Suffering – What It Takes, What It Gives

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Image – NY Times
 “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, then the entire world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”         ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1973

The couch’s middle cushion dipped as I settled into it at Quaker Meeting. It was the first Sunday of the month, so I anticipated just ten minutes of silence before we’d be directed into worship-sharing. This practice is much like silent meeting for worship, except that the leader poses queries, or questions, for participants to respond to. Out of the quiet, we speak from our own experience, listen deeply and lovingly without commenting, and allow silence between sharings. That day, the worship-sharing leader invited us to respond to any or all of the following queries:

  • How and when do we differentiate between alleviating suffering of others and/or empowering them to find their own way?
  • Is being present or bearing witness enough?
  • What is your experience with suffering? What has it taken from you and what has it given you?

I closed my eyes, resumed my centering breaths, and focused on suffering. As typically happens when I ponder such themes, my thoughts bounced like kernels in a popcorn popper. I quieted them as others spoke, nearly every message resonating. I nodded as someone talked of the importance of being present to those who are suffering, and another suggested we can’t take others’ suffering away. One spoke of awareness that her lifestyle, even as simple as she tries to keep it, contributes to the suffering of other people. More sharing rang true to my own experience: there are ways to give physical help that will ease the suffering of others; our thoughts also affect suffering; recognition of suffering among other species; and the burden of thinking we’re responsible for others’ suffering.

I thought of my own experience with suffering, reflecting on the premature deaths of my father, stepfather, and several close friends. I thought back to other losses, times of uncertainty about my work, and feelings of failure. Those memories led me to explore the questions about what suffering has taken from me and what it has given me. I breathed in, cleared my throat, and spoke of how suffering crumbled my naiveté and eroded my trust that everything would be okay. And once I became aware that my choices about where I live, how I spend, and what I eat often bring suffering to other people, species, and the planet, I couldn’t return to denying my privilege or my complicity.

And there have been gifts. My own hardships, plus awareness of others’ distress, have fostered compassion. When compassion arises, I can open myself to Spirit and to what it is I’m to do. I strive to eliminate the goal of doing “enough.” I know I can never do enough, that I can’t bring an end to the suffering I witness. Instead, I seek clarity about what it is I can bring to a situanorwegian-angel-abstract-digital-art-fractal-circletion or a person and then endeavor to be faithful to that, rather than to an outcome.

As I shared these thoughts, I recognized that these experiences of adversity create a circle—when I act with compassion, I enter into others’ suffering, which in turn fosters compassion. I’m grateful for that, even though many days I wish this cycle didn’t work this way.

But it seems to be the way it is. And it’s why I value my spiritual community, because none of us can do this alone.

 

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*Afterthought #52 – Community of Writers

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IMG_1841Most of my molecules have caught up with me since my return home from Chicago, but I’m still thinking about what it is that makes me feel at home. One answer came to me at an exhibit at the Chicago History Museum. Called “Chicago Authored,” it celebrates how authors of fact and fiction, prose and poetry shape how people see the city (Brian Doyle’s delightful new novel, Chicago, is one such book).chicago cover

As much as I love the way the exhibit explores written works about my birthplace, a display at the entrance spoke to me about how a sense of community contributes to feeling at home:

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My community of fellow writers, readers, editors, and mentors help me feel at home almost anywhere.

 

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

*Afterthought #44 – Connected and Held

leafAutumn crisps

the sunlit breeze.

Golden maple leaf

sways solo

from a spider’s

single strand.

A reminder—

I am,

we all are,

connected and held.

*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

Know Your Farmer

chevreMost Sundays after Quaker Meeting, I go shopping. That means walking a few yards from the house where we gather at Sunnyfield Farm to the self-serve refrigerator at the farm’s licensed goat dairy. There I pick up a tub of chèvre. A couple of weeks ago I also found jars of feta in the fridge and chose one of those as well. To “check out,” I note my purchases in a spiral-bound notebook that sits on a nearby table and deposit cash or a check in the payment box there.

Andre and Elizabeth Entermann of Sunnyfield are among the Lopez Island farmers I know and rely on for my household’s food. Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know more about twenty-eight local farms (like Sunnyfield) that are participating in BOUNTY – Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community.

bounty-poster-fall-2015v3This weekend, more of my fellow Lopezians will be able to get to know their farmers through the Know Your Farmer photography exhibit at Lopez Center. It opens with a reception on Friday, October 23rd, 5-7 PM and will be on display until November 7th. The exhibit also will be featured the next night, October 24th, at the LCLT’s Annual Harvest Dinner.

Here’s a sneak preview of the exhibit that includes framed color photographs of each farm as well as a black-and-white portrait and profile of the farmers. Think of what follows as an appetizer, starting with an excerpt from the introduction to the exhibit and then images and profiles from two of the farms.

Know Your Farmer

Photography Exhibit

“Our dream is that the community will feed itself. The only question people will ask about their food is which of their neighbors’ farms it came from.”  

                                                         ~ Henning Sehmsdorf, S&S Homestead Farm

Artistic Project Manager, Sue Roundy, conceived of BOUNTY as a way to use photographic art to recognize the abundance of fresh, healthy food grown and raised on Lopez Island. In the project’s first year, Lopez Island photographers Robert Harrison, Steve Horn, and Summer Moon Scriver photographed the farmers, their land, and the food they produce.  Their stunning images premiered in October 2014 in a color slide show during the LCLT’s annual Harvest Dinner.

Phase II of BOUNTY is the “Know Your Farmer” exhibit. Sue, Steve, Summer Moon, and Robert chose from among hundreds of farm photographs for those that represent the diversity (and beauty) of farming on Lopez Island today. Lopez author Iris Graville wrote the profiles that accompany the farmers’ portraits; she developed those brief biographies from the farmers’ responses to the following questions:

  • What three words describe what inspires you in your work?
  • Why do you farm?
  • What are you most proud of in your work?
  • What has been your biggest challenge?
  • How would you complete this sentence – One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a farmer is…?

The project’s third phase, a book including the photographs and profiles as well as recipes, is scheduled for completion in 2016.

We encourage you to view this exhibit from two perspectives. First, stand back and take in the expanse of the photographs. “There’s a lot of agriculture, both large- and small-scale, happening on Lopez that so many people don’t know about,” says Ken Akopiantz of Horse Drawn Farm.

Then, look again. Look at the photographs of the individual farms and the accompanying portraits and profiles. Todd Goldsmith and Diane Dear of T&D Farms suggest that BOUNTY offers “…a little insight into why we farmers chose to do what we do, and why we chose Lopez.”

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T & D Farms – Todd Goldsmith and Diane Dear

plants, animals, love

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“Farming is equal parts science and magic that allows us to express our love of nature, good food, community, and hard work.”

“It’ll be great—we’ll always have a project!” That’s what Diane Dear and Todd Goldsmith thought when they bought a 40-acre parcel that was once part of the 300-acre Ellis Ranch. Since then, they’ve had plenty of projects. At the time of their purchase, a well was the only improvement on the parcel that was in a San Juan Preservation Trust easement to preserve farmland and wetlands.

With the help of Lopez architects Nancy and Joe Greene, Todd and Diane developed a plan for a working farm to sustainably raise eggs, vegetables, fruit, hay, and plant starts. They began with 2 irrigation ponds, utility trenches, power and water lines, and limited clearing of forest. They also plowed and developed a 2-acre fenced area for row crops, raised beds, and a small fruit orchard. The first building to go up was a tractor shed, then a chicken coop and barn, and finally, the house. Diane and Todd have learned, as they say, “to enjoy the chaos,” knowing that the list of things that need to be done in a day may change in a second depending on the weather, pest damage, animal needs, or equipment repairs. “We can’t imagine any more fulfilling way to spend our time.”

Christine Lopez havest 2014-3064

Lopez Harvest – Christine Langley

beauty, flavor, community

Christine Lopez havest 2014-3092

“In farming, as in life, challenges and lessons are two sides of the same coin.”

For Christine Langley, farming has been her life, her living, and her livelihood for over half of the years she’s been alive. She loves to be outside and get dirty, both of which she does to raise organic salad greens, herbs and other produce. Farming isn’t a static picture for Christine—it’s a process, with challenges and rewards that are the foundation of her daily life and commitment to sustainable land stewardship.

“We don’t have much rich farmland for row crops on Lopez,” she says, “so most of us are in a constant dance to balance income-producing crops with inputs to improve the soil and, therefore, the harvest.” Some days Christine revels in the “chaotic places” on the farm where her plantings of lupines, crimson clover and many other “non-crop” plants naturalize with local weeds to create environments where pollinators and other beneficial insects thrive. Other days, she celebrates planting into soil that started out rather thin, but after years of cultivation with compost and cover crops, is much improved. “Gratifying too,” she says, “are the times a customer expresses enthusiastic appreciation for the fruits of my labor.”

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For readers who live nearby, I hope you’ll be able to see the exhibit. Contributions to BOUNTY will support the project’s efforts to help tell the Lopez food story and are greatly appreciated.