Autumn Poems

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October

The matronly hill

Has dressed in a patterned muumuu

Of scarlet maple, golden ash, and copper oak.

The lake at her feet

Reflects her gaudy garment.

What a thrill to wear whatever one pleases

In the autumn of life.

 

November

Gray sky, gray streets, gray trees, gray faces, gray overcoats

Punctuated with blood red plastic poppies.

An odd note of cheer

In the grimmest month of the year.

 

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Post-Christian Sacred Spaces

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A Free-Thinkers’ Church

Perched on an oaken pew, I listen to jazz, riff after gloriously improvised riff.  Early evening sunshine streams through stained glass casting kaleidoscope colours on the piano.  Outside, sparrows rest on weathered granite gravestones.  Inside, people fan themselves with the Order of Service and tap their feet to secular standards.  This time and place is… sacred.  I want to make a joyful noise!

I am attending Jazz Vespers at St. James Anglican Church in Stratford, Ontario.  It is said by old wags that to Anglicans, Sin is using the wrong fork.  As with their coreligionists in the Church of England and the US Episcopal Church, the gray haired congregation of St James would be perfectly content if we were singing Abide with Me, the jellied salads made by the ladies “for after” kept their form, and legions of children sat in Sunday school, obediently well scrubbed.  However, the congregation is dwindling death by faithful death.  The feeling of loss is palpable in the plastered sanctuary walls.  In contrast there is a beat of hope in the music.

I have no affiliation to St. James.  I’m here because I love jazz. I welcome North America’s collective evolution toward post-Christianity.  But along with the very elderly church elders, I mourn every time I see an old church demolished or sold off as a B&B or vacation home, pews reinstalled in a pub, fixtures auctioned off to the highest bidder.  I think of the hard working bricklayers and carpenters who built St. James in a pre Health and Safety, work-booted era.  When they dropped bricks on their toes, or hit their thumbs with hammers, they were injured for posterity.

As I am swept up in Oscar Peterson, I realize, other people feel this way.  In common with the St. James congregation, free-thinkers and Pagans, meditators and philosophers, other non-Christians of all sorts, feel kind of bad when old churches fall on hard times.  Thus we have Jazz Vespers instead of Sunday Evening Hymn Sing.  The pianist is playing soul-grabbing, secular songs because the people of St. James want more people to gather in this sacred space, and the people have come.  There is little mention of Jesus.

A very few churches have navigated through turbulent waters to post-Christianity.  Universalist Unitarians remain trailblazers, torches in hands.  The congregation of West Hill United Church in Toronto is thriving under the leadership of its atheist minister, Gretta Vosper.  A few purse-lipped United Church stalwarts complain that the flamboyantly out-of-the-closet atheist should resign from Christian ministry but the rock of St. Peter still lies solidly under her feet.  Turns out people want to gather in community for sacred ritual and potlucks With or Without God (incidentally the title of Vosper’s how-to manual on creating godless churches).  And then there is yoga.

My mind wanders with the music.  I know I’m being a tacky guest.  It’s as if I am mentally turning a china plate to see the maker’s crest at a fancy supper.  But I think to myself… What would Led Zeppelin’s Your Time is Gonna Come sound like on the St. James pipe organ?  Is there enough space on the lawn for a community garden?  Could philosophy nights or workshops on living the examined life replace scripture study?  I wonder if there is a gym in the basement. Could we wrench out a couple of these tortuous pews to make space for meditation cushions or yoga?  The pews would be effective customer movers in a fast food restaurant or cafe…

How under heaven has the Christian era has lasted approximately twenty centuries?  The Christian manual for living (the Bible) offers questionable lifestyle advice.  The leadership delivers doctrine in long-winded, high-handed lectures (sermons).  Some of the rituals are exclusive and preposterous (Catholic communion).  What has kept the sheep in the flocks for so long?  My theory is that people want to gather with other people in beautiful buildings.

A version of this article originally appeared in Humanistic Paganism on 24 July 2016.

Tree Spirits

 

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Are We are all Green-Men and Women?

Shortly after my father died, my sisters and I received letters that he had written, tobacco stained fingers punching keyboard, weeks earlier.  My atheist, politically conservative father wrote of his love for us and shared his belief that we each possessed a spirit tree.  My youngest sister, passionate, creative, and born in the spring, was redbud.  Middle daughter, strong, athletic, and unyielding in battle, was oak.  I, the eldest, was willow- curious, adventurous, and often found by water.  The letters shocked me.  In life my father was so emotionally guarded that my sisters and I didn’t even know when he suffered from an abscessed molar or when his businesses were skating on the edge of insolvency.  I never imagined that this inscrutable Marlborough man had the spiritual dimension revealed in the letters.

In the surreal months following my father’s death, I began a new job, ironically in palliative home care.  As I drove from patient to patient, I drew strength for my work by observing the seasonal changes of the black willow trees which congregate by river banks in rural Ontario.  The willows granted me spiritual sustenance and inspiration.  They are hardy pioneer trees that root wherever and whenever they tumble over.  They survive Arctic winters, feed bees, caterpillars, and beaver, and house racoons, squirrels and birds.  They stash aspirin in their bark.  All a willow needs is a stiff drink from time to time.

To imagine the spirit trees of other people is to consider their qualities, and add depth to one’s feelings for them.  My grown up children have spirit trees, though they do not know this yet.  I see my daughter in the crown of the white pine, regally, cleverly guarding the forest.  I see my mariner son in the white oak, tree of steady, square rigged, sailing vessels.  My husband believes his spirit tree is the stalwart of the Great Lakes forest, the sugar maple, and I agree with him.

Trees have deep meaning for my family and me.  Other people draw strength and inspiration from patron gods or goddesses.  Many First Nations people are guided by spirit animals.  I think that a spirit wolf or bear would be a powerful ally to have by one’s side at a job interview.  Spirit beings can be specific to one’s bio-region and culture.  For instance, desert dwellers might find comfort in familiar constellations, geological forms, or creatures who share their arid home.

My father’s deathbed letter revealed to me that even the most stoically rational among us may have rich, multifaceted spiritual lives and find magic in the mythic ordinary.  We can immerse ourselves in imagery, or focus on spirit beings in meditation; alternatively we can use spirit beings as practical examples of how best to live our lives, as totems of conscience.  I straighten my back with an extra ounce of courage when I see a willow… my tree.

I wonder what those medieval carvers thought as they chipped stone into leafy tendrils of hair and the knowing smiles of the Green Men who grace so many church eaves.  Surely they believed in spirit trees.

Note: This article originally appeared on the website, Humanistic Paganism on 14 May 2016.

 

Another Poem

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May Flower

May Day! May Day!

S.O.S.

Mother in distress.

Someone has picked every tulip in the garden,

Stems beheaded, leaves bereaved.

Is a crazed homeopath at large?

Or a little girl with a cheerful bouquet…

A Poem

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Spring Ball

Under a festive sun

A red wing blackbird chants.

Shy as debutantes

The daffodils dance

Shielded from brisk vernal winds

By the paternal church wall.

I am a gate crasher

At this merry spring ball.

A Free Thinker’s Thoughts at the Death Bed

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Searching for any scrap of evidence for a human afterlife, I asked my very terminally ill father where he thought he was about to go.  “Into that cookie jar,” he whispered.  He had decided to have his body cremated, and I had purchased a twelve dollar blue and white ceramic container at Winners to serve as an urn for his ashes.  My aunt thought we should splurge on a handmade urn, but my father liked the jar.  Seven years later his remains rest within it in the living room next to my mother’s knitting, a few feet from where he died.  I don’t know if he found himself in heaven as well, but I doubt it.

Although agnostics, my parents raised my sisters and me as Christmas and Easter Christians in the United Church of Canada, ostensibly to give each of us a solid moral compass.  Time passed and I grew up, out of the United Church, and into a Searcher.  Whether or not there are deities is a side issue to me.  My burning questions are whether we survive our deaths and, if not, how we can find meaning in this life.  Attempting to answer these questions has led me to my spiritual home in Universalist Unitarianism and, more loosely, Humanistic Paganism.

As a registered nurse, I am a regular witness to death.  To me, the bodily processes of sickening and dying resemble the breakdown of machinery.  When a healthy person suddenly falls ill or is catastrophically injured, an observer might imagine that the person’s soul departs his or her body as life slips away.  In some deaths it appears that a life force has escaped and the face of the corpse looks vacantly peaceful.

This illusion is shattered when illness takes hold slowly, especially when people lose cognitive function prior to physical decline as occurs in neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s.  More often, the dying process takes enough time that grief stricken family members may find themselves guiltily bored at their loved one’s bedside.  As the shell of a formerly vibrant person continues to breathe, take fluids, and expel wastes, at what point would an observer think that the person’s soul leaves the body?  A simple answer is that it doesn’t because the soul doesn’t exist.  No iridescent soul vapour rises in a tendril from the left nostril at the moment of the final breath. We are all, each of us, our bodies.  We live to the extent that our cells, tissues and physical systems, including our brains, function.  We die when they cease to function.

In the mists of history when I was a novice nurse, I watched for clues suggestive of an afterlife for immortal human souls.  I discarded the Christian notion of heaven and hell and Buddhist ideas of reincarnation.  I read books claiming that the writers had glimpsed heaven in near death experiences but they seemed false and written to capitalize on readers’ yearning for immortality.  I rationalized: perhaps we are like radio sets tuned into a great consciousness, and we, in the form of souls, will abandon our broken equipment and dwell elsewhere after death?  Over time I have come to view this hope as unlikely, even preposterous, but I have retained the drive to find spiritual meaning in death.

I still attend church a couple of times a year.  Although my heart swells with joy when I sing hymns, the minister’s sermons on the promise of heaven for believers ring hollow to me.  On the other hand, the Genesis verse, oft recited on Ash Wednesday, resonates: “for dust you are and unto dust you shall return.”  I explored Buddhism while living in East Asia, and still meditate in a sangha.  The Buddhist principle of “no soul” is plausible to me, and wins the doctrinal battle against reincarnation handily.  However, perhaps most compelling of all spiritual traditions on the subject of death is Humanistic Paganism.

Nothing concentrates the mind more than a looming deadline.  For atheists and agnostics, facing the fact that we probably do not have souls that will survive our deaths injects urgency into making our time on this planet count.  People who come to Humanistic Paganism, Universalist Universalism and other exploratory religions tend to be curious, adventurous intellectual and spiritual explorers who deeply value their relationships with other people, life in all of its forms and the planet and cosmos.  A Naturalist Creed and The UU Seven Principles are thoughtful declarations honouring our humble, awesome place within the order and chaos of the universe.

Free Thinkers of all sorts intuitively share this understanding: we were born of this earth we will return to it upon our deaths.  We are Beltane and Samhain, matter and space, purposeful energy and disheveled entropy.  After many years of searching I feel that is enough.  How lucky we are!

This article was originally published in Humanistic Paganism.  The article has been edited for this blog.

First blog post

Welcome to The Untethered Dabbler, a blog of the Musings of a Neurotic Free Thinker.

The blogger is a dilettante writer, empty nester, anxious environmentalist, and registered nurse living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.  The scribbles here in are her thoughts on building a healthy, not boring, post-Christian, post-neo-liberal Just Society.  And also some other stuff… just for fun.