In my previous post I wrote a bit about the "whys" of the process of making youtube videos. You should probably check that out for more information. That said, the reasons are pretty basic. One is that they provide a creative outlet for me. They are a way to generate a dialogue with nature and with others who might be interested in the experience. Also, this experience is a bit of an experiment into the possibilities for spiritual communities, who will increasingly find themselves in need of creative ways to reach out beyond their doors.
In addition to the previous post, you might be interested in the reasoning behind the initial project or my attempt at a method for sabbath walking, which underlies a lot of this work.
However, what I would like to do in this post is share some videos, talk about my motivation to make them, and discuss a little about what I have learned from them. I will be going in reverse chronology--most recent to least recent--as it may help to set where I am now before talking about where I have been.
Mount Watatic in Winter:
This video is fairly typical of what I have been trying to do. The format is fairly well established at this point. It opens with a description of why I am hiking the trail and what I--or we--hope to see. I also talk about my relationship with the walk. In this case I am climbing my favorite mountain. Earlier hikes up Mount Watatic helped me to refine my thoughts on mindful walking.
Technically there are still problems. While the music has improved a bit, I am still not a great musician. There are compression issues and sound issues, too. These are all problems that could be fixed with money...which I do not have. I am using my phone for all the elements of recording. I am using a fairly basic editing platform (Filmora) which is probably best suited for end-of-year high school slideshows. The musician is free. Also, I was not terribly satisfied with much of the footage I recorded initially. It took quite a bit of work to tell this story.
Mount Kearsarge (South) in Winter:
This video was fun to make because I had the company of my wife Allison! She did some recording of me and I could also record her. The addition of people--including an anonymous fellow traveler--gives the video more motion to carry the story. Also, while Watatic is important to me, one could argue that Kearsarge has more general importance. There were a lot of human (historical and artistic) resources for this video, which helped. The view from Kearsarge is also one of the best in New England.
By the time I got to this video I felt I had hit a wall technically. The music needed to be updated. You will hear some of these same cuts in every video as we go back in time. Why bother with music? It helps to move the story along. There are walks-and-talks that need a little something sometimes. There are moments when the view is the story and some framing is necessary. That said, it went together fairly quickly, which was nice.
Tecumseh in Winter
This was a fun one. I recorded it just a couple days before the Kearsarge hike so many of the points in that video are relevant here. I had a friend with me--Andy Linscott--and we knocked out one of our favorite 4,000 footers. Here we had the challenge of too many people, which made recording awkward at times. For some reason editing was a BEAST. You will note a couple spots where the sound gets clipped a bit. I will say that after this video I tried to develop a method for layering the various elements together; completing one layer before starting the next. The system is imperfect but having one was probably the adjustment that made the Kearsarge and Watatic edits go more smoothly.
Finally, this marks--I think--the ideal length for one of these videos. Keeping it Between 8 and 9 minutes tells the story before tedium sets in. I feel this way about sermons, too. However, it seems easier to stay tight when you have another hiker with you. My solo climbs are all a bit longer.
Poet's Seat, Deerfield, MA
I had the most fun making this video. It is different from the others in that the hike, itself is relatively unremarkable. Instead I spent time talking about the poet Frederick Tuckerman. He is relevant to the walk. Things don't always work out that way so I took advantage of the opportunity You will note there is no music in this. My one assignment from my son was to record voice overs instead of leaving long stretches of relatively silent (or scored) walking. Thankfully Tuckerman had enough poems to fill things in.
Also, this was the first time I used a tripod mount for my phone. This enabled me to film myself sitting and walking. It feels ridiculous while you are doing it. However, it does help to give motion to the narrative. This is a worthwhile practice...if you can avoid other people.
Starting Seeds and Hiking High Ledges
Before these videos--and you are welcome to look--my channel was mostly either panoramic views of mountains I climbed, sermons I wanted to share, or music from our various music ministries. I think one can also find some of the earliest pandemic worship services hosted here before we got the church youtube page updated. That was fun too. The services were even necessary. I do feel, though, that the two videos below mark the beginning of something new.
Like the pandemic worship videos, they are self-contained and internally consistent. The goal is not to record something and say "look what is going on out there." Instead they say "look what is happening right here." That is an important distinction between, say, an edited youtube worship video and a recording of a live-streamed worship video. The first has an immediacy. The second is a document of something that happened in the past. With these nature vids I am looking for immediacy. They differ from the pandemic material in that while they may be spiritual or even worshipful in some ways, they are not beholden to the traditional ideas behind those concepts. They are meant to have their own patterns and pacing because both the media and the context are different.
I am putting these two together because they show some of the same challenges. They are both too long, The planting video in particular drags in the middle and is saved by my cat. There are too many musical interludes in the hiking video and there is a sort of "reflection" bit that goes on too long at the end of both of them. I think that somewhere in my subconscious was the form of a traditional worship service. I wanted a "sermon" of some kind.
Still, I like them. They are watchable and they represent an effort to do something creative and new.
The struggle in all this video-making is the same struggle any artistic act has. I try--as in preaching--to ask myself how I am inviting others to inhabit this world I am presenting. After all, true inhabitation of life is part of the goal of a good sabbath. Putting yourself out as a religious or spiritual professional means building those bridges so that people may cross to that "place" (an emotion, idea, action, or actual place, for example) that we would like them to journey to and dialogue with.
The goal is not to impress others with your accomplishments or enlightenment, but to reach out to where they are and welcome them on the journey. It isn't what I see but what you see that is important. I am just pointing out good places or moments to begin.
This change in media has helped with this process of mindful composition. I hope to do more when I can. That said, I am back at work. Palm Sunday and Holy Week are on the horizon. These are steeped in tradition. It may be a while before the next great explore...
This past month has been a working sabbatical. Most of the the time has been built around discernment, both for myself and for the church. It has been about programming, training, and "next steps" in the constantly changing landscape of church and ministry. I will not lie. It has been stressful at times. Who knows, really, what will come next?
During this time I have been expanding my outreach options. I revived my podcast; removing it from its old location and resettling it on the same platform with a few more "bells and whistles" that are probably not noticeable to the casual listener. I also began making more complicated and longer-running Youtube videos. Both the podcast and the videos are on the "Sabbath Walks" theme.
There are a number of reasons to do this and it is probably worth taking a moment to let you know what those reasons are. So, for convenience and clarity, here they are...with headings.
Personal: The fact is, I like the process of filming and editing. I like interviewing people as well. As with other things I enjoy--like walking or preaching--the activity takes me outside myself. It forces me to concentrate and create. There is a problem to solve and a clear product at the end. Other than worship, much of my work life is set around things with no beginning or ending. That is the way of nurturing community. I know this, but sometimes it is nice to make something.
Also, these particular activities help me to mark a particular moment in the life I share with others. There is a great deal going on both at work and at home. We are all in the process of changing and growing. While I sat and edited the long "Seed Starting" video--I have learned something about the editing process since--my youngest told me that these will be nice to have and look back on. After all, life moves forward. Maybe the slow pace of videos on gardening and hiking will be important to us when we are at a different phase.
Professional: This process obviously impacts my professional life. These skills are not what they taught me in seminary! Back then we were preparing for the 20th Century church. We even paused every once in a while to look back to the 19th Century with its battles both intellectual and literal. I remember being vaguely discontented much of the time. We were prepared for a world that was already over, but people didn't really believe it.
These are different 21st Century skills. There are plenty of areas for growth as we realize some of the "old ways" left the stage a while ago. In this case, I am learning about sound, picture, lighting, and technology. Also, I am learning different ways to put together a story. Since the life of a clergyperson has a lot to do with living into and interpreting stories--personal and scriptural--this is no small thing. We can become stagnant, after all. The new techniques and new lenses have influenced how I use the many remaining familiar tools of my trade.
Congregational: This interest of mine is not new. I have had some kind of weblog for decades. I have made YouTube videos for years. Most of these were of sermons or the performance of various iterations of our music ministry. If you want to know who took this work seriously, just look at who is in the music vids. Otherwise it seemed that most people thought of this as a "hobby" that detracted from more sober activities.
Then March of 2020 occurred. On March 11 we decided to cancel in person church for March 15 of that year. Yep. That first online-only worship service was exactly three years ago today.
Things changed then, didn't they? Our little side-ministry gave us the ability as well as the confidence to pivot immediately. It took us minutes to form the plan that became the foundations--or the spine, or the trunk--of church life for the next 18 months. Within a couple days we had our first service "in the can" and ready to go live that Sunday morning.
We kept learning through that period, but we did not scramble. We didn't need to. Now we have moved back to "normal" and it is easy to forget what we did.
However, we should not forget. It was our finest hour.
These podcasts, videos, and blog posts are insurance against another time where we need them. Yet they are more than that. They are an imperfect window into what will come next. Increasingly, in fact, we will find that spiritual seekers will start their quest online rather than in person. These interactive technological tidbits are our front door.
Spiritual: Yes, I am doing this for spiritual reasons, too. Partly the needs are my own. However, I believe that the sharing of my own quest and questions helps to enrich a ministry. Each "platform" connects to the others in order to form a whole:
In person worship feeds our souls in real time and brings us together as a community in ways that are just not possible otherwise. Our services and events are designed to create both formal and informal settings to gather, to explore life's questions, and just to hang out without the demands of a busy world.
The Sabbath Walks Podcasts are designed to augment this experience. Most of them are under half an hour long. The goal is to put them on headphones or a speaker in order to connect once again to the spiritual element of life. We can take time for these topics while driving to work, or cleaning the house, or (even) hiking or walking around town.
While The Sabbath Walks YouTube videos are relatively new, this technology has always been a popular extra for us. We used to share the musical performances quite a bit in the before times. Most of them did double duty as hymns during the plague. We reached the peak with weekly worship. Now I am trying out some other topics and styles. Each is an attempt, though, to reach out and show how the spiritual interacts with our everyday existence.
Finally, we are steering our way toward workshops and walks. These will be--and have been--in person. There are many ways to worship and be worshipful. The "future church" whatever it may be, will need all the ways we can muster.
That is all for now. Feel free to explore the links to our online resources. In the next few days I will try to curate them a bit for another post here. I have no illusion as to how often they now are or ultimately will be visited. The various counters and measuring sticks tell me that even when they get "liked" in a Facebook post, they aren't always interacted with.
They are there, however, for when you need them. Perhaps that isn't today. Just remember that they might help you out some time. The Sabbath Walk isn't just for Sunday, after all.
Poet's Seat and F.G. Tuckerman
Hiked On 3/1/23
Anyone who has spent time in the Pioneer Valley in New England has seen the proliferation of long ridges that spring up from the otherwise relatively flat landscape. Most of these are good hiking. Over a week ago I was in a car traveling north and noticed a particular ridge that looked promising. Further examination revealed that it is the location of the "Poet's Seat" a castle-folly and the monument to the relatively forgotten 19th Century Romantic poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. A few days later--on an appropriately romantic and rainy day--I went out to walk and explore.
It really was snowing and raining for most of the time. However, the gray moodiness for this hike worked well. The trail along the long ridge undulated and the the snow shifted slightly under my feet. The rain and mist rising up from the warming snow was atmospheric, creating the sort of atmosphere that must have inspired a writer like Tuckerman. He preferred to keep to himself, after all. In 1860 when he published his first and only book--perhaps unimaginatively named "Poems"--he received a confused response. Many of his friends and acquaintances among the New England Literati didn't actually know he was a serious writer before their complimentary copies arrived. Tuckerman's book was only a mild commercial success. The response from his transcendentalist and romantic friends like RW Emerson, Jones Very and the Longfellows indicated that he had potential. However, only Nathaniel Hawthorn seems to have actually enjoyed it entirely.
That said, most saw moments of brilliance, particularly in his collection of sonnets. They praised his close observation of nature. Later he would be described as a writer of herbariums. His focus on the minutia of the natural world could--when his writing was on point--create an immersive effect prized by readers of the day. His description of beans--in a poem ostensibly about coffee but really a story about some local characters--is typical of that work;
"The bean, the garden bean I sing--
Lima, mazagan, late and early
Bush, butter, black eye, pole and string
Esculent, annual, planted yearly"
He was also known to make up place names and allude to people he invented as if they were from the Bible or ancient literature. The dude could create a world, which is something that--as a gamer and reader of speculative fiction--is something I can get behind.
That said, not all was happy in his life. Most of his poetry is dark. His later poems--after the death of his wife--are even more gloomy. As a young man he retreated out to Deerfield to be away from society and from the many connections cultivated by his family. He was the brother of a famous botanist, Edward Tuckerman, and a composer, Samuel Tuckerman. Henry Tuckerman--another writer--was his cousin. Far from Boston, apparently, he could be his romantic self.
In the early 20th Century, Tuckerman was rediscovered...or...in some ways discovered for the first time. But the discovery was brief. At least it got him a monument, right? Now you can find his work in some anthologies of poets from the era. However, the easiest way to read him is to get his one book for your e-reader. After all, it is free online.
There is more about Tuckerman and about the hike in the video below. Also, I turned it into a podcast
This blog is mostly about hiking. Other posts here are about gardening, music and tabletop roleplaying games. It is about "Sabbath Walks." By this I mean it is about finding ways to consciously involve the spiritual in what sustains us outside of the regular paths we occupy. It comes from an urge to find ways to form dialogues with the transcendent outside of what we think of as the "traditional" institutional ways. I think we often get lost when we try to do this alone. We want to have a spiritual life. We want that level of meaning in our lives. That, however, is hard to do. The topic isn't valued, after all. The sea we swim in every day is about money; who has it...who doesn't...how we make it...and how we make it for other people.
The Man wants us to work until we think that is all there is. It wants us to identify with how we make money over the other facets of our lives. This makes that spiritual dialogue a challenge. Also, I maintain, the Man does not want us doing these things in a community of faith. This has left congregations with a choice. Synagogues, mosques, and churches can be either counter cultural (pointing to a richer identity for humanity that includes a just and inclusive vision of the future) or co-opted (keeping people docile and in the place "society" has chosen for them).
I bring this up because I am a preacher by trade. Readers know this because I don't make it a secret. It is how I make my money and it is how I fight the Man. I am Team Counter Culture. However, I do not make church-stuff explicit here often because the co-opted faith is what most people know. I do not want my affiliations to get in the way of people's path here. People have ideas about religion; some gained by hard experience. I know that we can seem manipulative, judgmental, or just silly. However, I am trying hard not to be any of those things. I want what I write and talk about at Sabbath Walks to be taken seriously with openness as much as it can be.
All this is to say that I am breaking my rule--for a moment--to share this sermon about worship in the church.
This year I am off and on sabbatical and so is the church. We are thinking about what we can do to adjust to the post-modern world around us. To this end the Eliot Church, which I serve, asked for a prose copy of this sermon about a very churchy topic. If it is your bag please take a moment to read it. I will post some links at the end for further context. If you aren't into it, then you can move on judgement-free.
The Quiet Mystery
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
February 12, 2023
to infant light
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life –Denise Levertov
So, it turns out that human beings haven’t really changed all that much over the centuries. We still find our inspiration both inside and outside the temple of tradition. In our reading today from Luke Chapter 2, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem; the holiest of holy places in their world. They took him there for the rituals of purification for Mary and circumcision for Jesus.
They brought two turtledoves with them as an offering, just like in the famous Christmas carol. However, before they could make the offering, Simeon and Anna–Important religious figures in their own right; folk prophets, if you will–do a bit of an end run around the religious authorities. They provide their own blessings for the child
Then…Mary and Joseph still head inside to make it “official”
In spite of all they had witnessed–The angels, Zechariah being struck mute, the star in the sky summoning the magi, the shepherds' amazing stories, and even the presence of these two freelancers on the temple grounds–in spite of all the assurances that their child was unique and special, they still swung in to get the blessing done by the priests on duty before heading back to Nazareth. Perhaps cousin Zechariah himself was there performing the priestly duties, we don’t know.
Now, this phenomenon still happens from time to time. It even happens in our small “low protestant” church. We get inquiries for weddings. We get requests for baptisms and child dedications, too. We host or perform memorial services both here and by the grave for good people who do not claim to "believe" whatever it is they perceive us as believing.
Now, they are usually wrong about what we stand for. The truth is, they don't really care all that much, anyway because they are not looking for community in the long term. However, they are looking for meaning…in our church. At least in the one specific instance that brought them to us; the specific instance of birth or death or marriage.
They come to us because the Eliot Church building is a place that tradition has set aside for finding that meaning. They are not seeking a church nor a congregation. They all, though, seeking…a temple.
Now these days we get fewer of those people visiting, and there are reasons for that, some of them are even good reasons. Still, the urge is out there. There is something in the human mind that seeks a place with sacred connection.
Sometimes--as we have discussed before-- that place is out in the world somewhere. However, sometimes, it is right here where we still gather on the morning of the sabbath day. You see, the thing that congregations still do best–better than anyone else–is create a ritual landscape that carries meaning on a communal rather than an individual level. This is what the temple seekers who visit us are looking for.
When human beings are seeking a place to gather in their own community (whatever that may be) for the spiritual work of community–of formally witnessing life's passages–people are drawn back to the temple that our congregation inhabits and maintains for at least that one moment.
At the very beginning of this service I read a passage from Presbyterian minister Richard Dietrich, "How do we express reverence? We create communal responses in order to offer our awe...we create rituals around the seasons of the year, around the seasons of life: birth, coming of age, growing old, dying. We create things" and then we are loyal to them." People still get married in and buried out of churches, synagogues and mosques. These are places created by their predecessors. They dedicate their children even if they are not sure what they are dedicating them to.
Now, they also receive the meaningful and unconventional blessings of families and self-appointed prophets. In fact, “in house” in our congregation we offer a lot of those blessings ourselves. We bless each other in non-official ways. If Simeon and Anna were alive today, after all, they would still be part of a congregation and great people regularly on the temple steps.
All this means that the urge to worship more formally still exists–and it means a full house on Christmas Eve–but what we are doing right now doesn't have the draw it used to. Regular sabbath morning worship doesn’t have the draw anywhere like it used to. The problem, I think, is that for consistent participation and communal belonging as Human beings, we need to see ourselves–our lives and our understanding of the world–in the sabbath moment. We need this in both the old ways and the new ways.
This is where we have that problem of perception. For while–as the Eliot Church–we do see ourselves in both worlds, I think it is safe to say that in certain quarters of our society what we do on Sunday morning can be considered a bit…unfashionable, unproductive…and Quaint. Of course we know this for we also spend most of our time living in the present with its pressures, needs and biases. This old stuff from the past that looks to the future can feel like a waste of time when there isn’t some “temple need” on the horizon.
Why, after all, would a rational human being want to sit in a room for an hour to sing hymns, hear some poetry and listen to someone talk about it? We do not receive any gifts of productivity by being here. The era of the church as a networking site is long gone. There are more convenient ways to hang out with each other.
However, most of us here do this regularly...and we miss it when we can’t. Of course we also know that the answer to these questions is in the questions themselves. We are drawn to the hymns and the prayers and the poetry. We even appreciate that perceived inconvenience which pulls us from the rat-race for a moment that sets our sabbath intention. Each week we look around the sanctuary at people who do not mind stating with their presence that they, too, appreciate these things.
To be drawn to the temple for more than the holidays and major observances is to make the big picture a priority; to ground ourselves in the tested structures of the past. We talked about this last week. To be in the temple is to prepare for…whatever comes next in our lives.
We worship together in this place in order to experience the spirit in the quiet of our hearts. Also we worship in this space together for no less a task than to share the inner motions of our souls; to feel the call of the Divine in the thoughts and actions of fellow inhabitants of creation.
Jacob Trapp tells us that "To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or a grain of sand...it is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak. It is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.” That is what draws us here and that is what compels us; to create a style and opportunities for worship that reflect not just where we have been and not just where we are now but also the world we want to bring into reality.
So now, in our shared sabbatical year, maybe we need to take some time to work on the way we worship. Maybe we need to ask ourselves how we are achieving this balance. Like Mary and Joseph we understand the importance of those old foundations in the new thing that is beginning.
This doesn’t mean doing anything rash, for timeless ritual–those abstract conversations and perceived inconveniences; that amateur singing and timely reflection–is what draws us here and draws those others who occasionally darken our doors. However, what we do need to do is think about inclusion; from where we place the coffee pot to how we preach, pray and sing.
People need to see new words and ideas in the old forms and a wider variety of faces in the front of the sanctuary. They need to be met where they are, not commanded to conform to the pressures and perspectives of the past.
In our lives outside these walls we are post-modern. We adapt to the context we live in and find ways to welcome the new, to accept and love people for who they are. Yet the church still can appear to be rigid and unresponsive to those changes. How do we find ways to reflect our adaptability?
This sabbatical year is a good time to experiment with these things. In fact, we have already started. There are lay readers and guest preachers who change the sound and look of who we think a worship leader can be. We have experimented a little with different forms and rituals, too. Still..there is more to do.
As you know, I am a big fan of inclusive language, for example. During my time away from leading worship I will be looking at some of the words we still use in this place. How can we broaden the Lord’s Prayer so that everyone can see themselves in God? How can we find and sing hymns that speak to our own experience? How can we pray our prayers, responsive or otherwise in a way that reflects our own broad theology?
We must also ask how we include people whose busy lives do not fit the time or form of Sunday morning. We are not going to “win” a battle against youth sports and family ski trips. People are busy. They feel the pressures of the lives they–we–have fallen into and a change of lifestyle or schedule that frees up Sunday morning is too much to ask for a first step. Our job is not to close doors through our perceived judgment and disappointment–and that is how many see it–but instead to open doors that they can find their way to enter. Therefore, we will be thinking once again about Dinner Church, Sabbath Walks, and Pub Theology. We need to find a path for ourselves to understand that these are not “add-ons” we do as well as worship, but forms of worship themselves.
Denise Levertov, in her poem Primary Wonder, writes about being burdened by the worries and cares of the world. However she ends saying, “And then once more the quiet mystery is present to me, the throng’s clamor recedes; the mystery that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything rather than void.”
In this post-modern world we need to find ways to make steps into the temple that are easy to access for those who come after. If we do this, then they, too can feel the mystery that we have come to experience in our own lives. So let us take a moment in silence now to think about those steps Let us consider where they make us stumble and where they make us dance.
So... promised some links. Here is this sermon in the form of a podcast.
This sermon worked of the previous one. Here is the podcast for "The Church is Dying...and Being Reborn"
Hiked on February 14, 2023
This was a spontaneous hike. Thursday's weather looked hideous as usual and I wanted to see the sun! I decided, therefore, to hit Route 2 and head over to the High Ledges Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary on a Tuesday to catch the view. I had been saving it for a perfect day...and this was pretty close. The loop I chose was around 5 miles and featured an undulating landscape with a small mountain, a fire tower, a valley, and some hills. The snow was fairly compact to start and then it got loose as the air warmed it up. This made footing a bit of a challenge...and I brought out the micro spikes.
I could use the workout though. There has been quite a bit going on. The church is wrestling with some big questions. Finally, I have a few weeks of sabbatical starting soon. I will give thought to the church's questions then and add in a few of my own....
Lately I have been thinking about life-changing moments. Specifically those times when we make a decision to leap into the abyss and become a miniature or occasional "knight of faith" in the old formula of Kierkegaard. There are times when our lives change because of something that happened to us. However, when we are able to exercise of free will, our moments of decision change the trajectory of who we are, how we are perceived, and maybe who other people are around us.
These decisions aren't always drastic. This is a good thing. People can wait their whole lives and miss the turning points if they believe that our choices only come in large sizes. Sometimes we hardly notice them at the time. Either way we make them, don't we? They are the beats of our lives. Looking back they are the decisions we mark to say that life was different afterward...in some way large or small.
I remember deciding to become a minister at the foot of Doubletop Mountain in Maine when I was 19. It wasn't momentous at the time but there I was...and here I am. I just went for a walk in the evening and decided that--given my interests and my emerging skill set--the parish and I would be good for each other. My ministry outlived the campsite we stayed at. It seems to be a much bigger deal now.
A short time later I met my future wife at a meeting of college activists. In an uncharacteristic fit of optimism, I thought I would like to get to know her better. Turns out I didn't make much of an impression on her at the time...but here we are three decades later.
There are decisions that change our lives in smaller but still-lasting ways. I remember the first time I played the ukulele in the middle of a sermon. Everybody was surprised. These days--many music ministries later--it isn't a big deal anymore. The same can be said for Dungeons and Dragons Club and the "Snow Posse" (sidewalk shoveling) youth group events that grew into something for a few years then seemingly faded away. Those youth are grown up now and some keep in touch. I am always pathetically happy to see them when I can. Two of the gamers now help me teach their parents in "adult" D&D. Maybe it didn't fade after all.
Each of these decisions and many others started small and even commonplace. What grew out of them was a life. I feel like there will be a few more decisions like that soon. Maybe I will make them. Maybe someone else will. Right now with the church it feels like many, many big decisions are coming down the line. However, it will be the small ones that lead to another and another that will determine our future.
I say all this now because hikes like this are a series of small decisions. This week on a Tuesday I decided to get up and get going. I decided where to go. There were all kinds of micro decisions that helped me to focus on the day. How would I get there? Would I do both the out-and-back to the tower or just the ledges themselves? Was this a good use of my time? How would I deal with the vagaries of weather?
Also, on this trip, I decided to do some more extensive filming. It has been a while. Many of you are aware of my interest in 21st century communication. This weblog is part of that. My podcasts are as well. For a long time I was into making youtube videos of sermons, church news, meditations, music and--during the plague--entire worship services. Sometimes this meant collaboration. At other times I worked on them by myself. I got into it through a series of small decisions that brought me joy. A series of small decisions may bring me back...or maybe they come to nothing. It is too early to tell.
If we use the model of "Sabbath Walks" that I write and talk about here and elsewhere, all of these endeavors--these choices made and sometime pursued--fall into the category or "frame" of dialogue or creativity. On this hike, for example, the choice to film meant stopping and starting; recording sections of trail, talking to the camera while imagining future viewers, editing after getting home while re-living the excursion, and improvising a soundtrack. I had to make decisions about equipment. If I keep doing this there will be more decisions to make as some things may need replacing.
There are many little steps. After all to even get to the point of recording there was research. There were skills that could use some improvement through repetition. That said, I am learning. While this decision may not lead to anything more, it just might...probably in surprising ways. After all, nobody thought the skills I learned from my "hobby" would help hold online worship together during the early months of Covid. Ultimately we found somebody more skilled. Of course, nobody thought that the skilled person we found would be a beloved former member of the D&D Club and the Snow Posse who had moved away. Decisions keep on rippling out, don't they?
Anyway, I have included the video. I think it is pretty good for a first attempt! I also started a Sabbath Walks YouTube page that you can subscribe to to get notifications. Just click on the video above and hit "subscribe." I may decide make more of these moving pictures. We shall see. Both I and the church are looking for ways to communicate. Perhaps this is the way.
Here is to your decisions and dialogues. I hope you have found something to bring the sabbath "walk" to life regardless of what it is or how you go about it. Many blessings on your travels until next time. I will see you out on the trail.
Hiked on February 2, 2023
Somewhere along the way of this project, it appears that at least a few people got the impression that I am particularly rugged or outdoorsy. I am not of course. I am just a suburban dad transitioning to empty-nester with a bad back and sore knees. I prefer a room and a bed--preferably my own--to a tent or sleeping platform. It is just that I find the Transcendent in nature, and that helps get me through the week.
I have been doing some workshops on Sabbath Walks. I have been pitching them as "mindful walking" workshops because the word "sabbath" appears to make some folk uncomfortable. Maybe it is because "sabbath" is a religion-word. I like it better, though, "mindful" is way too broad.
Anyway, It is at these events--and the conversation around them--that I have noticed this disconnect. People will come up me to say it is all very interesting...but they cannot go on a big hike. Usually this is for physical reasons, which I totally get. The only issue is that I am not talking about hiking. I am talking about walking and even that has more to do with sitting. The process is all about perspective and intention. Are you paying attention to the world around you? Are you letting your experience influence your understanding through reflecting on your context? Then you are more than good.
Actually I haven't gone on many big hikes lately. Work has gotten in the way. So has the weather. I do get out every week but all of my Sabbath Walks in 2023 have been in Massachusetts. It is a good thing that we have so many great opportunities to get out in nature here! Yes, it will be hard to cultivate "likes" in the same way when the views are less dramatic and the physical effort may also be. That said, I have enjoyed immersing myself in the land close to home.
Some of the best hikes lately have been repeats. I trundled up Mount Watatic again and again. The Graces and the Crow Hill Ledges still stand out. One of the best walks I had was my usual four-mile round-trip stroll downtown...but at night. This made all the difference.
What I really want to talk to you about though, is the Assabet River Wildlife Refuge.
I have to say that I only recently really clued into its existence. I went over there because the weather in New Hampshire was turning dangerous and I also had the need to find something more accessible for a group Sabbath Walk in the spring. As I mentioned earlier, people think that these walks need to be challenging. They do not. I was--and am--searching for places where a person could walk a few feet to find a pretty place to sit. If they wished, they could move on for a more challenging workout...but they wouldn't have to. When you are in a group you need both "easyish" and "hardish" options, so everybody gets what they want or need.
Now, on this hike I had expected to see wildlife...and I did. What was surprising, though, was the large amount of evidence of previous human habitation! Many of the trails were unusually wide and there were patches of old, cracked pavement in places. Also, right where I parked was the foundation of an old tavern dating back to 1700. However, the most remarkable thing was the proliferation of immense concrete bunkers tucked away in the forest. Each had a massive metal door that was barred and locked like some dystopian Hobbit hole. Since my trip I heard from friends who had been in one. The description seems to fit as they appear bigger on the inside. The one they visited was vast, cold, and oppressive.
Now, I later learned that there were 50 of these bunkers in the park. Therein lies a story. First, of course, this land was wilderness. Then it was occupied by native Americans. Then, as Europeans came to this continent, it was a neighborhood for a long time. That is where the old tavern came in. Later Henry David Thoreau would pass through to visit friends. In fact, it stayed a agricultural community until 1942.
Then, as the Second World War heated up, the land was seized by eminent domain. The people were moved. There were about 100 of them and they claim their compensation was 10 cents on the dollar. Their houses and the tavern were destroyed. In their place were those big bunkers, to store ammunition for Fort Devens. After a while this annex was sealed off and abandoned. Finally, in 2005, it was opened to the public. When I told this story in church and asked if anyone had been there only my eldest son raised his hand. His high school cross-country team ran there. Otherwise it is a new park to pretty much everyone I know.
As you walk along its trails today there is all this evidence of the past. There are so many layers of humanity. Some of those layers tell peaceful stories of life lived in the usual ways. Others tell stories of fear, displacement, and violence.
Now, the story of this refuge can be read as a parable. With any good parable we have choices to make about how we approach it and where we see ourselves in it. We can imagine ourselves in the position of The Native Americans, or the early colonists, or the neighborhood right before the war...all of them swept away. Perhaps instead we could see with the eyes of those massive bunkers stubbornly demanding our place in the midst of the wilderness. They are solid, powerful, obnoxious even…but largely irrelevant to the world moving around them.
Or…we could see ourselves in the refuge, itself; adapting to our current context to serve current needs and connecting to the ecosystem that sustains us. Whatever we choose--and at times we have probably felt ourselves in all these categories with more besides--this walk reminds us of the fullness of time and the power of creation to alter our understanding of what "truth" is.
It is a thoughtful place for a walk, or a sit, or a stand. I spent a couple of hours there. Then I went to a bar and wrote the beginnings of a sermon--here is the podcast version--with this story as its inspiration. That is what is supposed to happen on a sabbath walk. There should be a physical and mental challenge, then a new insight gained and a dialogue created. We make sense of our reality through reflection, after all.
\My step counter says I walked 8.5 miles and there was much more to explore. I will definitely be back there soon.
Thoreau actually wrote a poem about travelling though this area. The Old Marlborough Road exists as a road outside the preserve, but inside it continues as a perimeter road to the park. I hiked it. It was mostly quiet, with a few strollers and fat bikers. Anyway...here is the poem. It isn't necessarily one of his best, but it helps to give life to the people who used to live there. Also the page describes the area a bit. In my sermon I said the refuge is in Sudbury and Wayland. Of course it is actually in Sudbury and Maynard. After twenty years living here my geographical references are still those of a Mainer. By way of reparation, the link is to a Maynard historical site.
5 Games I like better than D&D 5e
The problem with Dungeons and Dragons, as much as people love it, is that it is totally "The Man." TSR, the original publisher was dysfunctional...but the Man. Wizards of the Coast (WoTC)--maker of the Magic the Gathering card game and purchaser of TSR's corpse--is also the Man. Hasbro, who bought WoTC pretty obviously is the Man as well. Yes, they all like games, but the culture of these institutions have been geared toward squeezing the last dollar out of consumers for a long, long time.
Now there is unrest among the tabletop gamers. Hasbro/WoTC is testing out a new license for third party producers who use what they feel is Hasbro/WoTC's own intellectual property. Set aside for a minute that this gaming giant picked through other companies' work for many of the tropes they use. Also ignore for a moment that much of what they claim as theirs is derived from myth, legend, and fantasy novels written by people who may have never heard of D&D. Even, for a moment, pretend not to know that WoTC/Hasbro actively encouraged people to write for their game by promising specifically not to do what they are now trying to do; namely monetizing these 3rd party creators' ideas and labor as if it was their own.
All of that aside, it still seems strange that anybody could claim to have originated rolling dice and adding numbers, doesn't it?
Now, the Man is in temporary retreat, claiming to be misunderstood. They weren't misunderstood. They were just surprised by the pushback. It is in their DNA to take the rest of the gaming community for granted. For further research into this somewhat tedious but very important subject, you can check out any number of stories about the Open Gaming License. Even the mainstream press has noticed. I will cease to belabor the issue here, except to say that there are other fish in the gaming sea. One thing that the Man has done is accidentally energize all those folks who they hoped would fall into line. We are, I think, about to enter a renaissance of gaming opportunities.
Don't worry about the Man, by the way. they will be fine. D&D is neither the first nor the best game of its kind. In fact, the current version of the game--called "5th Edition" although there have been many more editions than 5--is not the game that they started with. Yes, Virginia, those kids on Stranger Things are playing a very different game. More on that later. Why will WoTC be fine? Their brand name is ubiquitous, so people just entering the hobby won't even know there are other options.
I run games in "D&D 5e" because I work with new players and saying "it is like D&D but it is not D&D" is a non-starter for many. If someone decides they want to drink cola for the first time they ask for a Coke. You can tell them that Polar Cola is better but they will not believe you until after their Coke experience. That is D&D. It is Coke. History, culture, and a good ol' dollop of corporate gaslighting have convinced us that Coke and D&D are the best. Of course, the truth is a ton more complicated.
Anyway, the church campaign may be the last one I play using a Hasbro product. I play a great many roleplaying games (RPG's) right now and none of the others are D&D. Interestingly I refer to the groups I play with as "D&D groups" because then people know what I am talking about...but we are playing Polar Soda--metaphorically--and loving it. So if you are a tabletop gamer, or interested in becoming one and want to fight the Man, here are five games that are better than D&D.
Pathfinder Second Edition:
This is the true Polar Soda of the gaming world. It is made by Paizo, an independently-owned company that split off the last time WoTC/Hasbro betrayed the public trust in what nerds call "The Edition Wars." The wars--in some sense--are still ongoing...and complicated.
Basically, Pathfinder First Edition was very similar to D&D 3.5 Edition. Confused yet? The developers at Paizo had a major hand in developing that system. When WoTC went to D&D 4e, Paizo decided to continue with the previous game. The fallout from that split is part of the reason there is an OGL in the first place. You see, Pathfinder 2e is really as much the inheritor of D&D as D&D 5e. This is a basic truth in the gaming world. It is the elephant in the room over at Hasbro.
I should note that when I returned to gaming about twenty years ago I first told myself it was for the kids. Then I settled on D&D 3.5/Pathfinder 1 as my re-entry point. I was one of those people who migrated to Paizo then. The system was super complicated...but there are at least some good memories!
Having grown directly out of the split, Pathfinder 2e is built on a very similar platform as D&D. They are cousins, essentially. If you are looking for a good next game. I cannot recommend this enough. Their material is top-notch. Their service of consumers and third-party developers is excellent. In fact, you can get all the rules for free online! Also, they are quite progressive, constantly adjusting their material to make it more welcoming to a diverse fan base. They basically are what WoTC/Hasbro pretends to be.
I have played a lot of Pathfinder 2e. I have been in a group that meets online and plays at least twice a month. For a while, when we couldn't leave our houses, it was weekly! We started right before the plague. This is not my "native" system--more on that later--but it is one of my favorites. Like D&D it has many rules for combat and fewer for other areas of the game...but not as few as D&D. If you want to have a game with slightly more numerical meat to it that plays like what you are used to, this is the one.
Here is the link to Paizo, where you can see the many different games they offer. Also their two biggest games--Pathfinder and Starfinder--are sometimes the only non-D&D content to be found at general bookstores.
GUMSHOE (The Yellow King, Ashen Stars, Swords of the Serpentine, etc):
OK, this might actually be my favorite system. The gaming world can be broken into groups that use similar "mechanics." This term includes things like what dice one uses and how bonuses are added to those dice. D&D and Pathfinder both use a "D20" system. Which is to say that the core rolls are on a 20-sided die to which bonuses are added and penalties subtracted to give a number that either hits or misses a target number (Armor Class if you are trying to hit a person, or Difficulty Class of you are trying to do a thing, for example). If you get over the target number you succeed in hitting the villain, or picking the lock, or whatever. If you get under...you don't succeed.
The Gumshoe system operates on a single D6, instead. Also, instead of having the many complicated stats and skills that are the hallmark of D20 systems, you have a number of pools of "points" to add to the d6 roll. Those points deplete over time as your character gets tired and weak. It adds some suspense. Also in this system the story takes precedence over the rolls, so combat is less granular. In Yellow King, for example, it is resolved in a matter of seconds in a single round of rolls. Then you tell the story of what happened...
I have played two different versions of this game and am itching to try one more. Yellow King is a horror game where people die or go mad regularly. I have played this in an online group that started around the time my Pathfinder group did. We are...theatrical.
Ashen Stars is in outer space. I am playing that now in a regular in-person group. Both of them--even though Ashen Stars can be plenty complicated--leave breathing room for the tale. Yellow King--which has very few rolls--also allows for plenty of improv, which isn't everyone's cup of tea. However...it certainly is mine.
The final entry in Gumshoe for now is "Swords of the Serpentine." I posted a picture farther up. It is a fantasy setting and looks rather complicated but at some point I will either run a game or badger someone to run it for me.
These and other games are published by Pelgrane Press. Check them out!
Vampire the Masquerade:
Look! Another horror game! This game uses a "dice pool" system. Essentially, as you get stronger in a particular skill, you get to roll more dice. This is different from the other games systems I mentioned. In both d20 games and gumshoe games you roll one die and add bonuses which increase as your character improves. In dice pool games...you get more dice. Otherwise they are the same. The player is trying to hit a target number for success. The system is also simpler than D&D or Pathfinder, which leaves room for roleplaying. Also rolling a handful of dice is very satisfying.
My one big complaint about Masquerade is just that it is creepy. In fact, it could be triggering for some people. I will go one more step to say that I do not recommend this game for everyone. It is worth noting that the makers of the game are aware of its creepiness and have a warning page at the beginning. This is not for kids. Vampires are nasty, evil, and highly sexualized in pretty dark ways. When I played this we made sure to keep it campy. I was a lunch lady. It is important to know who you are playing with, to make your boundaries clear, and to respect the boundaries of others. This is true in any game, but in this one it is doubly important. That said, in spite of my reservations...I did end up enjoying myself.
Here is a link to World of Darkness, who publishes this game.
OK, this is a d6 "dice pool" system that is free and has two pages of rules. I love it! I have run a couple of campaigns in this system, modifying rules as we go. Set up is fast--or can be--and is best when the players are willing to be goofy. The character development process involves selecting a "type" from literature, film, or whatever and then running with it. You have to convince the person running the game that your--for example--"Failed Han Solo 4" should be able to roll all four of his dice to swing across a river, charm a local constable or--less likely--defuse a bomb.
Many people think this makes a good starter game. It has very few rules, right? I do not think it does. It is great for people who want to stretch the rules to their breaking point, improv, and roleplay. That, however, takes a certain amount of experience with the genre. Most beginners are trying to learn not just what is written down but the unwritten skills to bring life to their character and the world. Also, not everyone likes improv or understands the same tropes of popular culture. In my experience of teaching these games, true beginners are very focused on a strict reading of the rules. It takes a while to let them breathe.
What it is good for, though, is a group who isn't taking things too seriously, knows how to play an RPG in general, and can keep focused long enough to "yes and" (that is...improv) well. This thing can go way off the tracks and people checking out for long periods of time is more detrimental than it is in other systems with, you know...structure. I will play this again some day. However, I will be careful about who I invite to the table.
Welcome to the Risusverse!
Finally "Original D&D":
I use this term advisedly and really to shock my fellow nerds. There are plenty of people who see those words and prepare to fight! However, what I mean here is the cloud of games that have been developed under the banner of "Old School Renaissance (or Revival)." OSR games are designed to replicate many of the earliest roleplaying games. Honestly I haven't played many of the new OSR adaptations, but this is because I have my original Basic rules (above).
These are the systems from the 1980's that I grew up with. They are unwieldy, complicated, and sometimes hard to learn. I started gaming around the age of 11. At first, of course, it was mostly just reading the rules and wishing my friends weren't trying so hard to be cool. Gaming was not cool. Parents saw it as being a gateway to drugs, cults, and satanism. At the very least, to be even interested in playing made you a weirdo. It was hard to get a game together and eventually--in high school--I gave up trying for a long time. I was still considered a weirdo, though. I probably should have kept on keeping on.
The first books I bought were for what was just then beginning to be called "Basic/Expert D&D." Shortly before I began playing it was just called Dungeons and Dragons but a new version of the game came out called "Advanced D&D." Advanced D&D was similar to Basic but was ostensibly written by one person...Gary Gygax. "AD&D" is what WoTC now calls "First Edition." Why is Basic not "first" even though it is older and all the other d20 games are built upon it? Well Padwan, it is because Gygax didn't want to share profits with his colleagues. Sound familiar? It should.
Also, it is unclear who owns this game today. It is that old and was abandoned by the poorly run TSR. This makes it hard to monetize if you are WoTC.
Anyway, in a sense when I play a d20 game I am still playing Basic/Expert D&D. All those other books published by various editions and third-party folks? They are supplements to this game in my head, starting with AD&D. Looking back I realized that we just fused on parts we liked to our existing rules, but were never "first edition" players. It was way too complex!
It probably annoys people I play with when I resurrect some random rule, or just make one up. Making up rules was a regular occurrence in the old game because the books were so poorly laid out it was easier just to wing it. This is probably why I like RISUS! When I run a game--in any system--I still do this. When someone else is running the game and I am playing, though, I do try--sometimes successfully--to make sure I have a reasonable grasp of what the system demands. Making up rules on the fly is definitely not everyone's way to game. Still...on the inside...I am probably playing something else.
The game played very differently back in the 1980's. Modern games have long story arcs and heroes who are hard to kill so that those arcs can be maintained. Characters die fast and frequently in old D&D. The humor is broad. Survival is optional. You try not to get too invested in the backstory of who you are playing. Your characters are like you. They are way outclassed.
That said, we loved exploring imagined worlds, gaining gold, and sometimes becoming heroes. We also brought backups. Sometimes when our character died we would erase the name at the top and then, in the next room, the party would find that character's identical twin sister. We drank Polar Soda, or Moxie, or Coke and always had chips and pretzels. We had no idea what we were doing. We were full GenX.
Sometimes it was D&D. Sometimes it was something similarly deadly but much more complicated (d100 systems anyone?). The vibe was the same. Each table was basically playing a game of its own making developed through days of micro-negotiation. This, my friends, is what those Stranger Things kids were playing.
There are a ton of options here, but I will start by suggesting Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games. I have used some of their material for my Basic/Expert explorations and other gamers I know like them. One thing to look out for is that some conservative folks gravitate to these older games because they don't particularly like the inclusiveness of newer games. This has given this genre a bad reputation in some quarters. It should be noted that "new OSRs" are frequently just as inclusive as newer games. It is just good to be forewarned when delving in to this area, particularly if you are hanging out on the socials.
Also, nepotism is a thing so here is my son's old school weblog...or it will be here once he gets back to me.
Anyway, there are so many more games I could mention. Some are dead. Others I just wish I had time for. There is a world of roleplaying games out there. There are also "story games." There are also board games that feel like roleplaying games, too. Although those mean buying from Hasbro.
Tabletop RPG's have been an important part of the lives of many people. They have been a way to imagine another world. Sometimes that world is dark and sometimes it isn't. Whatever or wherever it is, we can try on different identities and different lives, which is just what we need sometimes.
My social algorithms are full of consultants talking very seriously about how "play" can increase productivity. It probably does...I guess. What I know is that no one needs an uptight suit to tell them that these games can increase your creativity and, therefore, your happiness. So get out there and roll some dice!
Good luck finding something. I am here to help.
Hiking the Mt. Graces
Hiked On January 12, 2023
One of my mentors in ministry told us that on his sabbath days he would put his canoe on top of his truck and drive it through the middle of town. Sometimes he would take his canoe fishing, which is what everyone assumed he was doing. Sometimes he would just paddle around and go home. Sometimes, though, he would drive his canoe to Bangor for a bagel and a coffee with friends...and maybe a trip to the seminary library.
He told this story to convey four things. First, that the people of Maine are all pantheists at heart. As a Mainer born and raised I can confirm that this is true. Second, that people may not always respect your "off" time but will do their darndest to respect your sabbath time. Third--and this is where the canoe comes in--in a town of pantheists, a canoe on your truck means you are fishing...and fishing is sacred. Finally, the lesson was that you are best off leaving the parish come sabbath-time. That way folks will not be able to get in touch with you as easily. Also--more importantly--you will be away from the things that draw you back to your labors.
I thought about that yesterday as I tried my best to tie up loose ends in the morning and hustle out the door for my weekly sabbath hike. "Weekly" is a New Year's goal. Unfortunately, though, I was already on "Plan D" as plans A through C were left in tatters. Mostly the problem was weather up north, but the skies in the Bay State weren't looking so bright either. Little flakes of snow on my windshield indicated that perhaps the northern storm was going to make an appearance after all. Also, my hiking buddy, Andy, couldn't get out of a meeting. So I was left figuring out how far I wanted to travel to hike in the snow by myself.
The solution was to leave New Hampshire and Maine well alone and to stay in my adopted commonwealth. A slick and wooly drive down Route 2 brought me to the somewhat obscure Mount Grace State Park and a snow-laden hike up its eponymous mountain, then over to Little Grace, and finally back to the lot.
Mount Grace isn't a bad name, but it is a bit unusual. The legend says its name comes from King Philip's War when the daughter of Mary Rowlandson died after being captured by members of the Narragansett tribe. Theoretically the mountain is named after this daughter. It is a romantic notion and ties into one of the major historical moments in and around the Pioneer Valley where the mountain resides. However, there is one glaring problem. Mary's daughter was named Sarah...not Grace. So the name of the mountain remains a mystery. That said, it is a powerful idea to ascribe to this mid-sized monadnock. Somebody in some way found grace here. Maybe we still can.
If you want to be alone in Massachusetts, drive west and go hiking in a snowstorm. There will be no people to bother you. The trail started out relatively flat but that changed quickly. It was quite a bit more elevation than what I experienced the week before. That, of course, was what I was looking for. It was the only part of Plan A that remained. Then the trail went on up along some power lines to the rather impressive fire tower. It was snowing heavily at this point so no view was to be had. Alas! Pictures indicate it is quite nice. I will need to come back some time.
I did get startled a bit. When I turned around to descend the tower my long-suffering water bottle came loose and fell about 40 feet. It hit every available truss on the way down making a dramatic noise as it did so.
After finding the water bottle that had submerged itself in the snow, I turned south along a row of power lines that marked the shoulder of Grace and continued on to the smaller peak. Little Grace also theoretically offers views. Every once in a while the snow would blow and eddy away. Then I could peer down into the valley where a number of farms were perched looking for all the world like landscape illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post.
One thing worth noting is that--while this is indeed part of my "easyish" hiking list--there were a couple elements that made it challenging. First, there was that snow, which made both visibility and footing rather sketchy. This can be remedied by choosing a better day! However the next thing cannot be fixed so easily. The trails are arranged so that if you decide to climb both peaks and loop back to the parking lot, you will be climbing up pretty close to the end.
On a traditional morning climb you go up and then down. This trail rolls up and down quite a bit, which might not be everybody's cup of tea. In the end--according to my imperfect calculations and because of some diversions I took--my total elevation for the day was around 1,500 feet. The feet came in installments across the miles instead of all in one massive climb, but that is more than a number of mountains on the 52 With a View list, including the "starter" peaks of Willard and Pemigewassett which I, at least, found easier than this. You can make it...but I confess to swearing a bit when I hit the last climb of consequence.
The loop took me down the side of Little Grace and back around to the parking lot. It was a journey of small views, evocative precipitation, and unsure footing. However, I am glad I got out. Once again, for the second week in a row, I had the place to myself. I do not doubt that the pantheist in me appreciates this. I feel like I am keeping the spirits company on a cold, wet, lonely day. They certainly appear to be keeping mine.
The word "grace" has a number of meanings. In common usage we usually think of dancers or athletes, or people who are particularly well-spoken or well dressed. Perhaps those cues are why we tend to think of wealthy people as graceful even when we do not have much evidence to go on. Also, being gracious is what you try to do when someone else is being a boorish. These are all social, societal qualities. However, in the church where I spend my time, grace indicates the unmerited favor of the Divine. For Universalists--and I serve a congregation that is, among other things, Universalist--this grace is extended to everyone.
The old-man funny, curmudgeonly, front-door thing to say now would be that grace was hard to feel on a day with heavy snow and no views. I certainly didn't feel graceful...but I won't go there theologically. There was plenty of grace to be found on these two mountains. In the dynamic display of nature going about its business all I saw was grace. Sure, I saw and felt a whole lot of nature, too. Yet the fact that both were present is not coincidental.
I do not love winter hiking, but I love this grace that is sometimes hard to immediately locate in people and in the institutions people make. Yeah we all have it, or have access to it anyway. It is "freely given" and I don't mean in some reductive Christian sense. Grace is just present all the time for all of us. Mostly we don't experience this presence. It takes time and the cultivation of relationships to see and feel it around us. It takes the growing of love between each other and within ourselves. This wild morning reminds me of the blessing of grace. Maybe it will help provide the charge forward for another week.
I suspect that on those trips to Bangor my old mentor also snuck some work in on his sabbath day. I get that too. After my hike I spent the afternoon wearing out my welcome in a number of warm dry places where I could write. The draft of this post was one thing. Another was the draft of my sermon for Martin Luther King weekend. The morning reminded me that finding grace in ourselves and each other is more than an attempt at personal wellness. It is instead an important attitude on the path toward justice. Grace leads to love and love to trust then on to community...or at least that is the direction the sermon went.
May we all find ways to be this kind of graceful; not pretty and charming but bold and challenging as we expand and strengthen the web of connection--the world community--that surrounds us.
Hiked On January 5, 2023
It is hard to get going sometimes, isn't it? Getting ready for church on Epiphany Sunday even my brain felt bloated and out of shape. Two Sundays went by without a service. How do I do this again? Why do I do this? In the end it was fun. I preached about beginnings and about not falling back into the same old ways of last year. After all, the old patterns may not be so hot. The band also did a pretty good job leading Good King Wenceslas. It is ostensibly a Boxing Day carol --"Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen"--but really it's just cool folk tune about the legendary Duke Vaclav of Bohemia.
Anyway, hiking is like that too...but worse. I mean, it has been over a month since I put in any really serious reps hiking. I have been to the gym a handful of times and did those Solstice Walks but sometimes I worry that I won't really get back up to climbing shape. This isn't my favorite time. You know this. I would rather hike in "shoulder season" in the spring. Winter is here, though, and getting out is important.
On Thursday I concluded that I could probably clear a few homiletical cobwebs as well as partially arrest my downward slide in health and fitness by taking a good walk. Maybe I could shock myself back into action! I put my heavy pack on and drove back out to the Leominster State Forest. There I continued the loop that I started a couple weeks earlier. The total hike was about 3.8 miles and 600ish feet of total elevation. So not a big climb. However, I am out of practice. My knees hurt at the end.
The thing about this loop up the Crow Hill Ledges is that it features a short, steep section at the very beginning. I guess it could be at the end instead if one takes the loop the other way. I like to climb up rather than climb down, though. So I always choose the hard part first.
After that things roll a bit along a long ledge. There are obscured views through the tree trunks that wouldn't be there the rest of the year. On this day, though, many of them were still socked in a bit by rain and fog. The crisp, clean wintery air had been replaced by, well...shoulder season weather. It felt like early spring.
Still, it was more than nice to be out and about. Parks like this are very popular on nice days, so a little inclement weather meant that I had it to myself for the most part. There was a college kid scaling the massive cliffs and a couple different people walking their dogs on the flat. There was also the constant sound of traffic from Route 31. That aside, though, the fog added a mystical quality to the hike. The landscape--now wet with rain rather than covered with snow--looked very different from the last time I was there. Once again I wandered about a bit, exploring the side-trails and looping around the local swimming hole still holding on to a little ice in spite of the relatively warm winter weather. I felt like I could spend all day there.
In the end I didn't spend the day. In fact, it was already pretty late when I arrived! Technically Thursday is my sabbath. However a variety of errands and tasks early in the week--start up stuff for the church mostly--had pushed quite a bit of work into the morning. Once again this made me late. Just like last time I found myself pulling out my headlamp on the way back. The rain had made the journey a perpetual dusk until the dark appeared. Then I drove to a Dunkin' Donuts for dinner and to write my sermon.
Still, at least I achieved my goal. I got out and did a thing. I had a small adventure. I cleared my head enough to get the most creative parts of my job done. Maybe this trip will beat back the inertia. Maybe this year won't entirely be a slog after all.
Here is that Wenceslas...
New Year's Wrap: Garden Update
I am having a bit of a crisis with one of my plants. It is a large ginger that sits near the television and is truly quite a looker. This fall I added some houseplants as a way to get some green living things in my life before the snow and the cold made everything bleak. I got them free from a landscaper friend and the others are all in various levels of health. The ferns seem happy. The bamboo...I don't even know how to read but I think it needs water. My two old plants--an ancient Ficus older than my marriage and a Spider Plant--look like the grizzled survivors they are. It is this ginger plant that is bothering me right now though.
A few days ago yellow leaves started to appear. I did some reading and I learned that it could be too much water...or not enough water...or too much sun...or not enough sun...or an incurable disease. Good times. After a few days of stress I bit the bullet and watered off schedule. The other plants--except maybe that bamboo--don't seem to need much as long as it is regular. Now I wait to see if I drowned it.
I think it is time for a garden roundup. The year has ended and so has the growing season. Maybe it is time to take a look at how things went and consider the future.
This year was a bit of a baseline project. I have pretty much always had a garden in the same way I have always hiked. I do it...but not well. Of course there are differences. Hiking is something with a simple skill set. The living thing you take care of is yourself. The basics--putting one foot in front of the other--are obvious. On a hike you are testing yourself, your physical ability, mental fortitude and skill. Gardening is all of that with added levels of complexity as the ecology of our surroundings have their own ideas.
This is the story of the ginger plant. They aren't built to live near a TV in New England. For all intents and purposes the plant--all the houseplants, in fact, and in some sense the outdoors plants as well--is in the same situation as the ones in those tiny alpine ecosystems clinging to the cracks in a rocky ledge. All of them are desperately trying to make a home in a place with limited resources. The alpine plants are actually better situated. They have adapted to live in those environments. The ginger, the ferns, ficus and so on are dependent on the relative competence of a middle-aged practical theologian with no real sense of what they need.
So we have to ask ourselves, as people who care for plants, a number of questions. Broadly speaking, How do we make a curated space for growing things? What sort of dialogue between grower, subject plants, neighbor plants, neighbor people, and the local ecosystem--living room, lawn, or garden--can be arranged so as to be fruitful for the season? There are real stakes in this conversation. They are about survival for the vegetation. For me, the stakes are also relatively high. When I was recovering from COVID this past spring my biggest joy was sitting by the garden with my coffee. The same could be said for the time of my back injury. The conversations between these elements is important for all our wellbeing.
So...this past year it felt like I planted a ton of stuff. The plot is small. However we did add another raised bed to the operation. That may be it for now. One thing I learned was that the whole mess of beds and pots is awkwardly situated for the goal of maximized yield. The elbow of the house gets spotty light, which is good for some things but not others. Also, it has been churned up a couple of times to get to various infrastructure items that we unwittingly planted over. Finally, it is in a tight spot on the narrow driveway. The cars are single file so sometimes one's bumper makes contact with the outermost raised bed while backing over the lawn with the front car in line.
Still, I don't think I will move it. It just will be the size it is for the time being. The original site selection was simply because most of the parsonage is exposed to the view of passersby. The garden corner is literally the only spot with any privacy, which makes it a nicer place to sit. Also, gardens are ugly--or can be deemed ugly--sometimes and I didn't need neighbors calling the church to complain. Yes...that is a thing.
Anyway, I planted things and some did well. The potatoes were a successful early experiment. I planted reds, which were excellent and a variety of "Irish" potatoes that were healthy at first but ended scabby. I will probably plant reds in bags next year. Our pepper situation was ridiculous in a good way. Jedi and Padron--grown from seed--made room for Shishito, Purple Bells, Italian Cherries, and Cubanelles, some of which were planted in the potato bed after those were harvested. They all loved the heat of the Global Warming Summer and kept on giving until the cold set in. Herbs like basil, chives, thyme, Greek Oregano, lavender (new plant to replace a prolific old one) and rosemary (same) anchored the herb bed and made good meals better. Salad greens--mostly arugula--were harvested in their "baby" phase and used to spice up older greens from the farm my sons work at.
The flowers--mostly in pots surrounding the beds--were much appreciated by me this year. My favorites were the Globe Thistle--a tribute to our Scotland trip--and the abundant dahlias. It was full 1950's for a while with massive blooms lending their color to the brown drought-stricken landscape. I have actually made an attempt to dry the tubers and use them next year. I fully expect failure but it would be fun...and none of the dahlia varieties I grew this year were rare.
Let's not breeze by the failures. Yellow squash and cukes stood no real chance. We had watering issues and blight. They suffered from our trip to Scotland. The tomatoes were prolific...and immediately eaten on the vine by a rabbit and a chipmunk family before we ever got to use most of them. We lost ton of herbs and strawberries to them as well. We had pointless stevia plant.
Finally, that rhubarb now 3 years old continues to not thrive. Alas! What can you do?
Well....you can plan for next year, right? After Christmas Day we took a field trip over to the greenhouses at the New England Botanic Gardens at Tower Hill. This was inspirational. I took lots of boring pictures of healthy houseplants and novelty vegetables. I am looking forward to going back there an learning more as time allows.
Also, as I have mentioned earlier, I have been doing some reading. Celia Thaxter's book--that I mentioned in a previous post--is rarely shelved. My Christmas gift to myself also included some intriguing titles. I am almost through "The Philosophy of Gardening" edited by Blanka Stoltz and originally written in German. This collection of essays is deeply wonky and has given me a good sense of the state of the garden movement in Europe as well as some ideas for when I have more space.
I have also cracked into two books by Frances Tophill. One has practical advice that I have already put to use in my quest to save my ginger plant. The other is about planning out a garden for the first time. Again, I don't have the space now, but maybe someday. There are a couple of others as well that I have consulted and will consult again.
Now we are reaching 2023 futures planning. In addition to potatoes and peppers again, I hope to plant some weird things that I cannot get at the store or from the aforementioned farm my sons work at. The space I have does not lead to self-sufficiency really, just life-improvement. I am well into the planning stages and am considering seeds. Our neighbors next door--who are apparently fine with gardens--gave us some zucchini. I actually made a salad from them that I liked. Maybe, just maybe, one plant...
There will be flowers, too. Ever since the plague I have valued the aesthetic elements of the garden. It is a somewhat wild spot in the midst of the manicured lawns and the pavement that surround us. I have had a lot of coffee out there and written a ton of sermons. May it continue to be inspirational. We could all use an inspiring year.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.