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!

Not so obvious connections

The idea behind this blog is to connect spiritual and religious traditions with environmental concerns and action. While the link between these two is fundamental — in my opinion — the connections aren’t always so obvious.

Not quite ten years ago, I started volunteering with the WITNESS human rights organization as their webmaster. I had also done some work with my local chapter of Amnesty International, but they didn’t need me as much as WITNESS did. I was floored, honored and a little intimidated to find myself in a key position of the organization’s information flow. I worked with some wonderful people there — some of whom have gone on to other organizations like Just Vision and 1Sky. I volunteered with WITNESS for about two years.

About a year or two after I first moved to Portland, Oregon, I was attending a networking event for media professionals sponsored by MediaBistro, and I was talking with a young man about climate change. I described my quandary of not knowing quite where to put my volunteer energy, because there’s so much I care about — human rights, stopping animal abuse, literacy, civil liberties, clean water and air, etc.

He helped me see that environmentalism really does trump all the others. Not only is a healthy, thriving planet a basic human right, it’s also an absolute necessity. If you don’t have a place to live, all those other concerns disappear — there would be no humans whose rights needed protecting, no vulnerable animals in need of help.

So if I ever find myself vacillating like that again, I just remember that conversation. That doesn’t mean I don’t do other charitable work. Climate change is just my priority.

As a spiritual person — and a religious studies scholar and trained interfaith minister to boot — I find this to be a natural spiritual issue as well. Religion — often referred to as simply “organized spirituality” — is frequently concerned with seeking balance and meaning in life.

Seeking balance within and balance without has a perfect companion in environmental awareness, with the outer world reflecting back what’s going on inside. The external world is also a brilliant canvas showing us the consequences of our actions, thoughts and attitudes. If we’re seeking meaning in our lives, we must also find and be mindful of the meaning in our actions and intentions, and what impact we have on others and the world around us.

So I’m just trying to tie it all together, sometimes admittedly more successfully than others. Where I can, I tie these environmental thoughts to specific religious philosophies and practices — or link climate change action to holidays or faith traditions. This blog has a growing list of “faith categories” — including 12-Step, Humanism and even the Law of Attraction at this point — but sometimes these musing here don’t fit so tidily into one basket or another.

There’s a heavy emphasis on Judaism — because that’s my own path — and Neo-pagan traditions, because of the inherent Earthiness and reverence for the natural world found there. But I’m keeping my eyes, ears and heart open for any and all texts, traditions and wisdom that honor, respect and protect this planet we live on.

I’ll keep posting here, and I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting. I’d love to hear your ideas, and to learn more about what you’re learning and discovering on your own journey.

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

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).

Start your day off green: used coffee grounds

I just found this Planet Green article about what to do with your used coffee grounds.

Admittedly, I’m not a coffee drinker; I never did develop a taste for the stuff. But I know a lot of people who swear by a good cup — or two — of joe in the morning. I’ve added coffee (the beverage, not the grounds) to my shampoo before, but didn’t know the grounds themselves can be used for conditioning. Also, I’ve always loved the aroma of coffee — just not the taste — but hadn’t thought of using coffee grounds as a natural deodorizer.

And don’t forget that composting worms love coffee grounds!

Now, who has ideas for used tea bags?