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Last year’s sermon of animals was a flow coming from multiple places of animals in the life of family and field, forest and farm, and it was very broad spectrum — all the species, all the roles, all the interaction between creatures and family and land. But there is always more about animals.  So this year, it’s not the macro, but the micro — three short portraits.  I want to tell you of a sheep.  And two puppies.  And an eagle.

Portrait #1: I have a sheep, May Snow, that loves touch. I’ve never hand-fed her, so she’s not looking for handouts. She wants my fingertips buried in the thick wool around her neck and rubbing the skin there. She wants me to wrap my arms around her great belly and rub along her stomach and feel the lambs inside. She wants my palms cupping her jaws and my thumbs making long, sweeping rubs along her cheekbones, and she wants her forehead rubbed and her poll scratched and her ears pulled. She lets me pull burrs and rose branches out of the two separate layers of her wool.

This isn’t usual for a sheep. So she has stepped into a role beyond the traditional contributions into that of therapy sheep. I’m not a therapist. But what happens when people come to me on this land often falls under the shell of healing.  And things happen in her company that I take no credit for. Sitting next to her, hands buried in curls, lanolin easing into their skin, things unlock inside people’s nervous systems and muscles and mind, and they say things they didn’t know they knew, find solutions they didn’t know existed, and receive permission to feel what underlies all of this.

She’s only twitchy if you’re hiding from yourself.

People cry with her, on her, hugging her, into her. I do. And I’ve had tiny children, fierce warriors, humans in wheelchairs who have stroked her as her head rests in their laps. She can also be an escape artist and an erratic mother, so I’ve had my moments of wanting to bop her over the head. But she was the first lamb born here on this land, born in a May snowstorm. I think of her as an occasionally exasperating but deeply respected colleague. 

Portrait #2: This summer when Dusan was working near Prague, he chose two puppies of a breed called the Cesky Fousek, which translates to ‘Czech mustachioed hunting dog’. As puppies they are like small bears. The breed are exceptional gun dogs, but what made them worth bringing all that way is that they were bred for centuries from remote mountain lodges, so they are also extremely hardy, adoring people dogs, and calm. One of them is on her way toward becoming a HOPE crisis response dog. And they have changed our farm for me. 

When I go out across the land, they are there around me, circling like proximate satellites on the ground. If I release the doves they circle us overhead as we move through tall grasses. People ask me if there is a lead navigator bird in a flock of doves who directs all of the rest. The lovely answer is yes, but it is most often not the bird who is in the front, but near the center. Now I’ve felt this. As I wander through these fields I achieve a functional multiplicity of self, as if we are not 50 separate beings, but one. These creatures give me the physical experience of something that I have long believed, and offer you.

We as Unitarian Universalists have as one of our most basic tenets in which we hold that we exist within the web of life. I suggest that we take that one step further — not being in the web of life, but experimenting with the game that we each are the web of life — that we play with blurring the boundaries of self and other at every opportunity. It is an odd mental twist that occurs at the intersection between the sacred and the make-believe, the absurd and the inevitable. But the harvest each time I play this game is a deepened capacity for compassion, for perception, responsibility, and caring, and a sense that I am somehow in this mini-adventure approaching the most expansive truth of the world. 

Portrait #3: Last winter, near the beginning of the new year, I walked from my house near the river bottom up into the higher ground, walking between fallow fields of potatoes and alfalfa, passing in and out of the shade of great stacks of hay along the road and along the long, high pivot waterers with their great wheels and winged spouts overhead. There were no clouds and in the distance I could see a patch of cottonwoods along one of the ditches with the silhouette of an eagle on one of the branches. I walked for a long time up and away from home until the valley was visible all around me, white chaff on white snow under white foothills under a ring of white mountains. Cheeks and eyes cold, ears warm. Coming back down toward the river I looked again for the eagle and was disappointed to see it gone from its perch. As I stared across, above my head rang the sound of something scraping metal, and looking overhead at the pivot waterer beam, I saw it there, immense claws closed around the silver pipe above my head, and looking down at me. 

This was a rather strange moment. I was a lone human, completely surrounded by enormous empty fields. I was too big for prey, I was a possible predator, and I was too perpendicular to be perceived as carrion. She had come, apparently, to look up close at me, and I looked back at her, mittens in pockets, head tipped back, eyes narrowed against the glare. 

She was huge, with a brown head and strongly yellow eyes. Each brown feather had more than one shade of brown in it, creating quiet patterns across her body. Her talons weren’t too much different in size from my hands. We stayed like this for minutes, doing nothing but breathing and looking, and then she launched and flew away, disappearing over the river to the north. 

I didn’t know then and I don’t know now what to think about this. Biologically speaking, it was outside anything that I could easily reason from. In many native American tribes, eagle medicine is the connection to the Divine, the capacity to live in the realm of spirit and yet remain connected and balanced within the realm of earth. It is an invitation to courage, and to observe from a great height the expansiveness within the overall pattern of life. Eagle, too, teaches the broadening of your sense of self beyond the horizon of what is presently visible. Or, on the other end of the spectrum of experience, it I also got to let it mean…nothing. It simply was, a connection and approach allowed by calm confidence and curiosity on her part, and peacefulness and openness on mine. As such, when I thought of it, it was also an extraordinary invitation to me to just be with something unexplainable, to make nothing, to learn nothing, just pure noticing. And delight. 

I will leave you with the end of a poem written by Joe Fitschen — my father, mountaineer, atheist, philosopher, musician, poet — on the occasion of seeing sea otters return to the bay in Monterey.

From ‘Sea Otters

You were not there then.  When you returned I took you to the sea’s edge hoping they would still be there and they were.  Like the fence-post-perched hawks near our home, the otters spaced themselves along the beach.  We walked, our talk stopped by new sightings. I thought how much our life was measured by animals.  Twin bear cubs, harbingers of our twins, the nesting horned owls, a coyote gliding across a frozen meadow, the ghost of a silver fox, a bull moose browsing by our cabin, a bald eagle at dusk, puffins like white caps on the waves. And many other, otherwise quite ordinary animals, except watching them together made those places, those times, special.  Other possibilities exist. The otters could have vanished, years ago, or before you returned.

The next day the otters had moved on. We watched fleets of pelicans cruising the sea as we had watched them before and godwits probing the sand like mirrored tripods. We talked of our lives’ turnings and acknowledged certain distances, as between otters. Some years ago I thought our special times were vanishing, perhaps, but had forgotten the animals, their remarkable times and places, and had forgotten the distance between expectation and experience. Had forgotten the world is full of animals.

Thank you.


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#astonishment #sermon #mystery #whitedoves #wisdom #animals #beauty #awareness #mindfulness #connection #thetenthousandthings #CeskyFousek #healing #doves

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

2015-08-06 11.28.02

Profanity for Children

I refrained from swearing near my young children,

not precisely for their sakes,

but as much in love for the darling Lutheran couple next door who,

already weighed by sorrow for our unsavedness

would be further dismayed to hear the Lord’s name taken in vain.

Perhaps, too, it wasn’t really my genius, lacking early conviction.

We sea kayakers are perhaps the less salty dogs.

Later, I did offer the kids three-score Elizabethan epithets

for the self-indulgent entertainment of hearing the snarls across the game board —

“Gleekish wraith-borne ambsace!” “Beslubbering sheep-biting hedge-pig!”

And I do want my children someday to wield skillfully words of power,

the words that most vigorously connect emotions to the outer world and also to one’s own body. “DUCK!” does not offer the same inner solace, does it?

World across, we each choose the obscenities that most shock our own inner alien —

the sacred, the sexual, the emissions, the slur.

We write dictionaries of slang, but use so few of the possibilities.

There's no hurry.

Like power saws, like intoxication, like sex,

we aim to withhold these words from children

until they can feel into their own, hopefully skillful wielding.

Still, it happens.

“Shit!” I say, as the sheep gleefully escape, causing my daughter to tuck her chin and

raise her eyebrows at me in mocking surprise.

“Well, fuck,” to a friend, and behind my shoulder my son starts giggling.

And I wouldn’t want to have missed finding them sniggering in a corner together over the blueness of Marge Piercy’s lovely poem, “Song of the Fucked Duck”.

Or one confides to me that the other soccer team was cussing a whole lot this time.

“You’ll survive?” I ask them cheerfully.

Because the profane words on my tongue taste different — the bad words

that darkened their world when spoken,

that linger like bile in the corner of the mind’s tongue,

how I actually did skew my own children’s growing selves.

I know these words too, and have said them, and cannot unsay them ever.

“No,” I said, I can’t play with you, which, viewed from shame feels never ever not a lie.

“Later,” I said, and even worse, made more bitter in my mind’s ear

by having been tossed again and again over my shoulder like spilled salt,


These dangerous words I regret, even as they are spoken.

Yet, in speaking these and all the others there is odd warmth inside, linking to the chains of generations of frayed parents, fired revolutionaries, those who fight, those who feel, those who can speak and are not muted by self or other.

Speak, my children. Join multitudes through centuries. Be skillful.

Know your bodies.

Know your words.

#beauty #awareness #words #poems # #family

Updated: Dec 5, 2022



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TOOLS: field notebook and good pen, a timer, other humans, and a supple imagination

TIME: ten minutes

DIFFICULTY: [It’s going to be just fine.]

RISK: low, but you will come back changed.

ORIENTATION: Compassion is often perceived as an experience, something that we feel or that can come upon us. By the strategically resilient, it is to be treated more as a skill, a commitment, a practice, and a source of usable life energy. This short adventure places it squarely in this second zone.

Neurologically speaking, there are few practices we can engage in that so clearly demonstrate positive and practical growth in the brain as that of loving kindness, or metta. In as few as two weeks, subjects showed measurable growth in specific parts of the brain related to happiness and awareness. For those who have experienced meditation as difficult to do, this short adventure will give you a solid practical taste of the effects through another method than sitting on a cushion. 

Our assumptions about the people around us shape our world and our days, draining or feeding us. Do not underestimate the effect this has on your usable energy. 

TO PLAY: Place yourself in the company of local humans — a bench, a cafe, a stroll down the street.  Set your timer for ten minutes.  For each person of any age that you see, invent both a suffering and a creative genius:

  1. this one is fighting addiction and creates exquisite Irish cabled sweaters.

  2. that one has a severely injured child and plays irresistible Cajun fiddle.

  3. this one just lost his adoring dog and flies an acrobatic biplane.

  4. that one has postpartum depression and can carve massive and graceful benches for experiencing landscapes.

Maybe…is being sued, was diagnosed with lymphoma, just had a terrible fight, has chronic pain, is worried about a sister, lost savings, hit another car…

Maybe…bakes glorious cakes with lifelike sugar flowers, trains wild mustangs on weekends, sews brilliant quilts for random foster children, makes a French horn soar, trains service dogs, was a circus acrobat for 20 years, can tap-dance down a flight of stairs and dazzle…

Invent with speed and richness and specificity. Do this even with people whom you recognize or know. Because really, you don’t. 

Then as each moves in and out of your life and awareness, hold them for a moment as if you held each heart cupped in your hands, recognizing pain and sorrow, struggle and worry, recognizing skill and joy and genius. And still holding each, as they pass beyond you, imagine as a momentary superpower tossing them a small exploding flashbomb of goodwill, one that lands at their wheels or feet and glows upward: 

“May you be well and happy.”

Watch them go.  

When the timer rings, make your field notes. Note whom you made judgments about, where you jumped to conclusions, where your created stories replaced equally fabricated invisible assumptions.  You were wrong.  And you were right.  Recognize where you are creating stories about others all the time, well outside this ten-minute experiment.  Which kind of invention was more challenging for you?  Where does this habit feed your life energy? Drain it? How can you guide it?

What does this have to do with your stores of usable resilience?

BONUS POINTS: Repeat daily for a week. Or weekly for a lifetime.

OUTCOMES:  softening, perspective, awe, kindness, generosity, happiness

Play.      Share.     Come back and tell me what happened to you.

So, You, “Why not me?”  Seriously.  You and wisdom and joy.  

It’s a good combination in the world.  

#astonishment #MindStrength #resilience #courage #creativity #meditation #mindfulness #thetenthousandthings #games #buoyancy

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