The Spirit of Place and Three Feathers

How do I talk to a little flower? Through it I talk to the Infinite. And what is the Infinite? It is that still small voice that calls up the fairies. Dr. George Washington Carver

We are used to thinking of one another as spirit beings. Many of us see our beloved animals as spirit partners. Fewer may recognize the flowers and stones as spirit beings. Fewer still may know that places, too, have a spirit essence. Just a couple of days ago, I walked into our old Tree of Life space to leave my keys. Luckily, I was alone in the space so I took the time to really feel being there as I knew it would be the last time. I walked into the front half of our sanctuary, which was my first office many years ago, and where the connection with Dick the barber began and the subsequent three grace-filled experiences with the Mother Teresa rosary. [I tell the first story in An Ordinary Life Transformed: Lessons for Everyone from the Bhagavad Gita, pp. 153-4, the second on my blog, The Mother Teresa Rosary: The Next Chapter, and the third on my blog, Gratia Plena.] And I thought about how the space had become a part of our Temple’s first sanctuary all these years later. I stood a long while and offered a deep, sweet, prayer of thanksgiving to the spirit of that place.

Then, I wondered into my old mentoring room and lovingly remembered all the seminarians with whom I’d been blessed to sit. There, too, I laid my heart bare in thanksgiving. And then, finally, I stepped into my classroom. I let my heart feel all the sacred circles that had gathered there, all the dancing, meditation, and profound sharing that had occurred over the years. I remembered having moved there from a much larger space because I was going back to school and needed to shift my focus for the next several years. Yet, having been in the building before, it felt like coming home. I remembered doing my morning meditations there in the middle of all the dirt and debris as it’d been vacant for quite a while before my son, Mitch, painted and the decorating began. Here I stayed the longest praying in thanksgiving. And, finally, as I walked down the stairs, I took one last look back and thanked the collective spirit of the place for having supported me and the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple’s vision and community for so long.

The spirit of place. I am now being led into a new sacred place, nature, and into the wild. No surprise! My next book, Lovers in the Wilderness: Discover Your Path to Mystical Unity with Mantra Prayer, is due out in the fall. And, today, during a long walk in nature, I was gifted with not one, not two, but three feathers. (see below) As I paused and meditated on them, I could suddenly see the Sonic Trilogy of Love right before me. For those of you who may not know, I first conceived of the Trilogy in my dissertation and later it was highlighted in The Call of the Mourning Dove: How Sacred Sound Awakens Mystical Unity. 

In the Trilogy, we as Lovers enter into the Love, sacred sound, to create the conditions for mystical unity with our Beloved God. (see diagram below) In Call of the Mourning Dove, as with my upcoming companion book, Lovers in the Wilderness, the Love is expressed as the sound current of the prayers from across faith traditions. But, it’s important to note that this Love, this sacred sound, is also experienced in many other meditative and prayerful contexts. Christians experience it in centering prayer as the sacred word to which they return again and again. Sufis experience it as they inaudibly chant the name of Allah while spinning. And Shamans, throughout the ages, have entered into unity with their Beloved Great Spirit as they have chanted and danced on the spirit of the rattle and drum.

Three feathers. In Shamanistic practice, all of God’s creation, nature, is imbued with the sacred spirit of place and feathers, gifted from this place, are considered an important omen. In this practice, we too may journey on the spirit of the rattle and drum, the Love, the sacred sound, and come into unity with our Beloved God, the Great Spirit, who now appears to us in the form of our spirit animal helpers and spirit guides. It is a beautiful practice that brings us to that place beyond our understanding again and again. Yes, right now, I’m being called into the spirit of the inner wild by those blessed feathers—to sing and dance from that place where Lover, Love and Beloved merge without distinction to create the conditions for mystical unity with the Great Spirit. It is where I started my spiritual journey in the early 90s and it’s where I am now returning coming full circle.

And what does the spirit of place and three feathers have to do with our opening quote from Dr. George Washington Carver? Well, those of you who know me well know that he is one of my most revered spiritual teachers. [Kindly see The Man Who Talks with the Flowers: The Life Story of Dr. George Washington Carver and you’ll understand.] No one that I know of has embodied the full integration of nature and spirit more than Carver. An African American who lived in the south during the late 1800s and early 1900s, he is best known as a renowned scientist who discovered many uses for the peanut and sweet potato. Fewer know that he attributed all his successes to his daily communion with God which he felt enabled him to see into the spirit of things and bring forth what was possible. To Carver it was all about love—what I would call devotional love not the more common emotional love. It’s why he said, “Anything will reveal its secrets to you if you love it enough.” Peanuts, flowers, and people.

My Shamanism teacher, Sandra Ingerman, compares Carver’s work to the Shaman’s work and, indeed, it is. Bottom line, I’m being led to follow in a similar direction on the spirit of the rattle and drum, to commune more deeply with the Beloved Great Spirit, to see how we too may learn to love enough to see more deeply into the spirit of things.

Journey into the outer wilderness and you will, very likely, find there a portal into your inner wild—that place where mystical unity occurs. The place where, as Native Americans say, the wind talks, the silence speaks and, suddenly, the heart knows.

Dare. You, too, might just call up the fairies.

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Praying with Our Feet

It’s hard for me to look when evil is happening right in front of me. Most of the time my usual coping mechanisms kick in: see but-not-really see; consider it some anomaly of behavior perpetrated and experienced by those not like me; feel relieved and grateful to let others take up the mantel of justice so that I can return to the more pressing problems in my own life. Sometimes it’s just more than I can take in. Too painful to bear.

And then, for the second time, I heard, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” and all my usual ways of coping crumbled. Seeing one of my dear black brothers crushed under the knee of another white brother–yes, brother–split my heart open and left me hemorrhaging, spewing raw sorrow from the jagged edges. No. This time, I could not see but–not–really see or hear but–not–really hear. This time, though this type of violence is played out every day on streets across our nation and the world, this time I truly saw and heard.

And now, my life is George Floyd’s life. My breath his.

We as peoples of faith are fond of calling all peoples our brothers and sisters. We proclaim our unity with all of life. We delight in building bridges of unity across diversity. And at times like these, we are the ones who often call for societal reflection on how we may eradicate the causes of such vile and insidious behaviors and invite discourse on what might be done to enact supportive public policy. All these efforts are most noble.

But, as important as they are, I don’t believe true, lasting, change comes solely from inter–relational discourse or from the enactment of public policy. You can’t legislate brotherly love. No, such love, necessary to move the needle from impulsive reactions toward more laser-focused compassionate ones, can only come from a true change of heart, a change that lifts the veil so, finally, we truly see and truly hear. A change that leaves the heart aching and tender to its unity with all its brothers and sisters. A heart, that, when confronted with one brother sadistically killing another, can only respond from a visceral, innate, knowledge that what is happening to one of my brothers is happening to me–right there, right here, right now. Bottom line, standing idly by, watching for eight minutes and forty–six seconds would simply not be an option.

So, how do we, you and I, go about experiencing this change of heart for ourselves? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left us clear direction. When delivering the eulogy to the congregation of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, after the bombing where four children were killed and many others injured, warned, “And so in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers.” White brothers.

How do we possibly get there? In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” he tells us. “We begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us, whether in collective or individual life, by looking at ourselves.” Oh…..

Truth is each of us must be willing to do the hard work of excavating the hate that festers within us. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: when, where and how have I seen but–not–really seen? What prejudices exist within me that need my true seeing? So many of us want to change the world. Yet, harder still is changing ourselves so that our hearts can finally, truly, see. Such seeing would not, could not, exchange hate for hate or violence for violence. Instead, such seeing, emanating from a heart now changed, could only respond with that laser–focused compassion for both victim and perpetrator. Not easy. Yet, most faith traditions call us to love . . . to love one another in just this way. Perhaps this is a perfect moment in time for all of us to better practice our faith—not from place of exalted righteousness but, rather, from a place of humbled culpability.

Like me, so many of us have had our hearts torn open watching the killing of George Floyd, sadly, just the most recent killing in what has felt like an endless string of brutal violence against our black brothers and sisters. My prayer is that we continue to keep our hearts open so, going forward, we may better truly see and hear what is right before us. Let’s allow our deep sadness and rage to be funneled into actions of love fueled by that visceral knowledge that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. And, most of all, let’s continue to cleanse our own hearts of the residue of hate and prejudice that would continue to cause us to see but–not–really see.

Let’s join all those who have walked out in faith to pray with their feet. Black. White. Young. Old. Rich. Poor. Let’s use this moment, when the veil has been torn off, to truly see . . . to ignite the heart . . . to seek to love all our brothers and sisters. For it is only in this way that peace may one day prevail in this one heart of God in which we all move, breathe . . . and have our being . . .

in this one heart where, graciously, I and my brother, my sister, are one.

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Sing Allelu

We didn’t know it was going to happen—at least not this fast. But, of course, the timing was perfect. Now, if you know my husband and me you know that, although we absolutely love our simple apartment living, we are, in that deep–inner–most–sweet–spot, first and foremost, wilderness people. So, awhile back, my husband started looking for a camp for us. Never mind that we really didn’t have a clue as to how we could make it happen. Then, unexpectedly, a series of events merged in that heart–pausing dance of divine synchronicity and . . . heaven arrived—complete with a purple outhouse! I mean, really! How could it get any better?!

Our wonderful realtor was a bit shocked when we called all excited. “You do realize it has no plumbing, no electricity, no running water?”

“Yes!” Didn’t budge the needle on our heart meter! We’d seen the pictures. This was our place!

“Uhhh, I think there’s a hose that comes down from the underground stream up the mountain. But that’s all the water that goes to the place.”

“Perfect!”

“And, it’s quite a long drive up.”

Why was she discouraging us???

When we arrived, she wasn’t able to make it up the drive either by car or foot so she missed the showing. So, boy, was she surprised when we called–on the way home–to say, “This is our place! We’d like to make an offer!”

“Okay . . .” she said slowly trying to hide that, “What are you doing?” in her voice.

And then, our kids thought we should be seriously committed!

“You crazy kids!”

“Are you sure you’re ready for outhouse living?”

“Have you really thought this through? It looks like a lot to take on.”

“Are you sure you can handle it all–afford it?”

And, on and on and on!

Ahhhhhhh . . . but in just the few weeks we’ve owned it I’ve already discovered some important things: how much soot and ash can come out of an old antique stove and how good it can feel to bring it back to life; how our blessed spring bubbles up our water without fail and how it can only flow straight down into our sink–as long as we keep the hose clear😊; how the spirit of the land is wild and has clearly been well loved; how the tall trees and hovering mountains shelter us and whisper in the sweet night sounds; how the outhouse is actually a step up from the in–the–dirt we used to do when wilderness camping; how the old stone fireplace keeps close the special rocks from children exploring in days past; how a screen porch opening to the wild can be all that is needed to cleanse, heal and restore a weary soul; how dirty feet and a hair tie is the most appropriate attire to dine in God’s hall. And, how, as I walk around the land my heart can suddenly, without notice, irrupt singing aloud . . . Allelu . . . (Check out the song Sing Allelu on the Odes of Solomon Project CD and you’ll understand.)

So, crazy? “YES!” Thank God!

But . . . I’ll let you be the judge . . . here are some pictures. The first ones are from our first night and the rest are from just the few visits since . . .

Enjoy!!

The Start of Our Drive:)
The Cabin:) A Sleeping Loft Upstairs:)
From Our Screen Porch:)
Doors to Heaven:)
Our First Meal:)
Our Special Place:)
Our Fireplace:)
Our Humble Abode:)
Special Night Lights:)
Night time:)
Need I Say More?:)
Happy Us:)

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It is So Happy to Love

“It is so happy to love,” said the Shepherd quietly. “There is pain too, certainly, but Love does not think that very significant.” Hinds’ Feet on High Places

Moments. I can close my eyes and remember the very day the What If? poem flowed through me, sitting on the floor, at the Tree of Life Interfaith Fellowship off the Milford Oval in 2005. It was the vision given to me for what was to become our beloved Temple. I can remember the very morning I was told to create the Living Your Purpose: The Heart of Spiritual Practice course in 2007 which was to generate the initial curriculum for the seminary and then, two years later, the morning I was told to start the seminary. Moments when that undeniable whisper would have its way. Love is like that. Moments that have charted my course to which I only needed to set the sails. Truly, looking back, all that was needed was my answer and response for the vision did not come from me but rather, graciously, poured through me.

Funny thing about those visions. If we’re lucky, one day we get to see and know that we were, indeed, only the caretaker for a little while. For a vision, particularly one held by many souls, needs new caretakers to infuse seasons of growth with a beauty it could not have known otherwise. It is only in this way that the vision may continue to evolve into what has already been ordained and held in the mind of God from the beginning. As the initial caretaker, I was blessed beyond measure to receive the seed for the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple, to plant it lovingly in the fertile ground of our collective love, and to tender its growth. But now it is time for a new caretaker and a new season of growth to bring forth the next season of that flowering beauty.

I would like to honor and to thank Rev. Linda Goodman who will soon be our new humble caretaker, Presiding Minister, for her deep desire, steadfast love, and total commitment to our vision and to guiding the Temple to become what is next for its life and joy. My heart is grateful beyond measure.

So, yes, there is pain too, certainly, but, most graciously, Love does not think that very significant. For, as the seasons pass and I get to look upon all your treasured faces, many of whom I have long loved, I know I will not be able to keep from smiling. Love is like that. It leaves the heart open and tender and, me, simply unable to stop singing…

It is so happy to love.

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To See the Face of God

And So…We Sing Reflection

The coronavirus is offering us a most timely and colossal gift—the gift of, at last, awakening to our common humanity with all peoples. Suffering does that. Nothing galvanizes us to act unconditionally more than witnessing the suffering of the innocent around us—and, in this case, we’re all innocent. The virus has done this by not being partial to the rich, the poor, the well–loved or the unloved. It doesn’t care if we live in a developing nation or an underdeveloped one. It’s immune to our political and religious affiliations. It doesn’t notice if we’re gay or straight or what color our skin is. By leaving a trail of suffering across all of our faces, it is showing us that we are all in this together, experiencing the same thing, at the same time, in the same way.

And, suddenly, many of us find ourselves writing notes, making food packages, giving rides, leaving groceries and supplies at front doors, smiling shyly at one another across our six feet of distance. It doesn’t occur to us to assess worthiness or to gauge eligibility; to ask what religion someone is or to require proof of nationality. No, we simply respond because we are compelled to do so from that place that can now see beyond the differences to what’s the same in all of us—to see that those very strangers we never knew were just like us, children of the one Creator and, as such, our very brothers and sisters in this one human family in which we all live. The coronavirus is breaking us open enabling us to see with new eyes and to respond with a new heart laid bare by our common suffering.

While there are those already sensing how our planetary and global conversation might evolve as a result of this common experience—incredibly important and, in truth, likely the only thing that will save us and our planet—I find myself thinking about it more from the other direction, from the depths of that new, collective, heart emerging. For I don’t believe, in the end, any aspirations of global transformation will hold unless they arise from a transformation of the human heart—inspired by nothing short of, truly, seeing one another. For, I know for myself, in moments when I’ve been able to . . .     

I suddenly see…   

You . . . the man I passed in the isle, talking gibberish, looking afraid, confused . . . You are in my heart today. I hope you found a home . . . a meal.

You . . . the woman with the nice smile with whom I had a fun conversation about that last roll of toilet paper—the one we both found hidden behind a crate on the shelf . . . Your smile still warms my heart. Gosh, how I would love to have a cup of tea with you.

You . . . my neighbor I passed in the hall today and with whom I exchanged a friendly smile . . . I’ve seen you but still don’t know your name. When this is over, I’ll remedy that.

You . . . the woman I saw at the elevator who, as the door opened, suddenly asked, “Is it safe to go out?” Oh, if I had thought more quickly, I would have said, “Yes! Would you like to go for a walk?”

And . . . from my mind’s eye . . . I can suddenly see . . .

You . . . all the ones who will find out today you tested positive . . . My heart cries with you.

You . . . the one who’s discovering that time with your children is forging a new bond . . . My heart celebrates with you.

And You . . . the one caught in hurtful family dynamics unable to escape . . . My heart grieves with you.  

You . . . the one who’s lost your job and now, literally, worries about how many more loaves of bread you can buy to feed your children before the money runs out or help arrives . . . I stand with you and would invite you and yours to dinner if I could.   

You . . . the man pulling that cart of supplies to deliver to a neighbor . . . You made my heart skip all the way back home.

You . . . the one who is alone during the long days of lockdown . . . My heart would so love to reach out across the miles or through my computer screen to touch you.

You . . . who selflessly go to work to help the sick knowing you are exposing yourself . . . and you who work behind the counters bagging our food and, you, helping us with needed supplies . . . many of you quarantined from your own family and loved ones . . . Oh my, yes, it is truly YOU who are the heroes we will long remember.

But, mostly, it is You . . . who are sick, confined, quarantined in a sterile hospital room knowing you could die alone without the touch of a loved one’s hand or hearing a loved one’s voice . . . and to all those who love you and can’t touch you or share a tender moment with you . . . It is to you my heart reaches out the most.

Truly seeing you, my brothers and sisters, cracks my heart open to greater and greater depths enabling me to both sing and cry from that place that knows your joy is my joy and your tears are my tears. We go together, you and I, for we are all a part of our one human family.     

So, my prayer is that we’ll use this incredibly unique moment in our evolutionary history to pause, look, feel, and see our beloved Creator right there before us . . . looking out at us through one another’s eyes, speaking to us through one another’s voice, reaching out to us through one another’s hearts. That we may hear the voice of the Psalmist: Create in me a new heart; heed the words of Krishna: Deep in the heart of all lies the light of all lights forever beyond darkness; rest in the reassurance of Allah that there is only one God: la il laha illa allah; and, awaken to the holy commandment of Jesus: Love one another as I have loved you.

Oh, my dear brothers and sisters . . . let us all . . .  

Look out . . . and see . . . the face of God everywhere.   

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7 Things

And So…We Sing Reflections…

We hear it all the time. Don’t wait ’til tomorrow to say I love you; I forgive you; I’ve been a better person because of you; what I’ve most appreciated about you; how you’ve gifted my life…because we never know if we’re going to get tomorrow. We know this . . . but we don’t—until we’re caught in a pandemic. Recently, my heart, quite tenderly, settled on the knowing that, should I get sick and need to be quarantined, I could die without ever seeing my family and all those I love again. Now, interestingly, it is not the dying part that bothers me half as much as the Oh no!!! I wish I had told them…part.

So, I’ve decided not to wait. I’ve started making notes I’m calling 7 Things . . . 7 Things I Love about You . . . 7 Sweet Memories of You . . . 7 Things I Appreciate about You… I’m not sure how I landed on 7 but there it is. But I can tell you that it’s the sweetest thing on the planet to be writing them. It’s like, finally, I’m doing the most important thing . . . that very thing that answers that proverbial question, What would you do if you knew you only had a day, month, year to live?

Far from feeling like doomsday or some self–fulfilling prophesy, (News Flash: We’re all going at some point and none of us know when!) I feel so very happy, at peace, and truly in love when I’m writing these notes—especially to those where things have felt unclear, unresolved or in any way strained or broken. In these cases, as I’m pulling out of me what I most love or appreciate about them, I remember that it’s not important that they love me. It is only important that I love them. This is what sets my heart at peace.

7 things that fill my heart to overflowing . . .

7 things that help me to remember what it truly means to live . . . 

7 things that crack my heart open to love unconditionally . . .

7 things that set my soul free . . .

Thank you, Coronavirus.

PS: Many of you reading this know of my grandson Sean who has autism. Thought I’d share the one I recently made for him… 

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And So…We Sing Reflections – 1

They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.

Fr. Richard Hendrick, OFM

We are being tested. No doubt about it. Tested to see if we can continue living our deep spiritual principles in times of intense struggle and uncertainty. In the Tree of Life community, we’ve talked a lot about the purpose of being tested over the years always saying it was really a good thing. No fun for sure. But, certainly, a way of mining—way down—to excavate some buried treasure we didn’t even know we had—to, ultimately, see for ourselves that we really do blossom, not in spite of, but because of.

So, I’ve made a commitment to live through this time, every day, looking with soft eyes, to see just where I may extract some of those spiritual gems that only reveal themselves when we are forced to dive deep. The first one came this past Friday. May it bless your day as we begin this journey together . . .

What? No toilet paper?! There’s nothing like the toilet paper shelves being empty to jar us awake! Like most, I’ve been dealing with my own fears, insecurities, and watching my own need to hoard—just in case. Then, recently in the grocery store, passing those empty shelves, and waiting in that very long line on the way up to the additional lines at the terminals, I suddenly took in the gravity of our situation. I didn’t fully realize it at the time but our would become the operative word.

It became so the next morning when, in my spiritual practice, I prayed to our beloved God to please show me what I needed to know about this critical time. In the silence, I was surprised to sense that the coronavirus could actually be a blessing—that how the instinctual impulse to hoard, when we perceive there’s not enough, can actually awaken a deeper sense of our interconnectedness. How? I suddenly saw how in our affluent way of living, indeed satiated fullness, we so easily can become comatose forgetting we are utterly and completely dependent upon other people, people just like you and me, to show up every day and do their part so we may continue to enjoy the life we’ve come to know and, all too often, take for granted.  

I saw images of the farmers in the fields growing our food, the packers, truck drivers and, finally, the grocery store attendants placing the items on the shelves. And, as for the most revered item in times of crisis, toilet paper, I could now imagine the tree cutters, paper manufacturers, assembly line workers, and again, the haulers and, finally, the store attendants placing this most coveted of all items on the shelves. Now, add in a pandemic and the possibility of just any one of these groups falling away, and suddenly I was awakened to the very real truth that any broken link in this human chain impacts the whole.

From there, in the silence of my heart, I began to feel how I, as one of the affluent ones, have actually contributed to the kind of global hoarding that’s now being played out in neighborhood grocery stores all around the world. For example, my husband and I are not rich by any means. We enjoy a comfortable middle–class retirement lifestyle. Yet, look inside our refrigerator and cupboards and you’ll find almond milk and regular milk, Ezekiel bread and regular bread, almond butter and peanut butter, fancy organic granola and Cherrios, just to name a few examples. Really? When there are many people around the world who have no milk, no bread, no peanut butter, no cereal.

Gratefully, I came out of my prayers feeling both deeply connected to the web of life as well as fully culpable for my part in it. I can’t pretend now I don’t recognize my part in creating hunger in a faraway land. I can’t turn away from the suffering I now sense ever more deeply. And, as a result, my heart has been pierced to a new depth with the most tender of all remembrances—that every person is my brother, my sister. So, as suffering and death increase with this pandemic, I’m reminded of the importance of not isolating my heart—but, quite the contrary, to keeping it open to all, in all ways, as I am able. For, in truth, I’m as intricately connected to the one far away working in the fields as I am to my neighbor tending her garden.

I have been jarred awake in a way I had not imagined and I realize I have only begun to see just the tip of the proverbial iceberg . . . but I will continue to pray, day by day, and dive deeper and deeper. And I pray many of you will too for, if so, the coronavirus may just leave us with the greatest blessing of all . . .

A new way of seeing, being, and living in the world . . . born of an ever–deepening sense of interconnectedness with all peoples.

And so . . . we sing.

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Why I’m a Dancer

If you caught my October 2, 2019 blog, An Unexpected Gift of Grace, you know I broke my wrist shortly after returning to dance. I’m back now taking private lessons with Jen, owner of Allegro Dance Academy, to build up my repertoire before returning to a class. Today we did ballet and I told her I’d send her one of my favorite stories about dance—actually, one that’s much more than just about dance—one that offered a life–changing lesson for me. Curious? Here’s the story I first told in An Ordinary Life Transformed: Lessons for Everyone from the Bhagavad Gita, followed by an addendum story I’ve not shared publicly. You’ll see the connection. Enjoy!

Dance was always my first love but after an auto accident at sixteen I had to stop. Then in my mid–twenties, I discovered an adult beginning ballet class just up the street from where I worked in Honolulu, Hawaii. My teacher’s name was Jack Clause and he definitely did not look like a ballet teacher. He was rather short and stocky and had very little hair, but, his face—oh, that face with those glowing eyes—held me fast. I always knew something special was about to happen when he walked in the room. No chitchat allowed. No coming in late. Nothing less than our full attention was accepted. Later I learned he was quite accomplished and had been brought in from the mainland to work with the Honolulu Ballet Company.

As we worked at the barre, he’d come around to each of us and say, “Up . . . up!” and stand there until we were lifted and shining. But most importantly, he told us to be beautiful as we moved across the floor. Now, most adult beginning ballet students look anything but beautiful moving across the floor! Still, he would bellow, “Be beautiful! There are many technicians but very few dancers! Be a dancer!” After class, it was all I could do to remember it was not appropriate to grande jette down the sidewalk on my way to catch the last bus home!

After just over a year, we left Hawaii to spend a year in Japan. It was during that time I realized the true gift of his teaching—the true gift of allowing myself, daring myself to be a dancer—not just a technician—in many parts of my life! And it felt very important to say thank you. I anxiously waited for the day we’d return home as I knew there’d be a layover in Honolulu. I would tell him then.

Finally, the day came when I found myself on the familiar sidewalk outside the old building. As I was about eight months pregnant, I hobbled up the stairs and, breathlessly, asked the girl at the desk how I might find Jack. She stared at me with a kind of awkward look and said, “You don’t know?”

“Know what?” I asked.

“Jack died a few months ago,” she said. “He had a heart ailment. He knew he could die at any time. You didn’t know? Most people knew.” All I could do was shake my head and make my way back down the stairs, stunned and sad.

But the blessed gift he gave me has remained and has continued to serve me all the days of my life. Thank you, Jack.

Now…

Fast forward a few years. I’m living in Pensacola, Florida and have just heard that Mikhail Baryshnikov himself is coming to Birmingham, Alabama! Though I was pregnant again with our second child and about due, I was determined there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity! My husband at the time wasn’t able to go so I reserved a single seat, front and center, in the very first row of the mezzanine. My dear friend lent me a gown I could wear in my current condition which happened to be very low–cut and crimson red. “Perfect!” And, off I went.

Okay, I confess I did enjoy some of the puzzled to slightly–taken–aback to clearly disagreeable looks I got as I joined the others seated around me, distinguished gentlemen with their ladies, all decked out in their furs with dangled purses. Given the times and context, I did feel a bit like Hester in the Scarlet Letter, but I just kept telling myself, “No matter! I’m going to see Baryshnikov!”

But, as usual, I was to receive what I didn’t see coming.

A few days earlier there’d been some buzz that Baryshnikov had been ill and some question as to whether he’d dance. But, gratefully, last minute, we were told he would. But the first solo performer that night was another well–known dancer of the day, Peter Martins. Now, Martins was clearly at the top of his game. He was, technically, nothing short of brilliant. It was truly amazing to watch.

But, then, finally, it was time for Baryshnikov. Suddenly, as if shot from a cannon, he leaped out from the side into the air, leaping over and over, making a wide circle around the stage. Instantly, we were on our feet clapping and cheering! He went on to dance solo and with partners but, somehow, no matter what he was dancing there was that certain something. Having danced, I could tell, on that night, he wasn’t quite up to Martin’s technical brilliance . . . but it didn’t matter. Even perhaps not feeling well, it was still he who stole the show for it was he who had that certain something.

My beloved teacher, Jack Clause, called that something . . . beauty when he demanded we, “Be beautiful!” Truly, I have always held a soft spot in my heart for Peter Martins when I remember that night because, for all his technical brilliance, he just couldn’t stir the heart, as only that something can, in the way Baryshnikov could.  

Whatever our craft, becoming a true dancer requires, in any moment, that we unleash all the skill, technique, we’ve been cultivating so that all our preparation may serve the creation of that something beautiful seeking expression through us. It requires we throw off self–consciousness, faintheartedness, and get out of the way so that this thing of beauty can be revealed—to us and to all. It requires we remember that such a creation of beauty can only soar when our spirit is free.

Sitting here some forty-five years later, I can still see that glowing face and hear that bellowing voice, Be beautiful! There are many technicians but very few dancers! Be a dancer!

It was a seeding in my heart of that . . .something . . . which I have, graciously, come to witness in many forms over the years . . .

A seeding most joyfully and lovingly offered by the voice of one who knew . . . that very day . . . could be his last.

The ultimate gift of beauty from him . . . to us…

Finally, I thought you might enjoy seeing a couple of pictures of me dancing all those years ago…

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The Look

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)

I wrote this as an open letter to a man I encountered on a city street recently…

Dear Brother,

I wonder if you’ve thought about it since. You were so mad at me because you thought I was laughing at you. That day my husband and I passed you in front of Alex’s Shoe Store. You, a black man, were packing up when you and I, by chance, caught a glance. What are you laughing at? You piece of white . . . shit! My knee-jerk reaction got stuck on the first line. I wanted to say, No! I’m not laughing at you! I’m sure I’ve hurt many people in many ways in my life but laughing at someone is not one of them. If you knew me, you’d know why. Still, I want to say I’m truly sorry you took it that way. But it was the second part that caught my breath—said with that rage–hot, volcanic look you gave me. It’s why we kept walking.   

I’ve thought a lot about that look. You see, I recognized it, in part, because I’ve seen it in my own children. It’s all too familiar—most often caused by the malicious, debilitating, festering of addiction. A festering that can eventually, tragically, lead straight into the abyss of suicide. Yes, I’m a mother who knows the unspeakable heartbreak of the malignant suffering hidden just behind that look.  

Still, I am not excusing what you did. It’s clearly not okay to verbally attack someone walking down the street, someone you just happened to make eye contact with. No, not okay. And, just in case you think I’m one of those white, hippy, granola, Kumbaya types, writing with some assumption that it could all be made better if we could just sit together, you’d be wrong. That would be a whitewash (forgive the expression) over that moment in time, wouldn’t it? No, I realize the bridge across racial and economic divides is narrow and frail and won’t hold anyone not ready or unable to take full responsibility for everyone’s safe passage. It’s hard work. It requires uncomfortable listening and true hearing. No, sitting here in my comfortable surroundings, I would not presume to know what your life has been. What brought you to that sidewalk that day. What your deep struggles are. What you have seen, experienced. I would not presume to know . . . but wish I could.

I suppose at this point I should tell you I’m a minister but not the kind who would dictate to you the answer from heaven. No, my life’s ministry has been about the practice of seeing the face of God in everyone—most especially behind the kind of look you gave me—the look, variations of which are there for different reasons on different faces at different times—but are always born of unspeakable pain and suffering.

As a woman of God, I can’t say for sure why you were put on my path that day. But I can say and want you to know that I know it was not you who taunted me but, rather, addiction’s unabating rage and desperation spewing out. And, I want you to know that, behind that look, I can fully recognize you as a fellow human being and, yes, as my brother.   

I pray that God’s grace will somehow deliver this note to you. I pray that one day you’ll find your way out from behind that look and out of that abyss of suffering. Maybe then, you’ll be able to remember that day when an elderly white woman, just passing by, glanced at you kindly.

And, perhaps, just perhaps, then . . . we could meet on that narrow bridge.  

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The Sheikh & The Preacher

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day…

In 2016, I visited the largest mosque in New England, The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC), in Roxbury Crossing, MA, to hear Sheikh Yasir Fahmy speak on The Toxicity of Othering. As usual, I did not receive what I expected. No, I received so much more!

About a third of the way through, I started to recognize similar teachings to that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I noticed that if I were to remove the Arabic phrases the Sheikh occasionally included and changed “Allah” to “God,” that, indeed, the core message would seem to be the same. Curious, once home, I listened to the video again off the ISBCC website and printed out a transcript. From there, my journey began and below are my findings which led to the creation of The Sheikh & The Preacher. The essay, expanded from this blog, was chosen for inclusion in the anthology One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets, edited by my former professor Celene Ibrahim and just released by Wipf and Stock Publishing.

The four key categories below came to me as I heard the similarities unfold. The sub-headings I also included as a way to highlight the specific teachings within each category. Sheikh Yasir Fahmy’s quotes have been occasionally edited by punctuation only to facilitate ease of reading. The numbers noted at the end of each quote indicate where in the video the wording appeared. The quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are taken directly from the sources indicated at the end of each quote.

Enjoy…

Origins of Unhealthy Otherness

Exalting the Self and the Self’s Group as Superior

The Sheikh:

“We want upliftment. We want recognition. We want stability. We want to be known and recognized. We want to be justified. Because of our distance from Allah, we think that the only way I am to make myself big is by belittling others.” (25:05 – 25:34) 

The Preacher:

 “We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade…And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it.” (Sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, February 2, 1968)

Outcomes of Unhealthy Otherness

Removing the Inferior Others

The Sheikh:

 “[At the extreme, this need for recognition] becomes toxic, demonic, destructive. The self becomes self-aggrandizing and self-absorbed. (2:57 – 3:11) You are a danger to my existence, to my power. You threaten me so I want to destroy you. (5:35 -5:43) [These are] diseases of the heart that exist at the root of this toxic other. (18:44-18:50)People have trouble distinguishing between religious or cultural expressions and human value.” (9:48 – 9:54)

The Preacher:

“We’ve been in the mountain of war. We’ve been in the mountain of violence. We’ve been in the mountain of hatred long enough. It is necessary to move on now, but only by moving out of this mountain can we move to the promised land of justice and brotherhood and the Kingdom of God.” (Sermon at Temple Israel, February 26, 1965)

How to Combat Unhealthy Otherness

Humbly Examine the Self

The Sheikh:

“So, brothers and sisters as we think critically about this disease that exists in our society we have to begin with ourselves. We begin by looking in the mirror and thinking, ’Am I a person who otherizes?’ Am I someone who puts others into other ugly categories and belittles them because of who they are?” (21:49 – 22:13)

“We must take a step back and before really thinking about what people are doing to me, I have to ask myself, ‘To what extent do some of these diseases exist within me?’ For to them as you do it, it will be done to you. Before we sit there and look at others, we have to ask, ‘Am I truly embodying the best of prophetic ideals in this particular regard?’” (7:10 – 8:02)

The Preacher:

 “Now first let us deal with this question, which is a practical one:  How do we go about loving our enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self. And I’m sure that seems strange to you, that I start out telling you this morning that you love your enemies by beginning with a look at self.” [later] “There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual. And this is one of the tragedies of human nature. So, we begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us, whether in collective life or individual life, by looking at ourselves.” (Loving Your Enemies, Nov. 17, 1957)

How to Cultivate Healthy Otherness

The Sheikh:

The purpose of all creation is ‘so you may know one another,’ to have an intimate engagement with people. [Allah said] I made you into these different tribes that you might know one another. So, it is through humility—that is the way we begin to heal the pains of our society.” (29:36 – 29:56)

The Preacher:

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” (Advice for Living, May, 1958)

Recognize the Common Unity and Destiny of the Human Soul

The Sheikh:

“When Muhammad stood up before a Jewish funeral procession and was asked why, he replied, ‘Is he not a soul that deserves honor, dignity and respect? He is a human soul and, therefore, has inherent value and has inherent sacredness and sanctity and the human soul should be honored and respected regardless of the realities of that person. That’s the prophetic ideal that must thrive in societies.’”  (8:15 – 8:59)

The Preacher:

“They [our white brothers] have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. [later] We will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (I Have a Dream Speech, August 28, 1963)

See the Sanctity Within Each Person

The Sheikh:

“Am I someone who has genuine honor for others, genuine love? Can I see the sanctity in human beings no matter who they are? Rather than looking out into the world, rather than seeing all the ugly, I see all the beautiful. I see the beauty of human beings who are struggling to just be there.” (22:17 – 22:34)

The Preacher:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (I Have a Dream Speech,August 28, 1963)

Seek to Love and Forgive Your Enemies

The Sheikh:

“Only Allah can measure the God consciousness of others. It’s not your responsibility to identify others as being this or that. (27:40 – 28:03) We hold dear to our beliefs. We have a distinct desire to see that human life is treated as sacred regardless of the differences that may exits—even in the quote-unquote enemy. No matter your worst enemy, whoever they may be, they deserve dignity as prescribed by Allah.” (16:22 – 16:58)

The Preacher:

“And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers.” (Eulogy after bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, September 18, 1963)

Care for One Another

The Sheikh:

“That’s what it means to be a mercy to mankind. To dignify others is to make sure that everyone comes before me. I want people to be lifted high and if it requires that I bow down and that my neck is broken for others, I will do it. That is the prophetic spirit. That is what it means to honor others, to care for others, regardless of religion or ethnicity or race or even in financiers in the economic realm.” (20:16 – 20:50)

The Preacher:

“The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. (From his 1963 book, Strength to Love.) Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace; a soul generated by love.” (The Major Drum Instinct, sermon adapted from the 1952 homily ”Drum-Major Instincts” by J. Wallace Hamilton, 1952) 

Cultivate a Consciousness of Love

The Sheikh:

“The most dignified and the most honorable amongst creation is the one who has the most God consciousness.“ (26:50 – 26:57)

The Preacher:

“Inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.” (Loving Your Enemies, Nov. 17, 1957)

Seek to be Vehicles of Goodness and Unconditional Love

The Sheikh:

“May he make us vehicles for good on this earth. May he make us prophetic vehicles of change toward goodness on this earth. May we be sources of mercy for others on this earth.” (26:57 -29:28)

The Preacher:

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. [later] I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”(Noble Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964)

Closing Quote: The Sheikh

“May Allah rectify the conditions of our humanity on this earth. May he allow it to begin with us. May he guide us, guide through us. May Allah rectify our hearts of the diseases that have caused the problems that we see today so that we can see a society that is prospering.” (30:17 – 30-22)

Closing Quote: The Preacher

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” (I Have a Dream Speech,August 28, 1963)

Lovingly offered by the Sheikh and the Preacher

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