Sunday, June 8, 2014

Lessons from Gardening and Walking

After I left for India in 2011 my dad did some serious re-landscaping of my back yard. I had begun to pull up all the grass and put in mulch. Dad finished the de-grassing; cut down a dying tree (whose stump now holds a bird bath); planted a new tree; and added new plants and flowers.

"This is what he's doing to cope with your being gone," my mom explained.

Knowing that I'm a tea drinker (herbal, the kind my Scottish friend scoffs at, "that's not real tea"), my dad planted chamomile. Three years later the chamomile is springing up all over my yard. There is an ever-larger patch of it where he originally planted it. Then there's the patch across the yard, and another, and another... and another. I'll admit that I've never once made a cup of tea from my personal chamomile patch(es). This year I've been trying to pull up not only the original bunch, but all the migratory patches.

I pulled the three-foot high patch. And the two-foot high patch. And I've tried to get some of the leaves that emerge before the stems pop up. But the leaves...they just keep coming, heralding the impending arrival of new stems. A few days ago in an effort to stop new plants from coming up, I decided I needed to get a little more serious. I got on my knees, digger in hand and started to dig underneath the plants, hoping to pull out the roots. What I discovered was that I couldn't easily pull out the roots: they were actually an intricate network of roots, leading from one plant to another and perhaps, if I hadn't pulled them, to plants yet to know the sun.

As I uncovered this root system, I was first frustrated: "I'm never going to rid my yard of chamomile!" And then I began to admire the tenacity of the plant. As I tore roots from ever deeper soil, I realized: this root system is what so many of us want- to be deeply connected with others, way down deep- and, in fact, it is what we have, if we choose to honor the connections that exist simply because we exist as children of a Source greater than ourselves.

This is why my dad planted the chamomile. And the rose bush blooming with glorious deep pink buds. And the hostas. And the tulips whose arrival tells me it is spring (a message I welcomed with glee after this last long winter). He wanted to stay connected across oceans and time zones.

It is sometimes painful to recognize the connection I have with other people. Last night a friend recently returned from Palestine recounted stories he'd heard of Palestinians who had suffered torture when they'd been imprisoned by Israel. He told us of the high rates of PTSD and depression among the general Palestinian population (in the twenty-something percent for both). It hurts to know of their suffering, but it is a connection I willingly accept.  The link feels easy because of my desire to stand with them to end the Israeli occupation- one of the great (likely the greatest) contributors to those high numbers.

It is harder to accept the connection to the Israeli torturers (or any other torturers anywhere else) because I don't want to consider the idea that if I'd been born in other circumstances, I might be the one hanging a person from the ceiling by his arms for hours or depriving a child of food and water for days. Several times my friend said things like, "They said that they tortured more children than adults, but I don't know if that's true." Of course we want to question such things. Who could be so inhumane as to torture children?

I left before his presentation was over, escaping more horrific stories that I knew were true. Not knowing where I might find respite, I headed to my favorite place in town, the Big Four Bridge.

It was about 9:15 when I arrived. There were still hints of sunset in the sky. The bridge was packed: young and old, big and small, all shades of skin color, multiple languages being spoken. Feet, bikes, scooters. One young man set a beat  for the rest of us as he walked playing his drum kit.

Normally I'm a fast walker, but I knew the only way to slow my racing mind was to slow my walking pace. I knew that at this place, even if I knew not a soul, I could feel the connections that felt as violated as the roots I'd pulled in my yard.  As it turned out, I ran into my aunt and uncle and a friend from church. We exchanged greetings and went on our way.

As I approached Indiana, I heard what sounded like a movie. I stopped at the end of the bridge and listened only enough to know that it was "The Goonies." I stood still, leaning my body over the rail, gazing at the dark river, the dark sky, breathing in the cool night air, conversations passing me by. I was glad to be quiet.

I finally turned to walk back.

A man approached me and leaned in. "Excuse me. Do you know what's going on over there?"

"They're showing a movie. I think it's 'The Goonies'"

His face lit up."Really?" He listened intently. "It is 'The Goonies!'" He held out his his hand to thank me. Connection.

"Maybe you can catch some of it." We went our separate ways, but I knew that in that simple interaction, I'd recovered a little piece of humanity.

I started walking back, sure to maintain my slow pace. Two girls, one about 4 years old on a pink bike with training wheels, the other about 5 deftly navigating a scooter, taunted two boys of about the same age whose only means of transport was their legs. "Come get me! You can't get us!" The girls whizzed by. The boys chased them. As I walked they passed me numerous times as they continually reversed the direction of the game.

The training wheel bike rider, a sweet black girl, round-faced,  flower bows and beads in her hair, had stopped as I ambled by. She looked up at me. "I wear glasses like yours!" she exclaimed. Common ground. She was not wearing glasses.

I leaned down. "Where are they?"

"They're at home, but they're like yours." She sped off to resume the chase.

Later on my stroll one of the boys, equally round-faced, out of breath, walked up next to me. "What are you doing?" Seeking understanding.

"I'm walking. What are you doing?"

"I been runnin' on the bridge all day long!"

"You must be tired."

"Yeah! I been runnin' back and forth." I had witnessed some of this.

A few more words exchanged, and with a "Come get me!" cry from the girls, he ran off.

"This is reality," I thought. Walking on a bridge with a bunch of people, many of whom look different from me, speak a different language from me, believe different things, and yet here we all are, enjoying this beautiful night, striking up conversations because there's another person next to us, in front of us, near us, and we are made to connect.

Torture, hunger, unimaginable dehumanizing acts are reality, too. These are the realities that rip us from our roots. But the deeper reality is the reality of interconnection, of common ground, of understanding. These are the roots that go deep, that will save us, that will sustain us as we reach through darkness towards light.

The reality of interconnection, of common ground, of understanding, allowed me earlier in the day to dance with a Somali woman, eyes sparkling as she shook her hips in utter exhilaration, to music from the Andes, played by a band representing 4 countries. Music has a way of bringing people together This same reality also brought refugees and locals together to play soccer on the same day. Playing sports can unite, too.

And so tonight I pray that we not tear out the roots that connect us, but nurture them, so that together we might bring about a vibrant community of life, of healing, of love.  I think I'm talking about the Reign of God. Shall we try? 

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