Friday, September 17, 2021

Random Notes from a River Raft


  After a long, strenuous hike, you happen upon a river. A crude raft is beached on the sandy shore. Tacked to it is a paper that reads: “Take me downstream.” The handwriting strangely resembles your own.

You don’t know who made the raft, or why they’ve left it here. You don’t know how well it’s constructed. Does it even float?

You don’t know where the river leads, or how easy it will be to navigate. There may be calm pools ahead. But there may also be white-water rapids, even a waterfall.

You choose to trust. You wade the raft into the lazy current and shove off.

The raft has a sturdy push pole by which to propel the vessel forward and steer. For now, though, you collapse on the deck, content to drift. Your tired body has carried you over so many trails through arduous terrains, it’s relieved at last to be carried.

You snag the piece of paper from the screw fastening it to the raft. By some magic, the paper now reads, “To the Traveler.”

You flip it over. “Random Notes from the River Raft” is scribbled at the top.

Beneath that heading, you find a list of musings. Again, the handwriting looks just like yours. You can’t explain this. You can’t explain any of it. But as you read, you know it’s true:

You can’t say no to the river.

If you weren’t ready to make the trip, you wouldn’t have found me.

As your raft, I’m guaranteed to give you the ride of a lifetime.

 Get to know me.

 I’m one of a kind.

 Appreciate my build.

I’m made from materials recycled from your life. 

I can’t but stay afloat.

I’ll always support your weight, if you travel light.
The river is the guide and the journey. It knows where it’s going.

You’re the river’s passenger and companion.

Respect it.

Be grateful to pass through wherever the river takes us.

Nothing we pass through is forever.

Your life jacket is stored in your chest.

Forget what you think you know about rafting.

Begin again.

There’s no reason to push the river.

But you might have to push yourself.

Use slow, smooth pushes of the pole.

Fast strokes make us unstable.

Accept that I’ll never move in a straight line.

Learn to love zig-zags and circles.

Avoid over correction.

Trust my natural buoyancy.

Trust the water’s grace and flow.

Watch out for hazards or you’ll end up wet.

This is a law of nature.

No matter your skill, you’ll sometimes end up wet, anyway.

This is also a law of nature.

When you fall off me, float.

The river will always hold you up.

Its banks are waiting to receive you.

Maintaining balance while poling in mud requires extra practice.

Embrace it.

To move in deep water, transform my pole into a paddle.

All it takes is a little re-visioning.

On the river, you’ll have everything you need, even when you don’t.

When you don’t have everything you need, keep going until you discover you do.

You’re never alone on the river.

If you feel forsaken, pay closer attention.

When you’re finished with me, leave me on shore.

Somebody else will use me someday.

But I won’t be the same raft.

You never get to the end of the river.

I’ll see you there someday.

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, September 10, 2021

Contemplating The Deluge

The island has been feeling the brunt of some storm or other - steady rain since last night, drizzle at times, a teasing promise of breaking clouds, a pale bit of sunlight and then another steady downpour.  Traffic is backed up at 5 Corners, notorious for its easy flooding.  Main roads are a bit narrow as streams of water rush to find their own level.  Navigating the wet roads is more challenging than usual, but I am mindful that as soon as the rain stops, the water will recede into the sandy soil and within the space of a day any signs of the deluge will have pretty much disappeared.   

This is not a Louisiana parish by any stretch of the imagination and yet the presence of so much rain definitely leads my thoughts to the suffering occurring in so many places in the south due to heavy and relentless rains and high winds.  

I try to imagine losing everything in a storm.  I can’t.  The best I can do is watch the TV news footage to try and grasp the enormity of loss - - homes, treasured possessions, irreplaceable memories, beloved pets.  And yet I hear time after time “Yes, we have lost everything but we are grateful to be alive.” 

Time after time I see people who have lost everything helping their neighbors who may be even worse off.  A greater humanity seems to kick into action during the crisis.

Tonight the news is filled with the remembering of  the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers.  Time after time, witnesses, survivors, victims of the attacks recall how the country came together in the aftermath; how we were kinder to each other; how much more we treasured our all too vulnerable lives, how we were more likely to tell our loved ones how much they meant to us.

It didn’t last long.  Revenge for the attacks seemed to bring with it division and rancor. It continues today with all the pros and cons about the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.  The sorrow and bitterness and confusion fracture our political minds.

Nearly 20 years later, COVID has created another national crisis, another opportunity for the country to come together to support and care for one another through all the sickness and death, the terrible vulnerability and uncertainty that rides on the coattails of the virus.  We have named our community heroes, our frontline medical workers, all the essential workers like supermarket personnel and caregivers, police and firefighters, EMTs and on and on.

But in short order, blaming and shaming became part of the response to COVID.  In so many places personal rights became paramount and superceded responsibility for each other and for the health of our communities.  To mask or not to mask - - to vaccinate or not to vaccinate - - to trust the science or disregard it - - issues that have divided friends and families and communities across the country.  Curiously, all of this happens against the backdrop of a worldwide crisis: Not enough vaccines to care for the poorest countries while controversy grows about the distribution of booster shots to those in wealthier countries who have already been vaccinated.

As a  species, we seem unable to sustain a long term and consistently loving and compassionate response through the fall-out from a major crisis.  We need to blame someone.  We need to hold someone accountable.  We need to claim our own personal rights and sense of wellbeing whether this is damaging to someone else’s rights and well being or not.

Once again, I contemplate the heavy downpour.  An ancient story tells of a straight 40 days of rain - flooding the entire earth - destroying all but a handful of lives and a boatload of animals of every kind.  A meta-cleansing of earth’s people gone awry.  That story ends with hope - a rainbow and a steadfast promise that the Creator will not destroy creation in that way again.

Next time - we will be the ones held accountable.

And yet - as someone penned: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  This Sunday we will witness a baptism - the initiation of a young child’s life into the fellowship of the church.  The child to be baptized has a powerful name.  It means “He who progresses and helps others to progress.”  His middle name means “He who wins the struggle.”  Perhaps a name we could all embrace in the service of a more loving and harmonious world where we move together toward the elusive goal of a more fully human, more fully divine way of doing life  - noticing one another - bringing one another along in the great struggle for life in all its abundance - - winning the struggle together.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, September 3, 2021

"A Present Absence"

 One of the spiritual direction questions that my rabbi friend often asks when we are bewailing the tragic events that dominate the headlines is “Where is G-d in this?”  It always confounds me and then sets me to looking more closely at what is going on.  Where is G-d in the massive flooding that is drowning the parishes of New Orleans again?   Where is G-d in the senseless loss of life at the hands of a suicide bomber?  Where is G-d when humans can’t seem to cooperate to get a grip on eliminating a deadly virus?  Where is G-d in the massive structures of systemic racism?  The question is so open ended…WHERE IS GOD?

My meandering around the question led me to a brief and poignant few verses in Deuteronomy

(31:16-18) as Moses nears his death:

And the Lord said to Moses: “You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.  And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come on us because our G-d is not with us?’  And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods.

It’s not a message I would want to hear on my death bed after spending my life in behalf of a congregation, but there it is.

Sometimes asking the question almost leads the way to an answer, or at least a different way to think about the question.  I stumbled on The Way Into Jewish Mysticism by Lawrence Kushner.
He ponders the same question, but with greater wisdom than I possess.  He writes: Often it is not what it seems at first to be evil that is the problem, but our inability to see how G-d is behind it or within it. In Jewish mysticism, this is called “G-d hiding G-d’s face.”

When I look back at the Moses episode again, I see that G-d didn’t say “I’m out of here -I’m leaving,”   G-d said:  “I will hide my face.”  To me, this implies Holy Presence in Absence.

Back to Kushner where he cites the Baal Shem Tov, a master of Jewish mysticism: In G-d’s “hiding” we are not able to fathom the good that is latent within the hiding.  Indeed, if we could understand that some greater goodness is concealed within G-d’s apparent absence - that the hiding is for a reason, then we might be able to discern the purpose of G-d’s apparent withdrawal.  The Baal Shem Tov would conclude by saying that “I am more afraid of not realizing that G-d is hiding than I am of the actual hiddenness itself.”

Rounding one more bend in the road, I recall something I read in Teilhard de Chardin’s work years ago.   Kind of nice to know he pondered the question of evil and God too.  He didn’t write in terms of God’s presence or absence, but rather brought his own scientific and philosophical mind to the question: Evil in all its forms -injustice, inequality, suffering, death itself - ceases theoretically to be outrageous from the moment when, evolution becoming genesis, the immense travail of the world displays itself as the inevitable reverse side - or, better, the condition, or, better still, the price of an immense triumph.  Earth becomes the matrix in which our unity if forged.

So, tonight, when sleep eludes, a bit of mind bending meditation perhaps - - Divine Process hidden within the tumult and the chaos, in what appears to be relentless and unending sorrow and suffering, violence and ignorance.   Well, of course!! Isn’t that what the ancient story illustrates:

In the beginning when God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was welter and waste and darkness over the deep…a chaotic scene to be sure and a Holy Breath brooded over the chaos, invisible, imageless, hidden…working.  

An ancient story for our time.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, August 27, 2021

"Politics, Religion...Death"

They say there are two subjects you should avoid in polite company; politics and religion. There is a third subject that is so off the table in our society that it isn’t even mentioned in the impolite category. It has a category all its own called “never.” That subject is “Death.” (If you are polite company you may wish to cease reading.)

Unfortunately, the one place where you should be able to talk about death, your faith community, is often the place where the subject is avoided in favor of “everlasting life.” But that is putting the cart before the horse.

Fortunately, there is a new development in the person of “end of life doulas,” or let’s be clear here, “death” doulas. Just as there are birth doulas to see us through the beginnings of new life, there are those who will help us and our families through the last days of life. Their role may be helping with
wills, negotiating to allow a cat in a hospice room with a dying patient, sitting through the night holding a hand, making funeral arrangements, or even making sure a last bedside reading or song is a favorite of the dying person.

The International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA) is located in New Jersey and offers training and certification. The designation is new and unregulated at present. But the service is clearly growing and expanding across the country.

Clergy have served the dying and their families for ages. Large churches will often have staff specifically designated for such situations. In my own ministry, I’ve served many of the functions mentioned, except negotiating a cat in a hospice room. But doulas are meant to be a more comprehensive response to the needs of the dying and their families, without constraints. They are present for the duration and whatever the needs of the dying might be.

The title of the most recent issue of Christian Century was “Green Burial: as an act of faith.” In earlier times the deceased body of a loved one was washed and wrapped at home. The hole was dug in the field and the body placed by family and friends. The Lenten words of “dust to dust” were made real. There was no chemical embalming of the body. There was no concrete barrier between body and earth. If a box was the carrier instead of a shroud it was wooden, likely made by a family member.

The first contemporary and specifically green burial site arose in Great Britain in 1993. One of the hopes was to make the area more friendly to wildlife, and offering the planting of an oak tree over the burial plot. By 2013 there were 268 natural burial sites across the country. The first one came to the U.S. in 1996 in Westminster, South Carolina. Today there are more than 160 sites around our country. There are certainly many more, scattered across the woods and plains from an earlier age, now long forgotten and overgrown.

We all must admit that it is only by the grace of God we are alive from one moment to the next. To acknowledge death as a part of our life and plan for it, is at least as important as planning for retirement, though seldom recognized that way. We might consider the question of, what is a “good death?”

One friend who received a terminal diagnosis called me on the phone. He asked me to forgive him for any harm he may have caused me in the past, and assured me he forgave me for anything that might stand between us. He said he loved me. He made these calls to several individuals he knew he would not see in person again. His wife assured me, he died peacefully.

On another occasion, I was the hand-holder. It was as if the dying was at the edge of an abyss and was gripping tightly to the only thing keeping him from falling over the edge. I felt like my hand was in a vise and I couldn’t remove it. Although unconscious, I couldn’t believe the deceased had a peaceful ending.

Whatever our belief might be about what happens to the spirit when one dies, we can know for certain what happens to our spirit and our body while alive. Perhaps living a life of gratitude and service, in harmony with creation and each other, will prepare us for death in the best possible way.

Living well is our best insurance for dying well. 

Carl Kline

Friday, August 20, 2021

"Sweet Caroline"

 My current “ear worm” has been the melody and refrain from “Sweet Caroline” - - the kind of thing that keeps singing in my brain, not allowing me to easily fall asleep at night - - repeating over and over:   Hands/Touching hands/Reaching out/Touching me/Touching you.  I can hear Neil Diamond belting it out in the inner reaches of my mind.  Occasionally the words will switch to One/Touching one/Reaching out/Touching me/Touching you.

I sometimes wonder what the hidden message is in this unbidden and constant repetition looping in my brain in the wee small hours of the morning.

With the rest of the world, I watch events unfolding in Afghanistan, feeling the great unease that comes with the unanswered questions, the pain of not knowing, the wishing for clear vision.  How do I ever know what decisions, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, are the right ones?  The pundits seem so clear in their knowledge and opinions, even when their conclusions do not match up with one another.
Right on the heels of the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan comes the horror of a massive earthquake in Haiti followed by the effects of a hurricane and something inside me screams: “Can’t these folks ever get a break?”  The nightly scenes of unspeakable vulnerability and suffering - human beings with nothing - exposed to the wind and rain and the shuddering of the earth.  Humanitarian aid will slowly trickle in but the need is so massive and who knows how quickly another storm, another quake will exponentially increase the suffering.

Nightly news of the burning of California keeps my anxiety level at plus 10.

I indulge in feelings of helplessness.  Aside from contributing to the inevitable fund raising requests, at my age, what can I do???   My heart aches and my body feels heavy and ineffectual in the face of so much trauma.

An email “pings.”    “Carol just brought her husband home from the hospital.  They have discontinued dialysis.  He has a few days.  Can you call her?”   

In rapid succession, another email “ping.”    “Ann is anticipating knee surgery.  She can’t drive.  She is alone at 89 and trying to figure out how to manage her post-op recovery in a  2 story home with bedroom and bath on the second floor.  The isolation is causing depression.  She is usually a bright, competent person.”

These are vulnerabilities and sorrows I can interface with.  A few phone calls and Carol will receive meals a couple of times a week from the church folk.  I can listen to her as she keeps vigil at her husband’s bedside awaiting the inevitable.

Another few phone calls and Ann will have someone to take her out to lunch or to the library to ease her isolation. It is so much easier for her to receive help if someone offers to take her to her medical appointments so that she doesn’t have to ask.  A friend offers her downstairs bed and bath to Ann for her post-op recovery time and physical therapy visits.

So maybe that’s what the “ear worm” is about - - Hands / Touching hands/Reaching out/Touching me/Touching you.

Feeling helpless in the face of the overwhelming suffering across the planet is a bit self indulgent.  There is always a place to step into the suffering and offer some kind of relief even at almost 80 years of age.  We are one planet - - one humanity - - as in “no man is an island”…

A few direct questions, a bit of careful listening, and the solutions to seemingly intractable problems begin to clarify a bit.  I am connected with all humanity right where I am.  The Jewish maxim “Save a life…save a world”  is quite local.  

It is all too easy to allow myself to be immobilized by global tragedies, to be numbed into the lethargy of powerless, hopeless, helplessness.  Maybe that is the work of the “ear worm” - - to remind me of the simplest, closest to home response to suffering: One/touching one/Reaching out/touching me/touching you.

The phone calls have been made.  Some compassion and lovingkindness have been set in motion.  In no way have the global problems been solved, but a kind of healing power has been unleashed. 

 It will reverberate.

Vicky Hanjian

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

What To Do When The Eggs Don't Hatch


I admit that I counted my proverbial chickens.

Once the distribution of the COVID vaccine was well underway in the U.S., I thought the pandemic wouls soon be over.  Bursting with optimism, I changed the tagline of my Staying Power    ( newsletter from "Your Virtual Care Package for the Pandemic" to "A Virtual Care Package from Phyllis Cole-Dai."  After getting my shots, I re-opened my schedule to in-person gigs.  I stowed my masks for the next pandemic, which is sure to come someday.  I hugged relatives and friends again, holding them tight and extra long.

Little did I know that my confidence was premature.  Too many of the proverbial chicks haven't hatched from their eggs.

COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are surging again in nearly every state, especiall in areas with large numbers of unvaccinated people.  This escalation has been fueled by the more contagious and deadly Delta variant.  As I'm writing, 61% of all counties in this nation have "high" community transmission, up 15% from a week ago.  Another 34% of counties report either "substantial" or "moderate" transmission.  That leaves only 5% of counties with "low" spread.  Glance at a national map showing these rates, and the country looks like it is on fire. ( Check out the numbers for yourself.  They'll probably be higher by the time you read this.)

To end this pandemic, once and for all, we need more people to take advantage of the vaccine.  People who are straangers to me, but people about whom I care.  People I love, like my aunt, several cousins, and a few of my friends.  People I don't want to get sick.  People I don't want to become long-haulers.  People whose funerals I don't want to attend on Zoom.  People who, at least, on this subject, won't listen to reason.

I can't persuade them to get a vaccine.  I can't compel them.  I can't entice them.  What am I to do?

The answer is simple, but not pretty: I must let them be. And part of "letting them be" is letting go of my resentment of their choice.

Believe me, I've stored up plenty of resentments.  All of them are the children of my grief.  I want the unvaccinated to attach more value to their lives and the lives of others.  I want them to invest more orf their precipous personal freedom in the well-being of their communities.  I want them to think less aobut politics and focus more on health.  I want the to set aside their hostility toward government and acknowledge that public institutions can be helpful, especially during a national crisis.  I want them to be more considerate of the health care workers who are drowning in a sea of patients afflicted by (what is now) a largely avoidable disease.  I want them to put more trust in evidence-based and data driven science.  If they believe in God, I want them to believe in a God who loves the world enough to save it through a needle.

But they don't.  Most likely they never will.

I must let them be.

Sometimes, when we love someone, letting go is all we can do.  that can be brutally difficult, especially when harm may result.  For me, loving the unvaccinated is a lot like loving a serious drug addict whos only hope is hitting bottom.  I have to let them fall.  They might not survive the landing. But maybe they'll see enough light on the way down to save themselves.

Love is practice.  Love is prayer.  Love is paying attention.  And sometimes love is letting go of our desparate need for eggs to hatch into chickens.

Love's a hard, hard thing.  It reminds us daily that we're not in charge.  It breaks our heart, over and over again.

But love is what I choose.  I won't give it up, even when the flood is raging.  Even when people are stranded on their rooftops, water rising all around them, and they still insist, "It's no big deal, we won't be swept away.  Mind your own business."  Even then, when I've no means to bring them to safety - when all I can do is bear witness to them, and hope with all my heart for their rescue - I can choose love.

I'm reminded of a song called "You Can Do this Hard Thing" ( by Carrie Newcomer.  Hear are a few lines from the heart of it:

Here we stand breathless / 
and pressed in hard times, 
/ hearts hung like laundry
/ on backyard clotheslines.
 / Impossible just takes / 
a little more time. 

"Impossible just takes /a little more time."  Well, I've time to give. And I've still got my masks to wear.  And I've still got my bewildered heart, ready to love another day more.

Who knows when another egg might crack.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, August 6, 2021

One Mind...Gratitude

When I looked this morning, the one blooming flower on the Angel’s Trumpet was bowed over. Surprisingly, it had bloomed for two days. All the others before it had succumbed after just one day. You would see them, and then you wouldn’t. In the morning light you might think they were sleeping, with a lowered head, but alas, they were deceased. It’s a shame their life span is so short as the colors in these flowers are gorgeous; purple and white. I can understand where the name Angel’s Trumpet originated. They look like a trumpet used to signal the entry of nobility and they wear the colors of royalty and angels.

None of the flowers in the yard (and there are many), have attracted my attention quite like the Angel’s Trumpet. When their beauty is so fragile and short lived, I guess you had better soak it up while you can and give thanks for small favors.

I’m in the middle of reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a wonderful storyteller and combines the wisdom of a scientist and a culturally grounded indigenous woman. I’m learning about sweetgrass and wild strawberries and witch hazel and water lillies and black ash. Most of all, I’m learning about gratitude for the amazing complexity and interrelationships of creation that make human life possible.

We are all learning, aren’t we? We’re learning that trees produce the oxygen necessary for our breath and can provide carbon sinks. Burning wildfires and deforestation rob us of breathable air. 

We’re learning that bees are necessary for pollination of at least a hundred foods we eat, including  peaches, pears, peppers and pumpkins. Sacrificing destructive chemicals is better than sacrificing our cantaloupe, carrots and cauliflower.

We’re learning that rising seas, because of the way we are changing the climate, threaten our homes, flooding or undermining their stability. Ultimately, the waters of life threaten our lives as towers collapse and rushing rivers take everything in their path.

We’re learning that we are part of the natural world and not separate from it. Remaining trapped in an illusion of separation only digs us deeper into fire and flood, misery and pain. Even more unfortunate, our separation in our man made environments keeps us from participating in the beauty and mystery of the creation.

Why do flowers on an Angel’s Trumpet only bloom for one day while the pansies have been blooming for weeks? Why do the cicadas come only once in 17 years but in South Dakota every 3-5 years? What makes that strange sound and how do the cicada nymphs live underground?

In Braiding Sweetgrass, there is a wonderful chapter called “Allegiance to Gratitude.” We are at a tribal school on the Onondaga Nation. The children are gathering together for the beginning of the school week. The third graders are responsible for leading the pledge that starts and ends the week. It is not the pledge of allegiance to a flag, although there is no disrespect meant to our flag or those who say it. Rather, they pledge allegiance in the “Thanksgiving Address;” in the language of the Onondaga people, the “Words That Come Before All Else.” 

“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.”

The Thanksgiving continues with at least a paragraph of gratitude to Mother Earth; to the Waters; the Fish; the Plants; the Berries; the Medicinal Herbs; the Trees; the Animals; the Birds; the Winds; the Thunder Beings; the Sun; the Moon; the Stars; the Teachers and Enlightened Ones; and the Creator. The final paragraph expresses regret if anything has been left out and concludes with the response, “And now our minds are one.”

May our minds be one. May we find ways to live in balance and express our gratitude for the single day beauty of an Angel’s Trumpet; for the cool unexpected breeze on a 90 degree day; for the promise of the developing tomato on the vine; for the bees buzzing from one flower to another; for the flicker on the feeder; for the sound of the cicada in the tree.

Could we start our week, even our day, with a Thanksgiving, with words of gratitude?

“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.”

The Thanksgiving continues with at least a paragraph of gratitude to Mother Earth; to the Waters; the Fish; the Plants; the Berries; the Medicinal Herbs; the Trees; the Animals; the Birds; the Winds; the Thunder Beings; the Sun; the Moon; the Stars; the Teachers and Enlightened Ones; and the Creator. The final paragraph expresses regret if anything has been left out and concludes with the response, “And now our minds are one.”

May our minds be one. May we find ways to live in balance and express our gratitude for the single day beauty of an Angel’s Trumpet; for the cool unexpected breeze on a 90 degree day; for the promise of the developing tomato on the vine; for the bees buzzing from one flower to another; for the flicker on the feeder; for the sound of the cicada in the tree.

Could we start our week, even our day, with a Thanksgiving, with words of gratitude?

Carl Kline