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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.

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.

Make Your 4th Red, White, Blue and GREEN

July 2nd, 2015

In typical American style, we sure know how to push a celebration to grandeous proporations. Fireworks, beach trips, picnics, parades, concerts, cookouts, and more. For most of us, this is our big vacation. Moreover, freedom and independence is certainly something to acknowledge, and I applaud a ceremony that honors these liberties, for they shall not to be taken for granted.

It's just too bad our traditions have grown to clash with our desire to live in harmony with the earth. In short, our big parties now have a big impact on our environment, and that doesn’t have to be.

There are ways to tread lightly while still making the occasion sparkle. Here are just five ideas:

1.) Grilling. Burgers. Hot Dogs. Ribs. Lobster. This is the holiday to make use of that grill and outdoor dining set. Why not also support your local farmer or butcher at the same time? Consuming small-farm raised, seasonally ripe foods is not only easier on the environment than the other stuff, it deepens your connection to the rhythm of the cycle of summer. Challenge yourself to create a menu that is 70% or more locally sourced. Then, let me know what time I should come for dinner.

2.) Picnic Supplies. Tableclothes, cups, forks, knives, spoon, bowls, plates, decorations and other supplies. I am older than the commonplace use of disposable products. Yet, in my short lifespan, the oceans have formed islands of plastic and the landfills have been stuffed with the burden of short-term thinking. Encourage guests to bring their own cups. Buy colorful, reusable, easy-wash plates. If you cannot avoid disposables, setup recycling stations for guests to separate out their plastics (utensils and cups included) from the trash. And never buy styrofoam.

3.) Helium Balloons. I’ve lost count of how many of these I discovered during hikes to remote, woodland locations, tangled in the trees or mangled on the ground. Decorate instead with flowers and flags. Let the kids make a sign if you need to bring attention to your driveway for guests. As for balloon releases, let burning sage or incense carry your intentions to the skies, without the mylar and latex.

4.) Fireworks. I like a good loud show as much as the next gal. However, the old-fashioned community gathering has turned into a competition to outdo each other. The traffic and smoke and explosions are only destined to grow bigger and bigger, each little township spending thousands of dollars, fields littered with leftover trinkets and glowsticks and trash. Meanwhile, a dead pine tree placed on a glowing campfire can create a fascinating ember show. Emerging fireflies can provoke a sense of wonder and mystery. Create a celebration around nature's displays. When done with intention, they can be far more meaningful than dashing to and from a stranger's pyrotechnic show.

5.) Sing. Parades and concerts are fun, but why not create your own music and pageantry? Host a talent show. Dig out your guitar. Dress up in costume and stage your own block party parade. Participate in creating your own entertainment instead of paying someone else to do it for you. The self expression is not only good for you, it connects you to your own desires and emotions, thus opening the door to a better connection to the natural world.

We are a great country because we are free. Don’t let traditions shackle you to consumerism and waste. Party in a style that is in harmony with your intentions, and you will party in a style that is in harmony with the earth.

And most of all, have a happy 4th of July.

Deception in the Wind

June 19th, 2015

Finally we got a chance to comfortably put our kayaks in the water. My husband and I had been visiting the Finger Lakes region of New York for days, hoping the weather would improve. Our bags were packed with warm-weather clothes (shorts, tanks, sandals) but the only outfit each of us had worn so far consisted of a fleece sweatshirt, a pair of boots, and a raincoat.

This day was different. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far better, and we smiled as we pulled into Keuka Lake State Park. Yet, even in the satisfaction of doing what we had traveled so far to do, the day became another lesson in the need to remain flexible, accept what comes, and learn from our mistakes.

The problem was the wind. Had it not been for the constant blowing, the temperature might have reached 70 degrees. More than the chill, the swiftly moving air made it unpleasant for floating, at least when compared to times of quiet stillness, when water could be glass. No, today we would have waves and churning and noise in our ears. I tightened the band on my hat, just enough so it would stay (hopefully); loose enough that it wouldn’t hurt.

We unloaded the kayaks and carried them 100 yards to the stone beach. A couple crouched together on a bench as their dog stretched its leash, searching for our displaced scent. With lifejackets on, water bottles filled, and sunscreen applied, we were ready to tour a portion of the shallow Keuka Lake.

Getting ready in the sunshine

The clear water of Keuka Lake

“Let’s go that way first,” Glenn suggested, pointing to the north, into the wind. He had read my mind. Do the hard work while we were strong, and let nature blow us back home when we were tired.

We shoved off. Since I’m not an experienced paddler, the waves made me a little nervous as they tossed my boat around. But once I got the nose facing directly into the wind, I became surprised at how easily I could glide through them. I began to relax and admire the shoreline as I paddled along. Boats of various sizes were tied to docks of various sizes—some long and fancy; others short and weathered—which led to houses of the same description. Shoulder to shoulder, shacks stood next to luxury homes, each one quiet, as if everyone was someplace else.

A solitary man fished from a small-but-well-equiped motor boat. I crept past him, being careful to stay in the opposite direction of his cast. I navigated the choppy water, again with surprising ease. We stayed near the coastline, because it was more interesting to look at than the wide open expanse of churning lakewater, and the surface was calmer and the air quieter.

At a productive pace, Glenn and I found ourselves at the north end of the lake in no time. There the waters transitioned into a small, lazy stream, just deep enough to get a shallow motor boat through. Nearby trees on the shore and tall reeds in the marsh acted as a wind break, so it was pleasant and peaceful there. I let the kayak drift against a rock inside an eddy to rest. Glenn brought his boat against mine and we drank some water and shared a bag of cashews.

That sure was easy, I thought to myself. I barely felt tired at all, and we had crossed a fairly long stretch of lake.

I watched the breeze occassionally life up the edges of the lilly pads, making them look as if they were waving to me. Red-winged Blackbirds hovered and then landed on the five-foot high reeds, bending the vertical stalks 90 degrees, then hopping sideways down toward the ground. They were feeding on something I could not see, and they clicked and called to each other, hovering, landing, disappearing into the tall grass.

Glenn went ahead of me as we explored the marshy area. Then, I heard a sudden and alarming honking noise. When I turned to look, I saw expansive wings, laboring to get into the air. He had stirred a Great Blue Heron and was receiving a scolding for doing so. When it disappeared into the tall grass, I assumed it regained its statuesque position, rendering it camoflauged once again.

Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a beautiful day.

“Ready?” Glenn asked, meaning he wanted to go back.

Not really, I thought while my mouth said, “Okay.”

We were now on the western shore, the opposite side of the lake from where we had started.

“Let’s row to that point, then cross,” he suggested with a wave of his paddle. I followed agreeingly. We hugged the shoreline again, where we passed a small marina filled pleasure boats.

I smelled charcoal, proving someone else was enjoying this windy Friday afternoon. Boatslip owners had setup patio scenes--complete with furniture and canopies--on the docks by the most luxurious looking boats. Sailboats rocked and clanged in rhythm with the wind and waves. Under the awning on one boat, I saw the soles of two. Ankles were rested on top of a tan leather captain’s chair, crossed in relaxation, the body hidden from view.

Yes, the weather was not perfect, but it was still a peaceful day.

Then, we had reached the point where the hard trek would begin. I dug in my paddle and began to row. My eyes spied a place, north of the beach, in the middle of the lake, where the waves settled into a pattern of two directions, one southwest, the other southeast, the latter being exactly where I wanted to go. I expected it would be difficult to get through the wavy chaos in between, but I could taste the reward of reaching that point: a wind-powered push home.

A calm period between gusts

But as I paddled, it seemed as if I could never reach the spot. Was it a mirage? Why was my boat so keen on laying against the waves instead of obeying my southbound steering? Fortunately, the sun’s energy kept me warm as some of the waves splashed over the sides of my kayak, spraying water across my legs.

There would be no rhythmic paddling: right, left, right, left. It was only a hard left. Another hard left. Followed by a rudder-like dip on the right. No matter how hard I fought, I could not get the wind behind my back. I grunted and rowed and then began to curse. I had reached the halfway point. The waves were rolling right toward home, yet still I had to dig in and compensate and dig in again.

My notion of an easy ending had been smashed into a frustrating fight with nature. Only near the shore did the pressure ease. I landed the kayak and disembarked, not with the pleasure of a satifying tiredness, but with the damning of plan gone bad.

As I watched Glenn glide in and looked out over the lake, I tried to determine the error of our ways. Then, the only answer I could think of came to me. Keuka, like all the Finger Lakes, drains to the north, toward the Great Lakes and Canada. The wind was blowing toward the south. I had been fooled by the southbound wind into ignoring the northbound current. We had reacted to what was happening on the surface, without considering what was happening underneath. And suddenly the experience had become a string of metaphors.

• When planning, base your strategy on consistent fact (current), not fluctuating trends (wind).

• Don’t let the loud and boisterous distort your respect for the quiet and strong.

• Be willing to adjust your plan, keeping tuned to your instincts. I should have changed course when I realized how easy it was to paddle into the wind. Or at least I should have stopped to ask why it was so.

• Be prepared for a plan not to work. Luckily I was not tired from the first leg of my trip. I had taken water and a snack, thus I had the strength to fight my way home.

• Do not curse what beats you. Learn from it instead.

We hauled the boats back to the truck, uphill this time. I tried to shake off the frustration and center myself again on the pleasures of the day and of the entire trip, rain or shine. Such as...

With cold rain outside, we explored the indoor wonders at the Museum of the Earth

We walked to places special enough to be considered sacred, such as the 215-foot Taughannock Falls ...

and looked inside the earth at Watkins Glen Gorge

Outside the woods and off the lake, we investigated the best of what the region offered...

including a few stops for some very good beer.

We visited the institution that recorded the birdsongs I first listened to as a child, setting in motion my lifeling appreciation for nature.

Yes, it isn’t perfect, it isn't always easy, it isn't always what we expect, but life certainly is wonderful.