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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Satisfaction

December 30th, 2015

I remember December 26th as one of the worst days of my childhood years. No one sneaks into your living room to hide presents under the tree on that day. All the anticipation and excitement leading up to Christmas suddenly fades into nothing more than a torn-up pile of wrapping paper and instructions to put whatever Santa had brought--whether wished for or not--away. I'd image my parents felt a similar letdown. Plus, not only did they have to contend with my post-holiday whining and my week's-vacation boredom, they had to deal with the leftovers and dusty decorations.

Even today, all the shopping, cooking, decorating, and wrapping seems to culminate into a quick minute followed by a calculation of debt. That's because, when we hinge satisfaction on material things, we set ourselves up to be let down. It's part of the consumer design: to always leave us wanting more.

Looking back on this December, what HAS been satisfying is the fact that I reconnected with friends, reminisced with family, and gathered with others to sing songs, pray for peace, admire decorations, and genuinely wish each other well. Even for those who were lonely on Christmas, satisfaction could be found in the wallowing, for Christmas was one occasion in which they could be free of the facade and simply be truthful to themselves. They were allowed to think of loved ones lost. They were allowed to be sad. Real emotions from real people with no price tag attached.

Yes, we've been setup, but that doesn't mean we have to fall for it. Yes, anticipation is 9/10s of what makes Christmas so fun, but we don't need presents for that. Consider that, for the Christians responsible for this mega-holiday, the whole event was built to commemorate a story of anticipation for the birth of a miraculous child. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as the story goes, on December 26, the manger was not dismantled, the stable mucked out, and the baby savior stored away till next year. The anticipation of a good thing, after it arrived, was met with a deep sense of gratitude for the experience and a promise to be rewarded for doing the right thing.

Obviously worshipers grasp the meaning of Christmas far more easily than those of us who have simply adopted the traditions without the belief. We are left to figure out how we shall accept, be grateful for, and use the non-material gifts we've been given. With must find our own metaphors for that which gives life joy, sorrow, and meaning; how to be kind to each other; how to be true to ourselves; and where the rewards lie in doing the right thing.

And just as there was magic in that birth, there is magic in every moment, Christian and non. Only you won't find it at the mall or any of the things you bring home from there. It's in our experience. With others. In solitude. Outside among the natural wonders. Inside among human creativity and connection. Tomorrow night at midnight we reset the calendar and thus reset our perspective. Fifty-one weeks later, we will scramble to get ready for Christmas morning once again. Do we expect a different result with bigger gifts? A car perhaps? Better start saving now. Or can we commit to finding true pleasure in the experience of winter's day, complete with a reminder that life is good. Flawed maybe. But still, very, very good...even on December 26.

A Massive Ceremony Coming to Philadelphia

September 25th, 2015

At the risk of beating a sensitive drum, I have to acknowledge an enormous occasion that is happening around me. I would feel foolish if I didn't write about this religious, spiritual, and ceremonial event after focusing on those same topics recently.

I've been watching with distant interest over the past year as authorities have made informative announcements in preparation. The event is so big, regular business in Philadelphia is coming to a temporary halt. Walking on American blacktop for the first time three days ago, Pope Francis, the holiest of all Catholic mortals, landed back on earth in Washington, D.C. after a flight from Cuba. His visit is stirring emotions that run from sheer joy to raging frustration. I think it's all a matter of perspective and is a perfect example of how perception can build up or tear down one's spirit.

For the most part, there are two common opinions around here when it comes to his visit: 1.) This is a life-changing opportunity to bring peace to one’s soul; or 2.) This whole thing is a total pain in the ass.

First, let's start with the reasons for pain.

A Massive Ceremony Coming to Philadelphia

• There is a disgusting amount of hype in the media, similar to the marketer's exploitation of the Christmas holiday. Many now wish the whole thing was over.

• For the past year, popular television news has been giving updates about the challenge of the Pope’s visit, including major road closures, transportation restrictions, and the towing of residents' cars from the security zone. We’ve heard about requests sent to businesses, asking them to stay open while Catholics hoped Planned Parenthood would close. Tens of thousands of special transit passes were issued by an online lottery in moments, only to be found for resale online by scalpers at ten times the original cost. Controversy. Controversy. Controversy. The words and phrases plucked from the headlines read:

“Urban Nightmare”
“Disaster.
“Security Nightmare”
“Havoc”
“Traffic Headaches”
“Excess Walking”
“No Option for Failure”
“Closures”
“Restrictions”

• Not all of us are Catholic. Many have either never been or no longer practice. For all of its history, the church has divided the world into two parts—Catholic and non-Catholic—while the melting pot of America begs for tolerance, acceptance, and respect for each other no matter what our affiliations. The scale of the event reminds those who are not part of the club that they are outcasts.

• Church rules seem hypocritical in the standards for what constitutes a family, etc. Doubt surrounds the church’s intentions when its walls are painted in gold while its followers are asked to sacrifice in Christ’s name. Even the kindest among its followers tend to question their ability to maintain a seemingly unreasonable doctrine.

• Scandal haunts the Catholic church. There has been wrongdoing so heinous its victims will never recover. It takes resolve to look at a priest without wondering if he might have had any part in breaking the spirit of a young, innocent, male child.

At a party last month, I asked some good friends what they thought was the REAL reason for the Pope’s visit. The common theme among them was, in summary, an attempt to increase the membership and financial wellbeing of the Catholic Church. “They’ve lost a lot of followers,” one person pointed out. I couldn’t argue with that.

Here are reasons for the peace

A Massive Ceremony Coming to Philadelphia

Determined to obtain the perspective of a devout Catholic, I turned to the closest source I could think of: the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Posted clearly on its Website was the number one reason why the Pope was coming: families. He is here for the World Meeting of Families, an occasion that asks all Catholics to come together, in person or remotely, and pray "to strengthen the sacred bonds of family across the globe and highlight its intrinsic value to the good of society.” The Archdiocese headlines read:

“Honor”
“Gift”
“Splendors”
“Good Work”
“Artistry”
“Blessing”
“Eventful Day of Song”

My mind drifted to my experience at a part-time job I hold at a small local library, one that serves a middle class community. I see firsthand the effect of families in my short exchanges with library patrons of all ages.

For instance...

A child wanders in with a half-hearted parent who gives priority to her phone. The child is anxious, loud, disinterested, and angry.

While…

A child comes in holding hands with a parent who is attentive and present and calm. The child is respectful, curious, and happy.

Meanwhile…

A mentally challenged adult comes in to read with the compassionate and attentive caregiver assigned to him that day. He remains distant, seemingly sad, as if he wants to be happy but he cannot connect.

While…

A mentally challenged adult comes in with her caring grandmother. She is smiling. She greets us a little too loudly, “Hello ladies,” and spells out reasons to love the day.

The difference between the two is always family.

There are the thoughtful daughters who come to help their elderly mothers carry stacks of books, wise fathers who guide their young sons toward topics of interest, and the sturdy moms who teach their rambunctious toddlers how to be still. This is family on display; imagine their impact in the quiet hours before sleep or the tense moments during a storm. The Pope is here to celebrate that.

His visit comes with an additional, spiritual gift that to a follower is precious. To my knowledge, America’s mass media has never mentioned it. It's not granted lightly. It's called the Gift of Indulgences. No, it doesn’t mean everyone can eat, drink, and indulge in as much merriment as they’d like at this Meeting. Instead, it means they will be freed from the usual punishment for their sins, as long as certain conditions are met. The conditions require a commitment to the Catholic sacraments as well as the Catholic intention of building strong families. It essentially washes a follower’s purgatorial slate so that he or she can move toward peacefully living a family-focused life.

The Possibilities

As long as we continue to look with scorn, we will continue to find doubt, hatred, fear, and anger. And if we continue to look with scorn, what becomes of the good of the church? When do we, people of all beliefs dip into our spiritual treasure chest and offer a Gift of Indulgences, one that includes enough acceptance that we may see the positive aspects of the Pope's visit and how it can be beneficial to us all, even if we cannot commit to the Catholic way?

I'm not suggesting we drop to our knees and give in. I am asking that we take this opportunity to intensify the positive vibes of this massive ceremony. Can we not recognize that our DNA eternally connects us to our ancestors, descendants, and siblings? Can we not remember that love attracted us to our spouses or our adopted children? Can we not try to forgive those estranged, honor those respected, and thank those appreciated? Shouldn’t we, together, in unity, uproot our hardships and sufferings and let our families help us get through the nightmares, headaches, and failures?

The arrival of Pope Francis and the ceremony surrounding him has put us on a roller coaster ride, from anticipation to dread, excitement to frustration, and peacefulness to concern. At the end of the day, let him lead our perspectives past temptation and into a stronger connection to that which has delivered every single one of us onto this earth: our families.

The Elements of Ceremony

September 11th, 2015

I was gazing out my window when the idea hit for my second blog, Today’s Walk Outside. It wasn't until a year later that I realized the depth of my new plan. I wasn't just looking to get outside and share my experience with those who also enjoy the outdoors. I was actually trying to correct a malpractice, one I hadn't known existed.

I had been, at 45 years old, dragging around a nagging feeling that I was not "doing enough." Yet, at the same time, life had granted me a chance to set up residence in close proximity to a natural landscape, something I'd dreamed of for decades.

The Elements of Ceremony

Guilt crashed into prosperity. I couldn’t explain why, but I felt as if my promise to walk every day, in all kinds of weather, was something I was supposed to do. It felt like my chance to say “thank you.”

First, I planned a strategy. Then, I bought a domain name, setup a Wordpress account, searched for the right plugins and theme, developed a user interface, and drilled down to what I thought was a core message for my blog. For months, I walked every day.

But I still wasn’t satisfied. My walks were invigorating but aimless. I did get to witness the woods in its ever-changing form, but an emptiness remained unfilled. Energy wasn’t flowing; it was just getting stuck in my chest. And writing the blog became just another chore.

So I took a break and thought about it for awhile. After exploring the thought-provoking writing of others such James Swan, I realized what was missing. I had been trying to capture energy from Nature, but Nature also needed energy from me, energy that I had been withholding in silence. I needed to expand my hunger into something more meaningful, something more ritualistic. I needed to acknowledge that my walk was my ceremony.

What is ceremony?

It's difficult to define exactly what ceremony is. Books and articles HAVE been written about the specifics of wedding ceremonies, funeral ceremonies, healing ceremonies, or ceremonies to celebrate religious holidays. But I've been unable to locate any authoritative guide on ceremony in general. Since ceremonies typically evolve from ancient traditions, how do I create a new one? I've decided to answer the question based on the pattern of elements found in almost every one:

1.) Something is honored. It's often something greater than ourselves, such as the feeling of love, the miracle of birth or death, or the belief that a god or creator exists. It can also acknowledge the best of ourselves, such as when a medal is awarded or an achievement is reached.

2.) There is a physical action. You kneel, hold hands, clap your hands, dance.

The Elements of Ceremony

3.) There is musical expression. The most effective is when all participants create music together, such as a hymn in church or a jam among instrumentalists.

4.) Visualization is encouraged. Whether through prayer or simply closing your eyes and imagining happiness, in every ceremony there is "tuning in" to positive energy through imaginative imagery.

5.) An offering is made. Flower petals at the feet of the bride, food on the party table, wine for everyone, a memento laid in the coffin: through giving we prepare for the power of receipt.

6.) Intentions are stated verbally. "We are gathered here..."

7.) Gratitude is expressed.

8.) Place matters. Ceremonies are often held inside human creations designed to instill a sense of awe and respect, such as a cathedral, where thoughts are carried upward like notes of a melody. Better for me is a natural place with an undeniable draw, such as a body of water or a mountain.

The Elements of Ceremony

How elaborate each element is depends on the situation and the parties involved. A princess weds in a regal fashion. An Eagle Scout accepts his silver medal with only his guardians and mentors present. A monk chants alone.

My next step is to figure out how to apply the elements of ceremony to my daily walks in order to fulfill my quest to honor nature in my own way. I share such a private endeavor so that you might find ways to add something that's been missing from your life, too. Suggestions are welcomed. Please stay tuned.

A Chilling Waste

August 21st, 2015

I just returned from a weeklong vacation, which included attending the Philadelphia Folk Festival for the 24th time. Besides the music and creative collaboration, one of the most magical features of the event is the way in which each and every person is free to be. The assumed love for one another was a refreshing reprieve from the snobbery and hate most of us are regularly subjected to, and this immediate acceptance of each other renewed my faith in mankind, just as it does every year.

You can imagine then my conflicting despair when I watched what was happening at the water fountain.

My friend eloguently described this year's weather as "the seven pits of hell." It was hot. Very hot. The scent of nearly smoldering grass mixed with that of sweat, pachouli, and suntan lotion. Held in a farmer's hayfield, with the concert grounds mercilessly sloped at a perfect angle to sun and the camping area layered with heat-trapping tarps and the entire scene filled with 40,000 hard-breathing people, one cannot escape the blazing effects of a cloudless sky. To watch a concert is to endure, and relief only comes with water.

Drinking water. Spraying water. Soaking your feet in water.

Thankfully, the festival is supplied by at least six, high-pressure fountains scattered through the concert area and campground.

Yet, my heart ached. Everywhere I looked, throughout this hippified proclamation of peace, love, and connectedness, people abused the precious resource.

For instance, the watering holes consist of fountains for drinking as well as downward-facing pipes for filling water jugs. At all the fountains, in all the years I have been going, among all the people who pride themselves in having returned annually to the festival for decades, the pipe has run for a good five seconds after the faucet is turned off. The result is about two cups of water released post-off. Yet never did I see someone hold his or her jug under the pipe until the water ended. They removed it in synergy with the off twist and let the two cups fall to the ground. Every. Single. Person.

Children have always played at the fountains, even when it rains. I can't fault them; it's fun to fill a balloon and squirt out the contents and fill the balloon again. But never did I hear a guardian say, "Don't waste the water, dear."

Adults came to wet their bandannas at the fountain, wringing the colored cloths and wetting them again to create a cool tonic to wear on the head or neck. I can't fault them; this technique really works. But rarely did I watch someone do this with care. The water flowed so easily and quickly from the faucet, more hit the ground than the cloth. And the longer one held it under the running water, the cooler the material would get, so each bandana wash consumed about one-half gallon of water.

Strong men came to the fountain to fill 10-gallon tubs destined for plastic swimming pools, makeshift shower houses, and temporary kitchens. Too heavy to manage, a quarter of the contents sloshed out before they could lift it back on to the wagon for hauling.

At one concert, a little girl was happily turning the faucet on and off to help fill everyone's cups and water guns. "I'll do it," she exclaimed with splashing glee. I held my four-cup container under the pipe. As she got halfway through it, I said, "Stop!" With hand still holding open the knob, she starred at me in alarm, her eyes saying "why?" the water overflowing, every one of the 15 waiting people around me looking with same "why?" There was no time to explain; there seemed no point in trying. More water was wasted by my attempt than if I'd remained quiet.

I wondered what would happen if the well ran dry. People would be mad. They'd demand correction. They'd blame the farmer or the festival. They'd talk about finding a new location for next year, one that could adequately meet their needs.

I wondered about the message of connectedness and friendship, because I felt a continent apart from our friends on the western shore, the ones fighting drought and fire and thirst.

Meanwhile, the fact that these faucets exist is a cherished part of the folk festival. How many events can you go to these days where drinking water is free? (Restricted access to water at events is a condition that I advocate should be illegal, but that's a rant for another day.) And frankly, the Old Pool Farm's is the best-tasting well I've ever sampled. In fact, I hated to go home for I miss the deliciousness of what pours from that spigot.

At the end of the festival, after the sites were torn down and the garbage piled high, I saw full cases of 12-ounce bottles of water in the piles, left behind either because the owner didn't want to carry them home or because he or she didn't want to risk drinking the plastic that had likely leached into the fluid. The precious, life-dependent liquid, hauled in unnecessarily was now trapped in packaging and headed for the landfill.

A few people commented about the senselessness of bringing bottled water to place with such a great and accessible well, but for the most part, no one ever said a word.

Even more than the waste though, my judgment of others amidst bliss and friendship saddened me. I know in my heart that my eyes simply did not see the conservationists. They had to be there. They had to notice, too. I thought about sitting by the fountains to watch for them, to see if anyone would try to change the mindset. But I had to look away, had to walk away. And that made me saddest of all.

Back at the concert, I prayed the fallen water would recharge the aquifer. I guzzled what was in my cup, refilled, and turned back to the good time. I was taking measures to survive alongside my fellow festival goers. But my concern couldn't be plugged. This is the painful reality of caring, of seeing what other's do not. Like the knob on the faucet under the little girl's control, some things just refuse to be turned off.

The Ritual of a Spirit

July 17th, 2015

According to a Gallup pole, there continues to be a gradual increase in the number of Americans who say they have no formal religious identity. I argue that this does NOT signal an increase in debauchery or corruption among us. On the contrary, a greater number of people have recognized the perils of organized religion, including its false judgments, exclusionary principles, power struggles, and wars.

Still, the religious are afforded something the non-religious don’t get: engagement in regular, meaningful ceremony.

Of course, we all get to go to weddings, baptisms, or funerals. On holidays we have pageantry with flag waving, fireworks, costumes, or dance. To picnics we bring offerings of food for the host and hostess. At concerts we chant and sing even though we paid others to sing for us. We move about from one event to another, happy to have attended, unaware of how close we've ventured near ceremony. As a result, we miss the deeper opportunity to generate with the same degree of lasting positive energy felt among the faithful who gather for worship. And beyond silent prayer, we are not taught the life-force-communication techniques used by those who participate in a religious culture.

It's important to understand that a non-religious person can be tremendously spiritual. Spirituality is what compels one to wonder about the mystery of life. It is the spirit that guides one toward goodness. It is the spirit that rejects evil. It is the spirit that sees the unity in all things. What an independent thinker such as me lacks is not a longing for connectedness but the ability to effectively express and enrich that connection.

In fact, many non-religious people I know would make good moral leaders. They are people who, if deemed powerful, could improve our world. Sadly, they are more likely to suffer in the silence of their own deep thoughts.

Hiding from the stigma that comes from a rejection of religion, living among evangelists and martyrs and missionaries, the spiritual keep their most important thoughts to themselves. So ingrained is this conscious divide, this separation from dogmatics, we have disassociated ourselves from ourselves. Any action that offers the best chance to reconnect the two is left solely to private investigation. There could be depth to the likemindedness of others around us, but how would we know? There could be wisdom nearby, but how could we share, especially when doing so risks a label that reads "crackpot" or "possessed?" The spiritual orphan must either push his or her feelings aside or go through self development alone, because non-religious culture offers only scattered instruction on how to refuel a person's inner light.

Some of us search for wisdom on the Internet pages of new age ideals. We try to find a church near where we live, going on referrals from a friend or family member. We sign up for yoga classes and meditate. We, in essence, are in a perpetual search for ceremony.

For the desparate, the allure of connectiveness thrusts them into religions that may not represent their true selves. They mimic instead of authenticate. With a hunger for offerings of gratitude or participation in some form of consult with the ethereal life force, they are left vulnerable to corruption and manipulation.

Meanwhile, the majority simply dedicate themselves to being good, hoping that that will be enough.

The Effect of Ceremony
When I was a child, my family prayed before dinner every evening. Even if the weather was perfect for playing outside, we went to Catholic mass every Sunday. No matter how redundant the prayer or boring the service, these rituals always changed my perspective. They forced me to think of others. Starving for dinner, I suddenly became aware of the significance of the nutrition my body was about to receive and the sacrifice it took to make that happen. Fidgety during mass, I left duty bound to be a good child. I remember specifically one Christmas morning, I stopped before ripping into the presents to hug and say “thank you” to my mom and dad. I did this because, on the previous evening, the priest suggested it in his homily.

Thus, the moments after ceremony are preciously worth the time. How happy is the audience after the officiant presents man and wife? How appreciative of a life is the congregation after witnessing a coffin being lowered into the ground? How well behaved is the child after kneeling in promise to share?

There are simple elements in all ceremony--ancient and new--that exist because they attribute to that kind of outcome. They include the spoken word, an offering, and a physical action. They are the difference between a silent wish and a heard prayer. I've got tons of silent wishes and remarkably few heard prayers.

A lack of ceremony in my life was pointed out to me by Dr. James Swan, author of "Nature as Healer and Teacher.” In his book, Dr. Swan referred to many ceremonies practiced by a variety of Earth-based cultures around the globe, primarily the Native American Indians’.

The Native Americans have inherited ceremony as a way of life from their ancestors. In doing so, they learned how to apply the assets handed down as well, and they know the importance of passing this knowledge to the next generation. The Indians had ceremonies for everything: birth, death, hunting, sunshine, and rain.

My heart grew heavy as I tried to recount the amount of ceremony that still exists in my life, having left the church decades ago. I began to feel a sense of hopelessness, because the examples he described could never have meaning to me. They were not my ancestral rituals. They were “owned” by those who needed it to rain or for the buffalo to run or for the antelope to guide them. The root of ceremony has nothing to do with dressing in a shawl of feathers and dancing like a bird. The root of ceremony is the reason why you would want to communicate with the birds in the first place. You cannot steal a man’s ceremony any more than you can take his desires.

With no religion and tattered ancestral ties, what do I do now? It seems I must create my own ceremony.

The Status of Today's Walk Outside Blog

As you may know, I have a second blog called Today's Walk (www.TodaysWalkOutside.com). It's one part scientific, one-part informational, and one part motivational. Moreover, it's a personal experiment shared with the world so others know they are not alone in their desire to be informed, motivated, and connected to the natural world.

The posts have been on hold since May 2015. I stopped writing because something was missing. I wasn't reaching my intended goals. The project had become yet another loop of activity that was draining my resolve instead of filling it. I needed to fix something, yet I didn't know exactly what was wrong.

I think I now know. In promising to walk every day, I was essentially creating a ceremony without realizing it. In the next few weeks I'll be diving deeper into this realization with the hopes that I'll emerge with a better product, one that will be more satisfying to my readers and to myself.

If you can associate with the realizations I've divulged in this post, I invite you to stay tuned with an open mind. I promise to share with you the subtleties of the changes I plan to make at Today's Walk so that you might discover ways to add more meaning to one or more of your regular activities.

Together may we show that there is a gradual increase in the number of people who, with or without a particular religious identify, are walking on a path toward a greater connection to the Earth, to each other, and to ourselves.