What anchors you?

I got to thinking this morning about spiritual anchors — the rituals, practices, icons, symbols and more that help to bring us back to ourselves and our beliefs. These anchors are particularly important in times of crisis and confusion, as they offer reassurance and stability in the midst of chaos. In times of celebration, they are reminders of the paths we have chosen and can even help magnify and focus our joy.

Many people find such anchors in nature, though they may not think of them in spiritual terms. For some, the dry air and harsh beauty of the desert hearken back to the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the patriarch Abraham — common father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — as he left behind what was familiar and safe in his native Ur and headed out into the desert wilderness, following the voice of this new God who called him.

For others, the vistas found on mountaintops offer a more detached perspective on life and the world, allowing us to view our problems and concerns from a more removed place and underscoring the impermanence of life stressed in Hinduism and Buddhism.

For me, it’s trees. Plain and simple. It can be a single tree or a whole forest. The deep roots speak to me of my interest in genealogy and my need for real grounding in life. Part of my attraction to Judaism is the long history of thousands of years of tradition and of grappling with complex questions of living and faith. But trees also reach far away from their roots — in the entirely opposite direction, stretching up to great heights in the sky. But you couldn’t have one without the other: The roots stabilize and nurture the tree as it reaches ever upward, and it is this growth that balances the extensive root network stretching deep and wide within the earth.

Trees also clean the air, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen — taking a waste product and turning it into one of life’s necessities, and creating what I find to be a very tranquil environment in the process. I feel easily at peace in the presence of trees, and I imagine at least part of this comes from the increased oxygen in their immediate vicinity.

I also love the way trees stand tall and strong. They’re not running around trying to deal with the dramatic crises of every day living. But they’re always there, standing vigil and even serving as witnesses to history (as evidenced in their growth rings).

So when I’m feeling unmoored or scattered, all I have to do is go hang out with some trees for a while. I soon find myself feeling grounded, more relaxed and ready to face life from a more centered place.

What anchors you? Do you head out into nature when you’re feeling stressed or uncertain? What element or place — an herb garden, running stream, rock quarry or field of wildflowers — draws you in?

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And a little child shall lead them

On my way to Havurah Shalom this morning for the Shavuot service, I heard this story on NPR’s Morning Edition about the Kids Science Challenge — a nationwide competition funded by the National Science Foundation to which more than 700 elementary school students submitted questions and ideas.

What floored me was the independent study conducted by an 8-year-old third-grader named Claire who took more than 100 water samples from five grass fields and five turf fields to study the difference in water run-off. She got the idea from playing soccer on the different surfaces and noticing that water on turf fields didn’t look quite right.

Even the NPR reporter seemed impressed by her work, and commented that the MacArthur Foundation should be paying attention.

For a good while now, I’d been concerned about increasingly sedentary kids who simply aren’t spending enough time outside, and who consequently aren’t bonding with the natural world. I was worried that we were breeding an entire generation of young people who would feel more comfortable in cubicles beneath fluorescent lighting and surrounded by off-gassing plastics than they would out in the woods, in the desert or on top of a mountain.

After listening to this student describe her science project, I’m not so worried anymore. Sure, we’re still dealing with escalating obesity rates in this country — particularly in children — but perhaps the near-saturation of climate change stories and concerns in the media is managing to seep through the haze of video games and other escapist entertainment to inspire and challenge young minds like Claire’s.

Perhaps the author of Isaiah 11:6 — “… and a little child shall lead them” — was prophesying about a religious messianic age, but it’s the quote that first sprung to my mind when thinking about Claire’s science project. I’m hoping there are many more like her in her generation, and that they will continue to push for environmental knowledge and solutions as they grow.

The environment and the Law of Return

I had been thinking of offering a list today of my favorite “green” folks on Twitter, until I got this message from Astrology.com’s GreenScope:

The law of karma gets restated in a hundred different ways. In environmental terms, it’s simple: whatever you do will literally come back to you. So look for cleaning products that can go safely into the water supply system. Baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice work on almost anything and are completely biodegradable.

I’d written previously about green cleaning products — and yes, baking soda, white vinegar and lemon juice make for some excellent “mean green clean.” Apart from the elimination of toxic chemicals from your home environment (commercial cleaners are full of the stuff) and the fact that make-at-home cleaners are also friendlier to your wallet, it’s absolutely true that homemade green cleaning products are easier on our landfills and water treatment centers.

Instant karma’s gonna get you.
—John Lennon

We do reap what we sow. The impact of our chemically-dependent — for lack of a better term — lifestyles is showing up in our waterways and fish populations, in everything from algae blooms to reduced fertility rates. And I don’t have a comprehensive list of all of the chemicals and other materials that waste water treatment facilities are able to filter out, but I don’t imagine they’re able to scrub the water of absolutely everything.

In Wicca and other branches of Neo-Paganism, the Law of Three states that whatever you send out into the world will come back to you three-fold. This admonition is aimed against the practice of questionable spells — usually curses and the like — but can also be effectively applied to day-to-day living.

Do I want to treat the Earth with respect, and then have this same consideration returned to me three-fold? Yes, please. Do I want to trash the planet and then have three times that level of destruction visited upon me? Not so much, no.

There’s a split in the scientific community over whether global warming is a reality — which I don’t understand. There’s also a split amongst those who recognize that climate change is indeed happening, between those who attribute environmental impact to human beings and those who believe it’s a natural, cyclical phenomenon.

I’m in the “yes, climate change is real, and humans have contributed to it,” camp. And I believe we are dealing now with the consequences of the quick rise of industry and technology from generations past (alongside rampant consumption of natural resources) with no heed given to environmental impact — and that future generations will continue to deal with those problems as well as with whatever additional damage we do today. The results of the solutions that we come up with now may not really be felt until after our lifetimes, but that’s the environmental legacy we leave for those who come after us.

Karma can be a bitch, but it can also be a blessing. You get back from it what you put into it. We just have to figure out what kind of environmental return we want to have visited — perhaps even three-fold — upon our descendants.

Bloom where you are planted: Are you a locavore?

I heard a new term this morning: “locavore.” This is someone who eats food that is produced/grown locally. The concept isn’t new, but I’d not realized there was now a “locavore movement” named for it.

Apparently, locavore was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s “word of the year” in 2007.

I am still trying to track down the source of “Bloom where you are planted” — a quote that seems particularly fitting for the locavore movement. People assume this is in the Bible — and the sentiment certainly is there — but I’ve yet to find this quote. Others claim this is from an Afghan proverb, or that the quote first appeared in a popular song.

Regardless of this its origin, I have to admit that I used to cringe when I read or heard this quote. Growing up, I took it to mean that you were stuck with your circumstances, so you might as well stop reaching for something better or trying to improve your situation. I have some ideas on why I took this aphorism to be antithetical to ambition in those days, but only recently have I come to equate it with other, more action-inspiring sayings like “Think globally, act locally” and one of my favorite quotes from Arthur Ashe:

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

This perfectly fits the philosophy of being a locavore.

Some locavores will designate a radius — say 50 or 100 miles — beyond which they will not purchase foods. If you’re a locavore and you’re craving asparagus but they’re out of season in your area and the only ones available have been imported from another country, too bad. But being a locavore isn’t so much about learning to do without as it is learning to do more with what’s immediately available.

So what do locavores do? Locavores frequent their community farmers markets for the freshest, most sustainably grown produce around. When you shop at the farmers market, you can meet and get to know your area farmers and ranchers — which helps build the local economy and means you know exactly where your food is coming from.

Locavores might sign up for weekly produce delivery from a particular farm or community supported agriculture group, like Organics to You in Portland, Oregon. These subscription services bring fresh produce right to your door on a weekly basis. If you’re interested in signing up but don’t think you’ll be able to consume all the food each week, you can learn how to preserve/can produce to enjoy year-round — even when those fruits and vegetables aren’t in season — or you can share a subscription with neighbors or co-workers.

Want to know and do more?

You can read Jennifer Maiser’s “Ten Steps to Becoming a Locavore.” And you can ponder Arthur Ashe’s words of wisdom. What’s available to you locally? What resources can you take advantage of? What can you do — big or small — to be a more conscious and active part of your local food chain?

You could say the locavore movement has a solid handle on what it means to “bloom where you are planted.” These are the folks who are saying “Yes!” to local resources and who are helping their communities thrive.

Dust to dust: green burials

An interfaith gathering in the United Kingdom on May 15 helped dedicate the country’s largest woodland burial park.

Green burials — ranging from simply foregoing embalming to home funerals, woodland burials and sea reef memorials — are becoming increasingly popular, with good reason. To start with, embalming uses chemicals that pose health risks to morticians and which can seep into ground water, and the casket industry uses a tremendous amount of lumber, copper and other metals every year.

Much as many of us struggle against it, death is a natural part of life. No amount of body preservation, concrete grave liners or casket grandeur can change that. So why not release the remains to the natural process of decay?

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as the text of the Book of Common Prayer goes.

I’m heartened to read about the Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Humanists and Pagans who gathered together to dedicate Chilterns Woodland Burial Park, and to honor death as a very natural — and necessary — part of life. We have similar properties here in the U.S. in California, Texas, South Carolina, Washington, New York and Florida, with additional sites planned in other states. It will likely be several generations yet before green burials are more mainstream, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.

Clean air and the breath of creation

As part of my Jewish conversion process — and also out of my own curiosity — I recently read Arthur Green’s “Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow.” There’s a great deal of food for thought in these pages — including an entire chapter on “Kabbalah for an Environmental Age.” One passage in particular that struck me was:

The main Hebrew term for “soul” is neshamah, actually meaning “breath.” When the Torah depicts God blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils (Gen. 2:7), Adam becomes a “living being,” a bearer of soul. Our soul comes into being in the moment when God breathes life into us. That moment, we come to understand, is every moment. God is constantly blowing the breath of life into us. We are being created anew, reborn, in each moment.

Naturally, this got me to thinking about air quality. It’s just the way my mind works sometimes.

When reading Green’s text, I started to consider each breath we take in as an individual renewed act of creation. Even Eastern meditative practices focus keenly on the breath, postulating that the space between breaths is where God lives.

But living in a world of dirty and unclean air necessarily cuts us off from the Universe or the Divine — or whatever word you choose to use — and this is a separation entirely of our own making. We have polluted our skies with smoke stacks, coal burning, aerosols, vehicle emissions, and even with our efforts to reduce this assault on our environment, we’re still causing more problems than we’re solving.

Concerns and controversies about global warming and climate change aside, the continued pollution of air and waters is one byproduct of modern living that I simply can’t get my mind around. More specifically, I don’t understand how we tolerate practices — both personal and industrial — that poison the very air we breathe and the oceans, rivers, lakes and rain on which all life depends.

It reminds me of a conversation I had about 15 or 20 years ago with a friend about the AIDS virus. My friend called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) an “immature” virus, because it kills its host, and ultimately itself (within the confines of that particular host). Looking at our continued pollution levels, I’m beginning to wonder if human beings aren’t an immature species — destroying the very environment we need in order to survive, and therefore destroying ourselves.

There are some immediate, personal remedies for this. A simple one is walking to the coffee shop (where I now sit) instead of driving, and stopping on my way back in the grove of trees that stand at the entrance to my community. These small actions won’t correct the massively higher levels of industrial pollution, but any reduction — any constructive change — is a step in the right direction.

For me, standing among old-growth trees — particularly towering evergreens — and breathing in crisp, clean air is a highly spiritual experience. There’s no major epiphany, no life-altering religious conversion like Saul on the road to Damascus. But spending some time in the midst of these natural air filters is a great reminder of what clean air can and should feel like in my lungs.

And perhaps with every inhalation of clean air, I am in the present moment renewing creation itself, one breath at a time.

Flower Moon Magick

When you think of “full moon magick,” images of people in pointy black hats dancing around a bonfire might come to mind. Many Pagans do mark the phases of the moon with rituals and other observances — though rarely with the bonfires or pointy hats — but Neo-pagan traditions aren’t the only ones with ties to the moon.

The evening after the first full moon following the spring equinox marks the beginning of Passover, and Easter falls on the first Sunday after that (i.e., on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox).

The Hindu holiday Hanuman Jayanti — the birthday of Lord Hanuman — is celebrated on the night of the full moon in the month of Chaithra (the first month of the Hindu calendar, beginning in March or April).

In Islam, Laylat al-Bara’ah — remembering the day the Prophet Muhammad entered Mecca — is celebrated on the night of the full moon in the month of Sha’ban and marks a time of repentance and forgiveness.

Now deep into spring, the full moon in May — the Flower Moon — derives its name from the many blooming plants and trees. Reaching its peak at 12:01 a.m. EDT on May 9 this year, the Flower Moon is also a heady time of romance — maybe it’s the flower-fragranced air, or the sacred union of the God and Goddess that is believed to happen with this month’s full moon.

Also known as the Planting Moon, it’s a great time for getting out into the garden to take advantage of the warmer weather, longer days, and the season’s burgeoning fertility.

The full moon of any month is a powerful time for spellwork for witches of all stripes. Working magick for divination, protection and prosperity is appropriate at this time, as are any rituals or spells that require an extra power kick. The Flower Moon is a traditional time for spells concerning love, fertility, wisdom and growth.

To learn more about Flower Moon Magick that you can do, visit Patti Wigington’s About.com Flower Moon page or Trish Hoskin’s article on Suite101.com.