Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Earth-Friendly Principle

"Your body is as ancient as the clay of the universe from which it is made; and your feet on the ground are a constant connection with the earth. Your feet bring your private clay in touch with the ancient, mother clay from which you first emerged."

- John O'Donohue

Jeff and I are both quite serious in our commitment to this lovely blue-green gem of a planet that we happen to live on — which is probably not surprising, considering we're tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping, long-haired-hippie Druids. We see our embodied existence as human animals weaving our way through this vast, thriving world of flora, fauna, landscapes and ecosystems to be pretty much the best, most sacred thing ever.

But even if we didn't ground our spiritual lives in the, uh... well, the ground, we'd still be planning to have a "green" wedding. Being environmentally friendly is all the rage these days. Okay, honestly, rage is all the rage these days — including rage over the exploitation, rape and destruction of this unique and beautiful ball of rock we call home. It makes my blood boil! And not just because the planet is literally getting hotter.

It seems to me that any sane person, when thinking about formally acknowledging and celebrating her union with her beloved in the eyes of their community, should probably stop and ask herself where that community is going to end up ten, twenty, fifty years down the road if our bad habits and selfish greed continue. In fact, a sane person might have cause to wonder if she shouldn't expand her concept of "community" to include the soil, water, air, trees, plants and animals that create, shape and sustain her human community, and if all these beings and creatures might not have just as big a role to play in lending their support (and joy and celebration) to a marriage based on mutual love and responsibility. Now maybe there aren't that many sane people in the world these days — or maybe there's a screw or two loose in folks who think they need not just their families and the officiant, but the oceans and the winds and the sunlight and the forests to bless their union — but in any case, Jeff and I strive for sanity as best we can.

Which means we're trying to craft a wedding which, like our marriage, will embody our earth-loving, environmentally sustainable values as much as possible. As physical creatures, we participate in the web of interconnection. Our clay arises and takes on form and meaning from the ancient clay of our earth mother, as does that of our children, and their children — it is to this clay that we all eventually return. Jeff and I try live our lives as deeply as we can with this awareness of our relationship to the earth and its ecosystems, our impact on the beings, entities, organisms and landscapes of the natural world... and their impact on us. Like all things in the natural world, relationship is a two-way street. (Or more accurately, an eat-and-be-eaten, give-and-take, inhale-and-exhale kind of thing.)

So what this means in practice is that we're guiding our wedding planning decisions based on the old familiar principle: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

These days, many people like to skip ahead to that last one, invest in some disposable flatware made from a combination of corn and recycled plastics, and call it a day. But Jeff and I are hardcore. Or methodical. Anyway, we like to start at the beginning.

Reduce. Trying to be eco-friendly is a great excuse to cut down on budget costs and unnecessary miscellany, but really the best part is not getting swept away by the Wedding Industrial Complex and buying lots of stuff you don't really want and can't possibly need. Staying grounded in simplicity is a wonderful tribute to the planet, and quite effective in keeping things eco-friendly as well. We already practice this in our everyday lives, weighing each purchasing or lifestyle choice based on whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs (and we mean all the costs, from financial to environmental, to political, social, psychological, ethical and spiritual). As you can imagine, with so many potential costs to worry about, we've found again and again that simpler is better. Sometimes it's a simple walk in the park instead of a night out at the movies. Sometimes it's a simple home-cooked meal (or better yet, a raw vegan salad!) instead of dinner at a restaurant. You get the picture. And we're hoping our wedding will be much the same: the gift of simplicity brings with it the gifts of creativity, flexibility and often the gift of stress-reduction, too. So if there's a wedding tradition that involves elaborate planning and complex execution.... well, we'll probably be giving it a pass.

Reuse. Now I'm not going to commit to getting my dress at a second-hand shop, though I certainly know brides who have.... but my personal goal for wedding planning is to spend as little as possible on one-time-use and wedding-only items. That means that, while the dress might be new, it probably won't be white, and I'll probably wear it again and again over the years of my married life. It means decorations, besides being sparse (see also: reduce), will likely be things we can incorporate into our home decor, or give away as favors to guests who might have use for them. It means we may be asking friends and family if they're willing to lend a hand, or a dinner platter, or a set of beach chairs. It means that we'll be finding creative ways to kill two or three birds with one stone (except, you know, not literally). And it means that, when it comes to the whole "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" bit — we'll have the "something old, something borrowed" part covered.

Recycle. Yes, our good friend, recycling. Recycling can be so tricky these days, because so much of what we recycle is plastic and, unlike glass and metal, plastic cannot truly be recycled — it can only be "down-cycled" into a less useful form. After only a few rounds of down-cycling, all plastic eventually winds up in the dump. Or, worse, floating in the oceans choking the sea life. So part of our eco-friendly commitment is to avoid, whenever possible, the use of plastics. Anyway, plastic often looks so tacky compared to the elegance of metal, wood and glass. In addition to seeking out non-plastic alternatives for our wedding ceremony and reception, we'll be looking for recycled and recyclable products, and vendors who are committed to earth-friendly practices and heathy recycling habits for their businesses. We'll also be looking into options for both recycling and composting for rubbish from the wedding itself — after all, no matter how "compostable" those disposable plates might be, they won't break down if they're squeezed into layers and layers of a landfill without the necessary aeration or bacteria-and-bug population.

Now, before you go thinking that this wedding is going to be all dull and no fun, remember that for us, being earth-friendly is not only about responsibility, it's also about love. Just as we have an impact on the environment in which we live, that environment also has an impact on us. Recent scientific studies have actually shown that spending time out in the natural world, experiencing the beauty and organic wildness of the earth, has a measurably positive effect on our psychological and physical well-being. And so, the final aspect of our earth-friendly principle is to Get Out of the Way, step aside and allow the earth's inherent beauty and bounty to shine through and inspire the love and awe it so deserves. After all, when we talk about "sustainable living," we don't mean that human beings bear the burden of upholding the weight of existence — we mean that, as human animals, we celebrate our connection and rootedness in the ultimate, self-giving Sustainer: Mother Earth herself.

When we get away from all the buzzing machines, flashing lights and gimmicky plastics of our civilized existence, we discover a chance to realize the truly awesome and amazing nature of the world we share with one another. Jeff and I can't think of a better setting in which to celebrate our love and our community of family and friends, than to share that gift of awe and reverence for the natural with them.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"So You Say" (Mark Strand)

Lilies in the Garden

So You Say

It is all in the mind, you say, and has
nothing to do with happiness. The coming of cold,
the coming of heat, the mind has all the time in the world.
You take my arm and say something will happen,
something unusual for which we are always prepared,
like the sun arriving after a day in Asia,
like the moon departing after a night with us.

Mark Strand, from Selected Poems

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Blood and Water

How to Break a Man

In 2009 I almost had to choose between my fiancée and my children.  

I was recently divorced, and had just met an extraordinary woman; but she lived five hundred miles away.  Ali was in Pittsburgh, and I lived in Massachusetts, near my children, my ex-wife, and her fiancé.  At first I resigned myself to a long-distance relationship, and had little hope that it could become serious and long-term.  But then I found that, completely by coincidence, my ex-wife's fiancé's parents lived in Pittsburgh as well; and this confluence, plus Pittsburgh's lower cost of living, better employment prospects, beautiful mountains and rivers, and moderate climate decided all of us that we should simply move everybody wholesale.  So I went ahead and moved to Pittsburgh.  

But then, when my ex-wife was partway through planning her own move, suddenly things were up in the air again:  her fiancé had a serious job prospect open up in Chicago, an opportunity worth a lot more money.  Everything went on hold while he went to interview after interview, and agonized over the choice for weeks.  Depending on his decision, my children might end up a day's drive away from me.

By this time my relationship with Ali had become very serious indeed.  If my children moved to Chicago, there was no question that I would need to be near them.  But, unless Alison came to Chicago as well, I'd be a broken man.

Fortunately I didn't have to choose:  the job in Chicago didn't work out, and now all of us are living happily in Pittsburgh.  But for me it was a tense time, in which I thought a lot about the different kinds of bonds between people.  

The bond between a parent and young child is extremely strong -- stronger than any other bond in the world, I think; and yet we call it "love", the same word we use for the relationship between, well, "lovers".  In one way, it is not the same kind of thing at all.  In another way, they're very similar.

Let me try to explain...

The Inner Landscape

A central part of my spiritual religious practice is meditation, particularly visualization.  I use a technique common to many religious traditions, in which I relax and concentrate on visualizing natural scenes, cultivating a sort of 'inner landscape'.  In this landscape I work with images and symbols, much as one works with dreams or subconscious symbols in psychoanalysis.  The practice is extremely valuable for me, giving me essential information about my own psychological makeup and inner life, as well as hints of divine intention.  

For example, at one point while I was still married, my ex-wife was involved in a potentially fatal car accident, and for months afterwards I suffered from nearly uncontrollable attacks of fear and panic.  Visualizations of the flights of eagles, meeting with guides and gods, and climbing out of an abyss helped me regain my composure and dig out the roots of the problem.  Later, while I was going through the breakup and separation that led to my divorce, visualizations of crawling up mountains and negotiations with agents of change helped me adopt a healthy emotional attitude, to feel supported and guided through the process.  Even later, visualizations involving Death and fire in water helped me find my emotional footing while I was negotiating a new relationship, a new city, and a new job.

I should make it clear that these visualization meditations are not the same as daydreaming or writing.  It's a creative process, but one in which the subconscious is engaged as directly as possible.  Generally you start with some idea of a setting -- a garden, a beach, a forest -- and once it is firmly established in your imagination, you allow things to happen, or guides to appear, or follow impulses to wander or explore.  The images, guides, and impulses are messages from your subconscious, or even deeper influences.

After exploring my inner landscape for a few years -- its forests, pools, beaches, and mountains -- I began to recognize patterns in its geography.  For example, it had four edges, roughly speaking:  an abyss, a desert, mountains, and the sea; and these four corresponded to the four classical elements:  air, fire, earth, and water.  Near the center, in a place where I usually began my meditations, there was a pair of small hills, each with a temple on top of it; and between them was an amphitheater, a broad open valley and garden.  For me, this area was a sort of axis mundi, a world axis, in which the entire world was reflected and centered.

The Place of Love and the Other

Near one of those temples is a forest which I think of as the Forest of the Branching Paths, a mostly oak and beech forest with paths that cross and branch endlessly.  There are many people wandering in this forest; some are friendly, some are not.  Because of the shadows of the forest, and the tendency of people to wear heavy cloaks and hoods, it is often hard to see who you are talking with, or get a clear idea of their expressions or intent.

I often come to this forest when I want to gain some insight into people in my life.  For many of us, life is a lot like this forest; and I think in some ways the forest represents our physical or social experiences on earth.  In fact, some areas of the forest seem to be especially associated with certain people I know well.

Outside the forest, on the slopes of the hill not far from one of the temples, is an area associated with Alison.  The hillside is green and lush and grassy, and there is a stone Celtic cross standing in the turf.  It's a place you could lie down in and spend the whole day watching the sun and clouds go by.  Once or twice I have come here in meditation to get a clearer sense of what is going on in our relationship.  I feel almost as if this is a place where Alison's inner landscape touches my own; as if it is an area where our minds and hearts meet, in some sense.

Other times, when I reach out to Alison in meditation, I find she is right there with me, wherever I happen to be in the landscape -- as if she and I are not separate people at all, but somehow shadows of each other, or overlapping individuals.

Things are very different, however, when I meditate on my children, or my parents.  When I go into meditation and think of them, my thoughts are drawn to the hills themselves, the twists and turns of the landscape, the patterns of vegetation and temperature.  In some way I feel as if my children and parents determine the very foundational geography of my inner landscape.  They never appear as symbols in meditation, but they are pervasive, integrated into everything.

Blood and Water, Air and Breath, Stone and Bone

I honestly don't know why there's such a difference in the way Alison and my children appear in meditation.  It might be because my children are blood relations; or it might be because I've known my children longer.  And I don't know whether this difference would hold true of everyone, or is just a quirk of my own personal 'landscape'.

But there is a clue here, I think, to why it is we use the same word, 'love', for these relationships that are so profoundly different.  Because whether, in the case of Alison, I am semi-physically linked like a shadow, or, in the case of my children, my paths are constrained by the shape and character of the landscape, these relationships help to define my very sense of self.  My four children are a fact about who I am, just as my partnership with Alison is.  I may change my coat, my haircut, my house, or my job, and that does not change who I think I am.  But a loss of these relationships would break me.

In other words, these relationships are an essential part of the scaffolding upon which I am building my life.  If I lost my children, I know that whole continents in my inner landscape would change (just as, when my marriage ended, a mountain collapsed).  If I lost Alison, the grassy hillside would become bare, and more profoundly, I could not reach out in meditation and find her there beside me and within me, closer than skin.  This, I think, is love, in blood or in water:  living in a landscape that is not yours alone.