Friday, November 26, 2021

"The Words That Come Before All Else"

 I have been reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.     Her chapter titled “Allegiance To Gratitude” gave me the most perfect prayer for our Thanksgiving table as we reflected on the Thanksgiving Address, “known more accurately as The Words That Come Before All Else.”   The opening words are: “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.” 

Even though our entire family was not able to be together, three generations were represented at our table and we felt the deep gratitude that comes with the love and respect we accord one another while we read and reflected on “The Words That Come Before All Else” and we celebrated the continuing cycles of life.

The Thanksgiving Address goes on to honor and greet and give thanks to Mother Earth, to the Waters of the Earth, to Fish and to Food Plants and Medicine Herbs; to the beautiful Animal life of the world, all the creatures who walk about with us.

More than any plateful of turkey and stuffing, The Words That Come Before All Else filled me with conscious awareness of what it means to be alive and to live in harmony with creation.

We bought our small plot of land back in the early ‘60s when our town was selling off confiscated lots for which taxes had not been paid for many years in order to make them taxable again.  We bought a one half acre piece of land on Martha’s Vineyard for $300! We built a log cabin on it in 1977.  We made it our permanent home in 1994 when we moved here “year-round.”

It is not lost on us that our tiny postage stamp of land belonged to the People of the First Light, the Wampanoag people, for hundreds of generations before the white incursions.  

When we built, we were the only occupants on what would eventually become “our lane.”  We weren’t  terribly conscious back then, but even in our ignorance, we tried to make as little impact as possible on the woods surrounding us, building on just one 50’x100’  lot and leaving the other three untouched.

My kitchen window faces south, looking out on the undeveloped lots.  From my window I can watch a hawk flying with its mouth full of some hapless small creature.  Squirrels leap from one tree branch to another.  In the spring a mother skunk protectively guides her four little ones through the yard.  A flock of wild turkeys visits regularly.  A multitude of other invisible night creatures make their home in our little bit of “wild” even as the other lots in our neighborhood have been developed. The multiplicity and variety of tracks in a winter snow attest to the life that our untouched lots support.

  Development encroaches on the land, just as we did. The new and ever popular “modular” homes require the absolute stripping of every bit of vegetation in order to be delivered to the site by huge tractor trailers and  the equally huge cranes that are required to lift the modular sections onto their foundations.

On the day after Thanksgiving, my home is quiet.  There is time to reflect on the immensity of what has happened here; time to go back to The Words That Come Before All Else and feel the burden of history as I look out my window; time to mourn the unspeakable losses the People Of The First Light have endured such that I can live on a small patch of  land with woods in my view as I finish my morning tea.  

In the not terribly distant future, my husband and I will pass from this world.  Our home and our bit of land will eventually transfer to other hands - to people who may or may not hold the land as sacred.  Given the nature of development on our island, it is easy to imagine our little home being leveled and replaced by a modular structure that requires the stripping of all that we love and enjoy.

So our commitment while we are here is to honor this gift that comes at huge historical cost to so many, to protect and respect it as long as we are able, revisiting regularly The Words That Come Before All Else, remembering: “We now turn our thoughts to the Creator or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation.  Everything we need live a good life is here on Mother Earth.  For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greeting and thanks to the Creator.  Now our minds are one.” 

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, November 19, 2021



There are all kinds of hunger. One might be hungry for a big bowl of spaghetti or a piece of apple pie. Then again, one might be hungry for an embrace, a hug, a sign of love and care. One can also be hungry for peace, for justice, for critical action from governments.

Sometimes people will go hungry on purpose. It could be part of a personal spiritual quest, like fasting for a Sun Dance or like Jesus fasted in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. This is the kind of fast I’m most familiar with. There was a time I decided to fast as an act of transformation through deprivation. I would spend eating time, in weeding out. I would focus less on taking in and focus more on putting out. One such four day fast ended up being nine days, the longest in my experience.

On another occasion a friend and I started a fast anyone could join. We called it Fast for the Earth. We agreed to certain fast days every week we would personally fill, then invited other friends and interested persons to join in, so every day of the week would be filled. This continued for a year with fasters from many different countries filling each day, on one occasion with a group of 50 plus joining us from India.

Fasting can be for a social purpose, like care for the Earth, and like the cause of those five young people sitting in front of the White House today. They have been on a hunger strike since October 20, calling on the President to fight for the climate provisions in his legislative proposal. You can find pictures of them surrounded by other Sunrise Movement participants with clean air, clean water signs overhead.

There is a long tradition of fasting for social change in India, best represented in the 18 different fasts of Mahatma Gandhi during his lifetime. The longest was a duration of 21 days. Gandhi would take water, sometimes with lemon juice and a bit of salt, but no solid food. Because of his visibility as a public figure committed to independence and nonviolence, the fasting was often credited with changing minds, hearts and policy. Gandhi demonstrated that taking suffering onto oneself in pursuit of a larger goal could be an agent for change.

On one visit to India, I heard of a Mumbai industrialist who had been fasting for several weeks. He was a devout Hindu for whom cattle were sacred. Yet the Prime Minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, was encouraging the sale of cattle to the Middle East in exchange for oil. Because this fast was newsworthy and making life difficult for the government, they arrested him for “attempted suicide,” then put him in the hospital and started to force-feed him. When that didn’t help, they put him in prison.

Since we were in the area a few of us decided to visit him in prison. At that point he was some forty days into his fast. I expected to see him in a bed, barely functioning. But when we were ushered into the visiting room, he came bounding in with demonstrably more energy than I had. He was the proof one needed to know we don’t live by bread alone. We left that visit believing he had several more days of fasting in him. Friends convinced him to end the fast some twenty days later, as the government had established a commission to study the matter.

One of those who visited in the prison with me that day, would become a long-term faster in his own right. Andres Thomas Conteris was arrested at the White House with others in the midst of a six week fast against the bombing of Vieques during the Clinton administration. He ended the fast after 50 days at the request of the people of Vieques.

 Conteris was back at the White House again during the Obama administration to protest the continued incarceration and force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo. This fast lasted some seventy days and included demonstrations of the force feeding process we were using against prisoners, forcing a tube through the nose, throat and down into the stomach. It was not a visual most watchers wanted to keep and treasure.

Fasting is a spiritual discipline that can help! Instead of always blaming or harming the “other,” maybe we need a whole body, mind, spirit cleansing ourself (like 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, facing our demons). Instead of threatening or doing violence to change the social fabric, perhaps we can influence society by acts of sacrifice. Otherwise, let’s admit the message of a Jesus, a Gandhi, or a ML King is mistaken and irrelevant, and continue consuming like there is no tomorrow.  

Carl Kline

Friday, November 12, 2021

Are You Friends With Your Hands?

 Nightly temperatures have been dipping into the twenties, but at our house, we’re still enjoying tomatoes, thanks to our friend Jim and the small greenhouse he rigged up in our “pandemic victory garden." Whenever I think we’ve picked our last tomato, we end up with another dozen. We’ve been giving them away; tossing them into salads and stir-fries; making them into varieties of pasta sauce; and bagging them whole for the freezer.
This afternoon I’m back in the kitchen (which is not, I’ll remind you, my natural habitat). My mission? To reduce five more pounds of “love apples” to a basic marinara.
After blanching and peeling the tomatoes, I set them aside to rest. In a stewpot over medium heat, I soften diced onions and minced garlic in olive oil; stir in assorted herbs and spices; add a smidgen of honey to cut the acidity.
At this point, I’d usually puree the blanched tomatoes in a food processor, then combine them with the sautéed ingredients. But this time a little voice says, “Forget the machine. Just squeeze!”

So, that’s what I do: I squeeze and squish and squash every last tomato into the stewpot with my bare hands. Seeds spurt. Red pulp oozes between my fingers. I’m grinning as the big pot fills.
After several hours of simmering, the marinara is done. I sample it with a wooden spoon. This batch of sauce doesn’t taste much different from earlier ones, but it’s by far my favorite. I made it with my hands.


A few days ago, my family would have celebrated my dad’s 84th birthday, had we not lost him in the pandemic. I distinctly remember his hands, our last visit, around a year before he died: an old farmer’s hands, stiff and swollen, pale from poor circulation. Neuropathy had robbed them of feeling; it also produced intense burning pain that no drug seemed to ease. Dad sat in his wheelchair, stroking them, his

fingers like thick sticks. Sometimes he’d moan.
“You want me to put some lotion on your hands?” I said, having seen my mother do this, trying to relieve his suffering.
He wasn’t a man who asked for help. Nor was he eager to say “yes” when help was offered. In his mind, a man should be self-reliant and provide for others, even if he’s confined to a wheelchair.
But I understood the look he gave me.
I applied the lotion as gently as I could, afraid of hurting him more, though I knew his diseased hands were numb. There was nothing magical or medicinal in that liquid. Yet, the intimacy of our touching proved a powerful remedy.
Dad couldn’t feel the lotion on his skin. He couldn’t feel me massaging it into his hard, inflexible hands. But, as I tended him, I could see that he felt the strength of my love. That was enough. For a few blessed minutes, he relaxed. 

* * *
Is your house, like mine, full of machines and gadgets? Food processor, mixer, blender, coffee maker, dishwasher, computer, cell phone, chargers, vacuum, floor cleaner, cordless drill and screwdriver … that’s just the start of my very long list. How long is yours?

All these things have purpose; when properly used, they’re beneficial. They make my life easier.
Yet, maybe they make my life too easy. Maybe they alienate me from my wondrously capable hands.
Machines and gadgets have cheapened my hands, humbled them into worshippers of plugs; grippers of handles and wheels; turners of knobs and switches; pressers and punchers of buttons; swipers of screens….
You and I can activate or operate an increasing number of machines without touching them at all. The mere sound of a voice is enough to run them.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I appreciate machines. But at what cost do I use them, day in and day out, my hands falling out of practice? By relying on devices to do so much of my work, how much do I deprive myself of sensory awareness, pleasure, and gratitude? By allowing my hands to become strangers to myself, do I become less inclined to touch others? And does how I touch them change?

This is what I kept mulling, while crushing those tomatoes.
“Hands,” I said, “we need to get reacquainted.”
I don’t intend to give up my machines and gadgets. But I do intend to be more mindful of how I use them, and how often. I’ll watch for more opportunities to slow down; to do more activities by hand.
By befriending my hands, I'll better prepare them to touch someone who, like Dad when I last saw him, desperately needs a soothing caress.

“Hands,” I say, “how about we make some pasta for all that sauce?”

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, November 5, 2021

 Living Powerless

We hadn’t been paying very close attention to the weather forecasts.  Quite often there will be a lot of excitement for a few days about the prediction of a coming storm, a flurry of preparation, jugs of water stored, extra batteries in place, outdoor furniture put away or tied down and so on.  And the storm never materializes as predicted.

So we felt pretty relaxed.

At about 2 AM (my guess) on Wednesday morning, I awoke to the sound of someone hitting the house with a baseball bat, the sound of a roaring train, and to a darkness beyond dark.  The digital clock in our bedroom was blank, no reassuring red numbers to assure me of the time and alerting me to the fact that we had lost electrical power.  A loud crack like a gunshot somewhere in the neighborhood. A tree down?  A transformer hit?

Nothing to do…back to sleep, albeit somewhat fitfully as the noise did not abate.

We awoke early to a chilly house, - - no power, no heat, no hot water and still, the darkness beyond dark with no idea what time it was.

This storm had definitely materialized.

We scrambled around for candles and an oil lamp and blessed everything that is holy that we have a gas stove and we could light the burners with a match in the absence of the electronic ignition we depend on.  We have had years of camping experience, so once the initial “now what do we do?”  abated, we managed to put together a hot breakfast, already mindful of not opening and closing the refrigerator too often, just in case the power didn’t return in a timely way.

Trying to put a positive spin on things as the wind roared and the rain poured, we gave thanks for our sturdy cabin, our candle supply and matches, our warm sweaters and the ability to boil water.  We live close to the island hospital and had always assumed that we were on the hospital “grid” because we have never lost power for more than an hour or two in even the worst of storms.  Perhaps erroneous thinking?

By Thursday morning, the need for a hot shower was becoming apparent.  The neighboring street on which our son lives had power - hadn’t even lost it for more than a few minutes.  So we trooped over there for hot showers and resumed a relatively normal day otherwise - reading, doing jigsaw puzzles, phoning friends to check on their well-being.  Being without power meant no WiFi, no TV, no radio, no phone answering machine. Except for being able to call out, we were pretty well cut off from the outside world.  (Did I mention that we don’t own a cell phone?)

I grew up in the ‘50s and life without power last week was reminiscent of those years before so much technology was available. We knew so little about what was happening beyond our local, rural neighborhood.  I couldn’t help thinking about how we were able to live with the illusion that the world was a pretty benign and peaceful place.  With poor radio reception and very little access to TV,  and only the family telephone in the center hall of the house (on a party line, no less), I enjoyed a peaceful, almost idyllic, childhood.  
Only the generator in the garage beneath the house, the overstocked pantry shelves in the basement, the collection of jugs of water at the door of the cellar stairs, the basement room set up for living space “just in case” belied the tranquillity of daily life.  And,  then, of course, there were the frequent bells in the school hallways that summoned us into the basement where there were no windows, where we curled up as small as we could with our coats over our heads.  There were posters on the walls with instructions to “duck and cover,”  to wear white or light colored clothing, to roll into a ditch at the side of the road for protection - - all symptomatic of the “Cold War” and the fear of nuclear annihilation.

Two and a half days after the storm, the power came back on again.  We blessed the EverSource utility team in our drive way as we returned from errands in town.  We booted up the computer to see what we had missed.  I did the morning dishes with hot water from the faucet.  Our enforced Sabbath was over.

The power outage renewed my mindfulness that there are whole populations on this planet who live without power, who walk miles for water clean enough for human consumption; whole populations who cannot depend on EverSource to get them up and running, who have no local hospital to attend to their health needs, whose babies die for want of simple vaccinations or medical interventions that we take for granted.

The power outage reminded me of the unspeakable imbalance of power that exists between affluent, developed countries and countries where unlimited power on the part of a few wreaks havoc among the people; the imbalance between the power of wealth and the powerlessness of extreme poverty.

Living without power for a couple of days has turned into a mindfulness exercise.  Now - I am alert for where this stimulation of consciousness will lead next.  

Meanwhile, I check for the level of power in the flashlight batteries and I renew my collection of candles…just in case.

Vicky Hanjian