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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Happy Birthday, Darwin!

As my husband had surgery today, and I’ve been helping him prepare (yesterday), and then spent today at the hospital, today’s post is an extended  riff on one from last year, also on Darwin’s birthday.

170px-Charles_Darwin_by_G._RichmondI love science. And of course Darwin — like Da Vinci, like Einstein, like Copernicus — dominates it. Today is his birthday, and I promise this post has to do w/ beginner’s heart (at least eventually!). One semester — and one only — I tried to teach Darwin in a lit class. We do a lot of nonfiction in literature (Benjamin Franklin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Scott Momaday, just to name a few), looking at figures w/ long-term literary impact. Several of my students (and this was an honours class) flat refused to read Darwin. Nope, they told me. He’s … well, Darwin. And against their religion(s).

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Just to read him? I asked, incredulous. You can’t even READ him, to see what he said in his own words? And to a student, they shook their heads. I promise I’m not exaggerating, nor am I over-stating their adamant refusals. No negotiating — Darwin may as well be the anti-Christ.

Because this had never happened to me before, and because I don’t believe in putting students on the spot, I allowed them to read something else. But I’ve never forgotten that class. Nor the quiet, back-door responses of other students to this small cadre of their very vocal and conservatively religious colleagues. One told me she felt totally disdained by the students in the class, because she was an atheist. Another told me that he felt his religion — Judaism — was both maligned and dismissed by the conservative Christian students.

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I offer no facile comments or final conclusions about this class. I don’t understand it now much better than I didn’t then, if that makes sense. It’s always been incomprehensible to me that any literature is ‘forbidden.’ I did ask my students why they had been forbidden to read Darwin. They hadn’t been expressly ‘forbidden,’ they assured me. But to a person, they said that Darwin was evil, and they were ‘discouraged from’ reading his work. After all, he denied the divine plan.

But here’s what I wonder: how can mere human beings even discern the divine plan — always given that there is one…? If something there is that created the spark that became today — the dark flavour of a hot mocha with an extra shot, the break in winter cold, the exceptional kindness of a nurse at the outpatient clinic where I spent the day with my husband — how can I, addled mortal that I am, comprehend that? And why should faith feel threatened by knowledge? Note: I didn’t ask the students to accept Darwin; just read him.

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My students were not interested in discussing their decision. I did ask if they followed the Old Testament, and the Laws of Leviticus. This is what hurt my Jewish student — the Darwin-deniers were appalled at the idea. But it’s the Old Testament —  Genesis et al — that drives the Young Earth creation myth. And to be a Young Earther means you also deny the following scientific fields, as I’ve touched on elsewhere: physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, molecular biology, genomics, linguistics, anthropology, archaelogy, climatology, and dendochronology. In 2011, 30% of Americans said they took the Bible literally — no interpretation. In other words? They  believe in the Young Earth philosophy. No wonder we don’t have many scientists!

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So, Darwin, what do you have to say about this? Baptised Anglican, raised in the Unitarian church, you studied to be Christian clergy. You refused the label ‘atheist,’ preferring to be known as an agnostic. You even included a quote from Charles Kingsley in Origin, in which Kingsley argued that it was “just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development… as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made.”

Now, here we are, almost 200 years later. And like my students, many Americans refuse to even read Darwin. And I’m no closer to understanding why. Still, I suspect  Darwin wouldn’t care a jot. Evidence, he would say, trumps faith. But it needn’t cancel it out. Darwin might be not a test of faith, but of scientific imagination.

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30 Days of Love: creative love and red-shouldered hawks

hawk in treeI love my neighbourhood. Today I saw a hawk twice, with its mate one of those times. Saturday I saw a vixen fox. Her mate loped across our front yard, in broad daylight, around Christmas on a bitter cold snowy day.

I took this photo today, in the front yard, from the car as we turned out of the drive. It’s one of our red-shouldered hawks (I think!). They often cruise our yard, and live in the neighbourhood. A mated pair and their juvenile.

The foxes live just down the street a block, and around the corner, in a wooded strip beside the creek. I see them infrequently, but not rarely. And I never take any of this for granted.

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Today’s 30 Days of Love prompt asks that we inspire creativity, and action across generations. Birds (and birding) do that. I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t love to look at birds, look for birds. Once they spot one themselves, and learn to identify a few, they’re hooked. It’s a hobby that only gives: requiring no expensive equipment to set up — just a feeder, if you’re home-bound — and getting you outside (or at least near a window!) for hours. Which means you don’t need to be able-bodied to enjoy it: a child home sick, or a child who isn’t able to go outside can still make use of a window with a feeder and an ID book from the library. robin's nest

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For most of us, our first bird is a robin. Certainly it was for me, as my father sang me the song Little Robin Redbreast, sat up in a tree from the time he returned from Korea. So a dogwood tree in the front yard, bearing the most perfect triad of eggs, is a rare gift — almost as beloved as a fox on a dark winter night.

From robins I progressed to the birds I found in our homes overseas — collared doves and bulbuls and gulls, mostly. And then slowly learning the birds at Mom & Dad’s — red-headed woodpeckers, and crows, and scissor-tailed flycatchers, and quail and wild turkey and so many more. Carefully opening the bird house to see the unfledged bluebird nestlings. Watching the wild turkeys see refuge in the yard during hunting season, knowing no one would hurt them there.

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hawk with kill by fenceNow, I am learning suburban Oklahoma birds. And we have so many to be grateful for. Each has, at various times, inspired me to write — the three crows that fly together, the hummers Sophie the cat used to pluck carefully from mid-air, delivering them unhurt to my feet, waiting for me to praise her. I’ve written about Carolina wrens and titmice and chickadees, sparrows and starlings and grackles. Soon I will try to weave a skein of words to catch a hawk in.

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Today, as I watched the hawk drop his freshly killed squirrel at the feet of his mate, I thought how intertwined love and creativity are. This poem from Robinson Jeffers is a perfect example: you need to love deeply to be this clear, this brutally honest and incisive. This devastating. But love and art are. And each feeds the other.

Hurt Hawks ~ by Robinson Jeffers

I
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
II
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bones too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him for six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

 

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30 Days of Love: take a deep breath

breathe journalToday’s 30 Days of Love prompt is about the sacred pause. The breath, in other words. Breathing in <> breathing out. Buddhist & yogi Teo Drake reminds us that mindfulness needn’t be limited to sitting and following the breath. Just taking a single breath between what happens and what we do about it —  inhabiting that space of feeling, of impact — is a critical beginning.

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I love this. We can do this, y’all! How hard is one breath? Just breathe in, deep and calming, when you remember. Not just when hurt comes calling, but whenever you remember. Maybe even set your phone to go off hourly? And just inhabit that one breath.

But of course, it’s also the best possible first step towards true compassion — my beloved practice of tonglen. As Pema Chodron details in her explanation of the process, you breathe for those who feel as you do. Which means, again, anyone can do this. You certainly don’t have to be enlightened. :) In fact, you can be mired in fearfulness.breathe

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Once, at a meditation sitting, we were asked to think of what terrified us. Just one thing, that we were deeply frightened of, or worried about. I chose Alzheimer’s, which killed my mother, her elder sister, a few great-aunts, and looms on the horizon for me and/or my sisters. At that point in my life, it was a profound fear for me. Our meditation facilitator told us to locate that terror, and then breathe in, thinking of how it felt, and all the people who share it. Then we breathed out, sending peace to those others. Never thinking about our own fear except as it was common to all of us who fear losing our identity, losing our loved ones. Losing our memories…

tonglen2That pause, between breathing in my private, personal fear and the comfort I breathed out for everyone who shared a similar terror, was sacred, as Teo Drake notes. Not simply because I stopped to take it — that’s sacred enough, the intention to do good. But also because in my fragile, battered, too often inadequate, human heart, I transformed shrinking terror into the outreach of peace. Like a kind of spiritual alchemy. And all it took was that pause, the recognition that my terror is not unique, but shared by millions.tonglen3

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Any of us can do this. We all have our private fears and troubles that can be transmuted into peace. But even joy can be recognised, affirmed, celebrated for the moment it is with us. Stop in the now, breathe in what is happening, and recognise it. Once you’ve done that, you’re well on the way to tonglen. Plus — you’ve created a moment of sacred space in your everyday life. How amazing is that?

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30 Days of Love: faith and social justice

social justiceToday’s 30 Days of Love prompt is to look at the social justice programs of another faith. Initially I thought I’d write about engaged Buddhism again, as many Americans are unfamiliar with it. But when I went to look for social justice images to use in today’s post, I found this one, courtesy of U. S. Catholic. It comes from an article I must have been meant to see, as it’s a topic I often brood over.

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The title of the article is “Social justice: What’s tarnishing its good name?” Written by Kristen Hannum, the article notes that despite conservative media’s insistence that social justice is a “code phrases of the religious left who prefer government solutions to human problems,” ‘social justice’ is a constant thread through Catholic doctrine and history.

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama

Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama

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I’ve never understood why people advocate for a more Christian state, on the one hand, but don’t want governmental support for the disadvantaged, on the other. If you can forbid abortion on religious grounds, why can’t you legislate support for the poor? It seems totally illogical to me.

But I understand that faith is belief and not reason, at least for many. Still, it’s good to know that U.S. Catholic magazine agrees with my beliefs: social justice is good religion. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton also agreed: in his latter years, before his tragic and untimely death, he said that he wanted to become as good a Buddhist as possible, in addition to his Catholic monastic calling. He saw no conflict between the two faiths; the Buddha never asked to be worshipped.

Today’s 30 Days of Love prompt can only help bring us closer together, as we recognise that each of our wisdom traditions values helping the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable among us. Making opportunities available to all is the best form of social justice. One the world around us needs far more of.

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