Posted in Poems

Handful of Haiku

My World Literature professor gave us an assignment to write a haiku based on a photograph. I’ll be honest, I’ve always sort of hated haiku, because it always felt like an elementary school poetry to me. But age has brought me full circle to appreciate the brevity of words, and I loved this assignment so much, and I have so many photos I adore, that I couldn’t just do one. So here are a few drawn from my extensive photo library (all photos taken by me).

Beautiful dog glowing
In the late-afternoon sunshine
Is how I will remember you

My dog Rascal is 19 1/2 years old, and can’t walk anymore. We only have a short time left with him, but this is how I will always remember him, enjoying the sunshine and surveying his yard.

Tiny jeweled bird
Hovers to look me in the eye
Gift of her attention

I am fascinated with hummingbirds. They are so bold, zooming loudly across the yard, and hovering in front of me, as if demanding to know what my intentions are, then flickering away to sit in a branch and wait to see if I’m going to refill the feeder.

Rumble of hoofbeats
Noble creatures come at my call
Bringing their hearts to mine.

There is nothing in the world that sends chills down my spine like the sound of hoof beats echoing across the valley as my horses charge toward me for their dinner. Sometimes, I think they run just for my enjoyment.

Still waters ruffled
Rhythmic dip of my paddle
Peaces flows into me.

This is from City Lake in Coookeville, where I love to paddle because the waters are so calm and it’s filled with wildlife. It does not matter how stressed I am, when I get on the water all the knots fall out of my muscles and I reconnect with nature and myself.

All the world unfolds
Contemplation, vastness,
Utter smallness.

This is a photo I took at Stone Door overlook in Grundy County, of my son. In particular I love waterfalls and overlooks, and I am so thankful that Tennessee is full of both of them. Our state and national parks are places I can go to find myself again when I have chased my tail enough times to get lost.

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Posted in Uncategorized

Lorraine Hotel & Civil Rights Museum

Here are a few pictures from my visit to the Lorraine Hotel & Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. I highly recommend a visit.

The museum seems to be frozen in time, with old cars in the front, and a very 50s/60s vibe.

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Where this wreath hangs, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on this balcony.

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Further into the tour, you pass the room where he stayed here during his visit to lead black union workers in a strike for fair wages. The room is just as it was on that day, and the signs call for silence. The weight of it makes a deep impression.

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The walk outside has stations that tell about the strike and the workers.

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Inside, the exhibits tell about the struggle for civil rights from slavery to Dr. King’s day, and the present. This sculpture is a slaver selling a woman and her baby.

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And this one, in the same room, shows how cramped the holds were in the slave ships.

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And here is the bus Rosa Parks sat on when she refused to go to the back.

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A sculpture of her inside.

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These sculptures depict lunch-counter sit-ins that were organized all over the south, including many places in Tennessee.

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And this was the bus that was attacked and burned on the famous “Freedom Rides.”

I came away from this museum with the weight of privilege on me. With modern-day police fatalities and one in three black men falling victim to the industrial prison complex, we have made strides toward Beloved Community, but we are not there yet. We are still waiting on the arc of justice.

If you’re in Memphis, definitely give the Lorraine a visit.

Posted in Creatures

Land, Water, and Sky

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound of fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go lie Dow where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come to the peace of the 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.

— Wendell Berry

On Saturday I went alone for a paddle on the Falling Water River, whose stillness seems complete and belies its name. I was in no hurry. I had no one to keep up with, no particular destination or goal, other than presence. The water was so slow-moving as to almost seem stagnant, its surface covered in the fluffy pollen of some tree, which pollen was also dancing in the air, lending the scene a dreamy quality.

Being on a kayak and unhurried, you are somehow at once connected to earth, water, and sky, the denizens of all three within your notice. As I paddled, deliberately seeking out the pretty little painted turtles stunning themselves on the exposed branches of half-submurged trees, a leviathan paddled past me beneath the surface, its ridged shell recalling ancient things, its slow movements making me hold my paddle to watch him for a long moment. Further on, a monstrous carp that seemed half the length of my boat curved among the sun-shadowed river weeds below me.

If I’m honest, I spent far too much time trying to photograph the stately blue herons whose fishing I was disrupting, and not enough time just admiring them. Again and again, they would watch me as I pulled up my paddle and drifted slowly by,

trying not to bother them, but also trying to photograph their pterodactyl-like takeoff as they winged upriver ahead of me. The kingfishers skittered their in-flight songs as the drifted from tree to tree, and families of geese watched me warily, concerned parents herding their fuzzy children away from the neon orange intruder.

The Falling Water is a suburban sort of river, not at all wide where I put in, lined with manicured, sloping lawns on either side. It was a Saturday, so there was no illusion that I was really alone with nature, with almost-unnoticed background music of traffic and lawn mowers. And yet, I actually saw no human as I paddled practically through their back yards. This is one of the things I love best about rivers and streams. The edges of the water were not as impeccably manicured as the lawns were, trees allowed to grow as they will, dipping roots in the nourishing muddy silt, arching branches delicately reflected in the placid water. Were I to wander on foot through these close-clipped greenways to get a better look at a bird, someone would surely call the police, but the river belongs to everyone, and no one, and only itself.

It belongs to that whitetail doe who paused and lifted her dripping muzzle to regard me, before turning a flashing tail and bounding up an embankment. It belongs to the flurry of swallowtails flitting across the narrow waterway, gracing mud puddles with gossamer yellow wings like flowers born one moment, to vanish the next. It belongs to the half-ounce titmouse who, when I was once again on land, darted past me on swift wings to go about her business of bug-hunting for a brood that was well hidden in the knot of a tree right next to the pier, peering around the rough bark to see if I was still interested in her activities. It belongs to the leviathan turtle and the indignant heron. Their scatter at my approach reminds me: even if I owned one of these houses and paddled here every day (wouldn’t that be a meditation practice!), I would still be a guest and must always be respectful and polite.

If only we all walked, and paddled, so lightly.

Posted in Uncategorized

How Much Is That Doggy In the Window?

Bandit, who is rescued and is the goodest boy

The text of my final speech for Communications Class, meant to be a persuasive speech. The fact that my semester is winding down means I’ll have more time for writing that’s not college assignments, yay!

Maybe you’ve heard the children’s song “How Much is that Doggy In The Window?” The answer is, several hundred dollars probably, up to a couple of thousand, but the real cost of that pup in the pet store is in lives. Roughly 4 million of them a year. One, every 11 seconds. While I’m talking to you, 50 animals will die in shelters.

We have a pet overpopulation problem. The annual cost to taxpayers to impound, shelter, euthanize and transport unwanted animals is 2 billion dollars. According to PetSmart Charities, There are 70,000 dogs and cats born in the United States EVERY DAY. Do you know how many humans are born every day? 10,000. So if every man, woman, and child can adopt seven dogs and cats (that’s 21 animals for a family of three), that number is sustainable. But I think you’ll agree that it’s not, not even for a serious animal lover.

So we can’t adopt our way out of this crisis. That makes spaying and neutering crucial. A single female dog can theoretically produce 67,000 descendants in her lifetime. ONE dog. That number for a single cat, which are much more commonly left to roam and reproduce at will, is 420,000.

I worked as a veterinary technician for 20 years, and I currently serve on the Board of Directors of Friends of White County Animals, so I’ve seen this problem up close. Please, please spay and neuter your pets, and if you haven’t yet, contact your local humane society for low-cost options. But, I think we’ve all heard the reasons we should do that, so I want to talk today about why you should heed the slogan, “Adopt, don’t shop.”

Even though we can’t adopt our way out of the pet overpopulation problem and concurrent pet slaughter, when you’re ready to get a new dog, it’s really important to adopt to make the problem better, not worse. Let me tell you a little bit about what you are supporting when you buy a puppy from an online breeder or pet store, versus what you are supporting when you adopt from a shelter or rescue. I’m going to cover puppy mills, backyard breeders, accidental or one-time breeders, shelters, and breed specific rescues.

First, puppy mills. A puppy mill is basically a dog farm or for-profit factory. Because they are purely for profit, the dogs’ welfare is secondary. If you want to spend a horrific afternoon, you can find some dream-haunting pictures of the dogs kept in these facilities online. HSUS estimates 10,000 of these in the US, but only 3,000 are licensed and regulated. The regulations are much too lax for the dogs to be well cared for: the cage only has to be 6” larger than the dog, they only have to be given water twice a day, there are no regulations on the temperature in the facilities so they sometimes freeze or cook to death, and on and on. In addition, when breeders violate these regulations, they are just given a slap on the wrist and allowed to keep breeding.

In addition, there is no regulation on the quality of dogs bred, either by the USDA, or by the AKC. So you should be aware that having AKC “papers” does not assure the quality of the dog, only that both its parents were of the same breed. Since these operations are for profit, cheap dogs means more money. They are not well socialized, and so the dog you get may be prone to inherited disease, communicable diseases, and behavioral problems. If you take nothing else away from this talk, don’t buy from puppy mills. The dogs are overpriced, poor quality, and you are supporting an industry of cruelty.

There are also for-profit, smaller scale backyard breeders. If you buy a dog online or from an ad, beware: they may be dealers selling puppy mill puppies or not much more reputable. These are the things that should throw up red flags:

  1. They have many breeds or “designer dog” mixed breeds.
  2. They won’t show you the parents or the facilities.
  3. They have little to no paperwork on the dog’s previous care.
  4. They don’t offer a guarantee if the dog turns out to be ill.
  5. They are more interested in making the sale than the quality of the home the dog is going to.

While we’re on the topic of so-called designer dogs, I’d like to tell you a bit about the history of them. Mutts are, of course, as old as time. In fact, purebreds are more or less a recent human construct within the last hundred years or so, when eugenics became all the rage and people started breeding for bizarre traits. This is according to Adam Ruins Everything. However, in the late 90s, a group in Europe started breeding what they hoped would be an ideal seeing eye or service dog — Labrador for friendliness, poodle for brains and a non-shedding coat. Labradoodles. They were carefully bred for this purpose, and they were ideal, and within a short time they became all the rage in the US. People imported them and were paying up to $3000 for one.

Predictably, people in the US caught on pretty quickly and started breeding labs and poodles here, with no regard for health or behavior, and selling them for exorbitant prices. Then they started mixing small breed dogs — which are always more profitable to breed because they’re adorable and sell well, and you can stack up cages and breed tons of them — and calling them “designer dogs” like they were a Gucci bag — puggles, pomchis, Maltipoo. My brother had a Chorkie he paid $1500 for. With money like that on the line, it’s not surprising that these dogs are being churned out at a rate of 2 million pups per year from large-scale operations.

But what about the simple dog owner who just wanted one litter. If they are charging more than one or two hundred dollars for this dog, you’re likely dealing with a for-profit breeder, regardless of what they say. And, buying from this person is still unethical for a couple of reasons.

  1. Paying someone who bred a dog, intentionally or not, is basically a vote with your dollars. It’s saying “I support this practice; keep breeding your dog for profit.”
  2. For every dog bred and bought this way, another dog dies in a shelter.
  3. Purebred dogs bred without regard to their health history or behavior profile (i.e. “my sister-in-law also had a yorkie”) are very likely to develop health and behavior problems.
  4. All this said, this IS a better option than puppy mills or for-profit breeders.

The third option is shelters. Why should you adopt a dog from a shelter? First, the obvious, because you’re saving a life. In reality, you’re saving two or more lives — your dog, and the dog who fills the cage he vacated, who might otherwise have been euthanized due to overcrowding. Also, your money funds more rescues, not more breeding, and part of it funds the vet care, spay or neuter for the dog you’re taking home. If no one buys puppy mill puppies, profit-driven mills will cease to exist because their reason for existing will be gone. And, supporting your local shelter means it can continue operating. Communities with no shelter often have horrors like shot dogs and drowned puppies and kittens, as we’ve found out in White County, where we have no shelter options for cats.

Finally, there is also the option of a rescue organization. Quite often, these organizations do not have a facility where they keep dozens of dogs. Rather, they have a network of volunteers who foster the dogs in homes, often training them in the process. Foster moms know much more about a specific dog’s temperament, health and habits than a puppy breeder can know, even a good one. Rescue organizations usually also require spay or neuter and your adoption fee pays for it and previous vet care. If you really really love a particular breed of dog, you can absolutely find a rescue organization for that breed specifically just by googling “Golden Retriever Rescue”. This can be an absolutely fantastic option, and is my favorite on this list. I intend to rescue a retired racing greyhound for my next dog.

Dogs have been our best friends for eons of human history, guarding our homes, protecting our families, herding our sheep, going to war with us, and just making us laugh and offering a furry shoulder to cry on when we need it. We owe it to them not only to give our own dogs the best life possible, but to make sure other dogs don’t suffer and die needlessly.

Posted in Poems

Small and Uncatholic

Image by DDP

I remember places. I have
assorted memories of place
from childhood,
remembering patterns in carpets,
or that little cubby hole,
or climbing into the little house at
Grandpa and Grandma’s that was meant for
the Blessed Virgin statue.
I was that small,
that uncatholic.
I remember how when Mary
was reinstated, she stood
with her arms
beatifically spread,
her head tilted modestly.
Sacred Heart Jesus
had his own house in the yard,
and Grandpa and I
would tool around them
on his riding mower,
singing
Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush and
Pop Goes the Weasel.
I remember painting a red dot on the porch railing
because I knew Grandpa would never see it
in our regular game of
I Spy. He didn’t.
I wonder sometimes,
is it still there,
and who does he play games with now?
Maybe Mary and Sacred Heart Jesus,
for whom he built little houses,
so he could always be near them.

Posted in Sermons

Hey Wiretap! Do You Have a Recipe for Pancakes?

The following is a speech I gave in Communications class at Motlow State Community College on April 2, 2019.

Good morning. I’m Pepper Traymore. Oh wait, that’s my porn star name. I was on Facebook last week and there was a thing on there that said, if you take the name of your first pet and the road you lived on when you were a child, that’s your porn star name. What’s yours? We don’t have time to share all of them, but maybe take a second and tell the person next to you if you find it amusing.

Those things on Facebook are always a lot of fun. Take this quiz and find out what breed of dog you are, cut and paste this list of personal questions and tell your friends about where you had your first kiss, and what year you graduated from high school, and more.

Unfortunately, I’ve just baited you into sharing two pieces of personal information about yourself with the person next to you, who might be a relative stranger. Those pieces of information might be things you used as a password to your Facebook account, or your online bank account.

Maybe you’ve seen the above meme. It highlights the fact that in 50 years, we’ve gone from deeply suspicious of government spying to basically sharing our private information with the world voluntarily. I’m going to give you a brief history of technology and personal information, talk about what They with a capital T might be doing with your data, and give you a few ways to safeguard your data and your privacy while living in the world and on social media.

Wiretapping is almost as old as the telephone. Americans were outraged when they first learned of law enforcement’s use of wiretaps in the 20s, so laws were made limiting the use of electronic surveillance by police.

With World War II came relaxations of prohibitions of government spying on citizens. President Roosevelt authorized the use of wiretaps to monitor “subversives.” In wartime this meant potential Nazi and Japanese spies, but in the 50s, it broadened to include progressive activists fighting racial segregation. “Subversives” went from meaning foreign nationals to American citizens who disagreed with the government. Do you see how dangerous that is?

Fast forward 50 years to 9/11. In the wake of those attacks, Americans feared terrorism, so they were willing to accept new legislation like the Patriot Act, and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, which was later found to be monitoring American citizens. And then, of course, the advent of social media, in which we willingly share vast amounts of private information. Technology has developed so fast that new gadgets come out faster than we can even begin to think about what effects they may have on our lives and our privacy.

In 2013 Edward Snowden revealed ways in which the NSA was monitoring American citizens that alarmed some people. Other people took the attitude, “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide.” But all of us have things we would prefer other people not know about us, things we might tell our best friend or our doctor or no one at all. And as Orwell’s novel 1984 pointed out, a society that monitors its citizens breeds subservience, and quashes creativity and dissent. Throughout all of our history, we have associated these tactics with Communist and Fascist nations and dictators, not with democracy.

When I started researching this topic, the amount of information out there and the number of ways that your data can be tracked boggled my mind. One TED talk described us as walking around in a cloud of information. Everything we do leaves a little digital trail, not just online but in the real world, too. But I want to narrow my focus to two ways “they” might be tracking you.

The first is the things you like or favorite on Facebook. That innocent click tells data miners so much about you. Information can even be mined by how long you pause while you’re scrolling, you don’t even have to click the like button. So what can they tell? Algorithms have developed so much that information can be had about your religion, your political ideals, your sexual preference, your sexual behavior, how much you trust your friends, whether you are using drugs.

One example in Forbes magazine told a story about a high school girl who received a flyer from Target offering pregnancy and baby products, alerting her parents before she had told them she was pregnant. How did Target know? She had looked at ads for vitamins, and bigger purses.

In addition, if you allow Facebook and Google to monitor your location, you are providing information about where you go, what stores you frequent. This is used for targeting ads to your particular demographic. Have you ever had the experience of just talking about something you were thinking about buying, and then suddenly seeing ads on Facebook for that very thing? It’s something we sort of joke about, but when you think about it, all of that information that is being gathered can be used for nefarious purposes, even manipulating the things you think about. Hacking the human brain is becoming a reality, and no hardware need be installed when we spend hours a day interacting with the software.

The other way companies are mining your data is through the use of smart devices. Kashmir Hill is a journalist who lived for 2 months with 18 smart devices, all linked with an Amazon Echo. She had a computer scientist monitor the information the devices were sending back to the companies who made them. You can get smart refrigerators, smart TVs, even smart sex toys. In those two months, there was not one hour of radio silence. The Echo was relaying information to Amazon every 3 hours, and all of the other devices were sending data to their manufacturers, who then sell that data to other companies. The computer scientist knew what TV shows they were watching and for how long, how often they went to the refrigerator, and yes, the smart sex toy was sending information about its use back to the company, as well. Do you feel watched yet? As I said, these are only two ways you are constantly generating data that is available for use and for sale by the corporations who run every website you interact with, and create the items you use, and you do not generally know it is happening, nor can you control it if you did.

But, there are some ways you can protect yourself.

  • First, use smart passwords. Don’t use pet names or information about you that is obtainable through the quizzes on Facebook or other easy data mining. Never reuse passwords, which is more dangerous than using easy passwords. Of course, never give out your password.
  • Review your privacy settings on social media, and review it REGULARLY. Facebook updates its algorithms and terms of service often, and you might find that somehow your phone number and email are public information. Be wary of friend requests from people you have already friended; it could be a new account, or it could be someone trying to get information about you or hack you account.
  • Be careful about what you share on Facebook. Be aware that when you apply to a college, or apply for a job, or anything else that is important to you, one of the first things those people are going to do is check your facebook account. If your wall is public and full of images of you drunk at parties, you’re not likely to get the job.
  • Don’t be too trusting when asked for private information. Be your own “human firewall” and educate yourself on the ways data is being gathered and used. Be careful about checking in. Just checking in or posting vacation pictures to a public Facebook account can alert someone that you’re not home and give them an opportunity to rob your house while you’re gone.
  • Finally, it’s important to keep abreast of the latest information about cyber security. Experts say it’s not a matter of if you’ll be a victim of a cybercrime, but when. It may be worth it to look at identity protection, but do your research.

Big Brother may be watching, and there is a lot we don’t have control over when it comes to how our information is shared and sold, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful where we do have control. Be safe out there.

Posted in Poems

I drowned…

Photo by Tim Marshall

I drowned in my dream last night
in a tidal wave that
crashed
over me, and I can remember
every vivid sensation
and struggle.
I woke, gulping for air,
wandered to the bathroom and back,
slept again.
And in the strange manner of dreams I
replayed the tidal wave,
only this time I saved myself,
and isn’t this a metaphor for life?

Posted in Big Questions

What is Renaissance Life?

This is the transcript of the introductory speech I gave for my Communications class at Motlow State Community College, March 19, 2019, on being a polymath or multipotentialite.

I’m 48 years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. When I graduated high school in 1989, I was at that time a Jehovah’s Witness and I thought I knew what I wanted to be. JWs don’t encourage their young people to go to college, so despite being a very good student with a 3.65 GPA, after high school I became what they call a pioneer, spending 90 unpaid hours a month preaching, and for a while I even went to help with less-served congregations in rural areas.

As it turned out, a pioneer was not what I wanted to be, and in fact a Jehovah’s Witness was not what I wanted to be. Since then I have had many different jobs — I’ve done cleaning jobs, worked in retail, I’ve been a veterinary technician, a medical transcriptionist, a mom, a homeschool teacher, a vacuum cleaner salesperson, and I now make my living creating artisan wire jewelry and some other kinds of art. I don’t want to give you the impression that I can’t stick with a job; some of those things I did for 10 or 20 years. And, of course, here I am in college after 28 gap years, embarking on a new journey entirely.

I struggled with not being able to focus on one area of expertise, for years. Partly, life got in the way. I got divorced at age 27 and found myself the single mom of a 3yo. In those situations, you do what you have to, to pay the bills. But also, I struggled with anxiety when I thought about anything big. I considered going to vet school for a while, and for a while I thought it might be fun to be a history teacher and teach history in a way that students would actually enjoy. But those things involved college, and money, and that spelled COMMITMENT. If I spent thousands of dollars learning how to do something, I really ought to make it my LIFE’S WORK. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I settle down and pick something? I’d been convinced in high school that I should be a writer, because I’m pretty good at it. It felt like a calling. I wrote a lot of poetry. I got some of it published. And then I realized that poetry pays in copies of the magazines it gets printed in, and I got depressed. In our society we tell young people that they have to pick something, starting at around age five. What do you want to be when you grow up? Not only do you have to pick something, but once you get to a certain age you’re judged on the respectability of whatever you’ve picked. This felt like a life crisis to me, and a terrible weight.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who gets fascinated with one thing after another. Some names for this have been around a long time: Renaissance man. During the Renaissance it was expected that you’d have a wide range of interests. More recently we’ve been called Jack of all trades, master of none, which is not very flattering and reflects the Protestant work ethic we have now that says, pick something, show up every day, suck it up. Today Renaissance people are speaking up, and you can find self-help books and TED talks and the endless information the Internet provides. The names for people with a wide variety of interests include scanner, polymath, multipotenntialite.

Polymaths continually get distracted by learning or trying a new thing, getting bored as soon as a new thing is mastered, struggling to choose a major or a profession because you hate the idea of being stuck doing the same thing for the rest of your life. But, I’m really good at picking up new things because I do it constantly. When my husband and I were taking a pottery class he said I was good at everything — not true, I’m just good at faking it at the beginning — and he also tells me if I could just pick one thing, I’d be amazing at it. Maybe. I’m sure I’ll never find out.

Twenty years ago, I met a man at a craft fair who made furniture for American Girl dolls. He excitedly told me about all the things he’d done and shared his list of things he still wanted to try, at age 70. Something resonated in me. I wanted a list, too. And when I heard the voices of other people who feel the same way I do, I settled down, and I started looking at the positive aspects of being the way I am. Trying to fit yourself into someone else’s mold for you never works. I decided I had to find my own strengths and capitalize on them.

Not only is there nothing wrong with being a polymath, but it’s a unique way to be wired that really is a gift if you embrace it. I have learned a wide variety of skills from my various occupations and interests. According to polymath Emilie Wapnick, who gave a TED Talk a few years ago titled Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling, polymaths have 3 superpowers.

  1. Idea synthesis. When you have skills in a variety of fields, you make connections that people who specialize deeply in one field may not see.
  1. Rapid learning. We are used to being beginners, and we get really good at it.
  1. Adaptability. We have the ability to take on different roles in different situations because of our broad list of skill sets.

Last year I stopped working for someone else, took a chance, and moved to doing my own business full time. I make Chainmaille and wire-wrapped jewelry, and I often incorporate other skills into my work. I love watercolor painting, so I painted tiny original watercolors on bisque porcelain and wire wrapped them. I wanted to learn glass working, so I took a couple of workshops on that and made my creations into jewelry. My years as a pioneer have been very helpful in being able to talk to people at craft shows. My work as a transcriptionist has given me computer skills that I regularly use in marketing. My passion for writing means I can write convincing item descriptions when I sell online.

I passionately believe that no learning is wasted. My bucket list isn’t a list of places to go, but things to learn. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know that I haven’t definitely picked a major yet, but I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to fix the biggest regret I had, not going to college. If you are young and don’t know what you want to do yet, I say, do a little of everything, look for the connections between the things you love and use them to create something new. And don’t let them tell you that you can only be or do one thing.

Posted in Sermons

Blessed Are the Tree Huggers

This is a sermon I gave at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on March 24, 2019.

<Read The Giving Tree>

Do you think this is a healthy relationship? If this was a human relationship between two adults, what would you think of the boy? What would you think of the tree?

I loved this story when my son was young so much that it was one of two children’s books I kept after he got older, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t think about it much. It’s good to be giving, right? It’s good that the tree was happy, right? The telling words are after he took her trunk to go far away: “The tree was happy… but not really.”

The boy might have loved the tree in his own way, but would you call him a tree-hugger? Really, he was exploiting her in every way imaginable. Would you call him an environmentalist?

Now, when I look at this story, I see it a lot different than I used to. I see it as a metaphor for humans’ relationship with the earth. The earth is our Mother, and she gives us everything we need to live. But, not content to accept her as as place to climb branches and play and eat apples, we plunder all of her resources with no regard for her well-being, or for what she will have left to give us when we have taken it all away.

The earth is so perfect for human habitation that altering things in the slightest way would make her uninhabitable by our species. There are so many ways that this is true, but since we’re talking about trees today, here are ten ways trees make your life better, or even make your life possible:

1. Trees produce oxygen. Two mature trees produce enough oxygen in a year for a family of four.

2. Trees filter the soil they are planted in, cleaning it of pollutants and toxins.

3. Trees and forest ecosystems support biodiversity, creating habitats for creatures, some of which we depend on directly.

4. Trees reduce the greenhouse effect. During photosynthesis, trees take in carbon and store it in their wood, so the more trees there are, the slower global warming affects our planet.

5. Trees produce fruit and nuts.

6. Trees prevent soil erosion. Their networks of roots keep the soil intact. Without this, we lose the vital top layer of soil where other plants grow best. When land is stripped of trees, often very little else will grow, producing deserts or barren wastelands.

7. Trees provide shade and reduce evaporation. If your house is in the shade of a tree, you’re probably using less energy to cool it, another way they help with global warming.

8. Trees filter the air. They trap particulates like smoke, ash, and dust that can damage the lungs of mammals. These things then wash to the ground at the next rainfall, and can then potentially enrich the soil.

9. Trees add beauty to our life. Here in the first breath of spring, I probably don’t have to tell you this. You’re probably as excited as I am to see the flick of spring green on the end of branches, the flowers on deciduous magnolias, redbuds, and dogwoods. It’s like an old friend returning. And of course, they are beautiful not only in spring, they are beautiful year-round, in so many different ways.

10. Trees improve mental health. Studies have shown that spending time in nature and in the company of trees improves cognition and memory, and reduces stress.

So, and you knew this question was coming, I want to ask you: when was the last time you hugged a tree? If you’re feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious, have you considered forest therapy? They don’t charge by the hour.

There is a tree on the farm where my horses live, a huge, ancient pear tree. The horses stand in her shade and as often as I can, I take advantage of one of her gnarled roots to use as a meditation cushion, closing my eyes to just listen and be. Often when I do this, the horses come to me and lower their heads and half-close their eyes to meditate with me. Do I hug her? Yes. I thank her for the embrace of her gnarled roots and for taking care of my horses with shade in the summer and pears in early autumn.

Today I’d like to introduce you to the original tree-huggers. They belong to a Hindu sect in the arid northern Rajasthan region of India, called the Bishnoi. The sect was founded in 1485 by a man who came to be called Guru Jambheshwar or Jambhoji, and even back then, it was caste-neutral.

Jambheshwar witnessed the clear-cutting of trees during times of drought to feed animals. You see, the region is mostly desert, subject to cruel dust storms. The local Khejri trees are a marvel, with deep roots that access water that humans and animals can’t get to, which is stored in the wood and leaves of the tree. So when drought is severe, sometimes the only way to get water is from the trees. But in Jambheshwar’s time, people were clear-cutting the trees to feed animals, and the drought went on so long that the animals died anyway, and then the trees were gone.

Jambhoji preached ecological responsibility. He gave his followers 29 principles, from which their name comes; the Bishnoi, which means 29. Eight of these principles preserve biodiversity, such as prohibitions on killing animals, sterilizing bulls, or cutting green trees. Ten of them deal with health and hygiene, and four have to do with daily worship. The Bishnoi’s proscription on cutting allowed shrubs to grow in the desert, protecting it from wind erosion, and they also developed, hundreds of years ago, water harvesting systems to preserve life. Jambhoji also called for tolerance during discussions, and 120 Shabads or sayings are recorded in which he preached love for all living beings.

In this region of Rajasthan there is a town called Khejarli for the groves of Khejri trees nearby. These trees became particularly sacred to the Bishnoi, because of their remarkable endurance and ability to help sustain life in the desert.

But in 1730 the king of Jodhpur sent men to cut the Khejri trees for construction of his new palace. The Bishnoi protested, but their protests fell on deaf ears and the king’s men continued with their plans to cut. One young Bishnoi mother, Amrita Devi, threw herself upon the trees, wrapping her arms around the Khejiri and hugging them, telling the king’s men that they would have to go through her before they could harm the trees. She said “To lose one’s head to save a tree is a good bargain.”

She lost her life, as did all three of her daughters. The king’s men killed them, and felled some of the trees. Aghast, Bishnoi from all over came to protest. In the end, 363 of them, from 83 different villages, lost their lives as they wrapped themselves around their sacred trees to try to save them, perhaps the world’s first ecological martyrs.

The king heard of this and ordered his men to cease logging. He was so impressed with the bravery of the Bishnoi that he declared Khejarli off limits for logging and hunting, and to this day it is illegal to cut one of these trees. Khejarli is beautiful and verdant in a region that is mostly desert, and it is preserved today as a heritage site. In 1988 it was named by India’s government as the first National Environmental Memorial.

In addition, the actions of Amrita and the Bishnoi prompted what is known as the Chipko movement, from a word that means “to hug”, a nonviolent movement to protect other trees in other places. This is a successful nonviolent protest in India almost two hundred years before Gandhi’s protests.

For all of us, it is not a stretch to say that trees are life, but for poor people in rural areas and less developed countries, it is much more true. When the environment suffers, they are always the first to feel the crisis. <slide> I’d like to introduce you to another tree hugger who has lived in our own time, although as she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, perhaps you have heard of her.

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya and educated in the US. She became the first East African woman to hold a Ph.D. When she returned home from America, she was distressed to compare the affluence here with the terrible poverty in her homeland. Women around her native Nairobi would often have to walk miles and miles to get firewood because the forests had been clear-cut to make way for building. This was having effects on soil erosion, water supply, and so much more. Wangari worked with the National Council for Women, and in 1977, she had an idea to enlist poor women to plant trees, to provide fuel, prevent soil erosion and desertification. She gave the women a small stipend to do the planting. She said in an interview, “I started simply to meet the needs of women.” But in so doing, she was meeting the needs of the environment as well.

The response shocked her. She discovered that Kenya’s corrupt government and a few powerful people controlled these resources, and they did not like a woman defying traditional gender roles, speaking up, and empowering the destitute. She was arrested, imprisoned, and bullied. But when the government changed, she was given a place in its environmental department, and continued to make a difference up until she died in 2007.

Her?? Green Belt Movement has to date planted 51 million trees, gave people a voice in standing up to their government, employed people who desperately needed help, and trained 30,000 women in forestry, food processing, bee keeping, and other skills. The movement has since expanded to teach women in many other African nations how to steward the land.

Over their lifetimes, those 51 million trees will capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions from burning 25 billion pounds of coal. This is why trees are critical to slowing climate change. In areas where trees are sparse, climate change wreaks havoc. And, as both these examples have shown, planting and caring for trees can have a positive influence on the lives of people, especially on the lives of people who desperately need help.

In addition, I want to point out here at the end of Women’s History Month, that both of these stories highlight the courage, ingenuity, and tireless work of women environmentalists, and of course they are only two examples among many. In an echo of the Bishnoi protest, in 1997 Julia Butterfly Hill lived for some 700 days in an old-growth redwood tree to save it from being cut by a lumber company, raising awareness for the importance of old-growth forests, and she continues to stand on the front lines of environmentalism.

Russ and I went for a drive yesterday, through forests just beginning to flicker with green, punctuated with purple-garbed redbud branches. Where I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, for the most part, forests existed where they were protected. We are so fortunate to live in this green land full of trees everywhere, not just in parks. So I ask you to consider planting a tree or two this spring, and even if you can’t, consider hugging one and offering it your thanks for the hard work it’s doing on your behalf.

In the midst of an administration that is anti-environment, it’s easy to lose hope or give up. Don’t do that. I offer you quotes from two of the women we talked about today. Julia Butterfly hill said, “You, yes you, make the difference.” And Wangari Maathai said, “We cannot tire or give up hope. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.”

Posted in Big Questions

Free Write on Being a Woman

I used to free write as a way to spark creativity, and I ran across this old one (14 years, what?!) and it spoke to me again. I thought I’d share.

I am woman in all my denied raging femininity, full of unexpected curves to get lost among, full of — just full. I touch beyond myself unwittingly, drawing close and pushing away in the confusion of clashing hormones and post-menstrual tenderness, lost in my own gestures of grace.

Know that I must protect myself from my own curse of giving ness, lips unwilling to form one syllable No, one wide to an advantage-taking world. And yet I am selfish. But I am warm and soft and my breasts form as good a pillow as any, and if child-bearing hips were the criteria for a good woman I win, hands down.

The small things of admitting my womannness I flatly refuse; I will not migrate to lavatories with the herd, and I am not what you would call a domestic wonder, and I carry a wallet instead of a purse. How lost am I between estrogen and testosterone, and when will I admit that I bleed? Somewhere in this curse and Lessing I will find my way, and you will see i m y eyes the generations that shall call me Mother.