Friday, December 31, 2021

 What Shape Is Your Nest in?

This cute critter got me thinking about nesting. She’s a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. Her burrow lay beneath the campsite that my family occupied for several days this past week. The main entrance to the burrow was a small hole, two inches in diameter, right in front of our parked car.
Mornings and nights, we never saw the squirrel. But throughout the sunny afternoons, she skittered around, gathering grass and dried leaves to spruce up her underground digs. Her head would pop up from her hole. After scouting for predators, she’d leap out and dash away. Soon she’d return, her mouth so full of nesting material that, even scratching and pushing with her hind legs, she could barely squeeze back into the burrow.
“How much nesting stuff does one squirrel need?” I wondered. “Does an entire town of squirrels live down there?” (The answer, I learned, was no. This type of ground squirrel is a solitary creature.)
“Maybe she’s preparing for some little ones,” I thought. (Nope. I learned that her mating and birthing season was well past—if, in fact, the squirrel was a "she." You can’t tell a female from a male by their markings.)
“Maybe she’s getting ready to hibernate,” I thought. (Wrong again. She won’t hole up for winter until late September or early October.)
As you can tell, I’m no expert on ground squirrels (or “striped gophers,” as they’re sometimes called). But our half-pint friend seemed intent on all this trouble, several hours every day, scampering around, yanking up grass and collecting husks and leaves, for no other reason than to make herself more comfortable. That’s right: to take care of herself.


Guess what else? Though I listened closely, I never once heard this squirrel accounting for why she was cushifying her digs instead of storing up seeds and other necessities. Nor did I ever hear her apologizing for devoting so much attention to her own self-care. She simply knew it needed to be done, and she did it.
This leads me to ask: What’s the state of your nest? Might it benefit from some loving attention? 

* * *
“Nesting” has been on my mind a lot these days. In less than three weeks, son Nathan will be a wet-behind-the-ears freshman moving into a college dorm. Like a family of squirrels, we've been stockpiling the goods he’ll require in his new home away from home.
Nathan doesn’t much care about transforming his dorm room into a welcoming, cozy space. “It just needs to be functional,” he told me, ever the practical soul.
So I asked him if I might help organize and style his room. “It would make me feel better about your leaving home."
He took no persuading. I’m thrilled. It’s a bit like being pregnant again, preparing a safe, cheerful place for my baby.

While I’m helping with Nathan’s college nest, I’m also discussing with husband Jihong certain changes to our nest, a beloved but crotchety 130-year-old house. First, we want to rearrange and redecorate a few of the living spaces. These alterations won’t involve much money; muscles, mostly. Yet they will make these rooms more suitable for us as a couple. One day, we hope to downsize to a different dwelling altogether, one that will be friendlier as we advance in age.
Nathan has said yes to all this nesting, too. Even though he won’t be around much anymore, he still lives here. He’s part of us. We hoped for his blessing and weren’t disappointed.
* * *
No matter what kind of nest you or I might have, when we take care of it, we take care of ourselves at the same time. Nesting isn’t just a way to shelter and protect ourselves and those we love. It’s also an activity that helps us find our balance. It can help keep us sane, especially during challenging times in our lives.
I invite you to look at the place where you live (or work) with fresh eyes. How do you feel in this space? How might you feel more content in it? Would you like to try rearranging the furniture? What about changing the lighting, or the colors? What’s there that doesn’t have to be? What isn’t there that you wish for?
If you’ve gone through a recent transition (or are about to), please consider the possibility of reflecting that reality in your home environment. Maybe your children don’t need you as they used to. Maybe you lost your job or are in financial distress. Maybe someone dear to you has died. Maybe you yourself are exhibiting signs of illness or age. Maybe life is hard right now, for no reason you can pinpoint.
Reimagining your old nest might open and soothe your spirit. And bringing that creative vision for your nest into being might remind you of your own worth and power. You don’t have to settle for what is. You can comfy it up. For your own sake.

 You don’t have to justify your nesting. You don’t have to apologize for it. Just ask yourself what you want to do, and do it—
Whether you’re a "she" or a "he."

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, December 24, 2021


 He told them another parable:

The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.    Luke 13:21

On a whim, earlier this week I decide to attempt making lahmajoun, a really tasty treat that we lovingly call “Armenian Pizza” in our family.  Essentially, it is a flat bread with a seasoned meat and tomato and parsley spread on it - baked in a hot oven.  I had never made it before.  The dough for the flat bread requires working with yeast - - always a mystery to me - - but my husband (the Armenian half of this duo) was encouraging.

I found a fairly straightforward recipe and mixed up the flour and water and yeast and set it to proof.  The recipe said “one hour.”  Meanwhile I went about making the “filling,” chopping onions and garlic and parsley - mixing in green peppers and seasoning into the ground meat.

At the 45 minute mark, I checked the dough.  Whoa!!  It was beginning to leave the bowl, having
expanded to more than double its original volume in far less than the recommended time.  I shaped the dough into balls to be rolled out into 8” discs, covering most of them with a towel per instructions while I rolled out the rest and spread them with the meat mixture.

With a baking sheet of lahmajoun in the oven, I returned to the covered balls of dough to discover they had grown in size again!  Clearly I had to speed up the process or my kitchen would soon be wall to wall dough in something reminiscent of an episode of “I Love Lucy!”  (OK- So I just really dated myself!)

Yeast is amazingly resilient, persistent, insistent and lively.

A little later in the week, we decided to get tested for Covid prior to a family gathering on Christmas.  I had been anxious about doing so because of all the news stories about long lines, slow results, unavailable tests and on and on.  So it took a bit of self persuasion in the service of my loved ones to get us both to a testing site.  And sure enough - there was a bit more anxiety as we pulled up to the 1st screening stop.  “Do you have an appointment?”   Wellll - - no.  We saw the sign that said “free testing” and we got in line.  “Do you have an account with us?”  Again -a hesitant “no.”  Expecting to be turned away, I put the car in gear, but heard the screener say "just pull over there and park and we’ll get this sorted out." 

Ten  minutes later we were given the “go ahead” by a very kind young man who had taken our necessary information and entered us into the data base.  I pulled the car into the testing line.  As we approached the technician, she turned and waved to us excitedly.  From behind her mask and plastic face screen she smiled with her eyes and directed us to the right spot.  She did everything she could to make the experience a pleasant, even enjoyable, one.  The team spends 4 days a week  out in the cold and wind and rain making it possible for people to get tested.  The kindness we experienced throughout the testing process leavened the rest of our day.  

That same evening, we signed in to Krista Tippett’s Solstice Gathering on Zoom.  We had barely put our greetings in the “chat” when it was announced that we were at 7000 participants and counting.  It was a most profound experience, watching the “chats” scroll by too fast to be able to read them as people from all over the planet signed in; from the Philippines, Dubai, Great Britain, Denmark, South Africa, Japan, Hawaii, Sweden, France, and, of
course, Martha’s Vineyard and more.  Human beings from every corner of the planet joined in a vast network for a celebration of the solstice and a time of sharing our humanity in the midst of a global concern for the health and well being of the planet and her human constituency. In the process of naming and attending to the heavy anxiety and stress with which we all live, life, somehow, became more “do-able” and I felt more connected with the goodness of humankind.   I came away from the webinar feeling more hope for us and the planet than I have felt in a while.  

There is “yeasting” afoot on the planet.  The kingdom of heaven is like yeast...the kingdom of  heaven is among you. Luke 17:21

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, December 17, 2021

Into the Stillness - the Gifts & Challenges of Interfaith Engagement

I took a deep breath as I stepped out of the spirit-filled Roxbury church and breathed the still night air. It had been almost too rich, too much to take in, to hold all of the beauty, the pain, the pathos and poignancy. I paused for a few moments, taking stock, an inventory of thoughts and feelings, wanting to be sure I had taken them all with me, that I hadn’t left any behind, even if some I might have preferred to. It has been such a full week of interfaith engagement, with all of the profound challenges and profound gifts that are held and beheld in this work, each part of the blessing in choosing to engage. 

The four hours in the church was a gathering of clergy to learn about and support “The Revival: Time for a Moral Revolution of Values,” coming to know each other before gathering at the State House on September 12th to present to the governor and legislative leaders the “Higher Ground Moral Declaration” (HYPERLINK ""http://www. moraldeclaration).

Reaching beyond its roots in the Black churches of the south, extending its branches as “a tree standing by the water,” a plea has gone out to help it truly be an interfaith movement. Though I felt squeamish at first with the Christian sound of its name, a name that could suggest very different values than those I would identify with, its tone and message become quickly clear: “We believe our moral traditions have a firm foundation upon which to stand against the divide-and-conquer strategies of extremists. We believe in a moral agenda that stands against systemic racism, classism, poverty, xenophobia, and any attempt to promote hate towards any members of the human family. We claim a higher ground in partisan debate by returning public discourse to our deepest moral and constitutional values. The Higher Ground Moral Declaration provides a moral agenda for our nation.” 

The four hours in the church became a time of deep engagement, of wrestling across and within traditions, challenging, comforting, and embracing each other. Teachings were presented from two traditions, Jewish and Muslim, that in itself, in a predominantly Christian context, its own an affirmation of inclusion. In a framework of learning called, “Recovery of Sacred Text,” I shared a powerful rabbinic teaching that speaks to the timeless essence of conflict resolution. Set in the context of traditional Jewish learning, the text as life, the whole self engaged, the full panoply of personal emotion and experience may come into play. The challenge is not to slam the book shut, not to walk away in anger, to remember that we are the sacred text. 

 Flowing from a creative play on words in Numbers 21:14, Rabbi Chiyya son of Abba said, “even a parent and a child, a teacher and a student who study Torah in one gate become enemies to one another; but they do not move away from there until they come to love each other, as it is written Vahev in Sufa…; do not read b’sufa (in the Reed Sea or whirlwind), but rather b’sofah/in the end – so there shall be ahavah ba’sofah/love in the end…. It is a teaching that is rooted in a people’s emphasis on books, offering a way of peace making that demands the use of words rather than weapons. We are the text to be recovered, for each of us, our best selves waiting to emerge. When engaged in deep conflict, faced with fierce difference of opinion in approach to text and life, even becoming enemies, we are duty bound not to move from that place, not to walk away from each other until in the end there is love. It is a powerful, and, at times, a terrifying challenge in which lies the timeless essence of interfaith work, committing to engage, to stay the course with eyes on the prize, seeking together, even in spite of our selves, to create a better world. 

After my sharing, a Muslim woman offered a Quranic text, a teaching of challenge and empowerment, I thought, that for God to make change in the world and in the conditions around us, we first have to make change within ourselves. I found it to be a powerful thought, not dissimilar to a Kabbalistic teaching that Heaven is stirred to action only through stirrings from below. 

As we engaged in discussion at my table, I was taken aback by a Wampanoag woman’s expression of deep distress with the teaching. Her pain was palpable as she spoke among us. “What about when you are too broken down,” she asked, “to find such strength within yourself?” “What if you’ve been made to feel you have nothing of value within yourself or within your own tradition, that you are a sinner and have no savior, that you are not worthy of help?” She then took my breath away, “the Book was the beginning of the end for us….” We quickly realized that it was the Christian Bible she was referring to, the Book that was wielded by the priests who came before the soldiers to destroy the native peoples of the Americas, including her own Wampanoag people. As I had talked about the Book as context for sacred struggle, I thought now of the rabbis’ rueful challenge that where the book is, the sword is not; and where the sword is, the book is not. For native peoples, the Book had become the sword. We listened, we soothed, we took deep breaths, the inner struggles of each one laid bare, Jews, Muslims, Christians, one native woman of the Wampanoag people, herself, ironically perhaps, a Unitarian minister. We were all implicated and all empowered in the way of words that flow from heart to heart on streams of tears.

I got up for a moment to get some water, needing a break. A nun I know came over at that moment and hugged me and another woman, the three of us standing there as Sister Tess cried, telling us she had just seen Sister Paula the week before she was murdered. My head was spinning, needing a moment to figure out what she meant. Sister Paula Merrill, along with Sister Margaret Held, was one of the two nuns murdered in Mississippi, of the same order as Sister Tess, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Standing there while holding each other, words were shared of a friend whose life was marked by selfless goodness, who had chosen the way of blessing and given such blessing to others.

It is the challenge of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, See! I set before you today: blessing and curse/Re’eh anochi notein lifneichem ha’yom b’racha u’k’lalah. It is in our hands to choose the way, whether of blessing or of curse, to see the blessing within our selves and in each other. Every person is born with their own unique task and purpose in this world that no one can take away, and, as

the Slonimer Rebbe teaches, that no one else can do, one’s presence in this world as proof of their unique importance. So we comforted the Wampanoag woman, holding her pain and our own, shining light on the positive in the Quranic verse, pain itself as empowering, if only to cry. So beaten down in Egypt, the rabbis said of the Israelites, that just to groan in pain was enough to move Heaven.

Of interfaith encounters with others, a strand was woven through the week, sharing of pain and hope and urgency to remind that Black Lives Matter. There were deeply meaningful discussions with various ministers about the Platform for Black Lives, expressions of commitment and understanding, empathy for Jewish pain through the misuse of words, even in common struggle. There emerged a beautiful sense of purpose, deeper than before, all of us needing to stand together against racism, but also pausing to acknowledge moments of hurt in the struggle. Such discussion is not possible if we back away, love emerging in the end only if we remain engaged with each other. It was beautiful to see so many of our own Nehar Shalom community at the Black Lives Matter vigil, a Christian minister closing the gathering with the singing of a nigun, a quiet gift meant for us while embracing all.

Strands from house to house continuing to weave, as the vigil ended a man came up to me and said, “I knew I would see you again.” Johnson, from Cameroon, reminded me that we met at a program at which I had spoken, a gathering to honor Pope Francis held at Saint Anthony’s Shrine downtown. He reminded me that he had difficulty with interfaith activities and that he often thought of my mother’s teaching that I shared that night. I had spoken of my Bar Mitzvah Haftorah from the Prophet Micah and the verse so important to me, It has been told to you, O, mortal, what is good and what God seeks of you, only to do justly, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Johnson utterly amazed me standing there on the street corner recalling my mother’s gentle insistence that in explaining Micah’s words I should add two from her, “to walk humbly with God…, and with people.” 

So we continue to strive, to learn, to wrestle, ever seeking to walk humbly with God and with each other, staying engaged, making as one the vision and the way. Interfaith engagement brings great gifts and great challenges, enriching life immeasurably, at times taking our breath away. Stepping into the stillness of night, we pause and breathe deeply on the way to a higher moral ground.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, December 10, 2021



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?

 Carl Kline

Friday, December 3, 2021

Parable of the Stream, in Five Parts


The woman wades into the shallow stream. The frigid October water nips the skin of her legs. The gravelly bottom bites the soles of her bare feet.
It’s too late in the season for this, part of her says.
The other part says, Relax, it’s fine.

Within a short distance, her flesh makes peace with the chill of the water. The gravel streambed becomes a mixture of silt and sand, a soft cushion to walk upon.


Here, the water is up to the woman’s thighs.
Stream, she says, if there’s something you want me to know or have, please show me.
    In time, a dark, stubby stick appears in her path, resting on the sandy bottom.
    Curious, the woman reaches into the water to fish out the piece of wood. Half-buried, it turns out to be long and stout—a perfect walking stick to support her as she strolls among the minnows.
    Thank you, she says to the stream.
    Water winks and smiles in the sunshine.


The stream leads the woman to the lake of its birth. There, at the entrance, water trips over a rock dam so narrow and rugged, only one person may traverse it at a time.
    A gray-haired woman, slight and stooped, is trying to pass over. A third of the way across, she stops, afraid she can’t safely step from where she is to where she must go.
    Dawdling nearby in the stream is a middle-aged man, pant legs rolled above his knees. “Hold out your hand,” he says to the woman, sploshing toward her. “I’ll keep you from falling.”
    The gray-haired woman stretches out her hand in trust. The stranger takes it lightly, like a dance partner.
She takes the big, necessary step. He releases her hand. They both laugh, like birdsong.
In the flowing stream, the woman leans on her stick, and laughs with them.


Halfway across the rock dam, the gray-haired woman meets a white-haired man coming from the other side. They stare at each other, unmoving. Neither can go forward. Neither wants to go back.
    “Is this a standoff?” the gray-haired woman says.
    The white-haired man doesn’t respond.
    Silent minutes pass. In the stream, the woman with the walking stick watches.
All at once, as if on cue, the gray-haired woman and the white-haired man reach out to each other and clasp hands. In one graceful motion, they brush past each other, no margin for error. Together, their uncertain feet are nimble on the tightrope of rocks.
    Letting go, they carry on their separate ways.

Two young women on the bank discuss whether or not to wade into the cold headwaters.
    Oh yes, you must, the woman leaning on her stick wants to say from the stream.
    Here, take my stick to steady yourself, she wants to say, though she knows, at their age, they won’t need it.
    I want you to have what the river has given me, she wants to say, taking a step toward the bank where they stand, to offer them the stick—
    That’s when she teeters. Loses her balance. Topples backward. Not into the water, but onto the rocky teeth of its edge.
She lands full-force, her bony spine against the jagged spine of the earth. Her neck and shoulders bounce. A stone fist punches the flesh of her right side, between her back ribs and the crest of her pelvis.
    Blinded by pain, she hears herself moan, loud and long.
How can I be making such a sound? she wonders, her lungs flat, even as her groan rakes the air.
    At last the moan stops. Once it stops, she can see again.
They’re all huddled around her: the two young women, the white-haired man, the gray-haired woman, the middle-aged stranger with his pant legs rolled up.
The kindness she earlier watched them show one another, they’re now showing her. They’re drawing deep breaths with her. They’re inquiring after her head, her neck, her spine, her legs. They’re helping her sit up. Find her feet. Transfer onto the bank, where she begins to recollect her wits and her strength.
“Stream,” she’d said, at the start, “if there’s something you want me to know, show me.”
And so it is: That to which she gave her full attention has returned to her as gift.

* * *

I based this piece on my return last weekend to the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, Minnesota. You might recall my first visit there during the summer of 2020.

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!