How to Survive a Terrorist Attack (When it Happens a Thousand Miles Away)

My very first reaction when I heard the news about the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England, was “I can’t deal with this right now.” It had been a busy, short-staffed day at work and I was tired. I heated up a plate of leftover chana masala, washed some grapes, poured a glass of milk, and sat down with my husband to watch an episode of Mad Men.

But the next morning after seeing more details coming in, I needed to be a human being again. I read some of the stories and I let myself cry. I lit a candle and gazed into the flame and tried to pray, but for what? For the end to this madness, for the pouring of blessings on the lost souls, and gifts of strength and support for those whose loved ones were murdered? I couldn’t focus.

And I didn’t want to read the angry, frustrated, hate-filled comments about this on Facebook or at the end of articles. I didn’t want to compound the pain of tragedy and loss with the awfulness of vindictiveness and vows for revenge.

How do we survive a terrorist attack when it didn’t directly happen to us? I didn’t know anyone directly affected by the attack, but I can’t deny my heart the need to grieve.

As I gaze out the window at my tidy little neighborhood in the Midwest, I can feel a ping of smugness that It Won’t Happen Here. But I travel, I attend big concerts in other cities, my children also go to places where crowds gather, favorite targets of terrorists. And although we were unscathed as we all watched the latest news unfolding, it didn’t lessen the tragedy. The same level of horror and anguish still existed; it was just located geographically elsewhere.

My usual way of confronting something big and complicated is to break it into pieces. I found seven candles and lit them one-by-one, each with their own prayer, creating a sloppy, but centered, ceremony of grief and compassion.

Candle One – For the perpetrator

Let in the wonder. Why would someone be coerced into carrying a backpack full of explosives and blow themselves up in a crowded place? I have a hard time believing that person stood there, bearing the weight of the backpack and bearing the weight of what he was about to do, with the feeling that “this is right and good.” I feel that this person was also a victim; a victim of lack of understanding and support somewhere in his life that made him vulnerable to the ideals of murderers.

Candle Two – For the victims

Let in the wonder. What happens to a soul that is happy and elated and enjoying music and is surrounded by other celebrating souls, then is violently and abruptly taken from the Earth? What happens to the unfulfilled plans and promises?

Candle Three – For the loved ones

The wonder ends. There are people who have lost someone dear at a time when it wasn’t supposed to happen. All of the love and support and nurturing they poured into this beloved person now suddenly has nowhere to go. This flow of feeling can’t just stop. It can turn into a flow of anger and revenge and darkness, and it can flow into compassion for other sufferers, it will likely be like an unchecked fire hose flailing this way and that way, trying to be tamed, but not wanting it to be tamed because the release feels cathartic. It doesn’t matter if it serves no clear purpose. It really doesn’t need to at this point. All we can do is send love.

Candle Four – For our safety

We question our own safety. Do we stay away from crowds? Do we stop attending beloved festivals? Do we stay away from big cities? Do we question anew our decision to fly? Certainly we can content ourselves with running errands locally, going for bike rides, and watching shows on Netflix? Do we really need to go anywhere? We know the awesomeness of live music, but do we really need to see it?

But is that even the question? Couldn’t we just as easily meet our demise driving a car, choking on a grape, or tripping on the stairs? Do we really want the focus of our lives to be avoiding death?

Candle Five – For the safety of our loved ones

We can’t keep our children locked in their homes and we can’t keep them from doing things they love to do. At the same time, we can’t worry about them constantly. When they attend a concert, we have the choice of being happy they are having a good time, or we can worry about the remote chance they will be a victim of violence. It is a choice we can make.

Candle Six – For the relinquishment of control

It takes some time to come around to the realization that we can’t keep death away. We can’t protect the vulnerable from being preyed upon by madmen, we can’t stop a truck from barreling into a crowd of Christmas shoppers. We need to boldly go out into life and enjoy it recklessly. That much we can control.

Candle Seven – For making a difference

We can make a difference in the environments that are our lives. We can find ways to plant goodness and start that ripple of love and kindness. Sometimes it’s as simple as a smile, or holding a door for someone behind us, or hanging back and letting that confused driver find their exit without reacting. Sometimes it’s writing a $20 check to a nonprofit we care about, or taking part in event planned by a beloved friend. Sometimes it’s making a meal at the homeless shelter and sitting down and eating with them and being touched when they pray for those less fortunate than them. Sometimes it’s stopping someone when they are about to go on a tirade about Muslims and gently reminding them that these terrorists are by no stretch of the imagination practicing Islam.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the damage in the world and feel despair and hopelessness. But we have opportunities to heal and change things placed in front of us every day. It is irresponsible and further damaging to the world to not respond lovingly to them.

Living Our Mildest Dreams

Live the life of your wildest dreams!

Those words make me swell up with hope and excitement. Yes! Yes! I want to experience my wildest dreams! I want to live the life of my wildest dreams!

And what are my wildest dreams?

Like most people, I suspect, my wildest dreams include success in doing what I love. For me it would be becoming an accomplished musician, or taking my sweet time writing a book and having it published to critical acclaim.

My wildest dreams include being surrounded by pretty things and updated appliances. In my wildest dreams, no doors stick, no couches stick you in the back when you sit in them, and no windows leak cold air into the bedroom in the winter.

My wildest dreams include travel, particularly to Ireland and staying in a B&B next to a pub where the best fiddlers in County Clare play on any given night. Then a trip to Iceland to take a dip in the thermal pools, then a trip to Croatia to listen to the sea organ, then to Japan to walk through the Wisteria Tunnel.

My wildest dreams include providing my children with whatever advanced education they desire, and homes that don’t have sticking doors, worn couches, and leaking windows. Ditto for the grandchildren when they come.

My wildest dreams involve oodles of time to do whatever I want. For me it would be having expanses of time to read the piles of books around the various sitting areas of our home. It would include having time to linger over the newspaper every morning, taking time to pause before turning the page to watch the birds in the sunlight, picking seeds out of the bird feeder, having time to mosey on down the street to the coffee shop and lose myself in conversation with a good friend. No more of this running out the door every morning, leaving things undone, unfinished, unwashed.

But some days I’m not a dreamer. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my energy level that day, maybe it’s my pragmatic Midwest Scandinavian upbringing, but some mornings I think of my wildest dreams and think, “Who’s going to pay for all of this?” or “How likely is any of this going to happen?”

There will be no living my wildest dreams today. Today I will be living my mildest dreams.

Then I take my gaze off the limitless horizon and head to work.

While I don’t have an exciting job, it isn’t awful. I have coworkers that have become good friends and my paycheck covers the bills. And I don’t have to compromise my values every time I punch in.

 

In this mild life, I still find time to honor what’s important to me every day. For example, most mornings I take time to read or write. This is sacred time for me and I treasure it. Friends shudder when I tell them what time I get up, but they don’t need to understand the joy of sitting at a laptop or with a pen at hand, accompanied by a hot beverage while its still dark out. The world seems limitless at that moment.

My mildest dreams include moments of simple bliss. Often in the summer, I’ll can tomatoes that we grew ourselves. Sometimes I’ll create a pretty decent dinner out of the leftovers I found in the refrigerator. Sometimes I’ll rearrange a closet and step back and admire it with deep satisfaction. Sometimes I’ll finally get that stain out.

Fantasizing about what could be is a marvelous exercise in creativity and in feeling the magic of hope and in honoring our potential, but some days the mildest dreams are okay, too. The appreciation of waking up to a rack of clean dishes or having mates to all of the socks on laundry day can have a place of honor on our list of successes until we’re ready to dream big again.

 

 

Of Toboggans and Ploughs: Blessing the Growing Season

Walk past the bakery full of fresh loaves of cardamom bread, walk past the rooms of hand woven rugs, felted mittens, and birch bark birds, and then walk out the back door into the cold winter afternoon, and there lies the legend.

Laskiainen is an old Finnish celebration that is held at the beginning of February each year in Palo, Minnesota. Behind the cleverly repurposed school is a steep, icy sliding hill. The legend goes that the family that slides the furthest will be blessed with the most bountiful crop of flax that year. One can also holler a short poem on the way down to ensure a good harvest of turnips or potatoes or whatever you feel needs the blessing that particular year. Personally, I was too scared to recite anything besides a long, high-pitched scream, but thankfully my livelihood doesn’t depend on the generosity of the Earth.

Every twice in a while, when I come up for air from my typical nose-to-the-grindstone lifestyle, I realize how separated from the Earth I allow myself to get. I might grumble about it being too hot in the summer to sit on the patio, or I might dread going out to start my car on a frigid January morning. But I don’t consider the effects of the weather on my food supply. Even if our garden fails, I trust that I will be surrounded by fresh, abundant food.

But when I think about it further, even a few livelihoods removed, I do indeed depend on the fickleness of Mother Earth for food.

History and mythology are laden with spring rituals that seem like a desperate plea for food the following season. Some are bloody and sacrificial, creating a fearsome relationship with the food cultivation gods, while others seem more gracious, forming a gentle partnership with the forces of growth.

While coaxing food out of the earth has gotten scientific and practical, with even the organic farmers analyzing soils and practicing crop rotation, I am enamored with the esoteric; the preparatory blessing of the elements that help this growing season happen.

One of the sweeter rituals I came across is an old Germanic/Scandinavian ritual called Charming of the Plough. As many ancient stories go, there are many renditions of this, but they involve blessing the implements of farming with songs, poems, sometimes oils and herbs. Some versions include cakes being placed in the first furrows as a possible offering or expression of gratitude.

Although I don’t own a plough, I can still partake in my own preparatory blessing. With a gracious eye to the ancients, here is my adapted ritual:

Clear a space in the yard or on the driveway.
Gather my implements. I have a small garden, so my implements are mostly hand tools: my trowel, my hand rake, and my trusty asparagus fork, along with my spade and hoe.
Clean the implements if needed, then apply oil with a clean rag. Linseed (flaxseed) oil is a favorite of gardeners. Be sure to let the tools dry completely before using them in the garden.
When finished, lay them all out on the grass or even in the garden and consider their relationship with the upcoming growing season. Include the gardening space in a short blessing to conclude the ritual:
Whole may you be Earth, mother of all

May you be growing in God’s embrace

With food filled for the needs of all

I don’t know to whom the poems cried out of the sliding hills are intended, and I don’t know who smiles on the plough, but I do like to think she listens and appreciates our recognition of her benevolence.

Exploring our Limits of Caring

During this past election season, I found myself creating a boundary. This boundary determined which human beings I would allow into my circle of caring. If people associated with the other political party even slightly, I mentally shunned them in a very dark way. As someone who tries hard to be this unattached, free spirit full of love, acceptance, and rainbows, this startled me and it forced me to examine limits of caring further.

For some of us, the circle of caring ends at our own skin. We empathize with others, but we don’t reach out because we have our own long list of important needs, real or imagined, to tend to first. Entanglement in someone else’s life means less time to spend on our myriad needs. If I take time to really listen to your story, I’ll have less time to meditate or pray or wrestle with my demons. Or paint a landscape or play trombone or read Joseph Campbell or write my daily poem.

Some of us can love our families with all of our hearts and souls and that’s where it ends. Our family is witty and talented and smart and we almost pity those who aren’t part of it. These relationships sometimes define us with bumper stickers expressing pride in our honor student, or wearing clothing or jewelry stating “Hockey Mom” or “Football Dad”. Compassion for others in the community isn’t even on our radar. Our home is our kingdom and if we had a drawbridge, we would pull it up.

Some peoples’ circle of caring enfolds around those of their same religion. We may not necessarily condemn those of a different faith, but we don’t look for opportunities to get to know them better. Some of us do condemn those of another religion and treat our own religion as a fortress. We lash out at others, then retreat into the safety of our church-shaped stockade. Those inside the fortress love and support each other, but that is where the compassion ends.

Some of us need to limit our circle of caring to race. Maybe because someone’s skin is a different color, their customs, beliefs, and history are different than our own and that is threatening. Being around people whose color and features resemble our own feels safe, and it is the only circle of caring we can embrace.

For some of us, our circle of caring ends at our country’s border. We read or hear about other people’s suffering in other countries, but it is irrelevant. We look at suffering in our own country and want those needs taken care of first. We might pray a heartfelt prayer for those living with bombs in their neighborhoods, but we don’t want any of our money going there and we don’t want the might of our country going to help them. We proudly wave our star-spangled flags and take care of our own.

Some of us have no circle of caring at all. The human race includes everyone with hearts, eyes, skin, and blood. Everyone in the global village deserves food, clean water, and the love and safety of a home. Our money flows from our pockets to the local farmers market, to Habitat for Humanity, to Doctors Without Borders. We love knowing the few dollars from our pockets might be teaching a mother a skill or giving a hungry teenager the sustenance he needs to give him hope for his future. Because what if everyone worldwide had the gift of hope and compassion for and from a stranger?

At times of our lives, and even during times in a day, we can pass through all of these boundaries of caring. When we’re sick with a cold, we are all that matters in that afternoon. When our spouse loses a job, our family is all that matters for a while. When there is conflict within our religious institution, it requires the congregation to pull within for a spell. When our country is under attack, we might need to rein ourselves in to ensure our safety until things stabilize.

A problem with circles is they can act as boundaries. Boundaries limit our ability to learn about and from others. And they prevent us from learning the size of our own hearts, and the ability to expand our love and compassion beyond our own recognition.

So I am digging around in my own heart, trying to find a morsel of care and compassion for my politically opposed cousin. I am trying to send love and acceptance to that neighbor who still has that damn sign up. If I can accomplish this, who knows what other barriers I can break through.

 

Celebrating with the Ancients: A Winter Solstice Ritual

Just before the crazy-making of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day comes this other event, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, measured by the brevity of sunlight.

The winter solstice has a history of rites involving great fires, dance, and sometimes sacrifice to entice the sun to return. Once we were assured this shortest day was an annual occurrence, the rites evolved into festivals, celebrating the return of longer days.

What’s interesting to me is that the ancients knew when the shortest day of the year was coming. They watched and studied and noted the changes in the sky, the days, the light. While I go stumbling through my work week and to do lists sometimes hardly noticing changes in nature going on around me, they knew when the days would shorten right down to the solstice day. Then they built structures like Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.

Newgrange, which predates the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, has an opening called the roof box through which light floods the structure’s chambers with light for 17 minutes during Winter Solstice. The construction of Newgrange is said to have taken about 30 years, so it is likely the architects knew the longer days would return. They expected the change in the length of days, but perhaps they still deemed this worthy of wonder and mystery.

I like this. I like recognizing the wonder of the earth’s tilted orbit around a star. In my world, we don’t have great bonfires or grand festivals requiring bold sacrifices or lavish offerings on this day, but I like celebrating fire to honor those keenly observant ancients and to recognize the vastness of the universe.

A winter solstice ritual can be tailored for a group or for one’s own solo observation. Here are just a few suggestions to honor the darkest day of the year.

  1. Honor a Yule evergreen. I am not one of those thoughtful, organized people who has boxes of meaningful tree ornaments. I prefer to recognize the tree itself and think of it bringing wind, fresh air, years of sunshine, and birdsong into my home. I decorate it sparingly with white lights and elements of nature or representatives of nature: a purchased nest, a nice feather or two, glass icicle ornaments.
  2. Create a solstice fire. For indoors, use whatever candles are on hand. Sitting quietly in candlelight can be it’s own ritual, releasing ourselves from any demands of the day. There is no need for song or chant, just simply sitting and observing the Yule evergreen, our surroundings, and our own being is enough. If you are able to have a fire outside, do so. Gathering around a fire and gazing into the flames is mesmerizing, while still taking time to look up and lose oneself in the expanse of the sky.
  3. Release old wounds and worries. What can we let go? What steps can we take toward healing, or forgiveness? Write them down, and then burn the paper in the fire or in a fireproof bowl, releasing the intention into the ether. Accompany this act with consciously feeling the release from the heart.
  4. Create a winter solstice altar. While the word “altar” freaked me out at first, I realized I’ve been making them most of my life, only I call it “decorating”. A winter solstice altar consists of things to acknowledge this day or this season. Mine includes an evergreen branch (usually cut from the bottom of our Yule evergreen to make it fit in the stand), a giant pinecone from my son’s home far away, something gold to represent sunlight, and incense. As I interact with it throughout the season, I’m reminded of the gifts from this planet I live on.
  5. Feed the birds, those keepers and messengers of spirit. Step outside into the cold darkness and fill a feeder or hang a suet block on a tree, sending the birds an offering of warmth and comfort during these cold months.

The beauty of these nature-inspired celebrations is that there is no need for elaborate ceremony and expense. All that is needed is eyes to see the gifts that nature provides and a heart that welcomes it in.

 

What To Do When You Just Can’t Do It Any More

I don’t think I’m the only one who wakes up some mornings thinking, “I just can’t do this any more.”

I’m not talking about ending it all, actual clinical depression. Just that tired-of-everything, nothing sounds good, why-can’t-I-win-the-lottery, blech kind of times. Those warming yoga moves I do in the morning aren’t warming any more. In fact, I skip them. I don’t care about hot lemon water. I don’t care about the beautiful sunrise. I don’t want to pet the cat.

Many writers suggest we get more comfortable with these dark moods. For many of us they are harmless and they allow us to slow down, brood, step away from the carousel, and curl up at the end of the couch bury our faces in our arms. We don’t have to be happy all the time. Really.

But most of us don’t have the luxury of retreating from the world, having whisky in our morning coffee, and spread-eagling on the living room floor all afternoon. Some of us have to fake it through the workday.

Here are some things that sometimes help me make it through the day until I can get home and soak in a salt bath.

Have a coffee treat. I’m cheap, so this is something I don’t do very often. I love the smell and the atmosphere of coffee houses. On a dark day, I will order some wonderful seasonal thing with an extra shot of espresso.
Greet my coworkers with a smile and a nod, rather than a full-blown “Good morning!” I don’t want to be a jerk to them, but I’m not in the right mind to attempt conversation.
During a bathroom break, I do a quick emotional unload. I close my eyes with my feet firmly planted and imagine all the gunk in my mind and body flowing out of my body, through my feet, and into the earth. Then when I feel sufficiently emptied, I’ll imagine good, clean, white energy filling me up, also pulled from the sweet earth.
Create a bubble. My energy worker tells me certain colors of bubbles work for different people. My golden bubble works for me. I imagine myself in a golden bubble where I am safe from other people’s moods and energy and I can be in my own comfy fort.
Don’t do anything I’ll regret later, like say something mean to someone, or eat a funnel cake, or kill a spider or ignore the cat. This dark mood will lift and I’ll have to deal with the consequences and the guilt.
When I get home, it’s best I don’t have anything alcoholic, but rather take a few minutes to breathe deep or smudge. If I do have something alcoholic, I stop after one. I feel it’s a slippery slope to turn to alcohol when I’m feeling down.

Water is comforting to me, so if I can soak in a salt bath at the end of the day – no book, no music, just me and the water and the sensation of soaking – that’s a beautiful thing. But if the day is busy, several extra splashings of clear, cool water on my face after washing up is also helpful.

Usually after a day or two or three, things correct themselves. If they don’t after a week or two, I know there’s a deeper problem and I need to talk to someone.

The most important part of days like this is looking in the mirror before bedtime. Chances are very good it wasn’t a very productive day and I didn’t accomplish much of anything, since all of my effort was used to put one foot in front of the other. Rather than punishing myself for not being grateful and for letting a day go by without feeling joyful, I look at myself and say, “I forgive you.” And mean it.

A Beginners Guide to Lammas

A Beginners Guide to Lammas

It’s been hot and I’ve felt exhausted. Maybe I’m exhausted by the energy the elements are putting out. The sun has been blanketing our region in heat and the earth takes it, its head bowed in surrender. I’m feeling empathy for the steady exertion of the fruiting tomato and pepper plants. The grass is a shade of tired green; the trees are in maintenance mode, no longer working on growing, instead simply retaining their health during these hot weeks.

This is not life to me; this is perseverance. I’ve been on auto-pilot, waking, writing, eating, working, then coming home and trying to be enthusiastic about something, then feeling guilty when I just can’t pull it off. How can someone who has so much be so meh?

Then this morning, I heard it. At first the sound didn’t register, but then suddenly the sound broke through my sleepy mind and I quickly stepped outside.

Crickets!

The sound of crickets is weirdly nostalgic to me. The sound of crickets means the slowing of summer, shorter days and longer eventide, where we can sit outside in the dusk and yet it isn’t bedtime. The sound of crickets fills in the silence when conversation drops. In fact, sometimes there’s no need for conversation at all. It’s like sitting at a folk concert, listening contently to see what emotions are evoked by the music.

I wondered about this time of year when the gardens are putting on their grand finale yet the leaves are still green. Harvest speaks of autumn, but the beaches are still full. I’m tired of summer, but not yet ready to put away the flip flops. The season is changing from one of growth to one of completion.

I was delighted to find that this season does indeed have a name. Lammas.

Lammas falls on August 1st, but historically it is a season. Festivals celebrating early harvest were held by the Celts, and Shakespeare chose Lammas-eve as Juliet’s birthday. In Anglo-Saxon England, great significance was placed on the “loaf-mass” made from the first grains of the harvest. It was a time of celebration because by now the stored and preserved fruits of last year’s harvest were used up. Some modern pagans still celebrate Lammas.

I felt like I had discovered something unique and wonderful even though Lammas predates me by many centuries. I’m delighted that the dancing of celebrants throughout time still dance in my heart.

While Lammas celebrations can be quite elaborate involving grains and labyrinths and offerings, my Lammas celebration will be quite simple this year. I will truly appreciate the sweet flavor of those first grape tomatoes and acknowledge the magic of growth and sun and rain and soil that brought it from seed to my taste buds. I will put my bare feet on the earth and experience and appreciate the energy it gives and receives. And I will be grateful for all experiences, from the dreariness brought on by lingering heat to the sweetness of a cricket’s song.

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