This world. This place. This life.


Monsters in our closet

I have a working theory that many UUs are more afraid of the imagined beliefs of other UUs, than they would be if they knew what those other UUs actually believe.

Here’s what I mean. When I hear people insisting that we need to define our UU identity, that we need to name the core of what UUs believe, I get nervous. I’m afraid that the circle they might draw would shut me out.

But something changes for me when I hear what people really believe, rather than what I imagine. The bedroom light switches on, and the monsters in the closet are just shirts and shoes.

I first realized this when Patrick McLaughlin shared with me David Bumbaugh’s suggestions about UU core beliefs. Bumbaugh’s poetic language allows enough space for a range of interpretations, for a broad spectrum of UUs to say, “Yes, this is what I believe.”

Christine Robinson has also risked articulating our common beliefs. Here’s what she says:

Life is good, and so are you.

Reason and Intellectual Faculties are good.

You can trust them to understand life.

However it’s a Very Big Universe out there,

and many important things can’t be known

through reason and intellect.

For this we have intuition, heart, spirituality,

and other faculties which are useful

but don’t lead everyone to the same conclusions.

Truth on these Very Big matters

is best found in conversations,

actual, virtual, literary, and internal.

It is to be expected that there will be differences.

They enrich us.

That’s what we do as Unitarian Universalists…

grow in spirit, together.

It takes a certain amount of bravery to propose a list of “things commonly believed among us.” We’re a tough crowd. We attack imagined monsters before anyone has time to turn on the lights. We shred a lot of shirts and shoes.

I think it’s time for us to find our courage. Courage to speak our beliefs––and courage to listen to others without reflexive critique.

We are not children. We can expect more from ourselves. We can replace fearfulness with a deep and abiding trust that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”


How to walk in the woods

We’ve had torrential rains and high winds this week in Girdwood, stripping many of the leaves from our trees. Termination dust sprinkled on the tops of the mountains has become a blanket of snow sliding inexorably down the slopes.

Our season of snow-free walking in the woods is coming to a close. Soon we’ll need our Yaktrax, snowshoes or Nordic skis to get around outside.

For those of you with a longer autumn, I offer this list, which I’ve been compiling since this summer’s workshop at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska.

Near the end of the week, I sat next to Frank near the campfire. While we were busy writing, Frank had been walking the trails. I thought to myself, “What does he do when he walks in the woods?” I wanted to know what kept his attention after, say, the first fifteen minutes.

He answered my unspoken question, talking about noticing “old friends” (plants, animals, rock formations, etc.) and meeting new ones.

This isn’t a list for hard-core nature lovers and woods-walkers. It’s for those of you who, like me, have “nature deficit disorder,” and are seeking a cure.

Suggestions and additions from veteran hikers and rookies alike are, of course, welcome.

  1. Be quiet––and loud.  I can walk for miles in the woods with a friend, noticing nothing, because we’ve been deep in conversation. Consider walking without talking, enjoying companionship without words. For those of you in bear country, find other ways of making noise, such as wearing a bear bell.
  2. Bring your dog.  If you don’t have a dog, get one. Our dog Brady is very helpful in the woods. I’ve learned to trust his radar to tell me if there’s something dangerous nearby.
  3. Learn the names of things. If you don’t know what things are, it’s hard to see them. All the trees look the same, rocks blend into each other, and birds are no more than small, medium and large. Knowing the names of the “friends” you meet in the woods gives your experience texture.
  4. Train your senses. As you walk, concentrate on one sense at a time. Set a timer, and for five minutes, just notice what you smell, or hear, or feel.  Alternate until you’ve used them all, then notice what happens when you walk with all your senses awake.
  5. Don’t go fast. Some people hike as if it’s a race. Sure, fast hiking is great exercise, but it makes noticing difficult. Slow down. Not only will you notice more, you’ll also have more endurance.
  6. Find a guide. Make sure it’s someone knowledgeable and patient.  You want someone who’s a good match for you––someone who understands your reasons for wanting to reconnect with nature.  It’s also important that this person pushes you just enough, but not too much.
  7. Bring what you need. I bought Leki trekking poles this summer, and every time I didn’t bring them with me on a hike, it was a mistake. There are many helpful kinds of equipment out there. Just be sure that you don’t weigh yourself down with more equipment than you need.
  8. Don’t go alone. We have a romantic ideal that links nature and solitude. That’s all well and good, but for anyone with any nature fears at all, being alone in the woods sets the bar too high. If you think you have to go alone, you might just stay home.
  9. Think through your fears. Knowing exactly what you’re afraid of helps you figure out how to get past it. Afraid of bears? Learn how to use bear spray, wear a bear bell, walk with someone you trust to help you in a bear encounter. Afraid you’ll get lost in the woods? Take an orienteering class, buy a compass and learn how to use it, find a friend who can follow a trail map.
  10. Know your limits. Not everyone’s ready to hike Crow Pass. I just read the description, and the thought of crossing Eagle River (very cold, and 2-3 feet deep) made me say, “Hell no!” Pushing yourself too far past your limits will only increase your fears and resistance.
Happy walking!


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Are you predator, or prey?

A few weeks ago, our dog Brady had his first close encounter with a bear.  From the moment we stepped out the garage door, Brady was on high alert.  His nose was pointed in the air, and our scheduled potty break was the furthest thing from his mind.

When we finally spotted the bear–less than 100 feet away, just across the parking lot–Brady went from high alert to red alert.  Every muscle in his body stiffened, his hackles rose, and he started barking in the deepest voice I’ve ever heard him use.

I tried to drag him back toward the garage door.  His feet were firmly planted, and his sturdy Cattle Dog body didn’t want to go anywhere.

I was in flight mode.  I wanted out of there, and out of there fast.

Liesl was even closer to the bear.  Calmly, and with a loud, deep voice, she shouted it at the bear, telling it to go away.  She was also slowly backing up, though I couldn’t tell in my highly anxious state.

The bear soon decided it had had enough of all that barking–human and canine–and it took off into the woods.

When I had time to think about it, I realized that my instincts are those of a prey animal–run, run, run without thinking, and run fast.  And my instincts were exactly wrong in that situation.

Those of us who back down from a fight have one kind of wisdom.  Those who stand strong, those who defend their territory with full voice, have another kind of wisdom.

Most of us are a mix of predator and prey.  Those who are mostly predator have little respect for others, and those who are mostly prey have little respect for themselves.

The key is to balance those two instincts within ourselves.  It can be good to be peace-loving, like a prey-animal, and it can be good to be fierce, like a predator.

Brady was fierce, to protect his family (Liesl and me).  Liesl was fierce, to protect me and Brady, but also to protect the bear (so that it wouldn’t get shot by Fish & Game).  I wanted to run, so that no one would get hurt.

Life sends us teachers, if we pay attention.  I’m grateful for the lessons learned from the three predators I encountered that day–Liesl, Brady and the bear.