The late Vermont poet David Budbill wrote:
Sometimes when day after day we have cloudless blue skies,
warm temperatures, colorful trees and brilliant sun, when
it seems like all this will go on forever,
when I harvest vegetables from the garden all day,
then drink tea and doze in the late afternoon sun,
and in the evening one night make pickled beets
and green tomato chutney, the next red tomato chutney,
and the day after that pick the fruits of my arbor
and make grape jam,
when we walk in the woods every evening over fallen leaves,
through yellow light, when nights are cool, and days warm,
when I am so happy I am afraid I might explode or disappear
or somehow be taken away from all this,
at those times when I feel so happy, so good, so alive, so in love
with the world, with my own sensuous, beautiful life, suddenly
I think about all the suffering and pain in the world, the agony
and dying. I think about all those people being tortured, right now,
in my name. But I still feel happy and good, alive and in love with
the world and with my lucky, guilty, sensuous, beautiful life because,
I know in the next minute or tomorrow all this may be
taken from me, and therefore I’ve got to say, right now,
what I feel and know and see, I’ve got to say, right now,
how beautiful and sweet this world can be.
It’s Thanksgiving. And these are troubling times. Thus we are called upon to embody the audacity of gratitude David Budbill evinces—a gratitude born of chutzpah as we enumerate our countless blessings while mopping the sweat of anxiety from our brow.
Precisely because so many of us experience the beauty and sweetness, these months have been especially trying. Hate crimes are up. The uncertainty of our own lives are but a thumbnail image of the larger world. Many of us are still grappling with how best to move forward, or even to move at all. Reading Twitter and Facebook feels more like navigating through a minefield than perusing social media. Hopefully, your holiday gatherings were peaceful with only the poor turkey receiving jabs. Thankfully, there’s also been an uptick in the calls for compassion and civility to counter the divisiveness and hostility.
My friend Clark posted a blog with a useful list to-do list: writing his representatives, wearing a safety pin, donating to the ACLU, subscribing to at least two newspapers, challenging bigoted speech, reading more widely, joining a social justice initiative, continuing to teach critical thinking and reading skills in his first year writing course. In short, practicing tikkun olam in any and all the ways it makes sense in the spot where history and privilege have placed us.
I, too, teach a first-year critical thinking and writing course called Forgiveness and Reconciliation. I spent this entire week including Thanksgiving Day reading the third drafts of required research essays. I am grateful for students who write passionately about the unfairness of police brutality and mass incarceration—and the ones who wrestle in words to forgive an actively alcoholic parent. I am grateful for students excited about restorative justice. On November ninth, I appreciated the twenty individual conferences I had with students that compelled me out of bed to summon a non-anxious presence and get to work helping eighteen-year-olds make the leap from report to essay, statement to idea. And the next day, when I received an email informing me my spring course had been reassigned to a tenured faculty member, I blanched at the loss of income yet the loss of utility pained me as much because we all want to be of use. Especially now. The question is how?
What is required of us?
David Budbill gives us one answer: to be daily celebrants of Creation. To let no morsel of delight pass through our lips without notice, to set down the dishcloth or Iphone and stand in awe of the Super Moon, to feel the softness of our child’s face, or our dog’s velvet ears, to be enraptured by music as splendid as what we hear today. To marvel in the shower of blessing that falls on us even as so many languish in ever-expanding plains of drought.
And then we must get to the hard task of addressing the inequity of good fortune, the paucity of fairness, the scourge of hubris.
Writing in the second half of the eighth century BCE, in Judah, the southern kingdom ruled by corrupt and ineffective kings, the prophet Micah listens to the conversation between God and God’s people, who have disappointed the Lord their God mightily. Perhaps not so unlike Mary Oliver’s pithiest poem, “On Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to Survive the Melting Ice Floes—That God had a plan I do not doubt. But what if his plan was, that we do better?”
As biblical scholar Amy Oden elucidates the text of Micah,
This is the God who hears the cries of the people and brings them out of slavery. This is the God who will use even the outsider to bring blessings. This is the God who shows compassion and mercy when the people fall. Even the people’s idolatry and injustice cannot prevent this God from acting. This is the God who is faithful no matter what. The entire creation stands witness to this God made manifest in these acts.
And in return, the people who have behaved unfaithfully ask what will appease their disappointed God? Burnt offerings, yearling calves, thousands of rams, rivers of oil, their firstborn?
To which Micah responds: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
As Amy Oden notes in her commentary on this passage,
To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind. On an individual and social scale, in ways large and small, this is a way of life. Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life, Micah tells us. We cannot only observe racial membership quotas on committees in place of seeking racial justice. We cannot send checks for disaster relief and avoid examining the lifestyles that contribute, at least in part, to some natural disasters. We cannot do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist lifestyles. We cannot confess with our lips on Sunday morning and hold grudges at work on Monday.
Oy. That’s discomfiting. For it is far easier to espouse than embody but perhaps our path to true embodiment requires something else. Biomimicry. As Dayna Baumeister notes in her Biomimicry Resource Handbook: A Seed Bank of Best Practices, “Life creates conditions conducive to life. …Biomimicry ushers in an era based not on what we can extract from nature but what we can learn from nature…this shift…requires a new method of inquiry, a new set of lenses, and above all, a new humility.”
We have heard calls for humility in recent weeks, particularly aimed at those of us who might get tossed in the pot of liberal elites struggling to understand the so-called mythical monolith known as the white working class. Learning to recognize the sound of what we might miss. Joan C. Williams writes in the Harvard Business Review, “I fully understand transgender bathrooms are important, but I also understand why progressives’ obsession with prioritizing cultural issues infuriates many Americans whose chief concerns are economic.”
Economic injustice lies at the heart of much of the world’s travail and its people’s suffering. It seems damn near impossible to dismantle and it’s understandable to focus on other injustices easier to overturn. Without meaning to, we gird ourselves in the issues closest to our hearts and our experience, and sometimes we use those issues to delineate us and them—the ones that get it and the ones who don’t—forgetting that another group who defines us as them is just as sure we are the ones who miss what matters. Meanwhile the more than human world, the upper case Nature to which we belong when we are not warring with it, instructs us in myriad ways if we pause long enough to learn.
The new humility called for when we attune ourselves to biomimicry is the same humility Micah mentions—he doesn’t just tell us to accompany God, but to do so humbly. Another biblical commentator, Terence Fretheim notes, “The world of nature is asked to enter into the dialogue as witnesses of what has happened to the God-Israel relationship.” Chapter six begins: “Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.”
Why does God call on Nature to witness? Because of what Nature knows. As Dayna Baumeister reminds us, “Life is the result of 3.85 billion years of evolution, revealing wisdom from which humans can learn and gain inspiration.…We need to learn the ropes from the rest of the natural world—our biological elders.”
So when we contemplate what it means to do justice, we might ask the earth. Like all beings, we inter-are (to borrow Thich Nhat Hanh’s word). We have always relied on elements and other beings in an interconnected web. What’s shifted is our capacity to deplete, dominate and disconnect. The language of dominion dominates our discourse: we manage forests and wildlife, transforming trees that sustain us into commodities while reducing our fellow animals into taxonomies of resources and pests. But beneath all our mineral extraction lies a core of connection, an identity as part of nature not its conquistador. Our biological elders, the mentors of Nature might suggest that doing justice means living right-sized. Interdependency not depletion. Respect not mastery.
When we become the vast cataloguers of other beings, trading the terms of endearment for classifications, we relinquish an intimacy both sustaining and spiritual. While it is impressive and perhaps useful to know the Latin names of species, to develop psycho-social theories to explain voter turnout, we deprive ourselves. As Diane Ackerman writes:
As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity.…we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail…watch how a vase full of tulips, whose genes have traveled eons and silk roads, arch their spumoni-colored ruffles and nod gently by an open window.
We overlook the instruction of the desert beetle capturing moisture by climbing dunes and exposing its wings to low hanging fog. Biomimicry invites us to revel at the beauty and wisdom of Nature by reminding us we are part of it.
We come into sentience in utero, beginning our human journey embedded in the body of another who is not other at all. Her blood supply, nutrients, and oxygen are ours. At birth, the severed cord seems to initiate disconnection yet we already know in a way that precedes and surpasses cognition, that all life is rooted in connection; thus we perpetually seek it even as the political and economic realities we construct, deny it.
When we recognize a kindred spirit within kindred being, we uplift ourselves. We engage in tikkun olam, mending the torn fabric of Creation often rent by injustice.
It’s why our ancient agrarian forebears blessed the animals they hunted, the trees they cut, the earth they tilled. It’s why contemporary indigenous people still do. Why the water protectors at Standing Rock will not yield.
Blessing, as the healer and writer Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, occurs in relationship when we recognize and acknowledge each other’s true nature and worth. Consider the phrase, “true nature.” What is true in us is Nature where we live and move and have our being. No wonder so many of us summon Nature to articulate God.
Beholding tulips as they “arch their spumoni-colored ruffles” becomes a spiritual practice, a way to develop the inclination and capacity to notice. Each time we do, we reconnect, we recommit ourselves to do justice because we can only build structures of injustice on the backs of each other when we avert our gaze. Somewhere I read “The most common blasphemy is not to see the human being in the eyes before us.” The blasphemy extends if we refuse to see the beingness in every eye, in every petal.
As Dayna Baumeister notes, “Life on earth is under tremendous stress, and we have an opportunity…to compound that stress or relieve it.…[A] shift in perspective from conqueror to student…is the only force pervasive enough to birth a whole new human condition.”
That shift is how we move humbly with our God, how we do justice, how we pour forth loving kindness and mercy. So often we rely on human responses to solve our problems yet here we are. Riven by conflicts, polarized by politics. Entrenched in chasms of fear as expressions of hate multiply too quickly to extinguish. Perhaps this crucible will get our attention, the “absolute, unmixed attention” Simone Weil identified “as a form of prayer.”
Where we place our attention determines our focus. Consider how often we find solace in nature. Why the UU hymnal includes Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Nature is ours to emulate if we pay attention, observe fastidiously, mimic faithfully. Perhaps then, “when [we] feel so happy, so good, so alive, so in love with the world, with [our] own sensuous, beautiful life,” there will be neither guilt nor despair, for the “grace of the world” will dwell in us. Amen.