Taking a cue from a good friend, I decided to start the day by drawing a Tarot card — something I’ve not done in ages, but that’s another discussion.

I was hoping for something light and airy, inspirational. A card that would stimulate my creativity and help me launch into a particularly productive and joyful week. But that’s not the card I drew. Instead, the card that came into my hands was Judgement (20).

Yeah, I never have been one to start with the easy stuff.

The Judgment card is about a day of reckoning. It speaks to self-judgment, and how our own real freedom comes from the choice we make to forgive ourselves. This is a card about making difficult choices, about how we meet the challenges and opportunities that come our way, and about the Final Judgment of our lives as a whole — how we have chosen to use our time here on Earth.

So what does a Tarot card have to do with living a sustainable life?

There are times that I don’t know how to start a project and so I end up wasting a lot of time considering each possible approach from every angle — not actually trying any of these, but just examining them. I’ve spent too much of my life being afraid of “doing it wrong” or making a mistake or unintentionally offending someone, and I’ve often missed out on real living. This includes my efforts to bring myself into greater harmony and better symbiosis with the planet I’m living on.

I get overwhelmed with choices. If I sign up for renewable energy through Portland General Electric, what does that really mean? Aren’t they still burning coal to generate most of their electricity? Is it a scam, or does it make a positive difference? Or should I build a small electric generator with an exercise bike, and then run my laptop computer and printer off a car battery that I can charge up? Am I really using the best power strips to help conserve electrical usage? Mine are kind of old, but should I replace something that still works, even if a better model exists?

And so on. I spend way too much time worrying about making the wrong choice, both in environmental terms and in life in general. With so many questions and concerns competing for attention, it’s easy to get exhausted just considering the possibilities, and then not have any energy left over to actually do anything about them. The result is that I don’t make as many changes or as much progress as I can, and then I judge myself — often rather harshly — for not doing better.

The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Last year, I wrote about making Yom Kippur a day of “green atonement,” of recognizing where I’d failed the environment during the previous year, and deciding how I could do better over the next twelve months. I’ve not completely failed in my efforts to be a better “eco citizen,” but I don’t know that I’m a shining example of hope and inspiration either.

The good news is that each new year — and every new day — brings another opportunity to try again, not only to try to do better in my relationship with and my impact on the environment, but also to lighten up on the self-judgment so I don’t end up paralyzing myself into inaction and futility.

And if I decide to take another shot at drawing a morning Tarot card tomorrow, maybe I’ll get one that’s a bit gentler and more cheerful.


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?

Fasting for Darfur

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, is fasting on June 15 and 16 (today and tomorrow) to raise awareness about the dire conditions in Darfur. Her fast is part of the Darfur Fast for Life “fasting chain” – successive two-day blocks of fasting by activists, entertainers and political figures.

Messinger has invited AJWS members and others to join her in her fast.

“A person can suffer no greater indignity than not being able to feed his or her children or prevent dehydration that is often deadly,” Messinger said in a videotaped message.

I grew up with what seemed like nightly stories about famine in Africa — always broadcast on the evening news while my family was eating dinner. I was in 9th grade when “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World” were released. I’m sad to say that part of me has learned to accept this kind of human suffering as a simple fact of life.

However, scientists and other experts are warning that conditions like those found in Darfur may easily become more commonplace if global warming continues to escalate. Drought and famine may become a way of life for far too many of us — though, really, should it be a way of life for anyone?

Fasting is difficult. Hunger impacts our higher thinking and compromises learning and productivity. And, as Messinger points out, hunger has a demoralizing affect as well, deflating our hopes day after day for a better future.

Those like Messinger who are choosing to fast in a protest of compassionate solidarity with Darfur are hoping that the temporary hunger and discomfort of fasting will teach us to listen, and to act. I hope so — compassion and heart-felt action are too often lacking in this world. But such fasting may teach us something else — what life could be like for many, many more of us, if we don’t get our acts together and start working more effectively with the planet, rather than against it.

(If you don’t know where Darfur is, you’re likely not alone. Many Westerners struggle with African geography. Darfur is in Western Sudan — on the northeast coast of Africa. Sudan is a large country bounded by Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Libya.

Call for ideas: Green Judaism

I’m looking at beginning a new project this fall, centering around “Green Judaism.”

In preparation for this, I’m reading books and visiting websites about Jews and sustainability. I’m already savoring Rabbi Jamie Korngold‘s God in the Wilderness, and my rabbi has suggested I take a look at Hazon. I also hope to visit with and talk with local groups like Beit Kayam and Tuv Ha’aretz.

But I’m also open to your suggestions. If you wanted to learn more about the connections between environmental sustainability and Judaism, what books would you read? What leaders would you talk to? What websites would you mine for information?

Post a comment here, or send me an email with your ideas. I’m looking forward to hearing from you — thanks!

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.


Shavuot — celebrated this year from sundown on May 28th to sundown on May 30th — marks the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai by the Israelites.

But Shavuot is also a celebration of the wheat harvest at the end of the seven-week harvest of grains. Like many agricultural holidays, Shavuot offers the opportunity to connect with and appreciate our natural environment.

Shavuot may well be the greenest holiday on the Jewish calendar.

I’m a big fan of farmers markets, and Shavuot is a great time to head to your local market. But this is also a good time to visit area farms and dairies, to watch the harvest come in or even participate in some u-pick activities yourself.

It’s customary to decorate homes and temples with flowers and green plants for Shavuot, and with so much in full bloom at this time of year, it’s difficult not to be inspired by roses, rhododendrons, dogwoods and other plants and trees growing wild and in carefully planned gardens.

I use this as a reminder to pay extra attention to my three houseplants and to spend additional time tending my small garden, but it also makes me think of the many spring and early summer festivals across many religious traditions that celebrate the renewed promise of the Earth. The darkness of winter is long behind us now, and we celebrate the planet’s burgeoning life with dancing, maypoles, songs, bike rides, mountain hikes and all manner of festivities as we look forward to a good harvest.

For a round-up of activities and ideas for a green Shavuot, visit Shavuot Eco Activities (For When the Cheese Is All Eaten Up).

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.