Restoring Life’s Balance Through Soil and Friends
Christopher Calderhead, guest contributor
I live in a rented New York City apartment. The only outdoor space I have access to, besides the sidewalk, is the paved alley alongside my building. And, like many of my neighbors, I use this shared outdoor space for all sorts of activities that don’t fit in a small apartment. As I write, a teen-aged neighbor is practicing his Junior ROTC drill in the alley, and I can hear the thud and clank of his rifle stock as he learns to twirl it in tempo.
It is not an unpleasant place to live. But there is nothing green — no soil, no grass, no plants of any kind — except the street trees I can see from my front window.
This year when my friend Tamara invited me to share her backyard garden, I was delighted. She and her husband Karl have always been incredibly generous with their space. They love nothing more than hosting dinner for 25 on improvised tables and street-find chairs.
The garden is large by city standards. The vegetable patch is 8 feet wide and almost 25 feet deep, and there’s a patch of grass, to boot.
This year, we laid out the vegetable patch together. Neat, orderly rows were prepared for tomatoes, string beans, carrots, beets, and radishes, and every kind of leafy green we could think of. There’s also an herb patch with oregano, chives, rosemary, sage, and lavender. I lobbied for nasturtiums to fill the planters on the paved part of the yard.
And last Saturday, Tamara, Karl, and I were joined by another neighbor, Heather, and we did our first planting. The herbs and seeds for root vegetables went into the ground, as well as a selection of greens. We’re probably over-ambitious, and all of us are amateur gardeners, but it was good to be outdoors on a sunny afternoon bickering over mulch and debating the merits of the soil. The elderly Greek couple next door chatted with us over the chain-link fence while they tended their own patch, with its fig trees and grape arbor.
"Spiritual" is not a word I use very much these days. It’s too nebulous, and encourages sentimentality. But I am interested in the actions that bring us back into balance, that make us whole human beings. And planting the garden with friends does that in two ways.
The most important way for me is how it brings us into a deeper sense of community and friendship. The garden is something we will share — the work of setting out the plants and tending them, as well as the pleasures that will come in a few weeks as we begin to eat the fruits of our labors. And it’s been made possible by two people who are intent on living a shared life with their friends, an antidote to the competitive and atomized culture of this difficult city we live in.
And the second: it restores balance to my life. To be able to touch the soil. To walk barefoot outdoors. To look at the weather not just as the planet’s plot to make me lose my umbrella but as a living system that will nourish — and threaten — the small plants we’ve put in the ground.
Living a city life is compartmentalized and far from natural cycles. Having a garden redresses that balance.
Christopher Calderhead is an artist and writer living in Astoria, Queens. He is the editor of Letter Arts Review and teaches at Bronx Community College and the Pratt Institute.
Thinking of Anne Lamott As We Create a New Show
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"Sober people say that religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell, and spirituality is for people who’ve been there. And I think faith, for me, is a word that speaks much more to a belief and an interest in matters that are spiritual rather than the institution and creeds that you associate with religion."
We’ve been thinking about Anne Lamott a lot lately as we continue to build a dialogue about what it means to be spiritual but not necessarily religious. (We’re looking to make a full-fledged production out of your responses, so add your reflections here — and please share this link with others.)
Krista interviewed the writer back in 2003, during the earliest days of Speaking of Faith. Now for the first time, we’re making Krista’s unedited interview available. It’s a wonderful listen chock full of audio gems (stream in player above or download).
Lamott described herself to Krista as a spiritual “woman of faith” who disdains dogma and “the great evil” of religious fundamentalism. She calls out fundamentalism as a terrifying peril of our time: “a conviction of being right and of feeling that we are chosen and that other people can be denied a seat at the banquet table.”
We’ve noticed some conversation threads emerging on our blog and Facebook page that illuminate and expand upon Lamott’s ideas about being faithful, spiritual, but not religious. As Elissa Elliot commented on our Facebook thread:
“‘Religious’ (to many people) implies abuse, hypocrisy, and shortsightedness…Perhaps the world ‘spiritual’ is a more ‘open’ and ‘embracing’ term and that’s why more people are using it. It implies that although I believe certain things, I’m not set in my ways, and I realize that God may work in ways ‘outside the box I’ve been raised in.’ AND I want to hear what the next person is saying…”
But if “spiritual but not religious” feels more expansive and embracing to some, others experience it as isolating.
"We can’t just be spiritual individuals all by ourselves. The tension is the tension between the important need to form communities within which to share our spiritual journeys and the impulse to organize these communities efficiently to expand and grow." — Brant Lee
"Individualism is highly prized in our culture, but when it comes to matters of faith, community is very important."
In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott has a passage that squarely hits on this need for a spiritual community:
"Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from The Jewish Theological Seminary that said, ‘A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning.’"
We’d like to know how are you finding and creating communities that enrich you spiritually? Share your story with us.
(photo of Anne Lamott by mdesive/Flickr)
Who Are We When We Are At Work?
Kate Moos, managing producer
Damon Drake, above, was one of the people taking part in an informal conversation about the role of faith and belief in the workplace one evening last week, which I happened to enjoy. Drake told about his personal mishaps as a fervent new convert to Islam 13 years ago, when he discovered that his practice of declining handshakes from women colleagues alienated them.
Now Drake says he makes accommodations in some of his religious practices if, in actuality, they subvert their original aim. On another occasion, however, he chose to leave a position when too many required business meetings were conducted in settings with alcohol. Such are the tensions of bringing our faith lives to our workplaces.
The discussion I joined was organized by Seeing Things Whole, a group that explores the value of personal spirituality and faith in organizations, theorizing that the bottom line in most organizations is best if assessed by measures in addition to profit: balance, contentment, a sense of shared purpose. The idea that the hygienic modern workplace should be uncontaminated by personal belief is appearing more and more outdated, as our lives become more global and as companies embrace diversity and pluralism as necessities. And, the idea that organizations themselves may take part in embracing a theological view is finding more ground, both in corporations and in academic settings.
In the interests of full disclosure, my invitation to take part in the discussion came from Bob Wahlstedt, a board member of Seeing Things Whole, who is, coincidentally, a benefactor of Speaking of Faith.
Michael Naughton, from the University of St. Thomas’ John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, explained the role of purpose in organizational life that, along with identity, mission, and stewardship, creates balance and success. “Purpose,” he pointed out, “aims us toward the deepest and most transcendent reason for why we work, which offers a spirituality of communion.”
In small groups we talked about our own challenges bringing our values or faith to work. Marty Kotke, a sales rep at Reel Precision Manufacturing, shared his appreciation for being able to be a Christian with Bruce Peterson, a Hennepin County District Court judge, and Kyle Smith, the president of RPM, whose lunchroom provided the setting for our gathering.
Another speaker, John Wheeler, was the general manager of the Mall of America for 18 years. A Buddhist, he learned to practice the principles of his spiritual life in what is arguably a sort of cultural icon of consumerism. “I loved my job,” Wheeler joked, “except for its true essence.” Wheeler said his grounding as a Buddhist helped him address concerns about problems with unsupervised youth at the so-called mega-mall with respect for all parties.
Who are you at work, relative to your spirituality, values, or faith? Have you experienced difficulty with your religious beliefs or practice in the work place? How do you think organizations might benefit from a “theology of organizations?”
Reflections of a Fair-Weather Faster
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Monday was Yom Kippur and this year I decided to fast. Most of my life I’ve been a fair-weather faster. My immediate family in New Jersey gathers each year for a meal to mark Rosh Hashanah, but Yom Kippur and the breaking of the fast that follows it hasn’t been part of our tradition.
When I moved to Minnesota, I was touched by how Jewish friends — and sometimes strangers — reached out to include me in their holiday gatherings. This year, my colleague Molly asked if I wanted to break the Yom Kippur fast at her parent’s house. She promised there would be a lot of food and she did not disappoint.
Celebrating the Jewish holidays away from home has meant experiencing them anew — with different foods, people, and rituals. I felt motivated to fast this year knowing that, by sundown, I would have a welcoming place to go and break my fast with others who had done the same.
"Every Single One of Us Has a Story to Tell…"
Trent Gilliss, online editor
This “still” from Daniel Clowes not-yet-published (expected launch date: May 2010) graphic novel, Wilson, resonated deeply with my Friday morning conversation with Kate and Melinda (director of digital media for APM) during my annual performance review. We discussed the importance of giving voice to more people’s stories and the need for physically connecting with others through the focusing lens of SOF.
"In WILSON, Clowes creates a thoroughly engaging, complex and fascinating portrait of the modern egoist-outspoken and oblivious to those around him, but who sincerely wants to find his place in the world. Working in a single-page gag format and drawn in a spectrum of styles, the cartoonist of Ghost World, Ice Haven and David Boring gives us his funniest and most deeply affecting novel to date.”
(Thanks for the heads up Matthew Buchanan.)
Knowing Many Faces
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I’m finally getting to reblog this photo and quote post from DMHA:
“When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky” - Buddha
Ten minutes later, she posted this image, a perfect complement:
We read a lot of news that paints people, religions, political affiliations, communities, immigrants, and so on with broad brush strokes. What we lose in the process is an understanding of the one, of the individual. I know it; I feel it; I fight against it. But, it was a couple of months ago that Mona Eltahawy challenged my thinking.
Krista, Kate, Mitch, and I were invited to the Ford Foundation, one of our major funders, for a constructive critique of Speaking of Faith — our programming, topics we’re covering, voices we’re including, interviewing techniques, diversity of staff, etc.
Ms. Eltahawy, a columnist who writes about Muslim issues, was one of the panelists who attended. She hadn’t heard our show before being invited to participate in this group. She listened, and as we were talking she said something that surprised me — that she loved our Being Catholic show. She, as a Muslim, identified with the nine lay voices in that program. Why? To her, being Muslim is a splendorous outpouring of expression — from the ultraconservative to the secular, from the professional engineer to the counter-cultural novelist — and that, to some degree, Muslims themselves describe their faith and live it out at many different levels, in many different ways. They wrestle with their faith in much the same manner as those Catholic voices.
It’s serendipitous, and fortunate, that we have stumbled upon Ms. Hassan’s tumblog. This Somali student who describes herself as a “nomad studying Anthropology and Sociology in adopted Saint Paul” is one individual informing my cultural understanding of the many communities in which I live. She loves films, especially French ones. She has an eclectic music palette — Judy Garland and REM and Negramaro and…. She looks at the ground; she photographs it.
She hangs out at some of the same parts of St. Kate’s campus that my wife and I would hang out with our son.
And, she reminds me of the other communities we encounter that shape my understanding of identity and what it means to be human — and how to celebrate too.
Repossessing Virtue: Elliot Dorff on Seeing Duty as a Responsibility
» download (mp3, 15:19)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Elliot Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, first appeared on SOF as part of "Marriage, Family, and Divorce." Now a somewhat old program. It was before my time, an era when Krista and Mitch and Kate would pop in at conferences and interview interesting voices in a hotel room with mattresses and drapes serving as sound baffles. (Well, I guess we still do that once in a while, even today!)
Dorff, a Conservative Jewish rabbi, looks to the Torah and ancient rabbinic wisdom as a model for acting in the world during these difficult financial times. He has a special way of explaining things plainly. At the beginning of the interview, he opens with an idea that, although not particularly novel, but becomes more poignant in light of current events and crises: our collective focus on money and material wealth is a form of idolatry. When the Torah forbids people from worshipping “false idols,” the sacred text doesn’t just intend for it to apply to statuettes or icons or paintings. For Dorff, that means any being or object or idea that takes one’s focus away from God.
He sees the current economic and cultural crisis as more than just a spiritual dilemma — it’s a point of pragmatism that pulls together community for those in need. The Torah requires him to help the poor and the needy. And serving those in need means more than charity. Helping others means preserving their human dignity and we, he reminds us, should not look on this service to others as a duty but as a responsibility.
One of the best ways to help is to give that person a job or invest with that person. It’s a matter of dignity by empowering people in need to foster long-term sufficiency. He tells a story where he and other faculty members put this idea into practice by taking a salary cut so that fellow colleagues’ positions would be preserved.
Dorff’s perspective and grounded wisdom reminds me that the psyche of my fellow man is as important as is his basic need for food and shelter. Being able to hold one’s head up brings alleviates the burden of survival. We don’t want to simply exist, we crave respect and creation and ambition, in the best sense of the word.