Inefficiently Yours

Reading: Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front 

human ness

Sermon: Inefficiently Yours 

Every day this week, I had at least one package on my front porch when I got home. 

Every day.  At least one.  Not all of them were from Amazon, but most. 

My partner and I decided to get a bunch of small things to get more organized – new shelves, towel rack, that sort of thing. 

We didn’t have a lot of money, so getting good deals mattered. We love free shipping.

Plus, with two middle schoolers, a clumsy dog, and both of us working in demanding jobs –  we don’t have a lot of extra time, either.

A few clicks, a careful read of the small print and the dimensions, a few more clicks – done. Packages on their way. 

It was perfect, and felt like freedom, even for a few fleeting moments. 

All of this clicking was especially ironic this week because – in addition to my low-grade always-awareness of the negative impact of Amazon has on local economies, small businesses, the environment – over the past couple of weeks, in preparation for today’s service, I have been paying closer attention to the conditions for Amazon employees.

Specifically the conditions for the people who responded to my clicks by finding my item.  Packing it up with other boxes in a bigger box.  Placing the blow up supposedly recyclable plastic things in the empty places to keep things in place, and then shipping it directly to me in two days or less.

 “Soul sucking” more than one employee called it.  “Soul Sucking.” 

Usually when I hear someone say “soul sucking” I assume they’re being hyperbolic. But in this case, I’ve started to think it might be accurate.  That Amazon is literally sucking our souls. 

To start, the work is physically demanding – 12 hour shifts where you end up walking 15-20 miles with lots of squatting, and reaching, and lifting.   You can get used to this, and it’s not entirely new or unique for blue collar work. 

What’s new and uniquely soul-sucking at Amazon comes down to what they call their “efficiency standards.”  They ways they have centered success entirely around efficiency.  Equiated efficiency with BEST. 

Each employee is given a scan gun for every component of their job, which allows everything they do to be monitored, and timed, and also to alert a manager if there’s too many minutes where they are “off-task.” 

Generally, you are allowed 18 minutes off task per shift. 

This year, Amazon will likely employ 300,000 people, most of those working in the warehouses.  

Many of us are familiar with our economy’s crisis of income inequality – As a recent NPR report confirmed:“the gap between the richest and the poorest US households is the largest it’s been in the past 50 years” –  

But Mennonite theologian Mark Baker says that even more pressing, and much less tended to; even more pressing especially for us as people of faith is our economy’s crisis of human dignity.

~~~~~

When I first started thinking about the Amazon warehouse, my first question was: why don’t they just use machines? If they really want a hyper-efficient work enviornment – why don’t they just use robots? 

After all, humans are inherently inefficient.  For example, humans have bodies.  And bodies require bothersome things like using the bathroom, eating, sleeping – all incredibly inefficient. And, humans are wired for conversation, connection, emotions, relationship – all, inefficient.

One Amazon employee theorized that their assignments were especially designed to ensure they crossed paths with as few other humans as possible.  

Loneliness and isolation are some of the biggest complaints from workers today.  Not just at Amazon. The younger you are, studies show, the lonelier you are – nearly 8 in 10 Gen Zers (age 18-23) and 7 in 10 millennials report being lonely; only half of boomers.  (The study I read says nothing about Gen Xers, those of us in the middle of our working lives….which is, typical.)  

Humans are not wired for loneliness – it turns out to have the equivalent health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

And even more obviously, humans are not readily oriented towards highly inflexible, repetitive tasks over long periods of time, which is the epitome of efficiency.   

But machines have none of these issues.  Machines are not hard wired for connection, or relationship.  Machines don’t get lonely. And they are good at inflexible repetitive tasks. That’s the point of machines. 

So, why doesn’t Amazon just use machines?

As AI technology and robotics engineering continues to develop, I’m guessing, they will someday. Which will be another sort of crisis for all those 300,000 workers, when it happens.

But for now, what I learned was – humans have a few particular advantages over machines that make them preferable to Amazon and other efficiency-driven work environments. 

Two things: fine motor control, and subjectivity.  Machines aren’t yet as good as humans at the fine motor skills, and at least for the foreseeable future, humans are better at inference, nuance, subtlety and gut-feelings than machines. As anyone who has ever tried to ask Siri or Alexa anything but the most straightforward question would attest. 

All this means that work environments – and increasingly our whole culture – expect us to perform like our machines in all areas except the couple where we are better. Our work, and increasingly our entire culture expect us to conflate efficiency with ultimacy.  

Which means we have created an economy, and increasingly a culture that requires us to suppress our humanity. Suppress your humanity, or lose our job. Suppress your humanity, or struggle to do life today.    

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made….When they want you to buy something they will call you. 

Check, check, check, check, check.  

~~~~~

Now, as anyone who has ever worked fast food will tell you, there’s always been a push to get the most done with the least amount of time, money, or energy.  Anyone who has ever worked anywhere in corporate America would probably say the same thing.

What’s new is just how efficient we believe we can be – technology has changed our expectations exponentially. 

Which is not just because of Amazon – it’s also Netflix, and Hulu, and all the apps on my smart TV that I LOVE.  It’s Grubhub and Instacart and King Soopers Pick Up (which also SAVES me regularly). It’s messaging apps and facetime and its spotify, Youtube, Stitch Fix, and maybe most of all it’s Google. 

All of these technologies – these amazing, salvific, liberating technologies – have taught us that whatever it is we need, we can get it now. 

Without much effort – just click!

 My son recently found this sweatshirt that he was so excited about, he had the money to pay for it, but then it said it would be delivered in three weeks.  He was like: nope.  

Three weeks. There was literally no reason for him to need it sooner.

I tried to explain to him about the Sears catalogue and about the little forms we had to fill out, number by number, and then we had to mail them in, and wait, and wait….but he’d already moved on.

If something’s going to take more than a couple steps, today – and if each of those steps aren’t guaranteed to lead us to a successful end, my son is not alone we often decide, it’s just not worth it. (Which I’ve come to believe is the business model for health insurance companies.  How many people find the process to submit for reimbursement so confusing and time consuming, you just give up?! It can’t just be me…)

Our technologies have taught us that life can be, should be instant. Seamless. Effortless. Continuously available and responsive to our every impulse. 

These expectations for life in turn become what we expect from each other – instant. Seamless. Effortless. Continuously available and responsive….and we come to expect this from ourselves too – that we will be continuously available and responsive…

It’s why Mark Baker encourages us to think not only about how we might influence Amazon, but even more, how Amazon is influencing US.

“Efficiency is our existential purpose;” This is a quote from Malcom Harris; he’s talking specifically about millennials and the ways the generation born between 1981 and 1996 has been “optimized” for efficiency their whole lives.  “Efficiency is our existential purpose; and we are crafted to be lean, mean production machines.” He says, it’s especially true for millennials and Gen Zersbut it applies to so much of our culture today. Efficient has become a synonym for “best.” 

And of course, sometimes efficiency is best.  In the middle of an emergency, we hope first responders love efficiency.  That they are OBSESSED with it.

Efficiency is also a necessary antidote to bureaucracy.  When we set up the Emergency Immigration Fund a couple years ago, we made sure that our system for getting the money to someone in crisis – was as efficient as possible.  One call, one day, check in hand.    

And in case my confession at the top didn’t make it clear –  as writer and activist Courtney Martin says“efficiency is a survival mechanism” for many of us.

She writes:

“I simply couldn’t care for my children and make a living and nurture friendships and contribute to a community in the way that I want to unless I was extremely judicious with my time and energy.”

When I read that I’m like: yes.  I bet she orders from King Soopers pick up too. 

Growing up, my sisters and I were expected to help bring in the groceries when my mom got home.  Sometimes we’d try to carry lots of bags all at once; they were paper bags, so we’d have to rush to the house before the bags broke. 

My dad would chastise us, saying, don’t take the lazy man’s load. And we’d sigh and put a few down, and make more trips. 

But later, we started to resist his advice with a quick retort:

“It’s not a lazy man’s load, dad; it’s an efficient woman’s load.”

Efficiency can be a way to survive, it can feel like freedom, even if fleeting.

And besides, inefficiency is often a luxury, made possible by having enough resources to create margin in your life, time to dawdle, or even loiter as in that great essay from Ross Gay we read back in December. 

If you can pay someone to clean your house, prepare your meals, tend to your lawn – you can be quite inefficient in all other things and still manage to accomplish the basics requirements of being a grown up today.    

Inefficiency is a luxury, and at the same time, poverty is a recipe for inefficiency. Without reliable transportation, employment, housing – and all the stuff that comes in a house – a washer and dryer, a shower, a place to put all of your things for easy access – inefficiency is destiny. 

It’s one of the traps of poverty, that everything that is obvious, easy and seamless to middle class folks becomes maddeningly time-consuming and demoralizing when those basics aren’t reliable. 

Which makes acquiring those basics a colossal feat. 

It helps to explain why, when you talk to low wage workers today, you mostly hear resignation about those soul-sucking conditions; and gratitude, for a steady job.     

~~~~~

Anyone remember the book The Jungle from high school English? Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose on the meat-packing industry was a part of a journalistic reform movement known as the Muckrakers. 

For about a decade at the turn of the century, the Muckrakers investigative reporting led to one systemic change after another – from safety conditions for coal miners to child labor laws to election fairness and anti-corruption measures – and yes, reforms for the meat-packing industry.

I was thinking about The Jungle this week, and the muckrakers, because sometimes we forget that there is nothing inevitable or mandatory about the world we live in. 

Our economy, our society, our culture – this crisis of human dignity we find ourselves in – there is nothing inevitable or mandatory about any of this. 

Despite a pervasive popular pull towards efficiency as our “existential” purpose today, our faith reminds us that we hold both the agency, and the responsibility to create a world that amplifies and celebrates our humanness – our true existential purpose which our faith names as our utterly inefficient interdependent humanness – we hold both the agency and the responsibility that celebrates our humanness, rather than suppresses it.

For example, I’ve been thinking that the most counter-cultural value we could promote today might be patience.  Patience that is not to be confused with complacency, but rather, patience connected to an unwavering commitment to the long-haul faith we explored a couple Sundays ago.

To create a world that amplifies and celebrates our humanness would require that we practice and prize a faithful patience, that we become experts in patience, model it, and teach it, declare it our good news for a world overly focused on instant success and frictionless ease.

Over the past few weeks, in this series about the future, I keep imagining all the people from the past who worked for a future they did not live to see.  People like James Reeb that we heard about last week.  Or even Roy Jones whose sermon we heard a couple weeks ago. 

All those whose dreams we inherit.  Our grandparents, great-grandparents.  Our ancestors – familial, spiritual. 

This year marks the 100 anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, so I’ve been especially tuned in to the stories of the suffragettes, women who worked to get the vote.  I imagine they must’ve taken so much ridicule, including from their own husbands. They probably had so many reasons to stop turning up at the White House, for march, stop writing letters, stop speaking up. 

They weren’t perfect, especially in terms of race and racism. 

And still, their willingness to plant trees they would not live to harvest means that no one here today, has ever lived in a time when women could not vote. 

The idea is as unimaginable to us as it is to my son to wait 3 weeks for a sweatshirt.

I wonder, what future will we invest in today so that 100 years from now, all those who gather together will take for granted its reality?  And I wonder, how we will cultivate the patience required for such commitment? 

Afterall, the future does not have to be faster, more automatic, more stimulating in the ways it’s been imagined in movies.  The future could be slow.  Manual. Even, boring.  The future could also be connective, personal, playful, real.

Every day, we get to decide, in the smallest moments, private moments – the future we will make. 

 So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it

Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Wendell Berry’s manifesto is brilliant, instructive for our crisis of human dignity – most of all the last line of the poem – two words that often feel like a shock when it is read; fitting for a poem that urges us to remain unpredictable and wild – he says:

Practice resurrection.

In these days, let us remember that it is never too late to begin again; to create life anew; to forge an entirely new way.  It is never too late to forge a future where all of humanity flourishes, freely, and together. 

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Tomorrow Land

tomorrowReading: The House Called Tomorrow by Alberto Rios 

Just over three years ago, we convened an impromptu evening service – the night after the national election.   

People poured in to social hall for the potluck meal we invited before the service – they came urgently, and also cautiously, seeking comfort and community.

More and more people came.  All ages.  Some who were already here started pulling out extra tables, first from the closets in the social hall, then running across to the other building to set up more – until we ran out of tables and then people rotated, after they finished eating, giving up their seats, willingnly.   So many people came we spilled out into the patio. It was cold, but no one complained.  

And the food – there was so much food.  Homemade mac and cheese and the biggest box of pizza I’ve ever seen; all the salads and fried chicken and mashed potatoes.  Comfort foods.

Every table filled with people – most I knew, but many I didn’t.

I remember from the service – Sean’s prayer – he’d just been at Foothills a couple months, and his prayer had a swear word in it, and for a moment I was like oh no – but everyone laughed through their tears, because it was the most honest thing anyone had said yet. 

I also remember the candles, one by one, lit – just like we do on Christmas Eve – like we did four times this Christmas Eve – and we sang together –in that silent night we sang – 

There is More Love, somewhere
There is More Love, somewhere
I’m gonna keep on – till I find it.
There is More Love, somewhere

As we were planning the service, I confess feeling unsure what to do, I mean, unsure how to make it clear that we still did not mean to say liberal religion is the same as liberal politics.  I wanted to say then, as I’ve wanted to say so many times since then: this is different. 

Unitarian Universalist minister Victoria Safford says it this way

“This is not about Republicans and Democrats; it’s about ways of being human in the 21st century, and certain ways are loud now and ascendant, ways of being which are in fact choices, and they are beneath us as a people: ways such as greed and the celebration of greed, lying and the celebration of lying, sexual predation and its celebration, military bravado, disdain for the poor, for working people and the land, white nationalism (whether spoken in code or explicitly), and more – all amplified and sanctified, and increasingly normalized, and thus infused with power.”

This is different.

The pain in those days, the pain that led so many to come for an impromptu prayer service at the Unitarian Church on a cold night in November – was about all of this that was suddenly our reality – our present tense – we came seeking to tend to this feeling that as Adrienne Rich wrote, “my heart is moved by all I cannot save – so much has been destroyed.”

We came grieving the present, and we came grieving the past – the past, as in – the prior year, which, if you remember the election process, had been brutal – but also the past as in, history

In that moment, the weight of history was everywhere.  What we as a country have been capable of in the past, capable of doing to one another, doing to anyone considered “other” – the ways we had failed to truly reckon with and reconcile let alone redeem our history – and what that says about what we might do again in the future

We came grieving the present, and the past, but most of all, the thing that brought many of us to gather was about the future.  The future we had imagined we were headed for, that we were carving out by our efforts, small though they may be – but still worthy, possible – the future we imagined – for our children, and grandchildren, the legacy our lives would leave – I quoted the great 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker that next Sunday:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.  I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

In the late Fall of 2016, we gathered because many of us were suddenly unsure if we agreed with him.  

Which was then, and is still, new territory for progressive religion.

For all the ways we have evolved over the centuries, one anchor has been our unwavering optimism about the future. Not superficial, or naïve optimism –  though that is always a danger and sometimes a reality – but an unwavering loyalty to seeing the world as it is – in both its beauty, and its brokenness, and saying – we can do better, and we will.

As one of our hymns says:  we revere the past, but we trust the dawning future more.

We are so oriented to the future – as a religion, that we are technically what some would call an apocalyptic religion.  

I know, it’s probably not what you’d think of when you think of Unitarian Universalism – but as theologian Rebecca Parker says,

“our version of the apocalyptic dream doesn’t imagine that old worlds are destroyed and new ones created simply by the act of a transcendent god.  We put ourselves into the drama. We assign ourselves the task of dismantling evil empires, and we go to work hammering together the New Jerusalem.  In place of the thousand years of wrong will come the thousand years of right.”

For a lot of our history, actually, it wasn’t just that we were up for this task, but we believed could get it done with relative speed.  Like, in the course of our next five-year plan. Or at least, we could make good progress.

A lot of the twentieth century was about coming to terms with the fact that this was – let’s say, naïve.  Starting with holocaust.  And then, the unfinished work of the Civil Rights era. And then the unresolved conflicts around Vietnam, and the devastating toll that war took, the growing economic gaps and political polarization of the 1980s and 90s –  none of these broke our faith in doing our part to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice – but we did start to realize, it might take a bit longer than we first thought. 

That Sunday after the election in 2016, I talked about the LONG arc of history.  Affirming that the future seek exists far beyond a single lifetime.   And so we cannot rely on the hope of results to keep us going – but instead remember that, as Vaclav Havel says, 

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” 

Since then, I have seen so many people – in this community, so many of you – working to take this in, and live it out – continuing to show up even when your hearts have been broken, serving in and beyond our community, listening to each other, and learning – pushing yourselves to grow, even when it has been really uncomfortable.  

Together, we keep finding our way back to gratitude, and joy – even when it has felt impossible.  We have learned what it means to be hope for each other. 

It has been beautiful to witness – to see in real life what courageous love looks like. 

And still, in these same years, especially as time has gone on, I have also witnessed our inevitable weariness, and a feeling sometimes articulated, sometimes not – that maybe we can just fix this in the next national election – which is, suddenly, within sight.

We know, we really do – that change will take a long time.  But also, it’s so hard to accept that we are working for a future we will not live to see.   

It reminds me of when we had Ingrid here in sanctuary with us, in the fall of 2017, many of wrestled with the hopelessness of her case – how long it would likely go on. Despite the recent pardon for her felony conviction granted by Governor Polis, even today, her path is narrow

Basically, she has committed to remaining in sanctuary until there is real comprehensive immigration reform. Likely, that is her only path out of sanctuary. 

It is a noble, courageous commitment.  

But here’s what I wonder – if she was here with us, still – would we be able to keep showing up for her on that path? Knowing that the journey would be long – like, years long, with many, many setbacks, and not many victories? How would we respond to a journey like that? 

Of course, there are different ways to think about sanctuary as a strategy for immigration reform – but I still think the question is good for us to think about – what it means for us to consider this work our faith calls us to dedicate our lives to – that is the future our faith orients us to – that it is the work of our whole lives? 

Or, maybe just to start – what it would mean to think about it as work for the next decade? From now, until 2030.  

I mean, whatever your work is – your place in the call of courageous love – how might it shift things when you actively consider that this is work you’ll be in for the next ten years? 

How would it shift your pace? 

The resources you’d need? 

The spiritual practices? 

The people you would show up for, and with? And how would you show up for them, and when?

When immigration activist and minister Alexia Salvatierra was here a few months ago, she spoke about the need to learn to grieve while you are in the work – if this really is the work of your whole lives- then we must acknowledge that our hearts are moved by what we cannot save – Name the pain of knowing how much has been destroyed –

If we are committed to a future beyond our own lifetimes, we need to learn to grieve with each other regularly, practice speaking aloud our grief, be present for others in their grief, make a space for grief as a regular companion – and learn its ways, its rhythms not as an aberration of life, something to minimize or escape, but instead we must know it as central to human existence, central to what it means to live, to love.

For many of us, this is not just challenging, we literally wouldn’t know where to begin.

So many of us are taught to avoid feeling – anything! In public – especially, let alone grief, or pain – we learn to shut it off and get over it – we learn to protect ourselves.  It’s what I’d call maladaptive coping – and it’s passed down generationally – we learn it in our families. 

Luckily there are those among us for whom this is not the case.  People we can learn from, and with. People who William James, in his book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” called “twice born,” by which he meant, those who have confronted tragedy and loss, fully – and come out the other side. Come out not the same, but changed. Transformed.  People who bear the scars of suffering, and survival –often these are people of color, people who have known poverty – especially generationally, queer folx, the disabled community, immigrants….to learn from, to honor them – to learn from and honor not just those who are alive today, but those who came before –

I was remembering this week this poem from Unitarian Universalist minister Theresa Hardy:

I got out of bed this morning because of all those who had to get out of bed before me: 
Martin and Coretta, the day after his home was bombed. (What did they tell the children?).
John Lewis, after nearly escaping death on the Edmund Pettus bridge.
My ancestors, who were dragged to the U.S. in chains,
laid flat like chattel on ships… and survived.
They survived and got out of bed each morning.
I am sick and tired and grieving and ready to quit this country.
But I got out of bed, shamed by the thought of letting these ancestors down.
And for now that’s how I am getting through this day.

To keep showing up for this future that is beyond what we will see, we must turn again and again to these guides, and so many others whose lives never saw the results of their efforts but on whose steadfast commitment rests many of the freedoms we know today. 

In the last few days, I confess however, that I have been less worried about cultivating patience and commitment towards a far-off apocalypse. Because instead, I’ve started to think – maybe it’s already here.

How can you not think of Apocalypse when you see the images of Australia burning? Or read about the animals, and habitat destroyed? Or the helplessness of knowing that those in power continue to deny the science, knowing what inaction will mean. Thinking already of the summers ahead.  How can you think about any of this and think anything other than: this is the world ending.

Which is another way to think about the future – to imagine that the destruction we might fear, the overturning of the world, which is to say – our potential for rebirth is not in some future time, it’s now. 

That this moment we are in is not about the darkness of the womb rather than the tomb – which is a message Valerie Kaur offered a couple of years ago as a message of hope – that this darkness we are in is not about death, but about life – but if we are actually living in the middle of the apocalypse,  it’s both the womb, and the tomb.  

That’s what Apocalypse is, afterall– the ending which signals the beginning; deconstruction that can bring rebirth. It’s another reason Rebecca Parker says to turn to those guides who have bear the scars of suffering, and survival – because they are living evidence that resurrection is possible. 

Civil rights leader and my teacher Dr. Vincent Harding used to say we are midwives for a world trying to be born – and, he’d also say, we are hospice chaplains for a world that is dying. 

We cannot neglect either of these roles, and the tenderness they invite, the embodied human community they necessitate – the chaos they imply, the pain, the risk, the circling around.

It’s an image that makes sense to me in the middle of catastrophe.  Just think of what it is like to find yourself in the middle of a true disaster – there is so much kindness, generosity – tables are set up and we sit out on the patio in the cold without complaint, and we eat mac and cheese and light candles even though we don’t know where we’re going or what will happen next. 

“The bad do not win—not finally….”

Alberto Rios was inspired to write his poem “The House Called Tomorrow” by the journey of his father, an immigrant from southern Mexico, and his mother, an immigrant from Northern England – they met, fell in love, and their family grew up together – in the border town of Nogales Arizona –  

The bad do not win – not finally        
No matter how loud they are.
We simply would not be here
If that were so.
You are made, fundamentally, from the good.
With this knowledge, you never march alone.
You are the good who has come forward
Through it all, even if so many days
Feel otherwise. 
From those centuries we human beings bring with us
The simple solutions and songs,
The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies
All in service to a simple idea:
That we can make a house called tomorrow.
What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,
Is ourselves.  And that’s all we need
To start.  That’s everything we require to keep going.”

That night in November, when we sang about there being more love somewhere – we knew it then.  The somewhere we were longing for – it was already here. And in so many moments since then we know it again. 

Everything we need for the world ending, and for its beginning again – its and our resurrection – is right here. 

In you, in me, in the choice to keep showing up with tenderness, imagining something more. 

Here is the future we’re longing for, this is the land called tomorrow, the tomorrow that is already today.

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What Were You Expecting? Hanukkah 2019

exImagine you are living in a time with the long reign of a narcissistic dictator, a rise that meant multiple generations living with tyranny, oppression, fear.  Imagine for many years your people have been terrorized and even killed by those in power.

Imagine that for many years you have not been able to gather or practice the religion and customs of your birth – all those things that mean the most to you have been outlawed.

And then imagine, hope against hope, that a small band of rebels, without enough resources or enough people – without any real reason to think they could be successful – manage to overthrow those in power, and liberate everyone into a new and possible freedom.

This is the story of Hanukkah. 

The story of the Jewish people after the rebellion of the “small band” known as the Maccabees.

Finally, they who had lived on the edge of despair for so long would be able to return to their temple, which was for them a place of security and memory and hope.

They were celebrating, purifying, remembering and re-claiming – the Assyrian army had been defeated, they were free. 

In the historical record, this is the “miracle” of Hanukkah. 

Just this.  And it is enough. 

A small community of people who refuse to cooperate with their own oppression, refuse to accept the world as it was, even after generations of it being that way – and a small group continuing to act until liberation finally becomes reality. This is an amazing miracle. 

The rabbinical record, however, keeps going – past this part of the story.

The rabbinical record reminds us that for many years before the uprising – when the Jews were hiding in caves, and fending off arrest – they had missed their great festival of Sukkot, which must be celebrated in the temple, and so now that they had returned, they could begin the ritual as their promises with God required.

As they began, however, they realized that the Assyrians had destroyed all but one night’s worth of oil for the lamp.

They needed 8 days’ worth – anything less would not allow a true re-dedication or commitment to begin again as a religious community and as a people.

After all they had been through, it mattered that they do it right, and completely – it mattered that they not let the light go out.

And as the story goes – rather than the lamp staying lit for one day, the oil lasted for the whole 8 days.

These 8 days are why Hanukkah is celebrated for 8 nights, with each night lighting a new candle on the menorah.

In the rabbinical telling, this was the miracle – that the oil that lasted far beyond what it should have – that’s how you end up with latkes and other oil-heavy foods as a part of the Hanukkah celebration! 

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Both of these moments – the uprising of the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted – are miraculous, amazing, and inspiring –  and yet they aren’t what has always struck me as the most miraculous truth at the heart of this story.

For me, the miracle is in something less showy, more routine. 

The miracle, for me, is the choice that the Jewish people made to light the lamp in the first place.  

The choice that made the 8 nights of light possible. 

They made the choice to light the lamp, even though it was hopeless.

They made the choice even though they probably didn’t think it would make a difference.

Something in them persuaded them to expect that something else could be at work. 

Something beyond their own effort, their own vision.

In making that choice they chose to believe, as Arandhati Roy writes, “another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” 

This choice was the miracle. Expecting the miracle was the miracle. 

Because by their expectations, they made the miracle possible. 

This is the power of expectations.

Since researcher Robert Rosenthal began studying expectations and their impact in the 1950s, it’s been repeatedly shown that what we expect shapes not only our own experiences, but also others’ experiences, and then all of these accumulate so that all of these small, yet often meaningful ways, our expectations can impact – as in change –  Reality.  

For example.  “One study described golfers who were told they had a ‘lucky’ ball. They made more putts than when using an ‘ordinary’ ball.” 

Another: “Highly-trained weight lifters out-do their personal bests when they believe they’ve taken a performance booster.”

And repeatedly, “studies have shown that a teacher’s expectations can raise or lower a student’s IQ score.” 

Not just their grades.  Their IQ.

This was one of the earliest discoveries from Rosenthal – how a teacher’s unconscious bias – specifically racial bias – impacts how well a child learns – because, for example,

when a teacher expects more from a child, they will wait longer for the child to answer, and take a longer time explaining a subject they may seem not to understand. 

These are barely-noticeable, usually sub-conscious shifts resulting from our expectations – with a huge collective impact.

This is what we might call the placebo effect – this long-disparaged idea where we can be fooled by “fake” medicines that trick us into believing we are being healed –  but here it’s being played out socially, collectively. 

Except- what we are learning is that far from “fake,” the placebo effect is actually a manifestation of a very real, very complex scientific truth – it’s just that rather than the medicine, or more generally – the change- coming from a pill, it comes from within us – from our brains. 

This is the basic premise of science writer Erik Vance’s fascinating 2016 book, Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal

Our brains, Vance describes, are wired for the future – they are constantly assessing what’s going to happen next.  Almost entirely subconsciously. 

This is connected to the “time warp” Sean spoke about last week – because the way that our brains predict the future is by drawing on what they know from the past. 

All the time, our brains are taking experiences from the past – and by the past, that might mean two seconds ago or two years ago – and using it to predict the future, and therefore guide our choices in the present. 

And then – as I feel like I’ve been saying in every sermon lately: our brains don’t like to be wrong.  

Our brains don’t want those expectations they are making to be wrong. 

So sometimes, amazingly, instead of shifting our expectations, our brains shift reality. 

Let me offer an example:

Returning to golf.   If we know from the past, about an experience that felt like we were playing with a “lucky ball” because we played better than we ever played before – when we play with a ball we are told is lucky – our brains expect the outcome to be the same. 

And so our body and mind automatically make small, unconscious choices that can ultimately all add up to playing a better game. 

We are more focused.  Less anxious. More confident, clear.

All because our brains want the expected future to line up with the actual future. 

What’s wild is that it doesn’t always matter if you know that it may not actually be a lucky ball.  Acting as if it is – like, the “theatre” around having a lucky ball – this is the thing that hooks your sub-conscious to engage the things that will produce the original expectation. 

One of my favorite stories from Vance’s reporting is the story of an experimental Parkinson’s treatment – not a pill, surgery.  Participants in the study come in for brain surgery – but then some get the surgery, and some don’t.  And the doctors make the same marks on your skull so you can’t tell. 

Well, one patient – after he had his “surgery”, it changed his life.  “He went from having trouble walking and talking to — heli-skiing. He did a half-marathon. He climbed the backside of Half Dome.”

And everyone was thrilled – they thought they cured Parkinson’s. But then two years later, when it was time to un-blind the study, his doctors were shocked. Because he was one who didn’t actually get the surgery.

Again, it’s important to say this – it wasn’t that it was all fake.  The experience itself activated real physiological differences in the brain, in the body – that literally created this patient’s expected future. 

Of course, expectations do not entirely determine reality – as Chris Berdik describes in his book Mind Over Mind –  there are limits to what the placebo effect can do. 

When my son broke his arm last month, we couldn’t simply “expect” him to be healed, and make it so.  Expectations can’t fix poverty, racism, or the climate crisis.  I wish.  

Vance describes it like this: placebos can’t stop the disease, but they can often limit, even erase, the impact of the disease. 

Expectations shift things in small, often imperceptible ways.  As our expectations shift, small, imperceptible things shift in us, in our bodies, in our actions; and from these shifts, small, imperceptible things shift in others, and in the world around us.  And all of these small effects can end up making a big difference. 

There’s another story from the Talmud – a story of the Jewish people hundreds of years earlier, when they were slaves in Egypt – until a man named Moses led them to their freedom.

This story, is the moment when he’s try to do just that.  They’ve left Egypt, Moses is leading them to the Promised Land – until he finds himself at the edge of the Red Sea.

His people were all around him, hungry for liberation.  All Moses and his people had to do was go forward. Freedom was waiting.

Except for the sea. This big, deep, wide sea.

Moses looked to God, unsure what to do. But nothing happened.  The ocean remained wild, unfriendly, hopeless. 

Until, from the back of the crowd, a man named Nachshon pushed his way forward, and started walking into the sea.   

A regular guy who’d never heard a voice from a burning bush. In that moment, he decided what he could do – was keep walking.    

Moses stared at him. Others started to point and yell. What are you doing? You’ll drown!

But Nachshon just kept walking. He waded through the rising tide, the water hit his calves.

He kept walking. Water hit his waist.

He kept walking. The water came up to his chest, and then his shoulders. He kept walking, the water all around him. Until finally, it was at his nostrils, about to fill his lungs.

And it was at that moment, the Red Sea parted, and the Israelites could continue their journey to freedom, moving safely through the walls of water, safely through the sea.

His expectation of the miracle made the miracle possible. 

In the story of Hanukkah, when the Jewish people decided to expect something other than what all reason might’ve told them was possible, this is a story they would have remembered.

This is the memory – the collective memory that their brains would’ve used to shape a story about the future.

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt – Hebrew scriptures say again and again –

so that when the question of whether or not they should step out to resist the oppressive regime; or whether they should light the lamp even though there was not enough oil – though the present reality said it was hopeless, their brains were sure something else was possible: freedom, and liberation.  

They expected a miracle – and made the miracle possible. 

Over the past few years, there have been many moments where I’ve seen people wonder if there’s anything they can do would make a real difference.  So many places today make the Hanukkah story feel not all that distant. In our world – and in our personal lives.

Which is why the Hanukkah story should feel like such good news for us in our lives today.  Because what Hanukkah reminds us – is that we can unlock the power of expectations – We can draw on our past in all the ways we have changed and healed and walked into the sea and it parted.  We can draw on a collective courage – which is one of our core values at Foothills.  

For as many times as I have seen people struggle to know how and when to act, just as often I have been bolstered by someone stepping out like Nachshon.  Making the way by just walking forward. 

This is a collective courage, a collective memory, that can fuel a collective expectation, and a collective liberation.

We don’t know what the future will bring – in our own lives, or in the world.

We don’t know if our actions will be enough.

But the only ways they could be, is 

if we act as if they are

If we take the step forward to light that first candle 

If we act in expectation of the miracle –  making the miracle possible. 

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Lose Your To Do List

Reading: Ross Gay’s Loitering

Sermon: Lose Your To-Do List

Growing up, I learned a special way to mark time at this time of year. Even better than the “Christmas Countdown app.” I learned to mark time with an Advent Calendar.  

In my family, we had a relatively elaborate Advent Calendar. Homemade by one of our family friends using felt. 

It was big, and green, with all the days of December marked out on the bottom, and a blank space at the top – where each day, we would add a piece of the nativity story, so that by the end of the month, the whole scene was there. 

Each day was actually a pocket, that held the different nativity characters and scenery – plus a paper with a story snippet corresponding to the felt you’d be putting up.  

And also, of course, a treat. 

Sometimes chocolate or candy canes.  Sometimes Barbie clothes. You never knew. 

It was all part of the magic.  I mean, the treats, but also, the repetition, the re-creation of the story, every year.  We knew it so well but we also loved acting like we didn’t. 

Where will Mary and Joseph stay? Where will she have the baby?

And why is there a dog in the nativity? Were there dogs in ancient Jerusalem?

Every year, these same questions.  

There’s something about repetition like this at the same time each year that helps you with the marking of time. 

Sometimes Unitarian Universalists can be overly committed to novelty; but there’s a lot of wisdom in tradition – Sean’s going to explore this more in a few weeks.

How turning to something familiar at the same time, in the same way – clues your brain, your body, your heart in to the passing of time – and in the telling of these ancient stories, locates you in a greater story, too.

It’s what Ross Gay is getting at when he talks about “taking one’s time.”  As in, claiming ourselves in time, to know this day as the day we have, this moment, this hour, this life – as ours.  And to know ourselves as a part of the great arc of all time, past, present, future. 

Advent calendars, and wreaths, and the whole idea of advent – are all ways to mark time –both in the countdown sense, and also to mark ourselves – where we are and when we are – which in turn, connects us more fully to who we are – in time, and in life.  In the greater story of life.

Fitting for the Christmas story of a baby arriving at an inconvenient time and inconvenient place – marking time in advent is much like the marking of time while pregnant.  Pregnancy too has countdown apps these days – but even without an app, pregnancy means being constantly aware of time: the months, and then the weeks, and the days remaining –  the baby growing, yes, but also the things you have left to do in that time so you can be ready – even though the whole time you suspect there’s nothing you can do that would make you ready.

You might think, given this core story of advent, that the text in Christian churches today – which is the first Sunday in Advent – would be the story of Mary’s pregnancy.  But because sexism, it’s another story – also about marking time.  

It’s a text known as the “little apocalypse,” because Jesus tells everyone that SOMETHING IS COMING SO WATCH OUT – KEEP AWAKE he says. 

Except he doesn’t really say what that something is.  He says there will be angels, with trumpets, on clouds.  Or, he says, there won’t be.  Instead, maybe it will come without warning, like a “thief in the night.”  So live all the time READY – BE READY all the time – even though there’s probably no way to really be ready. It kind of reminds me of…. 

“You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout…”

It’s not just Christian households that mark time differently this season, with a sense that we need to get ready for SOMETHING THAT’S COMING…

The world around us, the stories within us – deep stories, I mean childhood stories – create in us a sense of urgency, and even vigilance, to hurry, to get all the things done, get ready – SOMETHINGS COMING. 

So we shop, and decorate, bake and celebrate, sing and gather with family, rush to holiday concerts and school plays, wrap presents, lose the scissors, shovel the walkway, travel cross-country, buy new scissors, trim the tree, pull together end-of-the-year reports, find the scissors you first lost, hurry to office holiday parties, watch the grandkids, light the menorah, ski (not enough!), drink hot totties and eggnog lattes (too much!), fill up on pecan pie and mashed potatoes, and don’t forget, pass back and forth the holiday cold.

Especially in a year where Thanksgiving is compressed so closely with Christmas…..Instead of marking time with the steady, intentional presence I learned as a kid through my advent calendar

The magical marking of time that links when you are with who you are – many of us instead mark this time of year with a mad dash of activity and consumption and production until we don’t know what day it is, or even our own names…

…. I mean, I’d have to guess at least a few of you received the notice about our worship series “Slow Down” in your email in box this week – and were like: you’re kidding. 

 It’s why, when my partner heard that the title of my sermon for this week was “Lose Your To Do List,” she responded quickly with: “that gives me anxiety.” 

And I’d bet she’s not alone.  

How many of you would call yourself a “list” person? 

I love lists, actually.  Lists are a way that we keep track of all those things that need to get done – but that haven’t gotten done yet – it’s a way to manage the anxiety of all that remains unfinished….Because without a list – you might forget to do the thing by the time it needs to be done; or just as bad, you might obsess about the fact that it’s not done yet, so you keep turning it over and over in your brain with increasing anxiety and adrenaline…

Sound familiar?

This anxious response to our unfinished business is what’s called the Zeigarnik Effect. 

Remember I said a couple weeks ago how the brain likes things to be resolved – similarly, it likes things to be finished. Once we start something, our brains want to keep bringing it up into our short term memory over and over – until it gets done.  Now you officially understand the entire Netflix Marketing Strategy.  (Next Episode…)

This Effect was discovered through a study on food servers in restaurants.  You know how amazingly your server can remember all the details of your order…? But what’s interesting is that after you’ve paid, they forget all about you.  Every table blurs into another. 

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik picked up on this, and through a series of studies figured out that before the tables were “done,” the servers turned the orders over and over in their short term memories – adrenaline, anxiety – but then as soon as it was done – huge relief – they could forget all about it. And they did. 

This is explains what I was describing can happen in the mad-dash of the holidays – you get to mid- January and you’re like – what happened?! What did we even do on Christmas this year? Who am I?! 

It’s not just the holidays though that we have to figure out how to live with “unfinished business.” All those things – you know need to be done, but aren’t…yet. So much of life is about learning this lesson – or at least, it’s the lesson my kids have been trying to teach me every day for the last 14 years….which IS the whole of their lives.  

My children love to come breaking in to whatever thing I’m trying so hard to finish – dinner, a sermon, a conversation – whatever I’m trying to GET DONE, and provide me, instead, with an alternative

They are, as one author put it, a constant invitation to be “willingly distracted by the present.” And occasionally…rarely – by some combination of grace and luck and lots of prior investment in my own spiritual health I sometimes manage to relish their lessons – and somehow sometimes I manage to remember that unfinished business is actually a sign that we’re doing life right….

Afterall, as Reinhold Neibuhr said, “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime.”

And so “taking our time” can also mean letting ourselves take up to do lists that will take longer than our own lives – letting ourselves feel a part of the larger arc that will keep moving, and dreaming, and doing, and being – long after we are gone. 

To live with “unfinished” things means knowing that even at our last breath, we will be growing and changing and striving – that is, still learning, still healing, still becoming – that we will be still living, for our whole lives –  which is the hope, right? Unfinished business is a sign of a life well lived….which is beautiful, except for our brains! 

Because our brains still love all things to be resolved.  So they are at work – all the time to get us to clean up those “loose ends” –  whether we’re talking about unfinished holiday shopping or unread emails or an unresolved relationship – all this unfinished business can occupy a huge amount of mental energy, and creates an inflated sense of urgency – whether we realize it or not – it gives us a sense that we’ll never have enough time. 

Which means, we can never really relax, let alone “loiter.”

Because we need to hurry and get done – whatever it is we’ve left undone.  Especially things we’ve actually started – even if that’s in a hypothetical way, as in, we’ve thought about them a LOT, written them down, maybe transferred them from one list to another…and another…and another….with the guilt growing with every transfer, and the dread of having not done it, needing to do it, wanting to get it done…..

Which is why – it’s true, we may be better off losing our to do list. 

Don’t panic. 

Because think about what happens when you lose your to do list.   First, if you’re like me, you might freak out a little. But then, you take a deep breath, and a get a clean piece of paper, and you start from the top

And you ask yourself – what is it that I need to do?

If you want to torture yourself, you try to remember what was on that old list, sure you’re forgetting something. 

Or, instead, and this is my invitation to you, not just in December, but across the whole of our lives….you can open the question up, in a fuller way – so that you access the deeper thought process, the slow thinking part of your brain, your heart, your body – the part of yourself that knows itself “in time,” and that knows in a deeper way what it means to “take your own time.” 

The invitation of this season, and the challenge is to linger here, in this slow space.  To remember that dream that is just yours. A dream that lives in your inhale, and your exhale, that will go on long past your last breath – a project that you will spend the rest of your life not-finishing. 

This is the thing to record on your new list. Record it first, and then again, and again. 

Start here, and then return here.  

Because in this life – that is inevitably filled with unfinished business – it matters what we leave undone.  

This is what the Zigarnik effect teaches us most of all – whatever is left on our to-do list is what is left on our heart.  And so we need to be so careful about the work we pick up, the work we begin, the work we call ours – because it will be what our brain turns towards over, and over, and over.

Which if it’s the right thing – can actually be for the good – after all, any big, complicated achievement, any work worth doing – relies heavily on the obsessive nature of the Zigarnik effect. 

It is the opportunity of this season – to mark time in this slower, more intentional way. To know when we are in a way that connects us to who we are. So that we can know – long after the light returns, and the walks are clear and dry, that we are not perpetually out-of-time but that we are held in time, connected, and whole, and enough.

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A different survival

Last week, Gracie, who is in 8th grade, called me from school, crying.

Their class had just watched the videos from 9/11, videos that included a lot of the live footage, and the photographs that came out in the days immediately following that tragedy.  She was crying not just because of having seen, and felt, the loss, and the terror of that event, but also, because her teacher immediately moved on from the video into an analytical discussion of Islam.

I was upset with her teacher, but then I realized – she’s just doing what we all learn to do.  And teaching the kids to do it too: De-personalize, objectify, contain, move on, stay busy.

To cope with how overwhelming life can be, we have to stay shallow.  In these days of mass shootings, children separated from their families at the border, a corrupt criminal justice system and the school-to-prison-pipeline, environmental devastation –  in these days where all of these big and heartbreaking things are – everywhere – to live in this world, we have to keep so much held in, well-contained – and we learn to just move on to whatever is the next big thing, to just keep going.  (And worse: this shallow orientation also tends to benefit the very small – and increasingly smaller – few who will profit from the status quo.)

I’ve been re-reading adrienne maree brown’s emergent stratagy all summer, and I keep thinking about one line early in the book: “We are brilliant at survival, but brutal at it.” She goes on to say – “We tend to slip out of togetherness the way we slip out of the womb, bloody and messy and surprised to be alone.”

Gracie had a very human reaction, a healthy reaction, a heart-felt response to something overwhelmingly painful.  It reminded me of Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” – that begins first by really honoring the pain and the grief – of all we have lost, all we are losing.  Most important, is the opportunity to do this work communally instead of in private, individualized spaces.  Because in the communal spaces of grief, we realize our collective power for change.

It was such an opportunity to teach these middle schoolers about communal grief, and the power of collective action.  Instead, her teacher said, when she heard about Gracie’s reaction, “I’m glad she took care of herself by calling you, and getting a hug from the counselor.”

I’m taking the kids to Denver’s Climate Strike on Friday because I want them to know that there is another way to respond to our personal sense of loss and grief – they are both extremely distressed about climate change and its impact. And to know that they are not alone – there’s a massive community of people out there who are also heartbroken, outraged, and ready to lead our country and our planet in an entirely new way of survival.  A survival that prioritizes staying together – in the tears, in the heartache, in the terror.  A survival that uses that heartache to motivate us to do better – not in some distant future of some future election cycle – but now.

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Thirst

Start with the thirst
the deep well you have been forgetting,
ancient and ready to be soaked
without shame
the well your grandmothers dug for you
the reservoir carved and cared for
by the people your ancestors
betrayed
your thirst is their faithfulness
undeterred from believing
there are no strangers here
in the same thirst
we are made and unmade
born and born again

Thirst is the thing
that remembers
who you are
before the land, the hard rock, your
body stiff and unyielding –
hungry for canyons, mountains,
oxbow lakes, whole oceans of whales
and sea lions, and even
the bitter stories of slave ships and refugees
refused at the shore –

The thirst can hold it all,
untellable tales of
water coming before the ground is ready
water rising without recourse
stories also of creation and construction
the pot boiling for tea, and dinner,
warm washcloths, and
the first starts of a seedling in the spring
the thirst tastes the air,
knows the sky, and the
rain before it comes, and
sets in motion
the leap off the ledge
of the dock
freedom bound
into the startling cold, and the way the
breath leaves, and returns
like the sense that you are small
and also not unlike
late summer monsoons
always on the verge of
danger, and undoing it all

The thirst says
we are soft in these bodies
part river, flowing with the browns, the cuttbows, the
immigrant geese, sometimes too much, and
risk ready, part creek trickling
for miles underground,
the thirst knows there is a way
to turn every breaking thing
into beauty, to flush the wound clean
and begin the healing
again, thirst is what is possible
when we tend to the wanting
of all the world, the generations, the stars
starting with
your one, dry mouth
and the reaching for the glass,
the pouring, and the filling
the lifting to your tongue, and the
drinking in until you are
drenched in
life

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Weeds, a Sabbatical Story

I know it sounds naive, but I swear at the start, I thought it was a one-time thing.

Granted, they were everywhere, so I knew it wasn’t going to be simple, or short term.

But, still, I thought if I was thorough, attentive.  If I got to the roots.  If I spent enough time – in what I came to think of as both my penance, and pleasure – sweating in the often blistering sun – if I was sufficiently dutiful – I would eventually be able to move forward. All the weeds would be eradicated, and my garden would become safe, and regulated – without having to return again, and again, and again.

Before I knew to call it “bindweed,” I saw its ropes wrapped around every little thing in my garden just trying to break free, and survive.  There were others, too – what I later learned to call crabgrass, goatsbeard, thistle (mostly Canadian variety), spotted surge, and the wayward starts born of nearby trees, confused about worthy ground.img-0142.jpg

All of them, a flourishing, interdependent ecosystem of garden colonizers – and we know, no colonizer gives up their territory too easily.

Still, it was beautiful.  All of this unruly growth, when you stood back – my garden was robust, alive, with the weeds indistinguishable from intentional plants.   Wild, unruly, beautiful.

It had been like that for such a long time, I confess it had started to feel like destiny. Like that was the plan all along. Two full seasons since we moved in, probably many before that. And for each of these seasons, the wild beauty was enough. 

I’d even say that sometimes, when I looked out at the great green wall of everything mixed up and running free – it was exquisite.

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Wild, exquisite, free.  And perfectly low-effort – exactly aligned with what I had time to wish for.

As sabbatical began, I decided I should take a good walk through the garden. Get a closer-up sense of what was actually going on, start to imagine something else, a bigger wish.

It was the first week of May, before anything was in bloom, but already swelling with spring rain, and newly bright sun – the garden was already loud, or really, mostly, the weeds were loud, and pronounced.  And the trees, too, pronounced with huge bundles of dead branches weighing down new growth.  And in every corner, fallen leaves and peach pits decomposing, and weeds on top of leaves, and rocks in all the wrong places.

So I set out, on a mission.  To bring order, clarity, new life.  Beginning with understanding what that life would even mean – to learn about each plant on its own terms, with its own impulse towards life, and to see – what is this intending to be, to do? which parts here are plant that we want to save, and which is the invader?

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I took many walks through local gardens with handy labels – CSU, Spring Creek – and I googled often.

Once I had a sense, I moved on to the work of liberation – unwind the bindweed, extract the thistles, remove the leaves, move in new rocks, settle everything in, bless it with water, and then, step away to see what would happen.

Although it’s true, there’s a lot of labor at a number of points along the way, equally, gardening is an act of just paying attention – with occasional pep talks, laments, and praise.  This is how I ended up with poems like the one that begins, “I found myself apologizing to the peaches again today….” 

I bought two pairs of sturdy gloves early in the summer and I used them regularly, and there’s even a couple of well-earned holes in the fingers), but still I mostly preferred to meet the weeds with my bare hands.  (Except the thistles.  I mean, ouch.)

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Which means, I am returning from sabbatical with calloused hands. Calloused, and still dirty-looking, despite many regular and thorough washings.

Sometimes, at the end of the day I would look at my hands and imagine my paternal grandfather, Gus – the smell of his tomato plants, the rhubarb he’d complain was out of control, and the way he pulled the carrots out of the ground and I thought it was a miracle.

Or, my father’s hands after a day in the raspberry bush, or the potatoes, or the annual planters on our deck.  The way I learned, not with words exactly, just in the living – how the garden can turn a bad day, or bad week, or bad year of work, or a fight at home, or a checkbook that won’t balance or reveal the money for all the bills that need to be paid – all of these, after a few hours of watering, weeding, re-arranging, witnesssing – can be transformed into joy, and release, and even, purpose.

I know it’s probably too obvious, but it’s still true to say that weeds are a lesson in power.  The power to choose what has the right to keep on, to flourish, the power to understand what was worth saving.  Or, the power to remain careless and haphazard, to pull up something someone had sometime earlier planted with some great intention.

Even just today I pulled on a particularly interesting weed only to realize from the black well-balanced dirt that came bursting out – it was something I’d planted early in the summer, and had forgotten.

We are always all making this choice – what is worth saving, what matters, what belongs, what we want to feed, what we will leave behind.  Some of us have a greater chance to decide, a wider span of control, autonomy, privilege.  And still, all of our lives are attempts at this power – in the garden, our homes, our cities, our lives.

For example, for a long time, in the early summer, I decided to let the goatsbeard thrive as part of the garden.  The yellow flowers were so tall, proud – it gave some height to an otherwise ground-cover-heavy yard.  They asserted their place so particularly, not appearing at all like invaders.  And still, when I looked at them, I knew, their time would come – and little by little, they came to look more and more like dandelions, and so I reached down at their base, and dug my fingers into the dirt around them, and pulled them each up, one after another.  Like a massacre, or a liberation.

I’m sure not everyone experiences their garden as if a battle – but I could not help, over the season, to begin to know myself as the defender of the plants that were intended to flourish – battling all those that were constantly attempting to squelch this flourishing.

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Not just weeds, but hail – late, and devastating.

And squirrels, especially in the late season as the peaches swelled.

Bugs came earlier – i.e. the hungry caterpillars trying to turn into the butterflies who will later pollinate flowers in all the right ways are first a threat to the leaves of those same flowers.

My well-intentioned but still careless dog is both a danger and defender, though probably, in balance, an extremely-well-disguised enemy.  And still, his company makes it worth his betrayals: the ways he displaces the rocks on top of the fragile new plant while chasing down a squirrel, or decides the just-cleared out area with a new tall-reaching flower is just the place for an afternoon nap.  Mostly, his company, especially attentive when I’m digging, or sitting and staring at it all at the end of the day overrides all of this.  Net positive, I swear.

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More questionable are my thoughtless and only-occasionally-well-intentioned children -who travel up and down and around my garden without thinking twice. They forgot to notice there’s been a change since the weeds covered it all, forgot to adapt their behavior to find the newly installed steps around either side.  I shout at them, plead to be careful of the flowers and they look down and shout out, sheepishly, sorry mom, and then by the next day, forget again.

All this – not to mention the news coming from the border, the President, and the dual massacres in Ohio and El Paso – all had me thinking all summer about danger, and what we do to protect the things we love.  This is what happens with such a huge expanse of time, and the chance to listen to all the news, and the brain space to worry about your children and all they may be getting themselves into, and to think back on all that life has brought, and all that has been lost along the way.  You can’t help but contend with the fact that danger is everywhere, and grief.  No matter how dutiful we may be, how thorough, hard-working well-intentioned, how diligent – there is so much at risk, all the time, everywhere.  Not everything can be saved, and barely anything – especially people – can be protected from danger.

To decide to care about something means to decide you’re going to have your heart broken, sooner or later.

I kept thinking – it would be so much easier if I just let the weeds keep on with their takeover. If I cared less, paid less attention.

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But then, I would look over at the trees, freed from all their dead branches that had been for so long holding them back, now flourishing – and the path I’d made after all the weeds were cleared that we could walk up to survey it all, and sit under the shade, while the neighbors’ chickens make their daily plea for food or attention –  and the phlox offers itself in bright pink, and purple, and white – I didn’t even know those flowers existed before all this began, and yet their potential was there the whole time. The whole time, there was always so much here than I even knew to hope for.

Only this that can keep us from letting the danger take hold – this seeing something beyond what we thought was possible, this stunning surprise of life, this faith in what remains not yet.  Only the clearing everything out, the caring for something before you even know what it is, that risk to care, to tend, to feel a part – only this decision to love keeps us going.

I kept on with my plan for much of the first few weeks.  Working slowly, dilligently, whole days would pass and I’d hardly made it through a small plot of land.  And with each hour, the filling of buckets and buckets of weeds, alternated with re-distributed rocks.  And then, throughout the day, I would empty the weeds into the yard waste bins, that over the week would fill, until each Wednesday they would again be full, or over-full, to place on the street – and another week would begin, with hope, and intention.

Weeds, and rocks – these were the truest story of my sabbatical.

It continued like this until early June when I took a trip with my family to the northwest, which meant I left it all behind for nearly three weeks.  There was water on it, that wasn’t a worry, I decided it could survive a couple of weeks in early summer, and then I would get back on mission.

The good news was that, it all survived – water does make sure of that.  The bad news, or really, just the lesson, was that the water also fed the weeds, and even more so.  In fact, the weeds, while I was away, decided it was their time to party / take over.  A full resurgence, over every little area that I had considered conquered.

I had no right to believe that one pass would tame all that had been running free for years – but I did believe it, and seeing everything I had so carefully cleared all grown over again, I was devastated.  I wondered if I had been wasting my time, or if I would ever move beyond this 20 square foot plot into the rest of the yard- or if I would keep at this one section over, and over, and over.

Every thought I had about danger being everywhere intensified – and instead of just thinking about danger, I started to wonder about nihilism.  But then, there was still about 8 weeks left in sabbatical – I had all this time to just, go back, try again.  So I did.

Pulling, and moving, and assessing, and blessing.  This time it all went much faster, as I realized I knew some things about how the plants should fall, and because I’d been there recently, the soil was quicker to give way when I came for the weeds.  Before long, I was moving along to the next section, and the next, and the next.

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Along the way, I kept circling back to the prior places, watering the new plants I’d added, reshuffling displaced rocks, finding the bindweed that was so insidious, persistent – sometimes even having the nerve to flower – conceding the impossibility of really ever getting it all.

One particularly problematic section I’d done over three or four times, I finally decided to clear out all the rocks and dig it all up, spread out weed-preventer, and then put down a weed barrer, and then the rocks again, along with a few new plants.  We have to vary our strategies, I reminded myself. Keep trying new ways to tend to all this life and these dreams for more.

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It’s a set up, you know that, right?

This was the response the minister who led my life review retreat in July asked me when I told her about my work in the garden, and my hope to get it stable – finished – before I would feel ready to go back to work.

It’s a set up, what you’re doing to yourself. 

And then we took a walk to the garden right below the window we had been sitting beside.

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She and her husband had been gone from home for the first 6 weeks of summer.  They returned to find their garden looking like this on all sides.  Wildflowers aka weeds had fully interspersed with every flower they’d previously intentionally planted.

Sometimes life looks like this, she said.  And sometimes it looks like something more orderly.  The work is not to make it all look orderly, and it’s not to give it all up either.  The work is to discover in all of it, where the beauty is at any given moment, the joy, and what will be, good enough.

Good enough is not a concept I’ve let myself entertain much – like ever – and even though I wrote it down when she said it,  and even agreed to give such an idea a try – I’ve had to turn it around and around since then to begin to understand what she was getting at.

Which is – I think – about coming to terms with our place in life, which is not nothing, and also, not everything. To accept that there are seasons in life, as in the garden, and rhythms.  I think good enough means coming to make friends with time – rather than, as I have always done – thinking of time as a problem to be solved.

Good enough means coming to terms with what we can do in day, an hour – or a lifetime.  Calling that offering a blessing – whether it turns out to be a garden abundant with weeds and wildflowers (as mine was as well – and it was, in its own way exquisite), or one governed with intention that yields peaches, phlox, hydrangeas, wisteria, sage, daisies, columbines, lilacs and so many others – and fends off any creeping invaders with diligence and fidelity.

Good enough is not to surrender to the danger that threatens all that we love, or pretending it does not exist, but only to know that our best defense must include knowing our own limits, and even our helplessness in a bigger sense – to continue to do our part, regardless, and to give the rest to those who will come next, to the earth, to God.

Good enough feels like a discipline to me, a scary one, sometimes, and a liberating gift most of the time. And, it is a practice I am trying out each day far beyond my garden, far past sabbatical – as my attempt to feel less compelled to hold it all, to refuse to concede to the danger, or to stop noticing them – or the grief – but to stay connected to the beauty, and all that keeps growing, and thriving in my garden – and in this life – far beyond what I ever could have imagined.

 

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