Friday, February 25, 2022

Refusing to Nest in the Nesting Dolls

Once, returning from a trip abroad, Jihong brought me the gift of a Russian matryoshka set. At first glance, all you see is a wooden doll, around 7” high. It’s painted to resemble a happy peasant woman, with a city scene on her plump belly.
However, if you lift away the top half of the doll, you find a smaller matryoshka hidden inside—the peasant woman’s daughter. Open that second doll, and you find an even smaller daughter. And then another daughter. Finally, at the center, you come to a baby.
This matryoshka set includes five nesting dolls. To my knowledge, the largest set in the world has fifty-one. In theory, such a doll set could be of unimaginable size.
So … what’s got me thinking about my matryoshkas?        Words.

Several times this past week, I was reminded how even the most innocent use of words, and the ideas   behind them, can trap us, as if in a nesting doll.

* * * 

The first instance occurred during my hour-long interview on an internet radio program. Toward the end of our conversation, the delightful host said to me, in passing, “You’re fifty-nine now, and no longer young.”
No longer young … Oh my. Those words don’t match my self-perception. While my mind and body aren’t what they once were, my spirit feels ageless.
Don’t tell me I’m no longer young, I wanted to say to the host. I chose not to, but inwardly, I refused to nest my spirit in the doll to which her words had assigned me.
* * *
The second instance occurred during an email exchange in which a dear relative remarked on my son's “health condition.” It took me a minute to realize what she was referring to: Nathan exhibits certain traits of Asperger’s Syndrome, on the autism spectrum.
Health condition … Oh my. Those words don’t match how I think of Nathan, or how he thinks of himself. He isn’t “in treatment.” He has no “disorder” to “cure.”
It's true that Nathan’s way of being is neurologically atypical—just as being lefthanded is atypical in a predominantly righthanded world. To relate well with “typical” people, Nathan must constantly adapt his own beautiful, soulful self. His gracious, creative approach to that challenge makes him something of a genius in my eyes.
Don’t tell me Nathan has a health condition, I wanted to say to my relative—and, gently, I did. I refused to nest my son in the doll where my relative’s words had put him.
* * *
The third and final instance occurred during a conversation with a cherished friend who is recovering from a severe episode of anxiety and depression. The crisis had required her hospitalization.  
She told me how she’d described her condition to a medical professional as “mental illness.” The specialist responded, with compassion, “How about we talk instead about your `mental health?’” For my friend, that shift in wording provided a deeply reassuring shift in perspective. It freed her. It empowered her.

Don’t tell yourself you’re sick, the specialist seemed to be saying, refusing to nest my friend in the doll in which she’d confined herself. You’re just different from how you were, and you're learning how to be who you are now.
* * *
I suspect that, occasionally, we all want to climb out of a nesting doll in which we feel confined. We also trap others in nesting dolls in which they don’t feel comfortable. We do this with our words, yes, but also with our thoughts and our actions. We don’t mean to, but we do.
Sometimes the offense we give is slight, and easily forgiven. Other times, the damage can be difficult to repair.
Over our lifetime, we create, collect, and even inherit all kinds of nesting dolls, all of them “tools” in our sorting of people. In theory, our set could expand to unimaginable size.
Such sorting is likely a natural part of being human; a type of reflex, and therefore unavoidable. But, with practice, we can learn to slow that reflex down.
We can start by reflecting on the dolls that sit waiting on our shelf. These ideas we have about other people (or ourselves) inform how we look at them, speak to them, behave toward them. Do these ideas constrain and diminish? Or do they liberate and empower?
By questioning the categories into which we sort this person and that—by opening these dolls, with curiosity—we help set free the precious realities they previously concealed. All the while, we draw
closer to the center, where at last we find the baby matryoshka.

That baby is the seed of life. The essence of our being.

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, February 18, 2022

What You Get Into Will Change You

Sometimes in life you just don’t know what you’re getting into.

You’re reminded of this, the day you kayak through an otherworldly stretch of sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The Lakeshore is a preserve of almost 70,000 acres at the northernmost tip of Wisconsin. It includes a 12-mile ribbon of cave-studded shoreline along Lake Superior, or Gichigami, “the great sea,” as the Ojibwe people know it. The preserve also encompasses all but one of the 22 Apostle Islands, an archipelago that, in Ojibwe     tradition, is the center of the world.

On this day, as you dip and pull your blades along the red sandstone cliffs, Gichigami is strangely calm, like glass. No chop at all. Not even gentle swells. Yet your guide urges you to stay close to him. It’s the height of summer, but the emerald water is cold enough to kill. If you capsize, he’ll need to rescue you within minutes.



Over the next two miles, the guide leads you through a series of caves. Waves, wind, and ice have been sculpting them from the rock face for the past 12,000 years. To your mind, the word "caves" doesn’t match the breathtaking formations through which you pass. They’re not underground. They’re not cold tunnels. They’re not pitch black. They don’t make you feel trapped.


The first cave, dubbed “The Mousehole,” is a tiny arch. To slip through, you stow your paddle atop your kayak, tuck in your arms and head, and hunch forward in the cockpit, flattening your upper body toward the bow. Were Gichigami awake and heaving, you wouldn’t try to maneuver through this needle’s eye for fear of getting hurt. Even on a quiet day like this, with the lake fast asleep, you struggle. You scrape your elbow as you squeeze through.

A few caves later, you approach “The Garage.” You stroke through another small archway into a room with a very low ceiling. Then, suddenly, you emerge into an enormous domed chamber, richly illuminated through a broad doorway. Beyond the door, the translucent water rushes away to the horizon. This grotto is the largest sea cave in the entire Lakeshore. Entering it feels like being reborn into the world. As you stare up at the ancient rock, its colors and patterns shifting in the sunlight, you’re transported into awe. Everywhere in the stone walls you see dark hollows, shaped like skulls. They suck up water and spit it out in gloops and glugs.


Yet the most dramatic cave you navigate today may be “The Crack.” It’s a long, narrow cleft in the cliff, just wide enough to admit your kayak. After nosing into it, you stash your paddle. You reach out your hands. You press your palms against the sheer, rough sides of the cave, propelling the craft ahead.
You ease ever deeper into the cramped body of the land, floating in shadows. Water laps against rock and drips from the walls. Craning your neck, you glimpse a sliver of blue sky overhead, at least 50 feet up. Down from that slit filters your only light.

It's enough. You’re not afraid.

You creep forward until a boulder obstructs your way … or no, not a boulder, after all, but a huge log that looks petrified, wedged between the walls. How long has it been there? you wonder.
You sit in The Crack, bobbing on the water, contemplating the forces of nature and vast expanse of time that have created this place, and brought you into it. Even now, this fissure in the Earth is changing, massaged by the elements.

Eons smack up against the moment. How is it you’re here, a mere speck?

Time to leave now. You push yourself back out of the cave the same way you came in. But you aren't the same person who entered.

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, February 11, 2022


 As the son of a minister, I did all of the usual church activities while I was growing up. I went to church school and youth group. I folded bulletins and ushered. I sang in the Junior Choir and eventually the Adult Choir. As I reflect back on those days, I remember singing a solo one Sunday that I’m sure helped solidify my reverence for trees. The solo was in a song composed by Oscar Rasbach in 1922. He set the words of a poem by Joyce Kilmer called “Trees” to music:

“I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest, Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear, A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain, Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”

When we moved to Brookings forty plus years ago, a huge elm tree shaded the side yard. It was often visited by screech owls in winter and any number of species the rest of the year. I loved that tree as much as the birds did. Then big red X’s began to appear on elm trees in the neighborhood. Dutch Elm Disease was at large and I worried about our tree and threatened to move if we had to remove it. (I’ve also threatened to move if I have to go through more than 3 stop lights to get out of Brookings in any one direction, a reflection of my appreciation for smaller city living. So far, I can do it.)


Then it happened. Our elm was ill. It had to go. I grieved. But we didn’t move. Instead, we planted a maple near where the elm tree fell, and watched it grow. Today, we delight in the summer shade it offers; the fall colors; the shelter for birds. A few years later, we added a companion maple on the other side of the house.

We can’t “make” a tree, but we can certainly plant them, water them, take care of them and watch them grow. Sometimes we can climb them, sit in them, even “swing” them. Robert Frost writes about “swinging” birches. Spring is best when the sap is running and the tree is flexible. You climb as far as you can, then kick out to the side as the tree top lowers and drops you back on the ground. I’ve swung birches in New Hampshire and the Black Hills and have my eye on one down the street here in Brookings. It’s young yet and I’m old. But I may have a chance to interest a young neighbor in swinging one day.

Then there’s sitting. My memorable sitting was in a tree on the edge of a New Hampshire meadow, surrounded on three sides by forest. I’ve never been as close to birds in the wild. They must have thought, as I sat still, I was part of a new and strange kind of tree. They roosted all around my head. Rabbits and deer wandered through the meadow. The day was warm, my mind stilled, my whole body treed and present. 

If I sat in the tree for an hour or two, my tree sitting champion is Julia “Butterfly” Hill. She sat in a tree for 738 days, straight, from December 10, 1997 to December 18, 1999. She lived in a 1500 year old giant redwood, affectionately known as “Luna,” to keep it from being cut down and logged. Imagine, living 180 feet off the ground, on two 6 foot by 4 foot platforms for two years. A team of eight supporters took turns roping food and other supplies up to her as she experienced harassment and threats from the loggers and the company cutting the trees. Julia had a minister father too, but I don’t know that she ever sang Kilmer’s poem.

When I think about “climbing” a tree I think of those men in India climbing a coconut tree, no ropes except around their bare feet. They seem to hug the tree all the way up. Certainly the squirrels in our back yard climb better and quicker than I ever could.

As our climate continues to change, as carbon concentrations continue to increase in the atmosphere, there’s nothing lovelier than a tree. A mature tree will absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. That same leafy tree will produce as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year, producing nearly 260 pounds of oxygen annually. Two mature trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four.

Need I mention the benefits trees offer in the heat of summer (and as the earth gets warmer) and their importance to the winged creatures; think monarch butterflies coloring the branches as they huddle for their long migration; or think of a Great Kiskadee sitting on a branch near your window.

“Growth” is part of our human reality. Our bodies grow. Our populations grow. Our communities grow. Our wealth grows. But sometimes, what we would have grow, diminishes the natural balance of growth that Creation has set in motion. More people means more development, larger communities  and fewer forests. More development increases monetary wealth as environmental wealth disappears. Trees make money instead of oxygen.  

I have a friend who is the director of Baltimore Green Space. Here is an organization in a city environment, making sure trees are protected, replanted and serving neighborhoods too often stifling in concrete jungles. They are helping change the paradigm. I think of those savvy rural folks, planting wind breaks around homes and along roads and in special places along fields, to save wind blown soil and stop the wind-blown snow.

We can change the paradigm too. Trees are wealth of the most basic sort. One small act, planting a tree, can start a forest and even save a planet! 

Carl Kline

Friday, February 4, 2022

Angels Among Us


Angels are a sketchy topic of conversation.  I’m never quite sure whether it is OK to express a belief in angels or not. My husband has a humorous definition that illuminates some of the stereotypical nature of angels: they are always up in the air, they don’t have anything to wear and they are always harping on something.

But I am willing to acknowledge that the notion of angels has a lot more substance than that for me.  I think I got “hooked” on angelical thinking about 23 years ago.  We were traveling in Ireland and quite serendipitously discovered a lovely seaside restaurant called Ethna’s.  The front wall and entrance were covered with a delightful mural of the sea and fishing boats. The vegetarian offerings on the menu were imaginative and satisfying.  The staff was graceful and helpful. As we were being served dessert, the sound system was playing “I Have A Dream” -  an old ABBA song.  The frequent refrain repeats “I believe in angels, something good in everything I see.”

After hearing those lyrics, the entire three weeks in that magical land was filled with living “presence” as we made our way around on narrow lanes in search of stones, ancient megalith sites and enjoyed the presence of angels in each encounter along the way.

Angels became a powerful force in my spiritual consciousness about 8 years ago when my granddaughter was seriously injured in an automobile accident.  A deep brain injury.  While her parents rushed to Virginia to be with her, I was at home in Massachusetts - praying.  Spontaneously, I “saw” her in her hospital bed with all the ICU wires and tubes and bells and whistles required to support her life.  I “saw” her surrounded by what I am now calling angels, energetic beings in shimmering royal colors, deep blue and scarlet and green and white.  Four in all.   In time, I came to find names for them.  Michael/red - God’s Messenger.  
Gabriel/green - God’s Strength. Raphael/blue - God’s Healing.  Uriel/White - God’s Light.  They appear in art in many ways and with different colors and attributes, but this is how they appeared to me.

In helplessness, I could only entrust my granddaughter to whatever that Presence was that showed itself as “angels”  trusting that all would be well in the service the highest good.

So the stereotypes didn’t work anymore (if, indeed, they ever did).  This seemed to me to be serious business.  I was not sure then what it all meant.  I’m still not sure.  But what I do know is that the medical teams were inspired in their care for my granddaughter.  I do know that our island community, led by our rabbi and our minister, filled the Hebrew Center, literally wall to wall, to pray for her healing;  Jews, Christians, unaffiliated folks, teachers, the high school hockey team in full dress, friends and neighbors.  I do know that the fine filaments of human connection reach across geographical and religious and political boundaries. A Virginia monsignor, former priest of our local school principal visited  our granddaughter. at her bedside.  We knew she was “coming back” when she said she knew what he was by the  “white thingy around his neck.”  Eight years later, she has graduated college on the dean's list and is applying to graduate schools.

So - - can we talk about angels?   Each Shabbat we invite and welcome them as we sing “Shalom aleyhem malahey  hasharet malahey elyon…”   “Welcome among us messengers of shalom, angels of the Highest One, from deep within us, Majesty of majesties, the blessed Holy One.”  We invite them to come in peace, to bless us with peace, and to leave us with peace - all arising from deep within us.*

Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes:

Angels are another name for feelings.
When we love and act with kindness
we create angels of love and kindness;
when we hate and act with violence
we create angels of hatred and violence.
It is our job to fill our world with angels of love:
messengers of kindness
that link people together as one family.**

A newly ordained, somewhat left leaning Anglo minister meets with her male Korean counterpart as they begin to strategize about how to create a harmonious living and working relationship under one roof between an aging, Anglo blue collar congregation and an affluent, young and burgeoning Korean congregation. They each carry the painful awareness of a long and fruitless war in Korea, of all the racial bias and difficult assumptions and stereotypes they face as they seek to work together.  Over lunches of Chinese food and tea, angels of lovingkindness and understanding come into being.

A group of mostly Anglo seekers risks learning about nonviolence from the Lakota Sioux, people their ancestors abused and tried to exterminate.  A steely Lakota Pipe Carrier invites them to participate in a Pipe Ceremony because he perceives that they are "alright."  In Harry Charger, angels of healing and awareness come into being.

A few years ago, I had to get to a medical appointment off island.  I made arrangements for a cab to meet me when I got off the boat.  It never appeared.  I have never carried a cell phone (and still don’t) and I was a bit flummoxed about how to get to my appointment.  Another cab pulled up.  I explained my dilemma to the driver. He said he wasn’t meeting anyone in particular and would be glad for the fare and would get me to my appointment on time.  My heart sang with relief at his understanding and availability and his kindness. He created an angel of love and kindness.

Last week I was unloading the groceries from the back of our Element.  I left the hatch open while I carried the bags inside the house.  Within moments, a neighbor, walking his dog, knocked on the door to let me know I had left the hatch open and did I want it closed?   He, too, created an angel of love and kindness.

A dear friend is in the final weeks of her life here.  She shared a written statement about her experience of approaching death with her church community at the end of a Zoom worship service.  The entire congregation spent the “coffee hour” following worship responding to her with expressions of love and gratitude for her life among them.  Together, they hatched a multitude of angels of love and kindness, of compassion and oneness in the face of so much impending loss and grief.

So I am learning that not all angels are dramatic, visionary experiences.  I am learning that angels come in all shapes and sizes.  Sometimes they manifest in social and political  action when a large community of homeless human beings are finally housed and attended to.  They manifest when a community takes seriously the need to address food insecurity and develops systems to see that all are adequately fed.  They manifest in the patient computer tech support  person who may live on the other side of the world.

In our highly dysfunctional political system, in our racial blindness and strife, in our seeming need to bring out the weapons as the solution to aggression, we see the manifestation of the angels of hatred and discord and there are many.   But they pale in number compared with unnumbered angels of love and kindness that come into being at every moment if we are open to seeing them.   So, the old ABBA refrain keeps filtering through my consciousness: I believe in angels, something good in everything I see. I need to be able to speak freely about angels.  They are everywhere.  It seems as though, when,  with the Shabbat melody, we recognize and welcome them, they multiply exponentially.  I believe in angels.

Vicky Hanjian  

*Translated from the Hebrew by Burt Jacobson in Kol Haneshamah:Shabbat Vehagim, Reconstructionist Press.
** quoted in Kol Haneshamah:Shabbat Vehagim