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Earlier in this third week of devastation throughout the state, a member of UUCPA emailed us the news that a fire was burning near Yosemite, just a few miles east of Bass Lake. Bass Lake is the site of Skylake Yosemite camp, where the congregation holds a “getaway weekend” each summer. This year’s was cancelled due to COVID-19. Now the camp itself, not to mention Yosemite and its nearby communities, are approached by a wildfire that has grown very quickly.

The man who sent the email included a photo from Caltopo, to which I guess he must subscribe. I hope they won’t object to my showing it here:

I shared it on Facebook, with a few words about all the loss and sorrow we are holding. Then, a while later, I checked my Facebook page, saw this image in tiny, thumbnail format, and had three thoughts in quick succession: “What is that?” / “It’s beautiful” / “Ohhh. The Creek Fire map.”

I knew right then that I needed to draw it, to spend time with, if not make sense of, the swirl of feelings it evoked. The above are three very small drawings, each 2 x 1.5 or 2 x 1.75 inches, in colored pencil, done earlier today.

Day 49 of #100days of making art

I retrieved this collage from the pieces-in-progress box, where I had filed it just the other day in the course of going through some piles in our home office. (The Onion, as usual, is sardonically accurate; after two weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, our house task list is noticeably whittled down.) I began it, a few years ago, with some playful, purposeless clipping of an old Thomas guide, which I had bought when I moved here in 2003 and which was rendered redundant within a few years, when I got my first smartphone. Redundant for navigation, but a gem in the collage-materials collection.

As soon as I started playing, the similarities between map features like freeways and anatomical drawings of veins and arteries appeared. Also, I kept noticing places that had a strong emotional tug: hospitals where many of our congregation members have been patients, a cemetery where some have been interred, and, snaking their way down page upon page of the book of maps, the railroad tracks where two have died. And just like that, it became a portrait: of a place, of tender moments from a shared history, and of relationships.

It’s complicated. Many of the moments have been sad, even heartbreaking ones. There’s a tremor of trauma running through this landscape. But joy runs through it too, and sometimes in the same places. Finishing this collage helped me integrate them.

Any ideas for a title about the body, loss, place, lives and deaths, finding one’s way . . . ?

I had a kaleidoscope pattern in my office window that I’d made during one of the sessions of Exploring Mind, Hands, Spirit and Heart through Art I lead monthly. Dan Harper, our Associate Minister for Religious Education, asked if I’d like to make some more to be coloring pages for kids to do during services. So that’s what I’ve been happily doing with a lot of my art time for the past few weeks. Here are four in various stages of completion.

Sometimes, being a minister means working with some prickly people. They’re among the congregational leaders or visitors or–particularly tenderly–among the people I visit when they’re sick or sad. Not long ago, I was on my way to meeting with a member of the congregation when I passed under a stand of sweet gum trees (I think that’s what they are), whose seeds I love whenever I see them, and have never dared to draw. I went on to the meeting, and in our conversation, the person was both prickly and, to me, very beautiful: honest, caring, vulnerable. When I left, I picked up one of the fallen seeds, and I drew it that evening. In my private thoughts, it has this person’s name.

For me to rest and renew during this sabbatical, I need not to be in regular contact with my congregation. I just don’t have the ability to turn my concern on and off; if I knew what was going on with them day to day, I would worry and plan and respond and, in short, work. So we are incommunicado except in the case of an emergency. The election is one such emergency, and I wrote and sent this letter this morning:

Dear wonderful people of UUCPA,

My heart is with you so much today. In times of trouble I want to be at home with you, and the distance between us feels very long right now. Whatever your political views, I know there was plenty that happened over the past 24 hours to discourage you. I am aching for the hugs and conversation we’ll share when I’m back.

Did you ever hear this from Mister Rogers?: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’ve observed (maybe Fred Rogers did too) that if we really want to transform our fear into hope, what works wonders is to become the helpers. That’s why our life as a congregation is so important.

We at UUCPA have been forming relationships with Muslim communities in our neighborhood. We will ask these vulnerable communities what we can do for them, and do it. We have been striving to be a sanctuary for people of all genders, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities, immigration statuses, and religious backgrounds. At a time when our country needs those kinds of sanctuaries more than ever, we will offer the welcome that this country is meant to offer to everyone. We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be among the helpers.

We’ll have to be gentle with each other. This has been a harsh election, and when our feelings are raw, we seek someone to blame. Let’s promise each other: there is no one beneath our notice or excluded from the circle of dignity and worth, no matter who they voted for or what they believe, and no matter how afraid, hurt, or angry we are. Just being there for each other is another way to be among the helpers.

Friends have been joking (or maybe not joking) about how California should secede from the rest of the country. But we are one country, one world, bound as closely to those on the other side of the planet as to those across the street. There is no elsewhere to run to. Like many people, I spend too much time in an echo chamber, and for me this election chides us to practice dialogue instead: in other words, truly to listen to people with whom we disagree. Not in order to change each other’s minds–maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t–but in the faith that if we approach one another with curiosity and openness, it can only be an improvement. As a politician has been telling us recently, we really are stronger together.

I’ll be back in Palo Alto on January 2, and spending as much time as possible hearing how you have been feeling and what you need. I’ll have hugs and tea for you in my office. And then together, bit by bit, we’ll build a promised land that can be.

With love and blessings,

Amy

S. is an electric-vehicle (EV) driver, builder of a platinum-LEED home, and all-around passionate environmentalist in my congregation. He lends his EV out to everyone who’s curious (Joy, my wife, calls him an EVangelist), and one Tuesday in October, he brought it to church for me to try it for a week. It’s a Leaf. It was lots of fun. And I promised I’d write it up, which I am finally doing now that I’m making myself blog daily (except for the Weekend from Hell, which we will ignore).

The first thing you need to know is that I have a serious commute. It’s 32-39 miles, depending on the route. A car has to get me that far in heavy traffic with lots of battery charge to spare, or I’m going to be very nervous. The car had plenty of charge for the job.

It did not always have as much charge as it said it did, or maybe it’s vice versa. For example, we took a seven-mile drive to a restaurant one day. The car said it had 35 miles of charge, so that seemed plenty safe. By the time we’d gotten to the restaurant, our cushion had dwindled; the car was reporting it had dropped 14 miles. Ulp. We made it home, no problem, but this erratic behavior could hamper travel.

Plugging into the 110 outlet in our entryway was enough to charge the battery overnight, but it meant running the cable over the sidewalk, which meant taping it down each time. If we owned an electric car, that would get old very fast. We’d need a charging station in the street, or in our garage, or at least we’d want to use the 220 outlet that’s in the garage. (Our garage is not presently accessible to any car that wants to keep its undercarriage attached.)

At work, I could fully charge in 4-6 hours, because our church rocks and puts its money where its Seventh Principle is by having a free charging station. If you had a commute of any significant length and didn’t have access to a charging station while at work, an EV would be pretty impractical; however, more chargers are popping up all the time, many available to anyone who wishes to use them, for free or a small fee. Mobile apps direct EV users to the network, and there’s a great community feel to it, eco-creative types helping each other out. Our church is on the apps’ maps, and we often have visitors who are there to plug in while they’re working, shopping nearby, etc.–or they live in the neighborhood.

The other cool thing about UUCPA’s charger is that, like many Palo Alto locations, we opt for Palo Alto Green, which means that all our electricity is from renewable sources. So after I charged at work, I was driving a truly zero-emissions vehicle. Even charging at home, with plain old Pacific Gas and Electric, I’m running a much cleaner car than one with a gas engine. Joy, who is an energy analyst for the state of California, says that even if you use electricity generated in the dirtiest way available (that would be coal), driving an EV would still generate lower emissions than a hybrid, gas, or diesel engine. (S. takes care to say, “The manufacture of the EV causes emissions,” proving that there is such a thing as a rigorously honest evangelist.)

A factor that surprised me may be a major barrier to widespread acceptance of EVs around the country: they’re cold. A gas engine engenders so much excess heat as a by-product that when you want to warm the interior, you just run a little air off the engine. Okay, all that heat is part of the problem–but in Vermont, you need it. Heck, you need it in Palo Alto. You can turn on the car’s heater, of course, but making heat from electricity takes a lot of energy, and it cuts into the battery’s time quite a lot. The seat warmers, plus some old-fashioned approaches like a blanket over the lap, were good enough in this climate, even for an easily-chilled person like me, but in a cold climate, EVs will need more efficiency to get both a warm interior and a long-lasting battery.

On the other hand, S. is an early adapter and the Leaf has been around a while, so I was driving one of the least efficient EVs. I’m sure this aspect of the technology will keep improving, as will the infrastructure that is currently reminiscent of the earliest days of ATMs, when they were few and far between and of so many formats that most of them didn’t take your card. Standardization will come soon, as it usually does in technology.

Joy got to go on a tour of the Tesla factory last week–don’t ever let anyone tell you that the job of State of California Regulatory Analyst lacks in glamour and excitement–and reports that they plan to offer an EV for under $30,000 in 2017. Our Prius will be pushing 200k miles by then. Hmmm . . .

A homily given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, Christmas Eve, 2013

What are we to make of these angels? What are we supposed to think about all these angels?

There’s a lot in this lovely little story of Christmas that is hard for the rational mind to believe. But you can explain most of it away—the miraculous birth, the amazing star. But not angels. They are a whole different kind of creature that populates the Bible, something between the human and the divine. People have invented a whole field of study called “angelology” and explained all the various ranks and types, which only makes it all harder to believe for me.

But the meaning of the word “angel” in the Bible that I was taught as a child and that means the most to me today is something very simple and grounded in our real lives. An angel is a messenger. Someone who comes from God to a person, carrying a message. Someone who tells us something we need to know about the holy.

What is the holy? Well, according to the Unitarian Universalist songwriter Peter Mayer, everything—and I see no reason to doubt him. Which would seem to suggest that everything is or can be a messenger of the holy also. Anything that helps goodness, wisdom, hope, get from out there to inside here, is an angel of a kind. Anything that brings us a message that the holy is the holy is an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a beautiful young woman straight out of a Renaissance painting, with classical features, flowing long hair, and wings. When you’re sick and scared in the hospital, and an overworked, overweight, aging nursing assistant puts a reassuring hand on your shoulder and smiles, and you look into his eyes and feel a flame of hope come to life inside you—he’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be a human being. When you are filled with despair and there seems to be nothing except barren ground and hard edges, and you stumble home and your cat rubs her cheeks against your ankles, and you remember that there is something soft and loving in the world—she’s an angel.

It doesn’t have to be alive. A shooting star, the Badlands of South Dakota, a sand dollar shell washed up on the beach, the ocean itself . . . these have all been known to whisper messages of hope, harmony, beauty.

Whenever a message comes that reminds you of holiness, you have met an angel.

The messages don’t always have to be pleasant, either. We may hear that people are dying in South Sudan (radio as angel). We may be informed that we have hurt someone’s feelings (angry friend as angel). We may suddenly grasp that we are going the wrong way and have been going the wrong way for years (road sign as angel). If these messages awaken in us compassion, love, greater understanding, or a thirst for justice, then they are the holy speaking to us.

Everything is holy; anyone, anything, can be an angel.

And so the unknown writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers; for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).

This, to me, means: be open to the unexpected, the unknown, the apparently uninteresting. It may be the messenger bearing a note for your ear.  And we are reminded in particular to be open to those would-be messengers that we turn away because they bear messages we don’t want to hear. After all, when the holy breaks into our awareness, it can make us have to change our lives. It can turn everything upside down.

A message implies that there is something we now must do. Here’s a text message that says, “Call me, it’s urgent.” Here’s a messenger of God saying, “Joseph, marry your fiancee,” or “Shepherds, go to Bethlehem and look for the baby who will be King of the Jews.” Here’s an angel saying, “I bring glad tidings of peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” Wait a second. As the first carol we sang tonight, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” says, there hasn’t been peace on earth. People have not extended goodwill to each other. What has followed that message has been “two thousand years of wrong.” That’s because the message is never just a point of information; it’s a command. Go and do something. Make this a world of peace. Make goodwill between yourself and your neighbor. Hear the angels sing and take their messages to heart.

So the messages that come our way can be disruptive, reassuring, joyful, scary, exhilarating . . . . it depends on what we do with them. One thing is certain. When the holy speaks to us, whatever form the holy takes, whatever form its messenger takes, that angel is always bearing good news.

In a great addition to our Sunday services, our Associate Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, is going to be doing something special in the 9:30 service three Sundays a month. This past Sunday morning he led a chant, a quasi-call-and-response called “Have You Got the Spirit?”

Have you got the spirit? / Oh yeah!
Let me see it in your head!

He drafted our music director to stand beside him and lead the congregational part, and we all shook our heads and waved our arms as called upon. As in education, there are theories that worship should engage the whole person–you want elements that use different modes and appeal to different aspects of ourselves. This one had laughter, using our bodies, music (rhythm), camaraderie, and definitely lots of spirit.

Return engagement is this Sunday, 9:30 a.m. Oh yeah!

I’ve posted my Easter sermon here on this blog, and also on UUCPA’s blog. It will soon be up at the church website.

In personal news, I did not keep to my Lenten practice of drawing at all. I drew on Monday mornings as usual, and besides that I did only a handful of drawings. I think I should just acknowledge that I’m at my limit for daily practices, between reading my Dickinson poem (today is #220, and next week’s sermon is on the journey so far) and exercising and following the various necessary family routines.

I’ve been putting my thoughts about linked ideas, images, and events in The Dispossessed into what the software, MindMeister, calls a “Mind Map,” here.

Whole sections haven’t been transcribed from my mind to the map, such as the multiple valences of possession, but it’s fun and helpful to get it into this form. What would you add?

Looking forward to class tonight, 7:30 in the UUCPA Fireside Room. Directions here, campus map here.

Cross-posted to the UUCPA blog, which is where comments may be made.

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