A Lesson in Fear, Anger and Freedom

FearThe other day on my walk to the park, I was almost run over by a man in a large pickup truck. It was a nice, shiny red Ford or some muscular American brand, the kind you see in ads pulling a house or 18 wheeler, like that’s what you need it for. The man in it…well, I’ll let my description of the truck speak for itself.

The road is as residential as it gets, of no use to anyone but those who live nearby. There are no sidewalks in our neighborhood, which is a mixed blessing. Everyone who drives through (or almost everyone) knows pedestrians use the road, so they slow down. But unfortunately some drivers consider pedestrians to be a hazard to their vehicles and would rather they just get the hell out of the way, so they can get on with their busy day!

As I reached the middle of the intersection, I noticed the large, red truck coming from my right. So I started to trot to get out of his way. Instead of slowing or going around me, he stayed his course and drove in front of me, barely missing me as I moved in the direction of his path. He actually swerved a bit to his right to make sure he made his point to drive in front of me. Needless to say I was alarmed, frightened and then very angry.

Anger, RageVery, very angry. I had every right to be. He was scum for doing this to anyone. My mind raced, wondering if he treated his wife and children with such obnoxious disdain. Since I’m gay, I assumed he was homophobic. I gave him the finger, several, in fact. I shot an Uzi full of fingers at him. I noticed he turned left at the next intersection. I thought he might be turning around to confront me. My adrenaline rushed. Every cell in my body prepared for defense. I was invincible, ready for the fight. My righteous indignation and rage would cover me for any lack of power. I picked up a large rock to defend myself. My body shook, but I felt high with power!

Well, he didn’t come back. Relieved and a bit embarrassed when I realized people along the bike path might be wondering why I was carrying a head sized rock, I began to calm down. I put down the rock and continued my walk.

Right away I knew what I had to do. The words came to me as from a teacher, though the voice was mine. “By giving in to your anger, you are letting him control you, becoming like him.” I struggled with this for a few minutes before putting my rage aside. I filled my lungs with the breath I had come to know on these walks, a breath of playful introspection. I began to feel sorry for that man, but left the thought at that. The trees and river and prairie beckoned.

A half hour later on the same walk, I was surprised to find myself running like a child around a large, open field with my eyes closed. I felt as if I were flying. By closing my eyes, I was able to face the fears I had of losing control, of falling into a pit, or perhaps the fear of making a fool of myself by falling flat on my face. But by releasing my neck to float above my body, I was able to (with concentration) release the fear from myself. Then I was free to playfully navigate the slightly irregular ground.

Running BoyA feeling of free abandonment entered me, or at least my body. I began to swerve from side to side, leading with my head. My body followed. Suddenly I flashed back to being 8 or 9 years old, when I last remember being so free and “floppy”. For some reason, that period in my life held a transition from feeling free to self-conscious. I specifically remember how differently running felt before and after. I don’t know pivotal the event, if there even was one. Perhaps I just “grew up”.

Flopping as I ran through that field with eyes closed, I felt I regained some of who that child was, and that he was still alive in me. I had come a long way during that walk, from poisoned, fearful, vengeful man to free flowing, replenished child.

Whetstone Prairie Flowers

I promised a few photos of flowers from the Whetstone Prairie in Columbus, OH, and here they are, at least some for now.

Blue SpeedwellThistle flowerEvery time I walk through it, I notice yet another wildflower to add to the list. This time I found a Thistle bush, some kind of Speedwell, Aster, Blue Indian Grass and Joe Pie Weed. Some of these are not very prolific yet, but I’m sure they will spread their seed over time. I also know that volunteers are continuing to plant seedlings of unusual varieties to maintain a colorful balance. (click on the thumbnail for a larger photo on another page)

Purple Wild AlliumButterfly WeedThe educational demo garden has been in bloom since June. Back then the flowers in bloom included this Purple Allium, Butterfly Weed and Sullivant’s Milkweed.

Sullivant’s Milkweed with BeeSullivant’s Milkweed, flower detailThe Sullivant’s Milkweed was covered with bees. The plant is about 3 feet tall with large oval leaves. The individual flowers, about a quarter inch across and held in clusters of dozens, look like Jetsons spaceships.

Hummingbird Moth by Sullivant’s Milkweed FlowerAs I took photos of them, another insect swooped in and floated by each flower like a humming bird while it sucked the nectar from them. Apparently it’s named as it should be, a Hummingbird Moth. I had seen these in my garden but never this close. What a cool insect!!

Sullivant’s Milkweed Seedpods formingNow the Sullivant’s Milkweed has gone to seed. The fertilized flowers extend and twist down, then up. Large pods form at the ends of these snake like heads. These will bloat and stretch to 6 inches long by 2 inches wide, before bursting open to release thousands of flying seeds.

Cup Plant FlowerCup Plant Leaf filled with waterBack in June, the Cup Plants had already reached 3 or 4 feet tall. For the most part they had not started flowering. Now they are 6-8 feet tall and in full flower. However the flowers are the the most interesting part of these prairie giants. Their usefulness as a water holder for birds and insects makes these plants one of the most important of the prairie. During dry spells, their cupped leaves hold water for weeks until the next rain. And each morning, any dew collected by the leaves drips into this cup.

Dry, Cracked EarthRudbeckia fieldThis Summer has been one of the driest in recent memory. The ground is cracked and parched. Yet the flowers in the prairie are glorious. One barely notices any stress for these plants. They have evolved to grow very deep roots, often 8-10 feet deep, to withstand harsh, dry and hot Summers.

Bee Balm and ConeflowersBee Balm with a Happy beeOne of my favorite parts of the prairie is a large stand of Bee Balm, or wild Monarda, mixed with Coneflowers (Echinacia). The flower has a subtle, pale lavender color and emits a wonderful cinnamon, cedar smell.

The smells in the air change each time I walk through the field, depending on the time of day, direction of breeze and flower season. Near sunset, the air changes. If the sky is clear, cooler air falls into the center of the field, lowering the temperature there an hour before the areas around the edge, which are buffered by large trees. During this change, all the smells become denser and richer. Evening swallows emerge and swirl above the scene as the sun sets in the cradle formed by two large trees at the west end of the field.

Sunset at the Whetstone Prairie

Can Athiests be Spiritual?

ConnectionsCan atheists be spiritual? I hope that after reading further you will be able to answer this apparently oxymoronic question with a comfortable “YES”.

The problem, of course, is how you define spiritual. I know, it sounds like Clinton saying “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” So why dwell on this confusing word “spirit” when we believe there is no god? Because it’s a useful term with resonances in great and wise traditions. The problem with atheism is that it tends to throw the baby out with the bath water. My intention is to freshen and balance spirit’s meaning between the wisdom of ancient intuitive thinking and current knowledge. I also like the idea of reclaiming it for modern secular use.

CounterbalanceWe often use the word spirit in secular vernacular to mean a general quality of a person’s demeanor: “He’s in poor spirits.” We all know exactly what it means. There is no need for an atheist to refute its validity. We know that something is causing that “poor spirit”. You could argue it’s the same as saying “He’s an unhappy person right now.” But what is unhappy about him? Is it his mind, his body? The word spirit fits because it describes something else, neither mind nor body alone. I propose that spirit is a relationship or connection between parts, between mind and body, between self and other. This idea can be expanded further.

Fear seems to be a primary reason people turn to religion. I have many fears. I fear failure. I fear rejection. I fear being judged wrongly by others. I fear hate from others. I fear loneliness. Believing in a god gives solace that you are never alone, that you are always loved. We all suffer from the misconception that we are separate from others and that we have to “fit in” to be accepted. So how do we deal with the issue of fear of loneliness?

Interwoven IndividualityIndividuality is the hallmark of free society. We are encouraged to be unique, new, daring, different. But something gets lost in all that separateness: our connection to each other. Think for a moment of the worst pain you have ever suffered. With a little imagination, you can picture someone else on earth suffering as much or much worse. Imagine the love you wish for, then know that someone else suffers the same need. Keeping these little awarenesses close to the heart through a day sooths the emptiness of separateness. With individualism as the pinnacle of freedom, we tend to forget these simple connections. Boundaries of thought between people create loneliness, not being alone.

Expanding connections further. I once listened to all 9 symphonies of Beethoven on day, beginning in the afternoon and continuing until late evening. As my fatigue encroached from so much listening, my mind opened up to another level. I stopped thinking about the music and started just experiencing it. That’s when Beethoven came rushing deep into my being. The last three symphonies, Nos. 7, 8 and 9, were truly spiritual experiences, poetic inspirations, moments of connection between history, culture, music, myself and my muse. Beyond a connection to something there was also a liberation from something. Boundaries became less distinct between me and the world. I felt as if I were in Beethoven’s head, hearing and writing them with all their meaning and depth and quality.

Symbolic ConnectionsSo it is with the spirit of living. It is neither yours nor something separate from you, but an interaction, a relationship between you and the world around you. It is a coaxial cable connection to the universe, a direct link to all that is and is possible.

The problem is, our natural spirit is often damaged, or at least obscured. The various trappings of life’s maintenance, cultural oppressions, poor upbringing, physical distractions, ego, desire and self-deception cause myriad malfunctions and disconnections. It’s as if the “software” to life is damaged by various “viruses”. The usual suspects are judgment, self-deception, hubris, attachment, fear and ignorance. Add to that habits of unclear thinking and living, or the misfortune of traumatic experience, and one faced a veritable minefield of obstacles to experiencing a clear spirit. Luckily, science, psychology and modern meditative self-examination are valuable tools for clarifying spirit. So are the connections experienced through art, poetry, music and the beauty of nature.

But how do we find time to do all this growing in a short life? The atheist’s sense of the finality of death is a problem. I don’t really know if I fear the end of my life. But I want to accomplish so much before then. How can we be happy if we’re always in a hurry to live a full life before we “disappear”?

Daybreak, no cloudsHere again that illusion of separateness comes into play. Thich Nhat Hahn brilliantly used the metaphor of a cloud. The fact is, a cloud does not disappear when it evaporates into humidity or falls as rain. True, the cloud as it was is gone. Its beauty or inspiration or perhaps the shade it offered from the sun is no longer. But the raw matter of the cloud still exists in a different form. So it is with us. We cease to be a living human. But our energy still exists. These observations are small comfort to those whose egos cling to a singular, separate identity. But personally, I feel good knowing that I will continue in some other form.

Most spiritual traditions refer to something which encompasses All. With growing awareness, we begin to know that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. We can sense and fathom a connection and unity between all things. I timidly dare to call this great spirit as an extension of the individual one. Here again, a hybrid relationship of scientific humanism with intuitive spirituality can lead us forward. We know that we came from and will return to some common pool, since our matter only changes forms. So, we are from it and of it and will return to it. Scientifically, the atoms are barely differentiated between earth, life and sky. Boundaries blur further.

Tapestry of connectionsThe wisdom of Buddhism teaches that our suffering is caused by attachment to things, time and ego. Ironically, Buddhism’s ultimate goal is to break the illusion of separateness by dissolving the illusion of ego. Things, time and ego are necessary to life, but damaging to spiritual health.

Taoist thinking highlights the unity of opposites: good cannot exist without bad, self without other. Again, relationships. These empirical truths are often elusive to our clinging, categorizing natures. My intention in calling these elusive goals spiritual is to get beyond the clunkiness of analytical thinking and begin to gain a deeper sense of intuition and feelings. Our lives are empty without them.

Spirit is a poetic relationship between awareness and experience, between knowledge and intuition, identity and mystery, connection and separateness. When we embrace our spiritual gifts, our humanist natures can blossom. Who needs god for that?

Like the beautiful quilts photos dotting this article, the connections and relationships between various parts gives rise beauty and meaning.

All quilts photos from the collection The Linear Series by Carol Taylor. For further information, please go to Carol Taylor Quilts.

The Whetstone Prairie

wildflower I have developed a nice habit of taking daily walks through the park near my house. It started last Summer, when I realized how valuable walking is as a relaxing meditation. I used to jog fairly often through this park, but my attention was on “getting somewhere” rather than enjoying the scenery and my thoughts.

Whetstone Park in Columbus, OH is a large, city park established in the 1930’s. A well maintained bike path runs through the park. This path connects with other river parks and runs almost continuously through about 20 or more miles through the city. I’ve biked the 7 miles from my house to downtown hardly using any streets.

The North side of the park holds the glorious and nationally famous Whetstone Park of Roses, which features thousands of roses in bloom all Summer, and which boasts the newest, cutting edge hybrids the year before they are publicly released!

bike path along Olentangy River Just a few blocks from my house an entrance to the park leads to the path along the Olentangy River. (Locals like to jokingly call it the Old and Grungy River, because it’s not very clean or pretty.) The photo shows the are I pass through soon after leaving my house.

Vernal Pool, dry in Summer About 5 years ago, a large field which had been used for soccer and dog running was converted into a prairie. The middle of the field was often soggy after a rain. The park is large and has numerous other, better fields for soccer and field games, so this seemed like a good spot for a prairie. The wet spots are now “vernal pools”, which hold water during the rainy seasons and are necessary breeding ground for frogs and other amphibians. Dragonflies and Damselflies also hunt there. At sunset, the dragonflies can be seen flying high the pool, intermingling with the evening Swallows and perhaps getting eaten.

Dame’s Rocket by Woods The Whetstone Prairie is a joint effort between the Columbus Parks and Recreation Dept. and Columbus Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes, a local non-profit branch of a national organization, Wild-Ones. Hundreds of volunteers help prepare and maintain the field.

At first the field was let to grow somewhat wild. The grasses went to seed and grew several feet tall. I’m guessing this was to shade out some of the smaller weeds. Designated paths were kept mowed to be passable on foot.

A few months later, I noticed that a few acres of the 6 in the field had been sprayed with herbicide. I wasn’t sure if this was particularly kosher for developing a natural habitat, but I could also understand, considering how weed infested the ground is.

main entrance to the Whetstone Prairie After the cleared area settled a bit, perhaps a month later, I noticed a few dozen small plants had been placed near what was to be the main entrance for the prairie. These were demonstration plants for visitors to learn names and shapes. It’s nice to be able to get close to each of several varieties, especially for photos. The wild field is difficult to walk though. Nor would I want to disturb nesting creatures.

The rest of the cleared field was seeded with dozens of varieties of prairie flowers: Cup Plants, Bee Balm, Black Eyed Susans, Queen Ann’s Lace, Cone Flowers, Cardinal Flowers, Butterfly Weeds, Gay Feathers, Asters and various other sun flowers. Over the next year these plants matured into a dense, thicketed and healthy prairie.

Struggling parts of Whetstone Prairie The remaining 4-5 acres were never sprayed, but were seeded with millions of wildflower seeds. However, those areas have struggled with nasty weed infestations such as dandelion, plantain and crabgrass.

I have watched the purveyors of the prairie try several methods to favor the natural prairie flowers. This year they mowed those parts down and raked up the dried stems, perhaps allowing light and air to reach the somewhat established prairie flowers. So far it still looks pretty weedy. I’m not sure what they plan for this area. Perhaps it will take times for the prairie flowers to dominate, which are ultimately quite durable once established. I plan to learn more of these methods and will report back to you.

Gold Finch in tall grass This Spring the original few acres were “scorched” to weaken some invasive tree seedlings and other weeds. Prairie plants have amazingly deep roots, often 8-10 feet, which allow survival after scorching. In natural prairie settings, dry years often bring flash fires which scorch the earth, accomplishing the same goal. Apparently, firefighters used propane flame throwers to do the job, under the supervision of prairie experts. I remember the brown and black earth smelling of smoke in early Spring. Now it’s filled with 9 foot giant cup plants and hundreds of other flowers.

Whetstone Prairie looking West I know I’ve barely touched on the details of this beautiful project, but I will be writing regularly about this prairie, which is now central to my meditative walks.

It’s difficult to capture the mood of the place; exuberant bird song fills the field, echoing off the high canopy of trees surrounding it. There are two large trees in the middle of the field, which often “hold” the sun as it sets. Hundreds of goldfinches flutter around the sunflowers now in bloom.

Black Eyed Susan Glancing around the blogosphere, I’m sure there are numerous such projects. One post I found was about a Dallas area park featuring wild areas for mixed use.

Another lesson from this local wild prairie is which plants might be useful in our own private gardens. Native plants and wild flowers tend to be more durable over the long run and will also help rejuvenate the local habitat of your area. Many of the flowers listed above are easy to grow and beautiful in any garden.

In my next post I’ll feature photos of many of the flowers now in bloom.

Bloggers for Positive Global Change

Bloggers for Positive Global ChangePamm tagged me for a meme to spread the word about “Bloggers for Positive Global Change“, where the idea was started by Deborah and Francis of Climate for our Future. Check the original post for details of the meme.

The idea is to name (and thereby award) blogs and bloggers who are making a difference for global change. Though I’ve been “awarded”, I wonder if I am making a difference, really, for global change. I tend to believe things are so out of control there’s not much we can do except take care of ourselves. This challenge was a wake up call for me. Thank you Pamm.

The ubiquitous photo of the lost Polar Bears trying to ford a crumbling ice scape breaks my heart every time I see it. I know there are 100’s of species going extinct every day. I know the rain forests are being destroyed at sickening rates. We are killing our planet.

But I also know I am a citizen of the country whose ridiculous standards of living have set the level the rest of the world feels they deserve, as they should. My father likes to play devil’s advocate when I rant about how much energy Americans consume. He looks me in the eye and asks, “Are you going to trade your house for something more Eco friendly?” It stops me in my tracks.

I try to do my part by recycling, using less electricity, gas and water. I garden organically, though not very water efficiently. I still use my Central Air when it gets too hot for me to work or sleep in the heat. But deep down, I know my father is right. Someone has to go first. And as much as I want to be the first, I still wait for someone else to start. I am selfish and want to keep the good life I have.

But this meme has made me more aware of possibilities. I will now keep an eye out for more and more little things I can do. My attitude has awakened. That’s a beginning, at least. I will now award several blogs which I feel are doing something, more than I have, to make a difference. I hope they will spread the recognition further with their own choices.

Brian of Backseat Driving challenges a bunch of global warming denialists with a bet that global temperatures will continue to increase over the next 20-50 years. I have a feeling he’d win them all. He also has another fun idea for bloggers to help charity in his post Global Warming Cut and Paste for Charity.

In Gristmill, a very good group blog about environmental issues and commentary from the website Grist, I found this very inspiring list of the core principles (links to articles) for a bright green future, taken from WorldChanging.

Real Climate, a very comprehensive blog of climate issues and science made accessible, posts a Friday Roundup of recent news. Included among stories and updates of current global warming debates; the Sun is off the hook for causing global warming; further reports on “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, (TGGWS) attempts to debunk the facts; a useful link to their new RC Wiki, where the debunking is debunked with authority!

Tamino does his small but important part to educate a skeptical reader who doubts the validity of the science of averaging temperatures to predicts global warming.

The Oil Drum reports and fosters discussion about energy and our future. Their post about the peak oil debate reminds me that driving is no longer a right, it’s a luxury.

Blue Climate posts a NYTimes article warning of flooding in the NE US if continuing warming raises sea levels. The areas affected include lower Manhattan. Nothing like a reality shock to wake us up!

100 Mile Diet is a blog (comment-less) about eating local. Another reminder of things we all can do.

Global Climate Change blogs about a Car Free DC Day on September 17 in Washington, DC. Alas, Columbus doesn’t really have any decent mass transportation. Slow, smoggy buses are all we get.

Eco Street suggests ways we can give the office a green makeover.

Alt+Energy writes about the Sustainable Bio Diesel Summit.