Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Did you ever play that game? On long car trips with my family--and church youth group trips as I got older--us back-seaters would watch for tight curves in the road, then call out "Corners!" and lean hard into the turn, giggling as we squished together towards one side or the other. If you were the unfortunate person to bear the brunt of the squish, you could always squish back on the next opposing curve. The best place to be was in the middle, cozily sandwiched between the two squish-initiators. There you could feel both of them leaning into you, all of you laughing together. There you could participate equally in every round, protected from the game's rough edges by the bolstering presence of siblings or friends.

Last week, on the eve of the winter solstice, a friend posted the following on Facebook: "Everyone in the northern hemisphere: We're headed into the turn, so lean to the inside and let's get this marble headed back toward yon star!" It was a delightful image: a game of corners on a cosmic scale.

There have been plenty of hard turns on our wild ride. A few months back, we found a wide spot in the road, pulled over to consider the view, and then invited two other pilgrims to share our ride. To clarify: we found ourselves two fine young farmhands, a young couple of hopeful farmers who need a place to test their agricultural aptitude. They moved in to our "spare" room (who needs an office, anyway?) shortly before Christmas. Within a few days they'd rolled up their sleeves and demonstrated their commitment by taking over afternoon chores and splitting a winter's worth of firewood. One of them headed into our woods to inventory local flora & fauna while the other lent a hand with pig-butchering.

Weary from the intensely public jobs they'd just escaped, they begged off the chance to help at the farmers' market, but made up for it by tending house, animals, and woodstove each time I trundled out. They also found some beautiful mushrooms in our woods and turned them into jewelry so we'd have additional goods to sell at the winter market. In a few days, we look forward to sitting down around the table together so we can plan a host of permaculture projects. They'll be able to draw on our hard-won wisdom and experience, and we'll be able to draw on their fresh ideas and energy. Now, my overall enthusiasm is a bit rusty--we've had a rough run, as I said--but I think I can safely say we're rather pleased, both by their presence and the accompanying possibilities!

After years of white-knuckled wheel-turning, it's a challenge to relax, but they're ready to help with the, laughing and leaning, around the corners we go!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Housewarming, continued...

We had a ceilidh--a house-party--last week. It was an effort to hold ourselves accountable to joy: the joy we want to feel, the joy we know we should feel, the joy we can't always figure out how to feel. We decided we'd have a handful of friends come over for a potluck, followed by some shared tunes, songs, and stories to celebrate our farm ownership and usher in the Celtic New Year. We figured the presence of friends, feasting and merrymaking, would help us reconnect with the vast array of Goodness that has touched and warmed our lives. Besides, parties are always a lovely excuse to neaten up the house!

We'd had a housewarming party once before-- our friends Bruce & Sue joined us more than a year ago to help us celebrate our official inhabitation of this woodshop-turned-farmhouse. Sawdust was still on the floor and wallboard joints were still waiting to be plastered. We ate at the folding table I use for the Farmers' Market, but we had a wonderful time and together christened the place, "home." Their surprise gift that night, a basket of domestic goodies that included kitchen goods, two wineglasses, and a toy for our dog, proved immediately and continually useful. The memory is bittersweet because Bruce died later that year, a dear friend lost to cancer far too soon.

This year's We-Bought-The-Farm party fell on October 30th, almost exactly a year after Bruce's memorial service. The greatest gifts this time around? The songs, tunes and stories shared in the post-potluck glow, including many recollections of Folks Gone Before. Yet we were surprised with some more tangible treats, as well-- a jar of home-canned dilly beans from one friend, jars of rhubarb jam and chutney from another friend, and a beautifully turned salad bowl of local alderwood cleverly disguised by...well, a bowlful of salad. Oh, and then there was the bottle of champagne handed off with a conspiratorial grin--we were told to tuck it away in the fridge and save it for a "private celebration" of our own!

But there was one person who didn't make it to the party--didn't even know it was happening, in fact--and sent something anyway: my Fairy Blogmother, MamaPea. MamaPea is a homesteader and gardener extraordinaire who has been a sustaining source of wisdom, kindness, good humour and understanding. Her gifts were a very sweet surprise and could not have come at a better time. They were actually part of a "pay it forward" scheme among some craftsperson bloggers, but that deserves a future post of its own. For now, I want to share the tremendously thoughtful work bestowed upon me by MamaPea, who is a professional quilter of obvious talent, wit and skill!

Here's one view of the four quilted potholders MamaPea made for me. By the way, they match our kitchen's colour-scheme perfectly. I have NO idea how she managed that, since she's never seen our kitchen! How clever of her to work in so many salient motifs: alphabet fabric for my love of words and writing, images of old-fashioned farmsteads interspersed with a print of tiny quilts to commemorate our friendship and our homesteading foremothers, tiny gold stars and all those trees and branches and leaves...

Here's a second view, showing the potholders flipped so you can see (gasp!) their backsides. Such perfect colour-coordination! Such splendid designs! I feel so blessed and delighted to be the recipient of such gifts! (Trivia item: the potholders were photographed while resting on the tile runner of our dining table, one of the last items made in our house when it was still a working woodshop. The house is just small enough, and the table just big enough, that it dictated the placement of the stairwell and, by extension, the dimensions of all other rooms in the house.)

MamaPea didn't just treat me to a sampler of her own talents--she also sent a packet of beautiful photo-cards made by her daughter, an off-the-grid homesteader and artist/designer who blogs as ChickenMama. Most of the images come from Swamp River Ridge, the site of her Northland homestead. They betray the keen eye and deep appreciation for nature that you'd expect from a serious homesteader. Not only are the photographs themselves strikingly beautiful, they're also nicely mounted and elegantly packaged. I'm sure there's a wonderful story behind every image, and if I could just lure ChickenMama and MamaPea over to Maine, I'd love to sit down with them and hear every single one!

So, here we are: surrounded by friends and stories and gifts from many hands, our hearts full of gratitude, in a small farmhouse well-stocked with warmth and love.

P.S. Happy Birthday, Piper. I think this year's going to be a good one!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Autumn Thaw

The frost has come. The last late raspberries have been hoarded like a handful of rubies into the freezer. The pigs snuggle close in a nest of old hay, the cows lumber across the pasture in a quest for the year's last green tidbits, and the chickens scramble no longer for fresh worms and juicy bugs, their morning treat limited to scatterings of old bread. In the lower garden, all that remains are a few stalwart cabbages. In the upper garden the beets wear purple leaves in mourning for the black skeletons of tomato plants, recently uprooted and laid to rest on the damp branchy base of this winter's burn pile.

The land's production has ground nearly to a halt. We move slower too, weighed down by feedbags and slopbuckets, gathering firewood in the frosty air. But something strange is taking place, just as the cold weather sets in: we are starting to thaw.

When you live for years under the ax, waiting for that dull blade to fall, you becomes well-acquainted with fear, despair, and depression. The threat--in our case, the threat that our farm would be lost--becomes a familiar, if not friendly, presence, and you forget what life was like before the sky was marred with that great hanging wedge of cold metal above you. You forget how to walk outside without bowing and wincing and wondering when it will finally fall...

And then, one day, the ax disappears--life changes, new possibilities appear, the loan comes through and we finally buy the farm--but we're not sure how to stop bowing and wincing every time we step outside. We experiment with lifting our heads. We flicker an experimental gaze now and then at the sky. We say to ourselves, "We're safe. This farm belongs to us. We belong to this farm." We try to say it like we believe it...once in a while, we succeed. We flash each other a grin--but the next minute we're ducking our heads and wincing again, returning to the movements and rhythms we know.

Call it a crisis of faith. We have forgotten that hope is a free gift, not an exclusive commodity. We are enduring the long-awaited thaw of frozen dreams, and our movements are still stiff and unsure.

Bear with us. Samhain, the Celtic New Year, has come at last, carrying the promise of warm fires and songs in the deepening night. Our spirits drape themselves near the woodstove, gradually unfreezing like a pair of trapper's mittens. We are stirring, humming, and warming to life's possibilities.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We Bought the Farm!!!

It seemed right to save the 100th post for something special. Does the act of becoming full and rightful owners of our property (albeit with a 40-year mortgage) count as special enough?

We think so.

More news later... right now we're too exhausted from signing papers. Also, we're waiting for the full reality of this great news to sink in after some very long, hard years.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Farm/Forage Feast!

We've been out in the pasture, playing with our food.

As a small child...and a grade school student...and even as a college kid, home on vacation, I often got in trouble for playing with my food. Now that I work with seeds and soil, poultry and pigs, bees and bovines, I get to play with my food for a goodly portion of my time.

Now, our foraging friend, David, has devised a way to let some more folks in on the fun: the first-ever Tir na nOg Farm/Forage Feast!!!

Here's the lowdown:

"Meet your local farmers! Dine on all organic and wild ingredients from the farm and its neighbors, prepared in a sophisticated and playfully inventive multi-course meal. Please bring your own wine, beer, scotch, etc. When: Sunday, August 22nd at 6:00 Where: Tir na nÓg Farm. Suggested Donation: $45 Reservations required. We are capping the dinner at fifteen guests, so book soon! Call David at 917-803-3172
or email"

Our chef-prepared menu will include the following variations on the theme of yumminess:

Farm egg and house-cured lardo with lamb's quarters
Heirloom tomato salad with daylily tubers, purslane, and oregano
Sweet potato, lemongrass crab cakes with garam masala aioli and fresh basil
Chanterelle risotto with aged Winter Hill Farm cheese
Lobster sauteed with black trumpets and butter, topped with lemon basil hollandaise
Applewood smoked chicken with seared burdock, chard, and sauerkraut
Honey Panna Cotta with fresh blackberries
Sweet Finnish Pűlla Bread with cardamon and lemongrass
Trio of herb infused ice creams: Sweet Basil, Lemon Balm, and Lavender
Carrot spice muffins with ginger creamcheese frosting
Moroccan style mint tea with artemisia

Vegetarian and gluten-free options abound for guests at our feast, which will be served al fresco at the farm. Come play with us--and please pass on the news of this delightful repast to others who like to play!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Time in a One-Toilet Town: #2

Last Saturday, we returned to Muscongus Island for a reprise of last year's preaching & piping gig. The Summer residents of this unelectrified and (mostly) unplumbed Maine island had just held their annual auction and the annual church meeting was scheduled to commence right after our worship service. The pressure was on to create a worship service that would adequately honour, foster and further this seasonal community's sense of...well, community.

Fortunately, it wasn't entirely up to me. I had two valuable colleagues along for the adventure: The Piper, who managed to share her musical gifts while complying with the island's rigidly informal dress code thanks to her recently acquired "instakilt," and Zoe, our farm dog, who endured the arduous multivehicular journey with grace, if not dignity, and channeled all her herd-dog talents into her new self-assigned role as church greeter and head usher. She gave a whole new meaning to "shepherding the flock."

We were able to stay on the island for two more days after the end of our official duties. Zoe, the Piper and I took several long walks, admiring the rugged beauty of the island, the hints and remnants of the island's once year-round community, and the weathered old houses, oddly bedecked with both seasonal ephemera and accouterments of sustainability. One particular walk to the island's main cemetery held a special poignancy. As we walked among the lichen-etched stones, we read the century-old names of young people lost in their prime to illness or the sea. I thought about my Grandmother, who died just a week before at the age of 87, and felt humble and thankful for her--and all the lives that have bridged the distance between other island hearts and mine.

Here is the sermon preached at Loudsville Church, Muscongus Island, Maine, on August 8, 2010:


I want to tell you about my Grandma Charlotte. I want to share something about her, because, while we worship together in this small island church, the rest of my family is just on the edge of waking up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where they gathered yesterday for her funeral. She lived to be 87 years old, vital and joyful 'til the end. I miss her.

What I remember most about Grandma's house was the clutter. It was friendly clutter. It supported all manner of conversations. If we talked about crafts, Grandma probably had everything you needed in a drawer or a box...somewhere. If we talked about science, history, or culture, she would draw on her extensive collection of Smithsonian Magazines and National Geographics. Grandma was also a highly-skilled yard-saler. She and Grandpa would trundle around Colorado in their old avocado-green VW bus, finding the most astounding things and happily tucking them away for useful occasions. Each Christmas, our family would receive a large box addressed in Grandma Charlotte's handwriting. There would be at least three items for every single member of the family: at least two yard-sale finds, a fossil or mineral to add to our rock collections, and the annual renewal of our own family's subscription to National Geographic.

Grandma loved to find things, hold on to them a while, then pass them on. Other than rockhounding, it was her favorite sport. She was at once a magpie and a messiah, gathering bright, shiny objects into her nest, guided by a belief that everything was worth rescuing, worth saving. And she kept it all up for many years, still sending her famous boxes even when I was in college and grad school. But, as Grandma and Grandpa got older, they ventured out less and less. After Grandpa's death, it became too much of a chore to pack those heavy Christmas boxes and get them to the post office. We didn't mind terribly much. A card and a phone call were just as good, if not better. But, there in that modest little house in Boulder, Colorado, there was still all...that...clutter. She was tripping over it in the hallway. She was bumping against it on the stairs. Grandma got frustrated. She spent time almost every day sorting through it, but she couldn't bring herself to actually throw anything away. One pile would be sorted into half a dozen piles, and they would gradually shift and merge into other sorted piles, and then the mess would be in everyone's way all over again. The task absorbed more and more of her time and her failing energy.

I've been that kind of magpie messiah. Grandma taught me well. I've gathered plenty of bright shiny objects myself, and I've done my best to work them into my nest. I've rescued other people's discards, glued them back together, filed the rough edges, and claimed them as my treasures, additions to my collection. I've welcomed clutter as a rebellion against waste. I hate to throw anything away.

But that's not the kind of savior Jesus meant to be. He had a different message in mind: He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sew nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.

Consider the ravens. The raven is the bird of battlefields and garbage dumps, the eater of carrion. Shepherds and farmers were forever driving them away from potential sources of food. They were unwelcome, unwanted scavengers, trash-pickers, pests. They were unclean creatures and unfit for human consumption, according to Jewish law. Where I grew up, in the Pacific Northwest, Native people tell stories of Raven the Trickster, Raven the Traveler, Raven, the Creator's go-between, the bringer of news. In the story of the Great Flood, Noah sends out a raven before he sends out a dove, but then it disappears behind the curtains and the dove gets all the good press. Ravens are like flying shadows upon which we heap all the darkness of our imaginations.

And yet... have you ever watched ravens? Did you know that, if one young raven finds food—even the smallest bit of food—it will call out to all the other ravens around, inviting them to share it? Did you know that they mate for life, and that an older pair will take one or two younger birds under their wing—so to speak—and train them as nannies, teaching them to care for the newly-hatched young so that they'll be better parents when they're ready to hatch out their own? Did you know they often work in teams to drive off a threatening owl or a hawk? The Creator of both humans and ravens must have loved these “unclean” creatures very much to give them such gifts, for they have not only an abundance of food, but also an abundance of fellowship, an abundance of community.

For Grandma Charlotte, it was the abundance of her community that shook her loose from all her stuff. One by one, friends and family began to visit, to sit and soak up her stories, to laugh and chat—and to help her sort. Wealthy with companionship, she began to care for her “friendly clutter” less and less. Surrounded by loving support, she was able to start letting go. The recycling bins filled up rapidly. The hallway and stairs seemed to grow wider. You didn't have to think so much about where you might put your feet. Best of all, the burden of care was lifted. Grandma was free to devote her remaining energy to the things that made her thrive: relationships, learning, and the exercise of curiosity and delight that made her a true joy to be with.

“...And do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What is our treasure? Not the clutter, the possessions that bind us and hinder us and weigh us down. You know that already, or you wouldn't have made the effort to carve out time to be in this place. And this “little flock” has already shown that you know how to sell possessions and give alms—yesterday's auction accomplished a bit of that, even if the possessions did just move on to somebody else. In fact, the more we keep things moving, the closer to God's community we'll be. This way, we defy the human powers that would keep us hoarding our petty treasures. This way, we create an economy of blessings and gifts, where the only real value of things is in the way they keep moving between us. We become richer and richer—as a community—the more gifts we share with each other.

Here we are, together on this small island. Here we are, blessed with a place of abundance. We can leave behind the fear-mongering headlines, the power-plays of the nations of the world. Instead, we can watch the ravens and sea-birds playing games with the wind, feasting on spare bits and scraps with joyful abandon. Here, we can study the lilies of the field, the trails bedecked with blooming plants and bushes laden with berries. Here, together, as we share meals and stories, as we greet each other on the paths and gently tend this beloved place, we are indeed striving towards God's kingdom. Here, we rest in the peace of wild things, learn to share our gifts, and let all of Creation teach us of faith, hope and grace.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shell Game: Sermon with Chicken and Mushrooms

(This sermon was preached at a UCC church in Southern Maine on August 1st, 2010. It is based on the assigned lectionary readings for Proper 13C: Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.)

And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Yeah, maybe that was the reason they got mad at us, when I was fifteen, the Sunday they let our church youth group plan and lead worship. It wasn't so much the blacklight and neon draperies we put around the sanctuary cross. It wasn't even that liturgical dance we did during the introit, processing in with votive candles we waved in circles as we moved down the aisle. Looking back, I think I finally get what we did that upset everyone—I think it was during the offering. Maybe Pink Floyd's song, “Money”, with all its cash-register sound effects and crass, ironic lyrics, was not the brilliant soundtrack we thought it would be. And when we followed it with a recording of “Money Makes the World Go Round...” well, I guess we were kind of to blame for the fact that there was no “Youth Sunday” the following year.

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed...” I kind of get it. I mean, I know we're not supposed to eat too much, drink too much, buy too much, use more than our least, I think I know it. Part of me knows it. The good part of me, the part of my brain that loves to be moral and true and exquisitely well-behaved, the part that's always trying to earn that halo and wings—it gets this. But then there's the soft, fuzzy animal part of me—the part that wants a full belly. The part that wants a cosy burrow. The part that gets scared really easily. It doesn't really listen when you tell it that wanting too much is bad.
And then there's the chicken part of me, that just wants to perch and stare, the part that reaches out to grab whatever edible morsel comes its way, the part that will take whatever it wants, because it can. That part of me doesn't get why greed is wrong. It doesn't get that the power of money is any different than the power of God. It loves treasure. It admires the glittering statues of Baal, the Wall Street Bull, and Mammon.

I admit it—I've bowed to these idols myself-- during those daydreams where life would be perfect if only we had a...fill in the blank. Our farm would be perfect if we had a terraced perennial garden with about 24 of those snap-together raised beds they have in the gardeners'' supply catalog, and a row of those solar path lights that look like copper and glass lilies weaving up the hillside path. And wouldn't the place be altogether great with one of those sturdy commercial greenhouses, the ones with the automatic temperature-sensing system of fans and heaters? Or, really, we'd settle for a decent mid-sized tractor--with just a couple of attachments...well, maybe three or four?--and things really would be so much easier with a bigger barn! Why, we could fill it with all kinds of critters and put up all kinds of food and just sit around all winter, feasting and telling stories and feeding the woodstove...

Perhaps this plays out in our church family, too: sometimes, the place we've got seems alright. We're good people, good at welcoming guests, good at running to help when one of us falls or suffers a setback and needs a prayer or a helping hand. And these are things to be celebrated. But when was the last time we got together—as a whole church family—not to cook a fundraising dinner, but to hear someone witness to the life-changing power of love or the challenge of working on God's behalf? Can you remember the last time we sent a team to work on a Habitat for Humanity house, the last time anyone went to a local or statewide church event and discovered all the amazing things our Church is doing in our communities and across the world? Do we spend time listening, each day, for our Still-Speaking God? Or are we just too worn-out from all our worrying and anxieties, too tired from all the fundraising it takes to repair the roof, clean the floors, fix the kitchen and fill the oil tank of this beautiful big... barn?

There are good reasons to want a barn. The disciples of Jesus may have been tent-makers, but we are not first-century people. We are anchored to this challenging time, this wild-weathered place. Long winters, high winds and damaging storms have a way of making us want to hunker down, to get everything under cover, to secure our stuff. The challenge is to keep from focusing too hard on the security of our stuff. There's a term for people who do this: “practical athiests.” We may say we believe in God, but if we're holding on too tightly to let God in—if we're driven not by hope and faith, but by our fears, then we are practical atheists. Instead of learning to soar, we spend our time building shells to crawl back into. Our way of living proclaims not the love of God, but our fear that “stuff” really is all there is, and we have no-one to call on, no-one to answer to, but our own selves.

When I read this week's gospel lesson, I hear a bit too much of myself. I'm with that guy in the parable when he longs to build something magnificent, fill his storehouse to the brim, then relax, eat, drink and be merry. But, meanwhile, I'm working three jobs to cover the bills. I'm laying awake nights, wondering how to hold on to everything we've got. During the day, I move from place to place in a cloud of anxiety, blind to the abundance of this place. I'm shutting out the birdsongs, the slow opening of blooms, the rising blush of the first tomatoes of the season. And I'm shutting out the friends I'm too busy to visit, the call to my folks I never quite manage to make, even though I think about doing it every day. I'm missing the gifts of Creation, offering themselves up on every side: the soaring hawk above the pine trees. The butterflies in the wildflowers along the road. The strange beauty—and free bounty—of wild mushrooms, quietly pushing up from the forest's damp earth.

Let me tell you about mushrooms and chickens. Our friend David, a self-proclaimed “foodie”, who lives to cook and eat, asked if he could learn to butcher a chicken. After years of enthusiastic meat-eating, he figured it was the honest thing to do. And so I shepherded him through the steps: the sharpening of the knife, the respectful, gentle handling of the bird, the actual butchering and feather-plucking and all the unglamourous messy bits. And David was grateful—momentarily sick to his stomach, but grateful—for the learning experience. He took the rooster home, and presented us that evening with a very tasty pot of coq au vin.

I had shared my knowledge, but there was something I wanted to learn, too-- our foodie friend is also a skilled mushroom forager. I've lived close to the woods most of my life, but I've always been afraid of mushrooms. I wanted to be able to walk in the woods and know more about the place. I was intrigued by the idea that shady, untended landscape, the opposite of my sunny garden, might contain some harvestable gourmet treats.

It took a while before I booked my lesson. I was too busy, too wrapped up in my fears and anxieties: refinancing the farm, paying the bills, selling and saving enough of the harvest... and, once I finally agreed to go, I wasted precious time fretting about all the gear I'd need. You could say I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off...well, that's not the way we butcher them, but you know what I mean!

Out in the woods, on the trail of wild mushrooms, the manufactured concerns of society fell away. Our feet fell into a different rhythm, followed deer paths, allowed ourselves to be led instead of pounding out my own agenda... my eyes learned to see in new ways, and then the unfettered joy of discovery: a free gift, a harvest that harms no-one, and a delicacy that awakens all my senses to the abundance of the earth!

Listen again:
The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly.”
Oh, how worthy of celebration! In the time of Jesus, an abundant harvest was an occasion of celebration, a time to share one's bounty with the whole community, a time to recognize, publically, that the source of all goodness is God.

"And he thought to himself, what shall I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and goods.” Do you see the man's self-deception? He tells himself he has no storage place, but to build it he has to tear down the buildings he already has! I fall into the same trap all too often. God lays out a feast in the woodlands, and I waste time stuffing my bag with stuff I might need on the trail, just in case. God carves a beautiful coastline and stitches it to the edge of the glorious ocean, and I can't go because I don't have the latest beach gear.

“But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Whose, indeed? I think of my Grandma Charlotte, who spent her last years sorting through a lifetime of stuff, getting rid of so much matter that really didn't matter at all, leaving us all the gift of freedom to remember her life instead of what she accumulated. Will we leave a legacy of stories that reflect the love of our creator, or will we leave a legacy of stuff over which our relatives will squabble? Will our possessions sing of the glory to God, or trumpet the glory of Bean's?

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God.” What does Jesus mean, with this parable's last words? What does it mean to be rich towards God? I suspect it's about something different than tipping our wallets into the collection plate. Being rich towards God means training ourselves to reflect God's generous Spirit, not the false anxieties of advertisements. Being rich towards God means resisting a culture of fear & greed and idolatry of possessions. It means resisting the temptation to close our fists tightly, rising instead to the challenge of open hands and outreach. Being rich towards God means paying attention, sensing God's out-stretched embrace and returning it full-force! It means loving God so much, and believing in God so much, that we refuse to let out possessions restrict our lives like a shell, loving God so much that we try our own wings, work on becoming the healthy, curious, loving creatures God longs for us to be.

God calls us away from barn-building and selfish accumulation of cold, hard stuff, and into the wide world instead. God calls us to be children of wonder, practitioners of fresh vision, shivering with anticipation and awe. Possibility springs up all around us, like mushrooms after the rain, like strangers becoming friends, like friends becoming a community. Money doesn't make the world go 'round. God makes the world go 'round. And our links to each other, the connections we make with the rest of God's creatures, that is the source of our truest security: blessing linked to blessing upon blessing.

Text and images copyright MaineCelt 2010 except CommaWoman.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fortunately, Unfortunately...

Unfortunately-- my laptop case was stolen last week.

FORTUNATELY-- my laptop wasn't in it.

UNFORTUNATELY-- my wallet/coinpurse was.

FORTUNATELY-- my wallet and coinpurse were completely empty of money, so I just need to replace my driver's license, debit card, and car insurance card.

UNFORTUNATELY-- my digital camera was also in the case, so there will be no new photographs to illustrate this blog for a while.

FORTUNATELY-- I'd already downloaded nearly everything on the camera, so I didn't lose anything genuinely irreplaceable.

UNFORTUNATELY-- The laptop case was also full of loan paperwork for our farm refinancing, which has been in process since September 2009.

FORTUNATELY-- the loan officer has copies of everything in that two-inch-thick file of papers he's accumulated on us...and, IF (BIG IF) the appraisal goes well, we just might finally Own The Farm...

UNFORTUNATELY-- we still have the appraisal to get through. Yikes. Anybody up for a little carpentry or yardwork?

FORTUNATELY-- we are hard-working people with friends far and near. Whichever sort you are--or even if you're simply a reader we do not yet know as a friend, we humbly invite your good thoughts and prayers for a decent appraisal and the approval of our loan.

Moran Taing / Many Thanks!
We'll keep you posted...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rooting for Justice

(Note: Permaculture activist and Perennial Veggie Expert, Eric Toensmeier, planted the seeds that sprouted into this sermon. It is based on the true story of Nuestras Raices, a community garden project in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Any mistakes or inaccuracies are purely my own. The Lectionary texts on which this sermon was based may be found here.)

[A Sermon for Proper 10C, delivered July 11, 2010 at a UCC church in Maine]

They never meant to cause trouble. They never meant to agitate, to call attention to the sleeping giant sprawled in front of them. They'd spent their whole lives learning how to stay in the shadows, to say “yes, sir” and “no, ma'am.” They certainly never meant to start anything.

They were a bit like that Samaritan in the story—you know the guy, someone from “Away” with questionable morals and strange habits. You know the sort I'm talking about—they didn't talk right. They were probably even Yankees fans—well, know, I probably shouldn't go THAT far!

But you know the type—they stick out like sore thumbs when you drive into the city. They wear strange clothes—nothing like the locals. When you see two or three of them together, their voices rising and falling with those rapid-fire, unintelligible words, you can't help but feel suspicious. Are they just talking about the high cost of groceries, the poor job market, their efforts to get their kids in a decent school? Or are they looking back at us, talking about us, judging us the way we judge them?

Maybe they're like the prophet Amos. Maybe, like him, they never intended to come here, but something bigger than them was at work. Like Amos, the country bumpkin called by God to take a message to King Jereboam and his high priests. Amos understood cattle, but he didn't understand the ways of the court and the city. He knew how to take care of fruit trees, but he didn't know what to make of the city's power and wealth. He knew a bit about worship, but the city's shrines were full of perfumed prostitutes and the priests' robes glittered with gold. When God gave him the courage and power to speak out, the high priests didn't appreciate his prophecy. When he shared the vision of God's plumb line being held against the city, King Jereboam didn't appreciate the idea that his place didn't measure up... Hold on to that thought. Let me get back to my other story.

Anyone in Holyoke, Mass could have told you those Puerto Ricans didn't belong. Anyone could have told you the way trouble seemed to follow them everywhere, like one of the half-wild dogs that roamed the beaches of their island home, waiting for the tourists to drop a morsel, a crumb, anything that might send their hunger into some partial retreat. Or maybe it was them who followed trouble. I mean, look at the place: block after block of crumbling brick boxes to live in, factories mostly shuttered, jobs vanished almost overnight—for THIS, they'd been sucked in by the lies of the recruiters? For this, they'd left the poverty—and the beauty—of their hardscrabble farms in the warm, green island hills?

Their children were upset, too: sad, angry, confused. The schools didn't know what to do with them—how do you teach a kid to read when their parents can't read either? Never mind that they knew how to raise the best peppers and yams you ever tasted. Never mind that they knew how to slaughter a goat or a pig and use everything but the squeal. If you wanted to live in Holyoke, you had to work the jobs they had available and live where there was room. The city had standards to keep and these people didn't pass all their tests. Thanks to all these immigrants--unwanted, uneducated immigrants--the schools had some of the worst scores in the nation. And what with the crime rate, and the poverty, the urban blight and the poisoned river, well—anyone could guess where the town was going.

The Puerto Ricans knew they were unwanted-- like the English, the Irish, The French-Canadians, the Germans, the Poles, the Jews, and all the other immigrants brought in before them, lured with the same false promises of good work and decent wages. But there they were, stuck in a dead-end post-industrial Northern city, their resources all used up, nowhere else to go, nothing to count on, nobody to turn to. And really, they didn't really mean to start something...

Who can say how it happened? Somebody drew a line in the dirt of an abandoned lot. Somebody planted a seed in a paper cup. Somebody, bored and frustrated, laid off from his construction job, went out and laid into the dirt with a pickax. His neighbor looked out, curious, and brought out a shovel. Then one day they saw the little old abuela, the grandmother, struggling with gallon jugs of water, trying to get enough moisture around the plants to keep them green, maybe even help them grow a little bit. A shy, quiet man surprised himself--and everyone else--with a surge of courage, went to the landowner, and requested permission to use the spigot and bring in two rainbarrels. A jogger stopped to admire the neat little green rows in the abandoned lot and found herself two days later donating a sturdy garden hose.

More people came. The city gave official permission to use the lot, to put up signs and lay out plots and build protective fences. Muscles and friendships grew. Fresh food—good tomatoes and squash, beans and even bright red and yellow peppers to give their meals a taste of home. People with little or no money found themselves trading, bartering squash for tomatoes, peppers for cilantro. When some of the tomatoes went missing, they formed a council to govern the garden. They named their new organization, “Nuestras Raices / Our Roots.” They elected two people to coordinate the plots and watch over everything. The drug dealers didn't do deals in the lot any more; it was always so busy. More people got involved—even local businesses and nonprofits. Everyone wanted to have something to celebrate in a city full of too much bad news.

Nuestras Raices organized workshops on cooking and preserving food. They paired young people up with wise elders who had decades of gardening and life experience to share. As they realized the various needs in the community—and realized their own ability to take action—they began to offer literacy classes, financial planning workshops, voter registration, lessons in civics. As they learned to read and write and organize, they started businesses together. They put on festivals to help others understand and appreciate their foods, their music, their language, their culture.

Mind you, they never meant to start anything. But after five other abandoned lots turned into beautiful community gardens, the city sat up and took notice. “What else would you like to do?” they asked. “We want to be treated with dignity. We want safer places to live. We want our children to do better in school. We want to know why they can't swim or fish in the river. We want to know why they keep getting sick.”

The Mayor's office didn't see it coming. The Town Fathers were less than amused. Who did these people think they were, anyway? Did they even pay taxes? Did they even vote? It was one thing to get to show up for a nice ribbon-cutting now and then. It was another thing altogether to be asked to investigate toxic waste in the inner city. At first, the officials tried to ignore them, but the people wouldn't go away. They held more community meetings. They brought in outside help when they couldn't get answers from City Hall. They enlisted a team of high school students, with all the inquisitive passion of their age, and taught them how to collect scientific data with the support of the Environmental Protection Agency's “Environmental Justice” program. Here's a sample of what they found: between 1988 and 1999, more than 3.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals where released to the environment of Holyoke, mostly by industrial operations in inner city neighborhoods. The chemicals released were known to cause birth defects and learning disabilities in children, to damage lungs and kidneys, to destroy healthy blood cells and cause asthma and cancer, among other things.

The folks at City Hall didn't want to listen. The folks in the prettier, cleaner parts of town didn't want to listen either. Neither did the industry executives. How dare they hold up this kind of plumb line? But the people kept working, kept fighting to be heard, kept gathering allies and organizing. They had found their own voices and their own sense of justice. Their dreams of the past and their resentment of the present had given way to a clear vision of the future and a willingness to press forward together.

What does Holyoke look like now? Yes, there are still problems. But in the inner city, eight beautiful community gardens grow and thrive, tended by people of every age and every color, working together. The garden coordinators have become community leaders, listeners and advocates and problem solvers.

The youth program has grown by leaps and bounds. Now these young people paint murals together, help design and manage the gardens, continue their environmental justice research, and teach other kids how to work for change in their communities.

There is a women's leadership group too, and a green jobs initiative called “Roots Up” that teaches participants how to build and market solar hot water heating systems. There is a training institute that helps people learn what it takes to be successful entrepreneuers and project organizers. Oh, and then there is that land along the river—the place where the city wanted a riverboat casino. Now it has been christened “Tierra de Oportunidades, a community-designed garden and agricultural business incubator with 15 “new beginning” farms, public nature trails, an outdoor stage for concerts and festivals, tropical flowers and crops, a farm stand, and more.

No, they hadn't meant to start anything. Amos didn't mean to start anything either, but God called him from his orchards and his cattle: Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ When he answered God's call to become a voice for justice, he was led among high priests, prophets and kings. He was called to hold a corrupt city accountable—not just to human standards, but to a greater standard of justice and righteousness.

And like the Samaritan, unwelcome traveler, despised foreigner--all his days filled with the taunts, threats, and hurled insults of others—-he never meant to start anything either. Who knows what made his broken immigrant heart more open to God's call for mercy and care? What matters is that he WAS open. He was open and the Spirit moved him to action, perhaps at great personal risk. He accepted the risk, took action, and became a shining embodiment of God's own compassion. This stranger, this unwanted foreigner, reached out and saved a life when nobody in power would. Jesus knew it was a wild thing to suggest-- like saying that, in a neat orchard of apple trees, the best fruit grew on a weedy little grafted tree, a recent transplant with a label that said “mango.”

God never stops trying to surprise us, to shake us out of our sweet repose, to open us to the ongoing work of the Spirit. God never stops showing up in our midst, lonely and hungry, daring us to recognize each other as brothers and sisters of Christ. God is still speaking. Are you ready to listen with all of your being? Are you prepared to embrace your own blessed calling? Perhaps some of you are called to plant seeds of God's kingdom. Perhaps some of you are called to prepare the ground for those seeds. Some may be called to share, far and wide, the healing skill of your hands, the good fruits of your labors. Perhaps some of you are called to reach out, in compassion and solidarity, to those still feel rootless, cut off from justice or joy or peace.

We don't have to be afraid of starting something. We don't have to feel isolated. We don't have to worry ourselves about whether or not we belong. God is right here with us, sharing the work, holding us in a circle of loving accountability, giving us a taste of God's kingdom wherever hope, justice and compassion begin to blossom. And wherever these things blossom, we will all move together towards that wonderful harvest feast where everyone is welcome and we all—every one of us—belong.

Image sources: Puerto Rican farm, Holyoke Brickbox, Community Garden, Mango Tree.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Everything but the Kitchen Sync

Some days,
you forget.
You stand in the hall closet,
trying to candle the eggs
in the only dark spot
and they roll and tip
into a cataclysmic fall
landing as eggshells
and yellow-yolk muck
on the small
hardwood square of floor.

Some days, you try to hang
the clean wet lumps of cloth
up to dry in the freshening wind
But a chicken distracts you
and the sound of a distant dog
and at noon half the laundry
waves at you,
bright cheerful flags on the line,
and half of it peers,
sullen, lumpish, wet
from the basket on the rock.

Some days, you stand
in the garden despairing,
wondering how and when
you will find a source
of more bamboo poles
for the pole beans
and then you notice, forty yards off,
a forest of saplings
tall, straight, and true
waiting patiently
to be thinned.

--copyright Mainecelt 6/30/2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Just Say Mow.

An atmosphere imperiled by fumes and an ocean poisoned by hemorrhaging oil--what can a self-proclaimed steward of Creation do?

There are options besides the "paralysis of analysis." You could reduce your own petrochemical use and collect spare hair or pantyhose for the cause. You could volunteer with the wildlife rescue teams or support locally-led reclamation programs in affected communities. If you happen to be an ArchDruid, you can guide people towards a more holistic understanding of the situation. Or, if you happen to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, you could bury your head in your mitre and obsess about something completely different.

We don't have hairdressers or pantyhose, and our budget for largesse is pretty much nonexistent, no matter the urgency of the cause. But there's one thing we can do: we can Just Say Mow.

We have a gasoline-powered lawn mower. It works well, though it's noisy to run and our uneven terrain causes the operator some unwelcome excitement with dips, bumps, scraped rocks and ejected debris. If a verdant expanse of precise and coordinated stem length was the central pride and joy of our lives, starting that machine up might be worth it. If we lived in a gated or planned suburban community, perhaps others might compel us to rev up the mower, citing terms of the Community Covenant.

But we don't live in a suburb. We live in Maine, the state where Katherine S. White wrote her great 1962 essay, "For the Recreation & Delight of the Inhabitants," on the bizarre, unnatural notion of "the lawn." Our sloping, rambling dooryard full of violets and clover may not, strictly, BE a lawn, but it is a rapidly-growing expanse that ought to be managed one way or another.

Our first thought was that the cows would take care of it. They do a decent job, though not a neat one, when we set up a temporary electric fence and turn them from their pasture into the yard, but there are some things they won't eat. They DO do a nice job, though, of fertilizing our "lawn," and the free-ranging chickens are good at distributing the fertilizer when they tear it apart in their quest for tasty grubs. When the cows are done, there is a mostly well-cropped expanse dotted with cowpats, lush tufts of unmunched grass, (where the cows peed), and tall, healthy weeds (which, for some reason known only to themselves, the cows occasionally refuse to eat).

So, what to do with the tufts--or with a whole yard--that must be mowed when the cows are engaged in their standard rotational grazing pastures? Time to requisition some equipment from our Luddite arsenal: get out the whetstone, the peening jig, and the scythe!

A scythe--how quaint. It triggers images of old-country peasants sweating in their masters' fields--poor unschooled bumpkins. Surely this tool could not be used today by those seeking improvement and innovation and a better way forward...or could it?

The fact is, a well-made scythe is a marvelous tool: beautifully crafted, exquisitely well-balanced, easy to heft, use, and maintain for decades. It requires no "inputs" other than the moderate strength and comfortable movement of the average human. How many gas-powered devices can make that set of claims?

The best thing about working with a scythe is the way it draws a person into active presence, opening rather than limiting one's ability to engage with nature. There is no engine's roar, whine, and sputter. There are no petrochemical fumes to urge one's movement away. There is just the feel of the smooth wood in your hands, the satisfying "snick" of the blade through damp grass, and the dance-like gentle movement of step-swing, step-swing. It is a simple and pleasant pursuit, particularly when accompanied by a friend with rake in hand, ready to gather and pile up the fresh cuttings for composting back into good, rich soil.

Unlike gas-powered mowers, scythes work best when the grass is wet: at daybreak and before, after, and even during a shower of rain. And so I rise in the morning, when the air is still full of birdsong and the dew is scattered like a hundred thousand jewels along the grass. I pull on my boots and my favorite work gloves, smiling at the now-faint "women's work" logo emblazoned on their backs. I take the scythe from its hook on the wall of the shed and the whetstone with its belt-clip holster. I add just enough water to the metal holster to keep the stone wet. I take a moment to admire the whetstone, another low-tech marvel. It is formed to fit two things precisely: the enfolding grasp of the human hand and the slope and curve of the scythe's long blade.

Once the stone is well-doused, I take it up and give a few ringing strokes along the blade. It's fun to make the blade sing, both of us tuning and warming up for a grand performance, preparing to step out onto the stage. When the blade is sharp, it is time to go. I survey the tall, grassy expanse around me. I swing the blade down and wrap my hands around the honey-coloured wood of the handles. I take my place at the edge, move into position, and begin the dance that is scything: step, reach-and-swing. Step, reach-and-swing. Step, reach and swing.

I hardly notice the reach. It is not an awkward extension but rather a subtle adjustment of eye and hand that has become, with practice, nearly automatic. (I'm still new at this, but I'm getting there.) If my arms begin to tire, I remind myself to use the rest of my body more, to let the scythe balance and skim along as I plant my foot and pivot my waist. The grass and clover fall in soft arcs before me. Looking back, I can see the cleared swath that is proud evidence of a working blade--all of this accomplished with barely a sound.

Around me, the birds have not faltered in their singing. The chirp of crickets goes on. I can hear our rooster proclaiming his place in the scheme of things, and the neighbor's sheep in their distant pasture offering a response. If a yellow admiral flutters by on bright wings, no hazardous, loud-motored machine keeps me from noticing and admiring it. Even the blade of my scythe tells me things about the world: the juiciness of grass stems, the playful sprawl of clover...and if a honeybee should land on a clover blossom near my blade, it is no trouble at all to turn and mow elsewhere until it has gathered its fill.

Even with all these things to admire, the work gets done. There is a slight variance in the newly-mowed expanse--after all, I'm still learning and perfecting my techniques--but, while this yard may not make the cover of "Cosmopolitan Home," it makes us happy and proud. I feel good about my work, at home in my body, in love with this land. I need extract no oil nor pay any corporation to tend this beautiful green place.

Huzzah for the scythe!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Barnyard Haiku II

This week at church, I presided over the first session of our "Soul Spa." (I loved the name so much I had to steal it. Thanks, Songbird!) It's a four-week program designed to encourage storytelling, fellowship, and creative exploration on spiritual themes among the women of the church. Each week has a hands-on no-skills-needed creative project, and our first one was a "ten-minute haiku" exercise in which we played with different names for God.

By the end of the session, we were all indulging in a fair amount of Holy Foolishness, and if anyone said anything that happened to be five or seven syllables long, someone would shout, "That works! That could be haiku!" The event exceeded my imaginings!

So, Dear Readers, I invite you to indulge in some further explorations. I've done a few of my own... can you comment with your own haiku related to God, Barnyards, Gardening, or any combination thereof? Profundities and Irreverence are both entirely welcome!

Here are mine:

The bees have come home.
Hurry, open, you flowers!
We make a welcome feast.

Open the new field.
Watch the cows leap, turn, and munch.
Such well-fed dancers!

Piglets at wood's edge
Snoozing under broadleaf trees:
No sunburned ears here.

Sweet, tender seedlings
Garden bed's green, lacy edge--
Get away, damn chickens!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Okay, enough with the preachy poetic stuff. Let's get back to the fun of raising, tending, preparing, and eating yummy earth-grown things! I have piglets to praise, bees to buzz about, and other farm projects to share. There's a wee Golden Comet pullet-chick snuggled into my shoulder, peeping quietly at me as I type. (She was brought into the house for a wee-wash-up of the sort chicks sometimes need. Once she's fully dry and warm, she'll go back to join the others under the heat-lamp in the barn.) This fuzzy, bustling, chirrupping little bird anchors me firmly in that multi-tasking yet fully-present and delighted state of being toward which all farmers strive.

In the midst of all this busy-ness, I'd like to introduce my favourite new blog: Midnight Cookies. The writing and kitchen wizardry are the result of a fruitful pairing: a Tir na nOg Wild Girl and her culinarily-gifted Sweetie! (Aye, this proud mama is utterly biased, but also fairly certain you'll enjoy our "borrowed daughter" and her blog as much as we do.)

The most recent "Midnight Cookies" post is inspired by mushrooms. So, it happens, are we. Here on the farm, we've been reading Paul Stamets' phenomenal book: "Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World." We got so excited we ordered several packages of mushroom spawn to start our own patches of gourmet mushrooms. It seems like a perfect solution to two of our ongoing land-management questions: what can we do with a perpetually boggy, shady area that defies all attempts at cultivation, and how shall we most profitably dispose of the non-native silver maples and weedy alders creeping into our woods? Maple and alder trees, it turns out, may be cut into logs and used to host several varieties of sought-after edible mushrooms. A wet area useless for fruit trees and berry bushes may be quite suitable for mushroom cultivation!

We'll let you know how it goes, but--contrary to popular opinion--mushrooms don't just spring up overnight. The mycelium must first be well-established. Our first harvest will likely come 9-12 months from now, when the patch has been carefully tended and conditions are right to initiate the first crop. After that, though, we may be able to enjoy several years of mushrooms from the same patch. It's a whole new learning curve, a whole new area of farming. We may be nuts, but we also intend to be well-fed!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Purple Prose

(This is the sermon I preached last Sunday at my internship church. It explores the story of Lydia, a woman who helped create one of the earliest Christian churches. The sermon was based on two of the week's Common Lectionary readings: Acts 16:9-15 and John 14:23-27.)


I went and did it: I took one of those temporary jobs with the U.S. Census. I sat through four long days of training where the crew leader was required to lecture us, verbatim, from a massive textbook. We learned how to process all the necessary forms. We learned how to affix and protect our identity badges. But most importantly, we learned how to apply ourselves to the enormous task of counting everyone—not just the people who responsibly filled in and sent back their forms, but also the people who got busy and forgot, the people who accidentally threw them out, the people who had convinced themselves that one person more or less really didn't matter, in the big scheme of things.

As I started to travel up long dirt driveways, to grand, hidden houses, mobile homes, and even one abandoned shack, I thought a great deal about what it means to make people count—and to stand up and be counted. To the government, it means one set of things: balancing money for public programs, making sure each state gets the right number of congressional representatives. But what does it mean to a community of faith?

This week's reading from Acts introduces us to another woman who wondered: Lydia. Not Lydia the tattooed lady, but Lydia of Philippi, a purveyor of purple cloth.
Her purple cloth was beautiful-- some the colour of ripe grapes in sunlight, some the colour of the river just after the sun goes down. Sometimes a lot of cloth came out almost the colour of lapis, perfect to match the stones in a fine silver necklace or fancy finger-rings. Sometimes it was almost crimson, the colour of blood.

There were buyers waiting for all of it—courtiers seeking the blood-coloured cloth sought after by royalty, foreign buyers looking for cloth of rare quality and hue, wealthy men and women seeking a calculated splurge. Lydia counted on all these customers, for purple cloth was the ultimate status symbol, and the more deals she made, the more secure her own household might become. After all, in a colonial town, you had to make your own way. A woman couldn't count on authorities to protect her. The best course was to offer something the people in power wanted, and impress the people you needed to impress.

So Lydia learned all the details of her trade: how the sea-snails must be gathered by the tens of thousands to produce one garment's worth of dye, then heaped in vats to rot, the stench horrible beyond imagining. She learned the secret recipes and methods the dyers used: just how much sea-salt to add to the dye bath for the colour of priestly robes, and how to use two different types of snails—a double-dip in two stinking vats—to achieve the colour preferred by royalty. She learned how to keep track of accounts, who to flatter, and who to bribe. She learned which traders would give her a fair deal on fine cloth and the precious purple dye, worth its weight in silver.

Bit by bit, she made her way. She earned respect in the marketplace for her exquisite goods and she could walk freely there, a wealthy woman unchaperroned, proud, alone. She managed her business and her household with dignity and skill. Even her servants were elegantly clothed and well-fed.

But Lydia was still hungry. Something was missing, though she couldn't put her dye-stained finger on it. She found herself awake in the night, restless, anxious for no reason she could name. She was surrounded by beauty, but she had no peace. Her dreams, when they came, were full of broken shells and stinking dye vats. Though she had earned the freedom to stride through the marketplace, her spirit still felt trapped, shut up like coins in a box. And so, one day, she changed her usual route. She gathered her servants around her and headed down, past the temples and elite villas, past the glittering business of the marketplace, past the walled gardens and the city gates, all the way down to the river. She looked for a place to wash her stained hands, though she knew the stains were too old and deep for that. The other women stood and sat and kneeled at the water's edge, some of them washing clothes, some washing children or themselves. As they talked, they laughed—not the hard, cynical laughter of the marketplace, but a sound like the river itself: loose and musical and free.

They had gathered at the river to impress no-one. They were there not for trade, but for friendship, to listen to each other's stories and support each other with prayer—not prayers to the usual temple gods, but to another sort of God who seemed to care for people, actually cared for people instead of leaving them to their fate.
Something happened to Lydia, there. In the midst of her business, she began to carve out time for more visits to the river. She listened keenly to the other women's stories, her mind stirred by their different ways of life. She moved her mouth silently along with their prayers, unsure what to believe, trying out the feel of the words on her tongue.

And then, one day, some men meandered down the bank. The laughter and laundry and storytelling came to an abrupt halt. “Apostles” someone said. Apostles? What could they possibly be doing here, those hard-travelling holy men who ought to be headed for the synagogue? Lydia sized up the man called Paul with her shrewd merchant's eyes. His bearing was bold and confident. What was he doing outside the city gates? Why was he speaking to these women at the fringes? His accent betrayed a fine education and good breeding—clearly part of the fabric of society—yet he seemed to shine with untamable joy...
What happened then, the Book of Acts retells:
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

“Come and stay at my home.” It sounds so simple—almost childish. “Come and stay at my home.”--as if that means nothing more than sprucing up the guest room. But this is not the hospitality of vacation rentals and hotel chains. This is something deeper and more powerful. This is hospitality of a kind that can't be bought or sold like so much pretty cloth. Lydia opens her heart to the Holy Spirit, and her open house becomes a richly gifted Christian community—one of the first true “churches” of the New Testament. Lydia opens her heart to the Holy Spirit, and the people at the fringes are gathered into the center. Blossoms blow between the walled garden and the riverbank. The old rules of society are unthreaded and rewoven into a cloth more durable and colourful than before.

The Scholars don't quite know what to make of Lydia. Some say she was the first European Convert to Christianity and the Matron of the house church at Philippi. Others claim her name was merely shorthand for a whole group of women who helped found the earliest churches. The writer of the Book of Acts recalls her as a generous and influential leader. Later in the story, when Paul and Silas are suddenly freed from prison, Lydia's house is the loving and supportive community to which they run.

Scholars may still disagree on the particulars—after all, it is in their professional interest to do so—but Lydia still stands as a witness, holding open the door with her dye-stained hands. She stands to remind us what can happen when we look beyond our own circles, when we step beyond our own well-worn path. She beckons us to heed our spiritual hungers. She nudges us to venture to the fringes, to learn and listen and pray with those at the edge. Whether our hands are calloused or soft, manicured or stained, she calls us to reach out in welcome, daring to embrace the whole family of God.

Photo Sources: dye vats,
Gangites River at Philippi, Villa Fresco.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lydia, Lydia, Have You Met Lydia...

In the midst of all those lovely Maytime tasks--piglet-tending, seedling-planting, power-washing the barn--I've dived into some additional adventures: a temporary census job and the ongoing challenges and opportunities of my ministry internship at a local U.C.C. church.

This coming Sunday, I'm supposed to lead worship and preach. The assigned lectionary readings include the story of Lydia. I've heard the old song about "Lydia the tattooed lady," but this biblical Lydia is a bit less "revealed." In fact, she is almost completely obscured by the purple cloth she purveys. We know very little about her, except that she appears to have been a successful business- woman who opened her home to some wandering apostles, whether they wanted to stay there or not. Some scholars suggest she was a devout follower of Judaism. Others say she was a foreign woman of questionable repute, possibly a Goddess-worshiper. Some say she didn't exist at all, but was merely written in as a symbol for the sort of people whose hospitality made the early house-churches possible. I wish I could know Lydia better... so I tried to imagine what her life was like in the Roman colony of Philippi, what brought her down to the river, what moved her to be baptized and then to ask those apostles, devout but dubious, into her home:

Acts 16: 13-15 (NRSV)
On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.
A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.
When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

Here's the Lydia I met in my mind's eye, crafted (so to speak) from whole (purple?) cloth:


The purple wouldn't wash off. Still,
Stubborn and savvy as ever, she planned her path
past market stalls, walled gardens, city gates
past the buzzing, glittering temple,
to a place outside: a praying place.
She went down to that dirty river and
prayed for the soft golden skin of her youth,
the bangles jangling on slender wrists,
the traceries of henna,
painted lines of prettiness and praise--
She prayed with hardened hands for better days.

She went down to that rough-edged river and
prayed for the soft smiles of all her servants,
so deft and deferent, so smooth and skilled
she could not quite learn whether she'd
earned—or merely bought—their trust--
She prayed with oil-rubbed skin and the taste of dust.

She went down to that deep old river and
prayed for the soft hollow of her soul,
the empty ache under the fine fabrics of her trade,
like a weeping burn, all bandage-bound.
She prayed at the river, where the women gathered.
She prayed at the river, where men seldom wandered.
She prayed at the river till a stranger prayed with her,
and the purple folds of her heart fell open
and the stains of her trade no longer concerned her
and she opened her house to apostles and pilgrims
there at the river,
there at the fringes,
where the Spirit weaves through
and the floods bring fertile ground.

--copyright MaineCelt 5/2010

Photo Source: The Global Spiral

Monday, April 12, 2010



O silver sky--
O scarlet-scattered maple
blossoming against
the slender bone-grey branch--
O wild greening gusting
wind-weft sky--
Not I.

O awkward egg--
O pipped, shell-chipping chicks
moist, fragile marvels
soon to shove, heave,
hop, peep, flap all feathery free--
Not me.

O in-rushing Spring--
O bird-bustling
bringer of singing
with pastures a-greening
Dashing the darkness,
splashing my toes with the dew--
How dare... oh!
How dear...
O, Darling!

Me too!

--copyright Mainecelt 4/2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Equinox Pie!

They say when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade.

So, what do you make when life presents you, just before the Spring Equinox, with too many eggs, a handful of kale sprouts, and eight kinds of goat cheese?

Equinox Pie!

This kitchen experiment was the happy result of a seasonal culinary confluence. The eggs, (including one double-yolker), came from our chickens who have now ramped up production to an average of 14 eggs a day. (Ironically, after weeks and weeks of TOO MANY EGGS, I may not have enough for this week's Winter Market because we're about to put at least a couple dozen into the incubator for our first batch of Spring chickens.)

The kale sprouts are our first harvest of 2010: a handful of sprouts that had to be thinned out from among a spritely batch of seedlings nestled in one of the cold frames inside our hoop house. I couldn't bear to just toss them to the chickens—I wanted to enjoy, appreciate, and honour every tiny green snippet.

And the eight kinds of goat cheese? Oh, what a lovely mishap! A fellow market vendor (Creeping Thyme Farm) had set out his full range of goat dairy products for folks to sample at last week's market. Usually, the samples are consumed with the enthusiasm his delicious products deserve, but it was an unusually warm day. Maybe most of our usual customers were suffering a bout of Spring Fever and couldn't bear to come inside-- even though “inside” just meant walking through the open doors of an otherwise unused commercial-size greenhouse at a local garden center. By noon on that unseasonably warm, clear March day, the solar gain of that unheated greenhouse had all the vendors peeling off their coats and sweaters. By one o'clock, the heat had us rolling up our sleeves. By two o'clock—closing time for our Winter market—my fellow vendor was looking at his table full of fresh, handmade cheeses with something approaching despair. “Could you use these?” he asked, “'cause after all this heat, I really can't save them for anything.”

One delighted smile and an enthusiastic nod later, that entire array of cheeses was bagged up and set in my cooler. I swapped him a dozen eggs and some other farm goods to make it worth his while. Once home, I combined all the softer cheeses (plain chevre, garlic & herb chevre, plain bondon and bondon with bruschetta) in one container. Into another container I packed all the harder cheeses (feta, queso fresco, queso fresco with sundried tomatoes, and ricotta salata). I knew I needed to use them all quickly, but what to do, what to do? I mused and pondered for a couple of days, thought about the eggs and the kale that needed thinning, and rummaged to determine what else might need using up. Then, inspiration struck:

Equinox Pie!

In celebration of the year's turning—complete with my tiny handful “harvest” of the year's first green growing things—I would make a quiche. Now, I've only made quiche a few times in my life, but after flipping back and forth through a few cookbooks to get the proportions and techniques, I thought I had it figured out well enough to have a go.

First, I put on my apron—a custom one made for me by another one of our market vendors. This apron takes a bit of fussing to get off and on, but the vintage style ensures that clothes are well-protected (and it makes me feel ridiculously charming, which boosts my confidence in the kitchen).

Next, I made a batch of pie crust (Pate Brisee, Joy of Cooking, p.591, chosen for its ability to “withstand a moist filling”). I used a cup each of unbleached wheat flour and white spelt flour, a stick of butter, about 2/3 cup cold water, and about ¼ tsp of “Sea Shakes,” a locally-made blend of sea salt, seaweed, and herbs. There: the fruits of the sea and the bounty of the oceans were properly blended with the gifts of the earth. The elements were balanced and harmonized, as equinoctal ingredients should be. Once made, the dough was set in the fridge to rest for a couple hours before rolling out, trimming, and draping in a pyrex pie dish. I crimped the edges by hand, a process that always makes me feel like a happy five-year-old.

Time to tackle the filling: I used six eggs, including one smallish pale green Araucana egg and one monstrous double-yolker from an overachieving Golden Comet. I broke them into a large mixing bowl, beating each egg in thoroughly before the next was added. Into this lovely golden puddle I poured two cups of milk (raw whole milk from nearby Winter Hill Farm, shaken well to incorporate the cream). Next, I added the soft goat cheeses-- about 8 ounces-worth-- and mushed them around a bit. Then I took all the harder cheeses—another 8 ounces or so—and whizzed them in a food processer just enough to break up the larger chunks, then added them to the milk-egg mixture as well. I also tossed in about ½ cup of peas (for color and a sweet contrast against the cheeses' saltiness) and about half of a leek, sliced thinly. For seasonings I added a finger-full each of nutmeg and paprika. I figured the salt and herbs in the various cheeses could provide all the rest of the excitement.

Lastly, I tossed in my handful of kale snippets. ( I think the high-end restaurant menus refer to these as “gourmet micro-greens.”) I knew they'd get lost in the mix, but I trusted they'd contribute some ephemeral hint of greengrowiness. I poured the soupy mess into the waiting pie shell. Lastly—and, I suspect, utterly unnecessarily—I grated about 1/3 cup of Monterey Jack cheese and sprinkled it over the top—because, really, is there such a thing as a quiche with too much cheese?

The Equinox Pie baked for about 50 minutes at 350 degress Farenheit. I took it out when the crust was nicely browned and it was no longer jiggly in the middle. It was served to our “Good Dirt” farm book group during a discussion of Derrick Jensen's extraordinary collection of interviews, “Listening to the Land.” (This is, hands down, one of the best books I have ever read. You should read it. In fact, everyone should read it... preferably while eating locally-sourced quiche.)