing. In fact as social beings, I would posit that most of us need some kind of tribe — a group of folks who carry us in the worst of times, who celebrate with us in the best of times, and who are grounded in similar core values. However, there are unfortunate social tendencies that are often expressed in tribalism, and its important that they be regularly held in check. The convergence of two of these unchecked tendencies, in particular, strike me as having had a significant role in storming up our current political climate.

One tendency within tribalism is that when a person in a tribe attacks those outside of the tribe by way of name-calling, demonizing and dismissive language, their social standing within their own tribe rises — even if their attacks are based on outright fallacies. A second tendency of tribalism occurs when someone directs criticism at some aspect of his or her own tribe. The consequences frequently result in some form of being shamed by their tribe or even shunned out the door.

In other words, tribalism rewards us when we demonize people outside of our tribe and when we uncritically support the beliefs within our own tribe. Tribalism punishes us for questioning or thinking critically about the beliefs and understandings of our tribe. Sound familiar?

In today’s political context, tribalism is at a fever pitch level of unhealthy, and it is eroding our democracy at all levels. Too often Republicans and Democrats saturate their news feed with bias news and propaganda — whether true or false, informed or not — having little ability or space to critically self examine the system of beliefs they have clutched their fists so tightly around. At the same time we ignore, dismiss or discredit information that supports the claims of opposing parties.

Uninformed sound bites and nasty memes have become one of the go-to weapons that are used to tear into the values of the other and bolster one’s own partisan ego. Unblinking and unthinking, the tendency is to promote overly-simplistic statements with a lack of awareness of both the broad range of complexities as well as the day to day realities surrounding the issues.

There’s a healthy kind of tribalism though — one that shares ideas and resources with the other, swaps stories and seeks the flourishing of all humanity rather than just what benefits those within one’s tribe. It does the intentional work of stripping away biases in order to get at what is true. It recognizes difference — and celebrates those differences! Even while maintaining some disagreement, it is able to hold a posture of respect, empathy and understanding towards the other. It attempts to see the world through the experience of the other rather than making a habit of dismissing the reality, voice and experience of the other. Healthy tribalism is reflective of a healthy democracy.

I challenge you to take a deep breath, unshackle yourself from your unswerving partisan loyalty, step beyond your tribal boundaries and become a student of a much broader landscape of reality. Come to understand the various ways real people with flesh and blood beating hearts are impacted by the systems and structures of society.

We can do better, friends. May we stand up and model a different way of being American and a different way of being human. May we have eyes to see what is possible, and the humility and courage to enter into it. May we be intelligent and thoughtful people, working together toward the flourishing of all humanity.

It starts here. At the grassroots level. It begins with us. May we come together and creatively repurpose the lumber from the walls that surround our tribes and build tables of dialogue instead — tables around which everyone is welcome and where every voice is worthy of our hearing.

This post was originally published in the Holland Sentinel on May 18, 2018

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As With all Things, Balance

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I can summarize my six month social media fast in five rather unremarkable words:

As with all things, balance.

“Well, duh,” you’re saying right now.

But you see, sometimes I have to personally wade through the muck in order to conclusively reach the obvious.

I’ll just leave you with the five-word simple summary for now. More in-depth analysis and breakdown of the benefits and drawbacks of my extended fast, as well as how I intend to seek and maintain social media balance, will be coming soon. Stay tuned!

 

A Prayer for the Common Good

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Lord of Peace on Earth,

we need some today.

For unity in vision

despite partisan obstacles, we pray.

For collective movement towards human flourishing–

that all our many puzzled paths

and backstairs approaches

may mysteriously merge into some great and wondrous

unexpected and indescribable goodness.

May the very best of our gathered imaginations

be planted, watered, nourished

and rupture through this dry crusty oligarchy ground

sprouting into every delightful green thing growing.

A sumptuous garden of life, light, serenity

and generous expansive thriving.

Cracked open, I bleed out this plea

in the midst of partisan warfare

of slamming and shaming and shouting

without listening,

of cutting words

conceived by arrogant misunderstanding–

words we continue pushing out into the world

in exhausted, heaving sweaty birth pangs–

nurtured and fed by

self-preservation and tribalistic tendencies.

Remind us of your stamp on every human heart.

Remind us again of our capacity for basic human kindness.

May we begin the work of building bridges

and deconstructing walls,

and reaching across the aisle to the other,

who is also our brother, our sister

and who is on a journey

and has a name

and has a story.

Give us ears to hear it

and empathy to absorb it,

and humility to learn from it

and courage to admit that

we

might

sometimes

be

wrong.

May a more selfless pursuit of the common good prevail.

May we lift up those who live on the underside–

the tired huddles masses

that are everywhere in the shadows

of empire.

May truth rise up

in this sea of unknowns

and “alternative facts,”

and grand speculations,

and selfish ambitions,

and partisan allegiances,

and blinding biases,

and delusional illusions.

Purify our fractured minds,

our rickety hearts,

our misplaced intentions.

 

Oh Lord,

Grow in us a longing for light and life.

May it wash over us,

pour into us,

and flow from us.

Make beautiful things out of us, we pray

In the name of Jesus,

may it be so.

Dear Mr. President

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Dear Mr. President,

I can’t stop thinking about your recent statement insisting that you want to unify the citizens of this country and close the deep divisions that polarize us.

Political leaders have been talking about unity for centuries, even as they toss grenades into the camps of those they say they want to be unified with. This renders their rhetoric empty and pretty ridiculous if you stop and think about it for even just a minute.

So let me be honest up front, your stated desire for unity seems disingenuous in light of your personal patterns of divisive behavior– repeatedly categorizing entire people groups as “good” or “bad” based on skin color, country of origin, religious identity, political identity or socio-economic status.

Are you able to step back and see how you do this on a regular basis, and how it fuels divisive attitudes? In my lifetime I don’t recall seeing this level of false divisive rhetoric demonstrated from a President. Ever. It’s troubling, Mr. President. Very troubling.

You have noted that our paralyzing political divisiveness is a long standing problem, and I agree with you. It’s true that politicians on both sides of the aisle have been engaging in this polarizing behavior for quite some time now, and both parties do seem to be getting worse over my lifetime. It’s frustrating to witness, and diminishes our ability to maintain a healthy democracy.

Despite all this, I’m a bit of an optimist, believing that humanity can and does get better over the long span of its existence, despite frequent steps backwards. So there is a part of me that wants to believe in these visions of unity that you are casting, because the longing for it within me runs deep. However, I was rather dismayed at your suggestion in the same conversation that national unity is usually only achieved by a period of great suffering or national tragedy.

The thing is, you don’t need to invite wars or tragedies to achieve unity. You don’t need to flirt with the nuke button in an effort to find it. You don’t need to drop bombs and obliterate communities across oceans to experience it. You don’t need to wait for the next natural disaster to unveil it. These things have never really worked. Not really. Not truly.

Unifying a divided people can be achieved outside of tragedy, Mr. President. The method I have in mind is commonly called “reconciliation.” It’s not really a method as much as it is a way of living. Very simply defined, reconciliation means, “the restoration of friendly relations.” So short and simple a definition, it’s tweetable. Though a much longer and strenuous path is required to achieve it. 

I do wonder if you might be confusing “national unity” with “Presidential popularity.” It seems accurate to say that in the immediate aftermath of declaring war, or dealing with natural disasters, the ratings of a President rise. However, this is a temporary and destructive road to a mere appearance of unity and does not lead to true reconciliation. It does not dig out the guts of the problems that divide us, and more often it leads to additional problems. It is a false unity.

True reconciliation does not simply seek to extinguish symptoms of a problem, or to bury a problem as we unify in the face of a new problem. True reconciliation seeks the source of the problem, finds the diseased roots, and begins the hard work of digging them out, examining them, and taking measures toward deep holistic healing that leads to communal flourishing.

The thing is, reconciliation is a longer road. It’s a harder road. It requires maturity. It requires a great deal of humility. It requires tolerance for (and celebration of!) differences. It requires strength in leadership. It requires skills in compromise. It requires hard truth-telling, and listening to truth– particularly listening to the voices of those who have been oppressed, marginalized or harmed — voices that have historically been silenced by power.

Reconciliation requires repentance— confessing where we ourselves have been wrong and then turning our destructive behavior around toward actions that lead to human flourishing. Part of repentance involves looking inward at the ugly parts of ourselves and looking inward at the ugly parts of the ideologies held by the various groups we identify with. This is painful, hard and humiliating work.

It requires dedicated thoughtful response to criticism– not angry childish tweets, or tossing false sound bites in the feeding troughs of the corporate media which seems ever-salivating for extreme and divisive rhetoric.

It requires an attitude of service rather than one that is primarily self-serving. It requires a constant check on our egos and regular examination of our true motivations.

You can’t lead a nation to unity and reconciliation if you yourself are unwilling to walk that path. This would ultimately reveal insincerity and a lack of integrity on your part. Just another empty political statement tossed out there by another politician who fails to demonstrate that his or her words hold any substance.

So, Mr. President, if reconciliation is truly your desire, I will be cheering you on– loudly and publicly. For that is a very long hard path to take, and you will need all the company, support and encouragement you can gather. There will be Republican leaders who reject you, Democrat leaders who question your sincerity and media outlets who will grow bored with your substance. In the process of reconciliation you will no doubt be disappointed even in some things you discover about yourself.

Even so, I promise that if you are strong enough and courageous enough and willing to push through the pain of the process in order to model a different kind of leadership — one that truly and sincerely seeks reconciliation — The United States of America might actually follow your lead and we would perhaps be headed down a path towards greatness after all.

Sincerely,

A Concerned Citizen

 

Be First and Foremost Human

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Abortion. Immigration. The Women’s March. Racism. Sexism. Terrorism. Health Care. Poverty. Guns. These are just a few of the words that have become accelerants tossed on the hot blazing bonfires we gather around. And they get ourselves all stoked up too.

Hot, bothered and worked up into a sweaty fevered frenzy, we clumsily sling our viewpoints at those who disagree, through the choking smoke that sometimes smothers us, tightening its grip around our throats the more worked up we get.

But let’s be honest, many of us view these issues exclusively through the lens of a particular political partisan loyalty rather than seeing them raw and honestly as they actually are. And too often this leads us to view the issues in a way that forgets there are actual human names and faces interwoven in every issue.

Too lazy to do the actual work of informing ourselves about the complexities, we grasp at whatever cutting simple sound bites support our tribal assumptions — true or not — and carelessly ignore all the human stories that shed light on a more expansive reality that doesn’t always fall neatly in line with our political identity.

We tweet it. Facebook it. Increase the anger. Strengthen the walls. Deepen the divides. Engage in tribal warfare, until we are choking on the dust of our battlefields, stumbling around all numb in our bones and indifferent to the bitter realities and impossible challenges of the least of those among us, around us and within us.

The world is festering with woundedness while we shout our prescribed partisan answers and point our directed partisan fingers, too often with a partially-informed, ignorant self-assuredness.

This ignorance mingled with passion is a dangerous death sentence to those already crushed beneath our ideological platforms. Our ignorance is literally killing people.

Sometimes we can no longer even remember the original thing we were seeking to serve. Sometimes the original thing gets burned away with too much time beside the madness we’ve slowly warmed ourselves to.

Stand back for a bit and get your bearings. Gaze out upon the landscape. Go out and look into the eyes of the original thing.

Step away from the fire, and walk through worlds that are not your own. Put on a cloak of humility as you exit your circle. Learn to empathize and understand the other. Stop shouting. Start listening.

Listen, friends. Listen. Let’s do that hard humbling work of listening. Let’s hear the story of the other, the one we had already decided to dismiss.

Sift through the bedlam for what is actually real. And true. And good. Work to uphold the good, and to weed out what tramples on the good.

This is not to say there is no room for anger. Righteous anger ought to be the duty of every citizen. We have a responsibility to raise our voices and call out systemic injustice and oppression wherever we see it. But if we dig deeper into legislation, peel back the layers of proposed policies, and become informed on the implications of the various parts of unjust systems, we may gain a better sense of where to direct that anger and how to take steps that might actually bring about change.

May we open our eyes to the human toll of our partisan postures. Humanity– that original thing we set out to protect but somehow continually lose sight of in the battle.

Can we remove the political labels and think critically about where we actually stand? Whom we actually stand for? What we actually stand for?

Are you first and foremost a Republican? Are you first and foremost a Democrat?

Be first and foremost human.

When I work towards the flourishing of all humanity, my humanity flourishes. When my posture diminishes humanity, my own humanity is diminished.

So let’s step away from the flames and the blinding smoldering smoke, and get woke by that fresh snap of cool air on our cheeks. Let’s walk the world and become educated on how the positions we take on every issue lead to the flourishing or crushing of actual real people with bodies and brains and hearts and emotions and relationships.

See the people. In all of the places. Not just the people who warm themselves by your fire.

What is sacred and worth lifting up and carrying out of this chaos, intact?

Taking time to sift through it all, we may well be surprised at what we find.

Dust of Snow

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I always say that a walk in the snow is good for the soul.

And so on this day I peel my body from the warmth of the sunken cushion of my chair, swath myself in layers of wool, cotton and anticipation, and step into the snow globe. Snow is a curious and wondrous thing. Cold and warm all at once. Inviting or foreboding, depending on the slant and speed of the wind.

Today it sinks down from the clouds all wet, heavy and thick, and without a force to pull it sideways. Only unfiltered gravity bringing it straight down. Magic from the sky. Surreal. Some days it blows hard against my face, freezing my lashes and burning my cheeks. But not today. Today it is soft little pillows rolling down from above like spools of ribbon unfurling.

I snowshoe my way toward an opening in the woods, across the alfalfa field now hibernating beneath a crisp white down comforter. Here the forest trail begins. A tall arched wooden entrance into this great cathedral that is ancient, drowsy, yet very much alive within the silence.

In this place my senses awaken to the the sacred dance between tangles of light, stark branches, sticky snow crystals and hope renewed.

My heart quickens, pushing my body forward, slicing it’s way down the trail through thick snow drifts. The weight of my layers seems to increase as my body grows all sticky with sweat beneath them.

Coming upon an undisturbed clearing beside barren blackberry bushes, I let myself fall backwards into the warmth of the snow. I slip into the white like an angel without wings.

Exhausted yet very much alive. Alert and with sharpened senses, my wandering gives way to long quiet wondering as the curious warmth accumulates and wraps itself around me like a lover, in the simple sacredness of this moment, on a frozen patch of the earth.

Breathe in. Breathe out. The silence of snow is spellbinding. Serene and restful. Life-giving.

I am grounded.

The dust of myself is sunk deep into the dust of snow. I become acutely aware of my connectedness to the earth, this season of myself present in the seasons of this planet. My breath rises and falls and curls above my face in a puff of steam. And the whole world seems to rise and fall like this– in deep breaths, long sighs and sacred seasons. Exhaustion. Exhilaration. Swirling, then still. Here, then gone. A silent interplay of light and shadows. Drowsy yet very much alive.

Twelve Traditions to Simplify Christmas

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We didn’t have a lot of material stuff when I was a kid.

A few meager Christmas gifts under a Charlie Brown Christmas tree were the norm during the holiday season. Even so, the anticipation of Christmas captivated me. The Advent season was filled with baking special Christmas sweets, pastries and holiday breads, crafting homemade ornaments with mom, thick religious liturgies and singing in the church choir. These small elements of the season held more warmth than ten fireplaces in one small room ever could. Christmas Day promised a fancy meal by candlelight on the good dishes with the freshly-polished silverware.

Unwrapping the precious few gifts we were given surrounded by the warm glow of strung up lights and the love of family, felt like receiving and holding all the goodness of the entire world in my small open hands.

 It seems to me that our materialistic, highly-consumerist culture has piled unhealthy expectations on Christmas. We wrestle our way through the bustle of the season and spend, spend, spend, spend. Because that is what is expected of us. Because our endorphins are hungry for the immediate satisfaction of spending big, giving big and receiving big, and because our knees bend to those fat newspapers, gorged on advertisements that show up on our doorstep every Sunday throughout Advent.

Over the years, our family has been increasingly attempting to resist the assumption that Christmas is supposed to be so tightly twisted up with consumerism. We have sought to simplify it. To make it smaller. Smaller in a way that hopefully makes it more meaningful and more memorable. Here are twelve suggested alternatives to the consumerism that has invaded our Christmas traditions.

 

celebrate simple things Lift up the seemingly insignificant. Make a big deal about something small that your family will make special and reserve only for Christmas. For example, at our house, we do a big puzzle over Christmas break, we split open and eat pomegranates letting the juice drip freely down our chin, we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Sound of Music, and my husband unearths his old gaming systems– the Atari 2600 and Nintendo 64. Every year over Christmas break these antiques emerge from the basement storage for a few days while we dive into Centipede, Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, and about 100 other games. It’s an annual experience of reliving memories for my husband and building new ones with our kids. Even though we could do this stuff any time of the year, we mostly save it for Christmas. We wait. We anticipate. We celebrate.

 

plan your summer fun Use the time off of work and/or school to discuss and plan for your summer vacation– whether a cruise, a road trip, camping at a local park, renting a cottage, or planning a series of day trips. We’re a camping, hiking, off-the-beaten-path adventuring, road-tripping family. Over Christmas break we begin dreaming together about where we’ll travel over the summer. We read about various national parks and state parks and lesser known places, and discuss what corner of the world we’ll explore when summer comes. 

 

edible masterpieces In the weeks leading up to Christmas, bake special goodies as a family. Wrap them up for gifts or bring trays to your holiday parties. Our family reserves a day to make my Grandmother’s White Moravian Christmas Cookie recipe, which basically consists of butter, sugar, heavy cream and you don’t want to know what else. We spend an afternoon around the table being artistically meticulous with our decorating. It involves lots of petite candies and paintbrushes dipped in every imaginable color of homemade almond icing as we create little edible masterpieces.

Note: While the kids look forward to this event for weeks, as soon as they tire of the detailed decorating, you will likely sit at the table alone smearing gobs of icing over the remaining cookies just to get it done.

 

shop second hand Exchange names within your family and go on treasure-hunting excursions, scouring the shelves of area second-hand stores for the perfect gift for your person. At the same time, have everyone in the family select a few of their own items from home that they no longer use and donate them to the same store for someone else to discover on their treasure-hunt. The proceeds of many thrift stores benefit non-profit organizations. So in addition to giving a carefully-selected gift to your loved one, you’ll be giving to a charitable cause.

 

give directly to a non-profit organization Seek out an organization that is working to help people who are in some way marginalized and/or oppressed. As a family, learn about these people, the daily struggles they face as well as the issues surrounding the struggle, what their needs are and how best to support the organization that is coming alongside of them. A few of our favorites are World Vision, Bread for the World and International Rescue Mission.

Note: Our family celebrates Christmas as the birth of Jesus. We receive gifts on our birthday, so it seems obvious that we ought to find a way to give to the one whose birth we celebrate rather than primarily using the event as an excuse to get more of the latest in our own clutches. Our view is that Jesus primarily identified with the outcasts, the poor, the lowly, the unlovable, the neglected and voiceless in society. The Christmas season can be a natural time to recalibrate ourselves to this purpose– the purpose of peace on earth and goodwill to all people — particularly as it goes directly against what our culture of capitalism values and has done with the holiday and with life in general.

 

shop local artisans One of my favorite places to gift shop is wherever local artisans are selling their wares. In my hometown, we have a Christmas market set up downtown on Saturdays during the weeks prior to Christmas. Temporary booths are installed where local artists sell their handiwork, crafted with care. Jewelry, pottery, carved wooden objects, knitted outerwear, paintings, books, wreaths, etc. In addition to supporting local artisans, you’ll find truly unique and special gifts.

 

make something Paint something, build something, sew something, write poetry, carve something, knit something, create something, fold origami, put together a music playlist of family favorites, make a scrapbook of memories, etc. For example, one year this resulted in building and staining wooden treasure boxes for each of the kids. Another year it was sewing superman costumes for everyone. Another it was knitting matching scarves for everyone.

Note: the scarves were not a hit.

 

give experiences, not stuff  Invest in a legacy of memories– not stuff. In my experience, doing things together as a family builds sweeter memories than gathering piles of possessions which eventually find their way to a landfill. Tickets to a play or a baseball game, a weekend exploring museums and restaurants in an area city, a camping excursion, an annual state parks pass, or gift cards to restaurants, bowling lanes, mini golf, etc. While material stuff generally has a life expectancy, the memories made through meaningful experiences can truly last a lifetime.

 

games We happen to be a gaming family– board games, card games, yard games, etc. Christmas break offers two weeks of intense game-playing. Make your holiday gaming extra special by having tournaments and home-made trophies for the win. The winners get bragging rights and a trophy on their shelf until next year when the tournaments come around again and the trophy is up for grabs.

Note: this becomes significantly more fun when your kids get past the Chutes and Ladders level of game playing competence. Also, sometimes small fights break out.

 

the gift of story One of our favorite Christmas morning traditions has been giving the gift of story. Everyone in the family has to write a story some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas and read it to the family on Christmas morning. Name a theme for the stories or leave it wide open. If your kids are too young to write, you can have them dictate their story to a parent.

Note: we definitely went through a stage with our boys when boogers, poop and farts somehow came into every. Single. Story. Just go with it. I promise you will look back on your collection of stories over the years and giggle your hearts out.

 

Christmas Eve candlelight service Our family embraces the Christian faith and so Christmas Eve candlelight services have been a meaningful family tradition for us. Here we enter the story of Jesus birth– a light for the least of those living under a brutal Empire. A reminder that Jesus sits in the dark places with the uncelebrated, voiceless, powerless people of the world, and we ought to do the same. This annual liturgical service of readings and music proves a powerful and meaningful reminder for our family in this season.

 

books and sketchbooks On Christmas morning our family unwraps a few books and fresh sketchbooks. Part of our daily family routine involves my husband and/or I reading aloud before bed while the kids doodle in their sketchbooks. With Christmas comes a few new books for the upcoming year and fresh sketchbooks for the kids.

 

My hope in building these kinds of traditions with our family is that our kids will one day appreciate some of the values that we’re trying to instill. That joy and contentment does not come from bigger barns filled with more and more of the latest and biggest and fastest stuff. Joy and contentment can be found in the simple and the mundane. That reducing what we consume helps preserve the planet and is good for the world. And that learning about social and systemic injustice and finding ways to come alongside the least of those in our world who suffer under unjust systems and impossible life circumstances is foundational to what it means to be spiritual, and what it means to be part of human community, and certainly what it means to be a follower of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this season.

What are some Christmas traditions you’ve heard about or that your family has done that you’ve found to be meaningful? 

A Holy Gritty Sacred Mess

climate-change-plant-1Note: this is a journal entry from our 2012 summer on the road, exploring the Western U.S.

The Honda Odyssey crawled up the gravel switchback, barely recognizable under so many layers of dust, grit and grime—remnants of the several states we have driven through so far.  I held my breath as we rocked like a ship on stormy seas, up the narrow roadway, scattered with so many potholes, leaving rumbling clouds of dust in our wake.

The Odyssey sputtered, coughed it’s way up slowly, barely.  The challenge of these obstacles, coalescing with the intense heat of that day and the grade so steep, proved almost too much for our exhausted aging minivan.

As we rounded the last bend, with a great sigh my shoulders released the tension that I was somewhat unaware had managed to slowly and so thoroughly worm its way into my muscles.

Throughout this summer on the road, we have made a habit of finding these off-the-beaten-path, primitive campgrounds on Preserved National lands.  Seven dollars per night is soft on the budget though, it turns out, rather hard on the body.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen the inside of a shower stall and I’m at a breaking point—daily hikes under the hot sun have brought my body to record levels of an unpleasant stench—my exterior mirroring that of the Odyssey. The sweaty salt residue left from the strain of hikes in the Tetons and Yellowstone is an all around sticky, gritty business fused to my body.

Tonight is going to be another soft-on-the-budget, hard-on-the-body night.  But at the bottom of the switchback, the sign for this campground boasted of a flowing river.

A flowing river.

The images of sparkling mountain spring water flowing outside my tent was almost too much to hope for. My hope had my imagination leaping ahead of the slow crawl of the van– up to the river where I would soak in the cool water, suds rinsing off my body and hair. And oh, the smell of six clean bodies that would fill the tent tonight!  Finally(!) I was going to get clean.

It wasn’t difficult to find an empty site in a nearly empty campground (the primitive ones ones are always nearly empty).  I immediately searched the car for some soap, some shampoo, a towel, and headed for the nearby river, desperate to scrub.

I waded through the weeds and shrubbery at the edge of the river. There seemed to be a lot of weeds and shrubbery. Continuing through the scratchy briars, with one eye out for bears, my eagerness swelled with each quickening step.

And then I arrived. I arrived at the river. My heart dropped ten fast floors. Where the water once meandered there was nothing but a maze of cracks in the scorched, dried and thirsty ground.

I was feeling rather cracked and dried up myself.  On the verge of emotional collapse under the triple-digit heat. I dragged myself back through the brush to the campsite feeling quite sorry for myself, in the very sorry and pathetic state I was in. My husband was setting up the tent with the kids.

“Bryan.  I NEED a shower.” It took all my energy just to put my hands on my hips and speak with authority.

The tears had left lines down my dry dusty cheeks.  “I can’t do ONE MORE DAY without a shower.”

“Maybe we’ll find one tomorrow,” he said.  Same thing he said last night.

I turned away to sulk when three year old Josephine approached me, holding her crotch and stepping quickly from one foot to the other and back again. “I have to go potty SUPER bad!”

I picked her up and headed for the pit toilet a few campsites away.  I’m not particularly fond of pit toilets but they do the job. And I can definitely endure them for seven dollars a night. I’ve mastered the habit of holding my breath, dodging cobwebs, keeping my eyes on my feet (so I don’t ever have to know what critters are lurking in the corners), doing my business quickly and leaping back out the door all before having to draw in a single breath.

But Josephine, seemingly oblivious to the offensive odors, likes to sit and take her time.  She likes to sing in these disgusting confines. She likes to sit and make up little story songs about the little critters she imagines are in the corners of these foul, loathsome pit toilets. I always try to dodge toilet duty with Josephine.

On this day she began a song about a lonely little spider stuck in a sad little pit-toilet jail.  As she opened her mouth, I immediately felt the first prick of impatience beginning to frustrate me. I can handle this any day. Even smile at it. But not today. Today I can’t.

But as the music started coming, my ears perked up to listen. Something was unusual about this outhouse. This was a solid concrete pit toilet and the sound moved differently. Concrete floor, concrete wall, and plastered ceiling.  It echoed.  It was beautiful. It sounded like music in a great cathedral. It brought me back to high school choir. Without realizing it, my eyelids slid shut and and I rested my back against the wall, feeling some distant, familiar holiness in the moment.

I was relaxed. At peace in the pit toilet.

Josephine finished her song and her business, and was off. I locked the door behind her and decided to stay a bit longer as I found myself recalling classical Latin choral pieces and ancient hymns. My mouth opened and I sang, getting lost in smooth melodies composed so long ago.

They echoed off the walls so richly and beautifully. My voice flowed from one arrangement to the next, pulling songs off some dusty shelf tucked back somewhere deep in my brain.

A knock on the door from a waiting camper jarred me to the reality that I’m singing in the crapper and someone needs to take a legitimate crap. I opened the door, slightly embarrassed, slipped out, and quickly moved on.

All evening I keep going back though. I continue drawing in deep breaths of stale, putrid fecal air and releasing melodies so sweet they make me forget about the stink of the pit toilet and the stink of me.

I am magnetized to these sacred little moments in the pit toilet.

May I ever have the courage to enter the pit toilets of my world. May I have the eyes to see the sacredness within the mess. And may I have a spirit that is willing to lift my voice in the midst of it.

No Small Wonder

It’s black Friday, and I’m sitting in a hushed house with ribbons of steam rising off my mug of coffee, as the early morning light cascades through the east-facing glass panes, sifting through the draperies all warm and smoldering. Tiny dust particles levitate in it. A sure sign I am overdue for dusting and vacuuming, but for now I’m content to sit and watch them drift and float through the orange-yellow glow.

Such a small wonder.

I reminisce back to when I was a child. The way I would rush down from my frigid upstairs drafty farmhouse bedroom on winter mornings and lay in the spot where the sun came through the window in a tall thick beam of light, falling across the living room carpet. There too, I would lay and stare up at the dust particles doing their flighty thing in the thick earthy hues of dawn. This was my warm morning welcome place as I would wait for my dad to stoke up the fire in the wood stove to an eventual toasty home.

Such a simple pleasure. So basic and everyday. A gift of the mornings.

But now I snap awake to thinking about how on this very day people are being trampled into the ground in their race for more of the latest stuff so they can add to their mountains and piles and climb up on them and keep watch for the next newer and next latest thing to appear on the horizon.

How strange we humans are that just a few hours after naming the things we are grateful for, we enter Advent – a time of anticipating the birth of Emmanuel, “God with us” — by rushing the doors of department stores, fighting for shopping carts, needing the latest upgrades and technology and clothing styles and kitchen gadgets and odd useless stocking stuffers, snatching things as we smash through the crowds, and then grumbling as we wait “forever” in the checkout line.

We consume to the point of miserable gaseous bloating. Yet, we never seem to be able to stop this rushing addictive consumption that leads us to the wasteland.

At the end of the day, in our fevered exhaustion, we disgruntledly whine and swear we will never do this miserable Black Friday thing again… until we crack open the front door next Thanksgiving and the fat fleshy newspaper stares up at us from the stoop, and we can’t resist the urge to plunge ourselves deep into its folds and hold in our clutches the seductive promises that this new thing will definitely and finally lead to happiness and contentment.

What is this madness we call Christmas?

I trail my thoughts back to the magic happening right now, just inside my window. And I realize this is no small wonder at all. It’s incredible. Wonder-filled. It’s the perfect coalescing of air and light and movement and temperature and tiny particles adrift. It’s amazing. A gift. And it will never happen just exactly like this ever again.

I’m so glad I didn’t rush away and miss this gift of the morning.

Sympathetic Vibrations

violin

I was eager to impress my violin instructor with my improvements on this week’s song, Da Slocket Light. But it sort of came out like all the notes had been swept off the page, thrown into a blender and then poured back onto the page. It was a total cacophony of sound. A bit grinding on the ears.

Da Slockit Light was composed by Tom Anderson, a Scottish fiddler. He shared in an interview once that the depopulation of the town of his birth inspired him to write this tune. “I was coming out of Eshaness in late January, 1969, the time was after 11 pm and as I looked back at the top of the hill leading out of the district, I saw so few lights compared to what I remembered when I was young. As I watched, the lights started going out one by one. That, coupled with the recent death of my wife, made me think of the old word ‘Slockit’ meaning, a light that has gone out, and I think that is what inspired the tune.”

When played well, this popular tune does really seem like a walk through the hill country, at night, in the quiet, gazing at the hillside where lights are going out one by one as the inhabitants settle into their sleep. It’s a story filled with layers of meaning, nostalgia and emotion.

On YouTube you can find a hundred different versions of the song each with its own spin and spirit. It’s a fiddle tune, so it’s meant to be played around with a little.

However, my instructor was not quite so impressed with my playing that day.

“Christy. Slow it way down and drop all the fancy fingering.” These were the words of my Violin Master. My Yoda. They were not the words this apprentice wanted that day. I wanted the fancy fingering to be applauded. Wanted to make my fingers jump around the fingerboard and play the song as I wished it to sound. The way the legendary fiddlers play it.

But let’s be real. I’m still very new at this thing. Still can’t make it speak the way I want it to. Still prone to squeaks, and sharps and flats and entirely misplaced fingers. Any illusions of grandeur are immediately put to rest when I start to actually play.

He instructs me to start over and play it very slow. “Unnaturally slow.” Unnaturally slow so as to hear every little thing rolling off my strings. Every sweet and terrible thing.

And so I do. For a week I slowed it down and stepped back to the basics. Eliminated all the slides and frills and trills. I set aside the creative liberties, in order to first get acquainted with the foundational notes of the song, and I aimed to spin those notes off the strings with conviction and perfection.

The thing is, it’s hard to play unnaturally slow. It’s… well… unnatural, to state the obvious.

I found it more difficult than running forward quickly through the song. Quickly in a way that the mistakes blur with what I get right, and where its more difficult to distinguish specifically where I’m on from where I’m off, thereby making it easier to ignore the errors and therefore more difficult to correct the errors.

Yes, it’s easier to fly through the song haphazardly. However, it’s far less pleasant to listen to, it turns out. And I’m reminded that making music that’s pleasant to listen to is the goal afterall.

So I did it. I slowed it down. Way dawn. Waaaay waaaaay down. So way down, it hurt my brain.

I slowed it down to slower than being stuck behind Grandma’s Oldsmobile, driving down a two-lane road. Slower than that. And it was hard. It required patience. I was desperate to pass, because life feels too short to be stuck going so slow and I want to find a short cut to mastering this instrument. I want to be amazing. Today.

It’s hard to take it slow when you live in a world that is constantly trying to sell you shortcuts and quick fixes and your best life now for everything.

Mastering the violin is a long slow road in a no passing zone. And it turns out, there are no short cuts. And it requires being present right where you are in every moment.

So I spent the week doing as I was instructed to do. Maybe a bit begrudgingly inside. Perhaps with a slight gash to my pride. But I did it. I stuck with it.

I simplified the sound. Cut out the clutter. Found the song again and made it beautiful.

The thing is, when I tapped the brakes on my bowing, in addition to actually beginning to play the right notes, I heard every note too. Clearly. Warmly. Intentionally. I was able to adjust the flat notes and pay attention to every finger placement. I began to see how each note has a purpose in telling the story Tom Anderson set out to tell.

And then came the really amazing part. My whole violin began to vibrate, to reverberate warm waves of sound through its spine. Long humming strokes of the bow coaxed out something wonderful. Something you kind of have to experience to understand. Like a compassionate physical touch, those sound waves travelled from the spine of the violin right straight down into the spine of me.

My instructor explained this fascinating phenomenon that happens between the strings of the violin when you hit certain notes just exactly perfect. It’s called, “sympathetic vibrations.” It occurs when the fingers placed on one string play the same note as the neighboring open string, an octave higher. The neighboring unbowed and untouched string jumps, quivers and sings prompted by the string beside it playing its note.

To me this seemed like an incredible dance with physical space between partners who ache to be close but maintain the space between, opting for a deeper more sacred connectedness that transcends the physical. I know there’s an actual complex scientific explanation behind it. But I prefer the dance.

A perfect understanding, an authentic knowing between the strings was happening (two  inanimate objects!) and I was so much in awe, my brain still can’t fully wrap itself around it.

Call it a dance. Or a duet. A yearning. Or a celebration of being known. The two strings stretch, reach and bend, throwing their arms out for each other, and swaying together in such a way that the sound is so unbelievably rich you can feel the vibrations roll out as waves into the air.

As the violin reverberates in this special moment between the strings, and its warm rhythmic waves swell right through my skin and crescendo deep into me, it’s as if I and the violin are one. And that is how you know you’ve done it. Because you feel it.

And let me tell you, sympathetic vibrations feel amazing.

I feel them inside my bones. Inside where the marrow lives. Not metaphorically. I literally feel the vibrations in my bones. My chest hums with heat and sound waves. The music weaves itself in waves all the way through me down to my heels and into the floor beneath my feet. And I wonder if the person standing next to me can feel it too.

Letting go of the clutter of the song that I am not yet qualified to carry and focusing on the simple core, reaps an actual physical reward. And this is nothing short of incredible.

In slowing down, I reached a new level in this relationship with my violin. I feel absolutely connected to it—physical, emotional, spiritual connectedness. Rich, honest, deep and raw. It’s a part of me now.

It literally lives inside my bones.

This is a simple sacred groundedness, without all the clutter of fancy slides and frills. Just the slow liquid pulsing reverberations of the basic melody. In letting go of the clutter I had piled on the song, I see the actual song. Not the song as I wish it to be or the song from the perspective of various artists, or the song through my striving too hard beyond what my current capabilities are, but the song as it actually is on its own terms. And it is beautiful. And it is strong. And it is holy.

I have entered the story and am paying attention. I’m right there walking through the Scottish countryside at night with Tom Anderson, watching the lights of the dwindling village go out one by one, until the only light left comes from the stars that are twinkling overhead.

These strings are becoming rooted in me and I in them. In our slower pace together, we experienced a perfect understanding—the strings and I.

May it be so in every part of my life.

May I let go of the clutter that distracts and pulls me away from the core. May I never forget the simple sacred center. May I rest in that place amidst the swirling chaos life leads me into. May I live into simple goodness when all the voices pile on and beckon and pressure me. May I slow my pace and keep my eyes open.

Friends, as we approach the bustling holiday season, I invite you to pause. Slow down. Breathe. Go deeper. Celebrate the simple. May you open your eyes to what is right in front of you and be fully present with it– without constantly looking for the fast lanes or the shortcuts to bigger, better and more. Because the simple thing right in front of you might be a thing more beautiful than you had ever realized.