Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Paddling Through Contemplation and Action

Integration of two sides of the spiritual coin—the inward life and outward action —served as the focus for this year’s North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM -, the annual gathering of Quakers in these parts. For four days in mid-July, a couple hundred of us from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana met with Friend-in-Residence Michael Birkel (an Earlham College professor, writer, and John Woolman scholar) and worshiped and shared around this theme. Michael presented evidence from the writings of both Woolman and Margaret Fell of the need for both contemplation and activism.  Learning to balance these two in my own life continues to be central to my spiritual journey.

At the closing worship at Yearly Meeting, someone suggested that Spirit is a bird—with one wing contemplation and the other, action.  “Contemplation without action,” she said, “and action without contemplation, keeps Spirit from flying.” I know the perils of trying to keep Spirit airborne with only one wing. For many years, I valued action over contemplation.  Awakened to injustice in the world, specifically health care for the poor, I devoted myself to public health.  I felt so compelled to fix the brokenness I witnessed that I neglected my own spiritual nurture. There was always more to do, and do, and do. Eventually, I could do no more. 

I took a long break from caregiving and experimented with a more contemplative life.  I discovered how parched my soul was and that I was being called to new work, more inward work, as a writer.  Now I sometimes wonder if I’ve swung too far to the side of contemplation; I worry that my writing is not the kind of outward action that is needed in the world.  While I yearn to have both contemplation and activism at work in equal measures in my daily life, I have yet to achieve the kind of steady balance I see in the eagles, herons, and gulls in flight near my home. Since returning from Yearly Meeting, I’ve been considering that paddling my kayak may be a more apt image for my efforts to integrate my inward, contemplative life with the pull toward outward action.

On my 49th birthday, I bought a kit to build a wooden kayak. Over the next year, I assembled the dozens of pre-cut pieces of mahogany plywood to construct a 17 ½-foot, single person kayak. I spent hours mixing epoxy, gluing, nailing, and clamping the jigsaw puzzle together; layering fiberglass and varnish; then sanding and varnishing, sanding and varnishing, and several more rounds of sanding and varnishing until the boat’s deck glistened like honey. I sanded and primed the hull, too, then painted it a deep purple that I had created by mixing red and blue marine paint.

Late afternoon on the day I turned 50, I launched this vessel I’d built with my own hands (along with considerable help from a boat-builder friend, as well as the loan of a couple dozen of his C-clamps). Every time I take it out in the saltwater for a paddle, it nourishes and instructs me.

I’m a fair-weather kayaker, preferring the time for quiet and reflection that paddling on calm water offers.  I didn’t install a rudder on my kayak—didn’t want the complexity of cables and foot pedals to turn a plastic blade on the boat’s stern. Instead, I use my paddle and the shift of my body to steer and balance. As I glide into the bay, the only sound is the lapping of the seawater against the hull and the dip and swish of my paddle. When the wind and currents are flat calm, my paddle’s rhythmic slice and pull through the water, first on the left, then on the right, repeating the alternating motion, keeps my boat balanced.

Even in that gentle sea, though, I have to vary my rhythm and pattern. Sometimes I paddle hard on one side to avoid tangles of kelp and seaweed. Unlike the eagle overhead lifting and lowering its wings simultaneously, at times I bend my torso to the other side, salty droplets sprinkling off one blade of my paddle as the other digs deep to turn my bow out of the path of a seal that pops up just beyond my bow. This seems more like the rhythm of my spiritual life—sometimes steering more toward action, at others, quite fully in contemplation.

For now, I’m following the pull to focus my outward action on my own community and writing for the wider world. However, I remain alert and open to the currents of other forms of action, praying that I’ll be able to lean into them, maneuvering with attention to both the inward and the outward life.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Telling Our Spiritual Stories

It’s often through story-telling that I rustle through my confusion, my wonderings, my gratitude, my worries, my joys, and my faith. Stories, in specific places, where I remember the smell of the air or the scents in a room; the sound of traffic, or church bells, or the ocean; the texture of pavement or dirt or upholstery of the car’s seat; the touch of a warm hand on mine or a strong arm around my shoulders; the taste of tears coursing to my lips. Stories, peopled with family, friends, strangers, or no one but me and my cat.

Stories. They’re the best way I know to describe the indescribable Divine presence, and they’re often the way I encounter the Divine in others. So it’s no surprise that I’m drawn to a faith tradition, Quakerism, that calls us to speak from our own experience, to tell our own stories of encounters with Spirit.

In May, I joined with others from several Quaker meetings in the area to learn more about telling, and just as important, listening to, Spiritual Stories.  Kathy Hyzy, editor of Western Friend, led a day-long workshop about this practice of both listening deeply and sharing from our deepest selves ( She began by suggesting that we all are storytellers—we’ve all told jokes, we’ve all shared memories of important events in our lives, we all have at least a handful of experiences that we tell over and over again.  To prove her point, Kathy directed us to pair up with another person in our multi-age group to tell a “scar-y story.” The room hummed with tales of how each of us had acquired a particular scar. Yes, we all have stories to tell.

Kathy’s goal in this workshop was to share techniques of storytelling that help us tap into “the nuggets of experience that are spiritually important, times in which we felt close to God or encountered a sense of opening, Presence, or transcendence.” She instructed us in techniques of storytellers and writers to bring our personal stories to life—sensory detail of people and places, descriptions of characters, the use of dialogue, building tension to a climax, and reflection. Then, we all had the opportunity to practice telling and listening to stories.  I came to know people—both long-time friends and new acquaintances—deeply.

For me, it’s often in the telling of a story, usually first through journaling or writing, that I come to understand the significance of an event or the understanding that arises from it.  A walk with my cat has become one of those stories I tell over and over.

~  ~  ~  ~

For twenty years I worked as a nurse, primarily in public health.  I felt led to serve the poor by being at their bedsides, visiting in their homes, and advocating for their care. I believed my compassion, as well as my skill, could help bring health and wholeness. I approached my work with a zeal born of a desire to save the world, believing that if I only worked hard enough, I could.

My drive took its toll. Early signs of disillusionment nudged me to move to a smaller town, take a job in a smaller organization, and get back to hands-on nursing care after several years as a public health bureaucrat.   Within a couple of years, I was overwhelmed by my caseload’s never-ending stream of pregnant teens; I began to feel hopeless about the young women I cared for who were struggling with parenting complicated by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, or domestic violence.

I tried to ease my burgeoning feelings of failure as well as the fatigue of witnessing so much suffering by moving into middle management.  However, the impotence I felt in direct service was magnified in my new role caught between those with power and those in need. The clarity I had once had about my calling as a nurse was fading, and I knew it was time to re-evaluate.  Fortunately, my family supported my need to retreat, and retreat we did, in 1994, to the tiny village of Stehekin, Washington. 

Translated as “the way through,” Stehekin once was a passageway at the end of 55-mile-long Lake Chelan for Skagit and Salish Indians. Later, highways were blasted through parts of the North Cascades, but none ever made it to Stehekin.  Today, most people get “uplake” by a commercial passenger-only ferry that makes one trip daily.  Others arrive by float plane, the hearty by hiking a full day over National Park and Forest Service trails.

Telephone lines from the “downlake” world never made it to Stehekin, and there aren’t any cell towers, either.  For the community’s 80 or so year-round residents, a single public telephone, for outgoing long distance calls only, haltingly relays voices via satellite when messages beyond Stehekin are urgent.  Internet service has arrived recently, but just for those who install a satellite dish.

Despite my yearning for respite, there was one concern I carried with me to this remote, idyllic place. I feared I would forget. Forget the effects of abuse, disenfranchisement, and oppression.  Forget injustice’s aftermath if I no longer looked in the eyes of people who lived with it daily.  Forget the despair of limited opportunities as I experienced the privilege of choosing a different way of life.

There was no Quaker Meeting in Stehekin, so I went often to my favorite place of worship, a rock outcropping we named Boris’s Bluff.  It was Boris, our tabby cat, who led me to a wooded sanctuary just a 15-minute walk from our house.  To my surprise, he always trotted along with me on my treks there.  Together we hiked through pine needles and scrambled over boulders that had rumbled down from mountain peaks over the centuries.

One day, sitting on a moss-covered rocky mound, I breathed in the pine scent of the surrounding woods and was warmed by the sun radiating off the stone. Encircled by mountain walls that gave the illusion there was nothing beyond, I was awed by an unexplainable feeling of connection with all people. Though I couldn’t see or hear others, I felt their closeness and no longer feared I would forget.

I hadn’t expected that the boundaries of water and rock that separated me from others could restore my awareness of my place in the circle of humanity.  But there, in that valley nestled in the mountains, surrounded by old growth Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs reaching a hundred feet upward, I could see the effects of the cycles of melting snows, droughts, forest fires, and the rush of the Stehekin River. They taught me that the smallest touch, the briefest contact, the quietest diligence, can make a difference—can change the course of a river. It was there, in the solitude, that I had a palpable awareness I wasn’t alone. I embraced both my smallness and my greatness and felt released from the responsibility to do it all; I grasped it’s not up to me alone.

I don’t live in Stehekin anymore, but it lives in me.  I didn’t go back to the old house, or the old job; instead, my family and I moved to a slightly less isolated community on Lopez Island in Puget Sound.  Here, when I despair for the needs of the world and question how I’m to serve, the story of Boris’s Bluff strengthens me.

~   ~  ~  ~

We Quakers have many avenues to tell our spiritual stories and to listen to those of others.  These stories sometimes come in the form of spoken ministry during Meeting for Worship.  Others arise in response to queries during worship-sharing.  Some are put into print in the form of personal essays and memoir. And now, technology provides additional venues to tell our personal stories of encounters with God. I often listen to podcasts of Northern Spirit Radio ( and read Quaker blogs. You can find links to some blogs in Western Friend at I follow a number of them as well as these:

I’m grateful for such generous spiritual story-telling.