The End Cometh by Water (circa 2011)

This is the second installment of a series about water. Click here for the introductory entry. This week’s entry is adapted from a journal entry written on May 27, 2011, but its themes continue to ring hauntingly true. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

Everything is meaningless. The rain falls on both the wicked and the just.


Some people say the end is coming. Some people say Christ is coming. The Rapture didn’t happen on Saturday, as some radio personality had predicted. Of course, the Bible says Christ will come like a thief in the night. What’s stopping him?

It won’t stop raining in Vermont. As a child, I dreamt of living a smart, romantic adult life in Montpelier. Now it is under water. A piece of road in my hometown of Ann Arbor has buckled from a mudslide. Devastating tornadoes have torn through the South and the Midwest in the past month, leveling whole towns and killing thousands. Droughts in the Southwest make growing crops impossible, while diluvial rains in the Midwest make planting impossible.

Now it’s not just other places, other people. Darker skin, smaller houses. It is not just earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, floods in Pakistan, landslides in Bolivia. Now it is Japan in all its high-tech efficiency. Now it is the United States, the land of plenty and pleasure. The land of “silhouettes turning sexy in short-loving tights, attention-seeking details peeking out at every turn, and big city allure on show as Express rocks the sidewalk.” I read that in the news today. Americans are still going to fashion shows and cramming too many metaphors into their descriptions of them, just as they cram too much sugar and salt and processed foods in their bellies, but this won’t help when the floodwaters rise even to our heights.

It’s because the polar ice caps are melting. It’s because Mt. Illimani’s perfect snowy peaks are cracking as it cries over the life that will be lost. It’s because factories and cars are belching. It’s because we need more plastic. We need more electronic gadgets. And everything takes coal. And everything takes wholeness from the air, from the hemisphere. And hot air traps moistures more easily than cold air. And moisture traps people in mile-wide tornadoes, in screaming hurricanes and tropical storms, in dark churning lakes, in sliding mud.

Before Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100, after a lifetime of studying the delightful particularities of human culture, he proclaimed that he was now living in a world he no longer liked.

I, too, felt that I am living in a world that I no longer like when I woke up this morning to another day of unseasonably cold, unabating May rain, remembering the farmers who cannot sow their corn in soggy fields, and opened up the mindlessly addictive mechanism of Facebook to discover that a friend in Montpelier had to get up at 4:30 this morning and move her car to a parking structure to escape the flooding. The tenuous thread of hope fluttered away from me. The rainbow has not appeared in the sky and no one remembers God’s promise to never again destroy the world by water; I live in a world where we have taken that gruesome task into our own hands.

I feel powerless to construct a better world for us. I could live in a commune in the woods, but that would do nothing to insulate me from the “shifting” weather patterns that can decimate crops, houses, entire towns, and intangible dreams.

Aside from that, you really need social media to stay connected these days.

But do you need to stay connected at all? Michael Perlman, the environmental activist and writer, didn’t think so. I woke up with him on my mind today for the first time in years. I knew of him because he was assigned as my mother’s advisor one semester at Vermont College. She didn’t hear from from him for weeks, and then she found out he had killed himself. He left a note for his parents explaining that if he couldn’t reverse the damage humans were doing to the environment, he wished no longer to be contributing to its destruction by using factories, cars, plastic and electronic gadgets. Michael, too, lived in a world he no longer liked. So he decided to leave it.

Is there a way to live here without hurting more than we heal? Is there a way to live without leaving greasy, indelible tracks of death behind us? Is there a way to go without plastic and gadgets, to turn away from sexy silhouettes and short-loving tights?

Not everyone lives in such luxury. Not everyone can wake up on a cold and rainy May day and take a hot shower, leaving the water running even while soaping up, and turn the central heating on in the house. Most people still live in the potential virtuousness of poverty. Which is not to say that the suffering of poverty is a virtue, but that sometimes the humble ways of life that “developed” nations consider poverty are really just lives that have as much as they need and give back as much as they take.

But I realized, as I lay in bed and thought of Michael Perlman, Claude Lévi-Strauss and my Bolivian friends who live in poverty, that most anyone takes advantage of luxury if given the chance. There is nothing especially unvirtuous about North Americans. Maybe everyone has a latent American heart—privileged, self-satisfied, comfortable and craving more. I suppose you could call this the sinful nature. Bring iPhones and central heating systems to poor Bolivians, and most will accept them with open arms.

I could have turned off the water as I soaped up this morning. But I remembered the thing Amy told me about using steam to open your pores before cleansing your face to clear up acne. And I, as much as anyone, want a sexy silhouette when I walk down the sidewalk.


Oh, the Water (Part 1)

This blog entry marks the first in a series on water that I will publish once a week at least until the end of September. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.

I have been silent for awhile now, but after settling into a new life in my old country, I am ready to try again to make sense of this sensual world. I am ready to begin speaking from the new place I have observed quietly for the past two months. I live in a beautiful old suburb east of Detroit, along the shores of a brilliant blue lake. When you hit upon it where the streets end, it could be one of the Great Lakes, if you didn’t know any better. The well-kept, wealthy homes sit on trim squares of green that find life in the eternal sprinkler systems springing up from every corner of the sidewalks. Once, I saw my neighbor shamelessly spray her hose across the fence to water my rose bushes. Even during the drought of June and July, water is abundant here.


Meanwhile, the Louisiana floods have displaced something like 11,000 people from their homes, and the NPR commentators are marveling at the “record-braking” and “unprecedented” levels of rain—but are they really marveling? Someone points out that records are broken every month now; the unremarkableness of disaster is the reality of life in a world that will soon be 2°C hotter than it ever was before.

So I have been thinking a lot about water.

Where is water from?

You rinse dried clay off your skin as waves knock you down and make you laugh and laugh in Lake Michigan. You visit New Orleans as a teenager and stay in a shotgun house with your friends who play music on the streets, then two years later you hear about the hurricane trying to wash it all into the sea. You see a tide rise for the first time along the Saint Lawrence in Canada: deep, dangerous ocean water covering where you just had walked. 

What is water for?

You linger in the hot bath till it turns cold, gliding little boats or ducks or—improbably enough—trucks across the surface. You fall in the pool and see nothing but turqoise rushing past and wonder if you’ll die until your mom grabs your arm and yanks you out. You water the garden only in the early morning and late evening, she explains, because otherwise the sun burns the leaves of the plants.

What is water?

You walk out on the lake once it’s frozen over, stomping on the ice with your boot and imagining if it were to break and what it would be like to feel the cold water of death beneath. You climb over an obstacle course of beaver’s dens and brambles to find a cool dark cove charged with the energy of a waterfall, and it gives you faith in the Holy Spirit dwelling in your own body, surging like the blood of your veins. You run outside in the summer downpour just to feel the thrill of something unstoppable coming down from the heavens and touching your skin.

Water is life and death and rage and love, all mixed up in one.

Next week, naturally, we’ll discuss the apocalypse.



A Photo Journal of Farewells

I have often written in this blog about where I live in Bogotá, a small lower middle class neighborhood called San Francisco. It sits on a steep hill where the Muisca people used to worship the sun, which is “sua” in their language. Thence the greater urban district of Suba takes its name, which incidentally also means “go up” in Spanish. This is an appropriate description of my daily experience climbing to the very highest point in the neighborhood to reach my house.

I have tried to get to know this little corner of the world, where a tall wall separates the poor working class from the luxurious condominium complexes of wealthy elites who opted for a semi-rural enclave with a sweeping view of the city. Exclusive private schools, a horse farm and a Catholic retreat center run along a dirt road just beyond the fringe of the barrio. The neighbors fight with each other but tenderly take care of stray dogs. The baker and the stationary store owner have a certain sweetness to them. Rock musicians, folkloric musicians and indigenous activists leave their marks on the aural landscape or the wall murals.

And now I am leaving it behind. I’ve returned to live in the US for a time, full of hope and nostalgia, wishing as always that I could have done more in the place that I called home for a time, and grateful, for it gave me much more than I returned.

On the occasion of my departure from this neighborhood named after my favorite saint, and taking advantage of the fact that I finally had a camera, I will recreate it here in the amateur photos I took in the days before leaving.


My neighborhood, from across the main drag.


That yellow one, that’s where we’re going.

The most important thing to know about my neighborhood is that a sheep lives behind my house, but only about 2-3 days out of the month. Apparently it’s a join custody situation. For more about this particular sheep, see the entry “Sounds of My Neighborhood.”

My best friends in the neighborhood, as well as my worst enemies, were of the canine variety. Porca lived outside our door, because no one seemed to want her in their house. Our neighbor took care of her, and we gave her food sometimes—as well as christening her “Porky,” then “Porca” when we realized she was a girl, and finally “Porquis” as a term of endearment. I don’t think she could see much because she had grunge hair as well as a growth over one eye.



Another one was named Luna. We couldn’t figure out what house Luna came from, but she was always around, and she protected me from the mean little yippy dogs who appeared to be Porca’s evil brothers. In turn, she expected to be able to come into our apartment and get food out of us. Sometimes she achieved this goal.



These dogs hung out on the street down the hill from our house, and they were the most beautiful creatures and gentle souls.

Not pictured: the pit bull who lived along the shortest route to our house and would bite people, such as my husband, stealth-style as they passed by. Nor her companion, a behemouth black dog who laid around all day sleeping until he died.

In Casablanca, which is a continuation of my neighborhood in tone and location, there is a man who sits on this chair every day and makes jokes with people or provides incomprehensible reflections or delights in birds (see: Collaborators and Friends in the Effervescent Moment).


The place where the man who delights in birds sits.

Across from his spot, there are other kinds of birds on the walls, which is perhaps not a coincidence.



A child also delights in a bird on the wall of what is sometimes a small farmer’s market.


Potted plants in plastic bottles and “Casablanca Wants Green”

I wish I had found ways to learn more about it, but from what I could gather, these hilltop neighborhoods indeed had a special energy around ecology and indigenous culture. On the edge of the largest park they painted a mural promoting indigenous culture, and it faces a community garden.


The park of Casablanca.


“Recover our culture: Long live Sukuri” (an Andean dance)


Andean figures playing music, surrounded by corn, the life-source.


The community garden

But gentrification threatens at every turn. Here is the sign for a new condominium complex they’re building that claims to allow you to “discover your own nature” (see: “How Not to Discover Your Own Nature“).


On this bridge that leads down to Suba, between the reports of muggings, the pirate ship, the castle and the dizzying drop, it’s no wonder they felt the need to call it the “Bridge of the Virgin.” I certainly feel I could use a little divine favor when I cross this bridge.


What I said before about my neighborhood, I take it back. The most important thing to know about my neighborhood is the climb.


It just keeps going up.


And up.


Yes, I have climbed those stairs many times. No, I don’t recommend doing it even once. The following two photos show the alternate route—the one with the mean dog.



Sometimes, the streets go up so high that they turn into pianos.


But it’s all worth it when you come home to beauty, and to someone you love.


The view outside our front door.


From left to right: Parqués board, Luna, Ricardo, Sari.



A tribute to a sensical woman

On the occasion of her birthday last year, I wrote  a poem for my mother, Lucia, and sent it to her in a card with an amateur portrait I attempted to draw of her with markers. Fortunately, this bit of ephimera made it all the way across the Carribbean Sea to her doorstep. Now, I would like to share the poem here, because this woman has, like no other, taught me what it means to be fully attentive to sensing the world around me.


My Mother

My mother belongs to the birds.
She belongs to the one absurd red flower
That appeared out of nowhere along the path.
She sees them; she loves them.
She expects nothing else.

My mother is a house by the sea.
She breathes. She is full of empty space.
She dwells in a very particular place,
With pancakes and maple syrup,
Cut onions frying in tamari,
Laughter and speech that pours forth
Knowledge from a secret symmetry
In the microcosms of our bodies.

My mother sometimes works at a desk
With machines and people.
Sometimes, she works over a table
With the tender bodies of people.
She is not always compassionate,
But neither are you.
She remembers the one with the aching heart.
Her best work she does over a bed of moss
Or a cool patch of sand dune.

My mother is a day of rest.
A new Sabbath instated
On the day she was born
After a long, hard creation.

Collaborators and Friends in the Effervescent Moment

I’ve been doing this exercise lately of trying to figure out what’s most important to me. Core values, life purposes, that sort of thing. Usually I discern such things in a rather ad-hoc way—but sensically, of course. I wait for something to come to me in a dream or outdoors or in a book, and to captivate my senses in an undeniable way.

So far, the only thing I’ve gotten really clear about is that birds are important to me. I’m not sure if you can consider “birds” a core value, but you can, doubtlessly, delight in them.

My first encounter with birds during this discernment process took place a few weeks ago when I was walking along the teeming “Septimazo,” a main avenue in downtown Bogotá that is permanently closed to traffic for about twenty  blocks. People who look like they sleep outside make meticulous, larger-than-life chalk portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the street, and folkloric dance groups and rock bands perform in close aural quarters every half-block.


When I got the Gold Museum, I saw a man with his entire body spray-painted silver who was impersonating the singer Carlos Vives, down to the most minute gesture of the Colombian icon. He happened to be lip-syncing “Volví a Nacer,”the song my husband and I chose for our first dance at our wedding. So I stopped and listened, smiling and nodding my head. After a few minutes, two sparrows fluttered down to the foot of the silver box the silver man stood on, and without missing a beat, he stooped down and extended his hands toward the birds like a gesture of welcome for honored guests, then smiled at me as if he knew that I, among the several people standing there, would understand. Maybe I did. I was impressed that he recognized the birds as his co-collaborators in street art—recognized that the conspiration of the effervescent moment and all the living beings around him were as much a part of making art as his individual efforts.

But now that I think about the impersonator and the birds and the wedding song, I remember that I also wrote a song about marriage a long time ago, at a time when I only dreamed about being tender and open enough to enter into such a challenging commitment. I am struck by the fact that in it I sing, “Some people make birds out of their wedding dress.” Maybe now it is my time to do just that. To make this commitment, and all of my commitments to a life of deep purpose and values, into birds dancing freely.

A second encounter happened one day when I went for a morning run and passed by this man who seems to live in a dilapidated armchair nestled into an uncultivated strip of earth along the sidewalk. Though he sporadically speaks streams of words I can’t understand and has the kind of dreadlocks that happen by letting hair do its natural thing without intervention, his strangeness does not seem to keep him lonely. He has friends: people who give him food, who shout jokes at him from their work trucks, and two stubby-legged dogs who circle around him like they know where their home is.

But this time I realized this neighborhood fixture has a circle of friends even broader than I had thought: as I passed, I saw him looking up at the trees that overhang the towering wall around the rich people’s condominium complex, and reach his hand up as if grasping at something. I realized that he was smiling at the birds hopping about in the branches up there. These members of the community did not go unacknowledged by him. And, indeed, he delighted in them.

Sometimes, finding value or purpose is not so much about looking for deeper meaning in things, but just noticing them at all. And noticing birds, I have realized, is deeply important to me.

A Voice Crying Out in the Bus System

“Good afternoon, I hope you all are well today. My goal is not to discomfort or inconvenience anyone; I just want to share my art…”

“…I am a mother of three children, and I find myself in a state of pregnancy due to a rape. Unfortunately, I am also a carrier of HIV…

“…here in the city with absolutely nothing and no one, and we have been sleeping in a room that we rent daily for twenty thousand pesos. I am selling these candies to so that we can have a roof over our heads tonight…”

“…and as you can see my leg was broken…hospital bills…fifteen months since the accident without being able to work…”

“…This is my work. This is how I make a living. Just like any of you, I do whatever it takes to provide for my two beautiful…”

“…each candy filled with a rich liquid center in four delicious flavors: strawberry, blackberry, passion fruit and pineapple, which I am offering in a promotion of 3 for 1000 pesos, or a unit price of 500…”GMesTrX

They usually speak with remarkable formality and eloquence despite their apparent lack of education, professional experience, or at least monetary resources. Sometimes they rap about the deceptions of the politicians or the need to take care of Mother Earth or how Jesus made them whole. Sometimes they sing old love ballads with a little faux-vintage speaker and a USB drive to play gritty karaoke tracks. Sometimes they play rollicking vallenato songs on the guitar while doing an impressive balancing act in the jostle of the articulated busses.

These are the people who ride the integrated transit system in Bogotá, not to get from one place to another, but to make a living. When the Transmilenio was first inaugurated in 2000, law enforcement kept these people mostly “under control,” but there are so many of them that the officers must have given up. Now the city government combats their activity by running campaigns that depict responsible, model citizen refusing to support the business of such intrusive, dangerous people on the bus.

But this year as part of my Lenten practice, I decided to make these peddlers of wares and stories important to me. I tried to stop being indifferent to them, and to listen to them, look at them, respond to them.

Between the Catholics eating fish and the Evangelicals stuck on the idea that if there are no special seasons then Jesus is more present all the time, I fumbled to find a Lenten practice that made sense here in Colombia. Following the insights of a professor of mine from seminary, I did not want to treat Lent as a self-improvement kick-starter that helps me do things I should’ve been doing all along, That’s just short of the Evangelicals with their dreary insistence that ordinary time is sacred time. I wanted to doing something unsustainable, something that I shouldn’t keep doing all the time, because this reminds me that every good thing is a gift from God.

So I decided to give away money. I admit that I got the idea from Pope Francis’ call to “fast from indifference,” publicized in popular media—and that does sound like a self-improvement project.

But in my experience, indifference is an important survival mechanism in Bogotá. Without it, you would always be running late as you try to put coins in all the beggars’ cups on the street and receive all the fliers that people are paid by quantity to hand out. You would give away more money than you can afford to respond to the pleas of all of the singers, rappers, merchants, preachers, comedians, accident victims, unemployed fathers and mothers, and internally displaced persons that make their rounds on the busses. You could even put yourself—or at least your possessions—in danger by pulling out your wallet in these circumstances.

So I tried to do these unsustainable things. I had a rule to always give money to these people on the bus, whether as charity or to buy their products, and I had to always share food with people wherever I went. But more than following a rule, which is easy, I know that to “fast from indifference” means cultivating a deeper awareness: to be able to perceive the other who constantly comes towards me in this sea of people, with needs, with demands, with stories. You have to learn to listen to what you would normally tune out, to look more carefully even when you don’t want to see, to such a point that you cannot justify not responding.

I strained my ears to hear their stories and tried to be ready with coins when they passed my place on the bus. I bought hard candies, mints, an orange elephant keychain, and crossword puzzle booklets from them. I remember some of their faces: the older furrow-browed couple from the coast, the blue-eyed man with crutches, the pregnant woman with hollow cheeks. Even then, there were times I failed to respond; they passed too fast, I said to myself, or I needed my spare change to buy something-or-other for dinner. There were other times when I didn’t really take them in: who are these people, and how are they beautiful?

My little gestures of generosity were, in truth, paltry. I could and should do most of them on a regular basis, and if there was anything unsustainable about them it was just because I happened to be unusually short on funds this Lent.

But I did learn something about receiving the good I do as grace. I learned how hard it is to respond to the needy one who barges into my efficiently downcast path, hoping that I will be thrown off kilter enough to notice their face and their voice. I let myself be thrown off more often than usual. Maybe I always should, so maybe I did just start another self-improvement project. But more important than “working on it” is recognizing that I cannot truly perceive those around me without abundant measures of grace. This was clear to me in my faltering attempts at “unsustainable generosity.” And Easter came up singing with the hope that there is One who is more generous, more attentive, and more enlivened by the beauty of each bus vendor than I could ever be. The same Spirit that was in Jesus enlivens me now to lift my head and hear them coming even as I reflect with self-satisfaction on the good I’ve done.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. If I could have just a moment of your attention…”

Listening for the Music to Come Down

I have been hearing a low humming in my left ear for months now. It comes and goes. I can’t figure out why it’s there, physiologically speaking. But I imagine sometimes that it is a deep frequency emitted by the earth or the heavens. I hear it now not because I am especially attuned, but because I am on the perilous brink of losing my ability to listen really deeply to anything.

While I was home in Michigan recently, I saw the Swedish movie As it is in Heaven. It is the story of a world-famous conductor who goes back to his little hometown after suffering a heart attack. His purpose, he says, is just “to listen.” When the local church choir convinces him to be their director, he explains to them that all music already exists; we simply must listen for it so we can “draw it down.” Music is something transcendent. It comes down to us from heaven, from the presence of the sacred.

We spoke of the power of music over the birthday dinner of my brother, Andrew. Music, he said, is what has given him faith in “something more.” His best shows happen when 20678_601132099360_8098706_nhe and his band mates get out of the way and let another presence play through them. We compared a performing musician with a pastor when she preaches. Both are called to mediate for others an encounter with something much greater than themselves. It’s about letting what you’ve heard sing through you.

I worry about losing my hearing. Mysterious low humming sounds inside my ear do not help this anxiety much. However, I am not so much worried about losing it from overuse, but from lack of use. Not only do I not play much music anymore, but I notice that I have a harder time differentiating sounds—the threads of a harmony, or the heartfelt story that someone is trying to tell me on a crowded bus. I feel as if my hearing were waning because I have not been tending to the discipline of listening.

Soon, I will be a pastor. At least, that is what a board of ordained ministry has told me. But to be a truly good pastor, I have to learn how to listen better—to people, to God, to God-in-people, to the music of fully-aliveness that is waiting for me to draw it down. In a beautiful essay on the “Unbusy Pastor,” Eugene Peterson has written: “I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.”

I have told myself that I have not written many blog entries—or songs—in recent months because I’ve been busy. But that is not the real reason. In truth, I am just distracted. No tasks are too many or too weighty to excuse me from paying attention to the music that comes down through all my senses.

On the occasion of my approbation as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church, my friend Amy’s wonderful mother, Cathy, gave me a book of Mary Oliver poems. One of them[1] says:

There are thing you can’t reach. But

you can reach out to them, all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away, the idea of God.

Our most important task is to reach for the mystery of the infinite that is present in the ordinary things, even as it remains always beyond us. Oliver uses herself as a model of sorts when she declares, “I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.” Then she writes a little further on:

And now I will tell you the truth.

Everything in the world comes.

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

This mystery we are reaching for wants to come to us—like a God who loves us and wants to be known by us even as she knows us. So really, all we have to do is pay attention—to be ready for it when it comes. I can think of no better gift than these words for someone who is trying to become a pastor.

For me, on account of the music that keeps its low hum going in my soul, even when I am ignoring it, the best way to speak of paying attention is to speak of listening. So I hope I will never be done with listening. All the livelong day.

Photo Credit: Samantha Chalfin

[1] Mary Oliver, “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?” in Why I Wake Early (2004).

Pity, the Rebel Sense

Photo credit: Michael Paine Photography

My friend Forrest, who takes the term “Renaissance man” to another level, was recently conceiving of directing a play in an outdoor theater sculpted out of the snow of small-town Massachusetts. The play is called Trojan Women, and it is about the disturbing aftermath of the Trojan war. In the preparatory process, Forrest was tripped up by a heretofore unconsidered definition of a certain word with a rather bad rap in the English language: pity. In the translator’s introduction to the play, he found this:

“Pity is a rebel passion. Its hand is against the strong, against the organized force of society, against conventional sanctions and accepted Gods. It is the Kingdom of Heaven within us fighting against the brute powers of the world; and it is apt to have those qualities of unreason, of contempt for the counting of costs and the balancing of sacrifices, of recklessness, and even, in the last resort, of ruthlessness, which so often marks the paths of heavenly things and the doings of the children of light. It brings not peace, but a sword” (Gilbert Murray, introduction to Trojan Women).

This definition is almost contrary to the complacent attitude that we normally associate with pity. So Forrest published a post calling for other perspectives. “Essentially, pity involves looking down on someone else,” he summarized the common understanding. “You have compassion, for their plight, but do not or will not share it.” He cited other quotes and conversations that have suggested different meanings of pity to him, one of which even compares it to love, but his feelings about the word remained mixed. He wondered if it is a confusing and dated way to describe such a worthy passion for justice.

Since he called on me in particular, I was moved to do some serious research into the matter. Which, in my case, meant Biblical exegesis. Lest you question my religious response, I took my cue from the translator’s use of Christian symbols, and the fact that both the play and the New Testament were originally written in Greek.

In Biblical Greek there are two main words connected to pity. One is eleeo, which means to have mercy, compassion, or pity on. This is most often used as a supplication toward an authority figure: Have mercy on me! It is also connected to divine activity—the miraculous power to heal, forgive, liberate, make justice, and reconcile.

The other word is splagchnizomai (try saying that ten times fast…or even just once). It literally means to be moved in your bowels, which connects to the idea of a mother being moved in her womb with compassion for her child. Despite the less than transcendent images that “movement in the bowels” may conjure, the idea is that the bowels occupy roughly the same anatomical space as the womb, and thus provide a seat of compassion for both genders. So, figuratively, splagchnizomai means to be moved with compassion, to feel sympathy, to pity. Splagchnizomai suggests a more human, messy, bodily experience than eleeo. It is the gut-wrenching feeling we get when we see other people suffering.

This is what all that fuss over incarnation is about. Jesus, as the story goes, possessed that divine power of healing, liberating, and so forth, but was also a human being like the rest of us, who felt in his large intestine what it means to suffer leprosy, blindness, insanity, exclusion, oppression, and poverty. Jesus heals and teaches people because he is moved in his bowels—sometimes even when this urge is in conflict with his physical and emotional needs, as it often is for the rest of us (e.g., Mark 1:40-42, 6:30-34). The only thing that makes him different, perhaps, is that in spite of his frustration, he always acts upon that movement in his bowels anyway.

So, what does all this mean about pity? I think the differentiation between pity as condescending and compassion as constructive is recent—helpful in some cases but not necessarily true to the heritage of experiences tied to these words. Traditionally, pity has also been connected to truly feeling and acting upon the suffering of others. It shares the same Latin root as the word “piety,” which means dutifulness. In this case, it means fulfilling one’s duty to those in need, as in 1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

Pity is a useful word because it connotes splagchnizomai, the kind of compassion that is physical and messy. We need to feel others’ suffering on a visceral level, with the mix of both noble and lowly emotions that this entails. Of course, you could feel it and then turn your head aside without taking action. But then the motion of pity in your bowels gets stopped up. To put it bluntly, you get constipated.

Another of Forrest’s friends, Luis, deepened the discussion by expanding on this idea that pity moves. “Pity is all about movement,” he wrote. “[It is] about being moved away and towards—away from acting and thinking selfishly and caring only for one’s own life and safety and towards acting for the sake of ennobling, protecting, and caring for others. It is the difference, in short, between Harry and Voldemort, Gandalf and Saruman, the Sermon on the Mount and the Inquisition. The schism is endlessly reiterated and is by far more telling than simply talking about good vs. evil. It is, of course, a dialogue of power and what power truly is.”

Movement is the most basic form of power. It is the force of lifting a finger, of moving a mountain, or of crossing your arms and sitting down. It is the translation of our volition into the physical world. So, as Luis elaborated, the moral value of power depends on the direction it moves in. Power can be inward moving self-interest that tramples whatever is in its path, or it can be outward moving pity that “acts in interest of something outside of yourself to affirm life and work for a world of conscience.”

If, as I have previously suggested, we ought to consider other kinds of senses to include in our rather limited cultural repertoire of five, I would vote for this one: the sense of movement. Movement is not just something we do, but something that is done to us in our bodies. We are moved in our guts to respond to others out of love; or we are moved by fear and selfishness to withdraw in self-protection. But we cannot help but be moved, just as we cannot help seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching what crosses our paths.

It may be that in the context of the play’s translator, who wrote a hundred years ago, pity was already considered condescending. But even then, it makes perfect sense that he would try to create a sense of shock and reversal in his readers by using the word to connote such revolutionary, anti-status-quo attitudes and actions—and certainly it is by no mistake that he ties it back to its Biblical roots.

The reference to bringing “not peace, but a sword” is from Matthew 10, a passage about radical commitment to something beyond the comfortable structures of society. In fact, it is a commitment to disrupt these structures, for which “the world” will hate and persecute you. However, it is not a call to violence. What Jesus is doing, and calling his disciples to do, may provoke violence and disruption, but that is not its end, much less the means they use to seek that end, which is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven “has been subject to violence” (Matt. 11:12), precisely because it is a kingdom where the innocence of children reigns (Matt. 19:14), where the lowliest are most important (Matt. 18:4), where the poor are welcomed first (Matt. 19:23), where abundance and mercy do not follow worldly logic of who “deserves” it (Matt. 20:1-16). In other words, it is a kingdom created by the movement of pity. In the conclusion of the last chapter mentioned, Matthew 20, when two blind men are shouting for Jesus to have mercy on them (eleeo), people tell them to shut up and be respectful. But Jesus takes pity on them (splagchnizomai) and touches their eyes. “Immediately they received their sight and followed him.” They kept moving.

The Panoply of Marriage


The eleventh month of this year was full of a few of my favorite things: visitors from far-away countries, the color orange, elaborate rituals, inside jokes, golden rings, the number 11 itself, and marriage—my own, finally. It was overwhelmingly sensuous, as all good rituals, along with their preparation and aftermath, should be. So I cannot pick one sense to summarize it, between the silk curtains and flames and waterfalls, the shared soup and carefully decorated cakes, the songs and poetry recited, the reassuring touches and passionate kisses, the flowers and incense of our best offerings to God. It can only be described as a panoply of sensorial experience that causes you to stumble awkwardly or forget your lines as you try, and inevitably fail, to take it all in.

After being a student for so long, the best metaphor I can find for this month of my marriage is the sense that I’ve graduated from something. Yet, perpetual student that I am, I also feel like I’ve only just begun learning, and I didn’t really get in enough classes on medieval female saints or anthropological perspectives on globalization or a thousand other things that I should be an expert on. In this case, I didn’t get in enough classes on how to be tender enough to be emptied out, or on how to open my being to another—along with all his others—in the vulnerability of true love. I guess I’ll just have to figure it out as I go along.

But I did learn a lot at the end of this year. I learned that hosting a group of eight beautifully mismatched gringos in Bogotá is the closest I’ve come to herding cats, and yet I loved every minute of it and every bit of the people who came to share this time with me. I learned how important it is to let go of control precisely at the moments when you think you most need to exercise it. I learned about the power of promising your heart and your damned best to someone in front of a gathered assembly, and how that creates a little ship-like container to carry you along life’s troubled currents together. I learned how humbling the kindness, dedication and helpfulness of my family, friends and even strangers can be. I learned just how much I need these people, sometimes even to keep breathing properly, as I discovered when my little brother successfully prevented me from hyperventilating through his unrivaled ability to crack me up. This sort of kindness will be the subject of a future post using a new sense category that is legendarily located in the bowels.

But for now I will just say, I am grateful, and I am empty-handed, and I am whole.


Time, Among Other Things, is Relative

the forest in michiganBogotá has robbed me of my sense of temporality. Time seems perpetually frozen here, just like my hands. I arrived on January 9, and after almost exactly 9 months, nothing has changed. To be sure, I have moved from one neighborhood to another, made friends, decoded the public transportation system, discovered waterfalls, written new songs, started new jobs, undergone various shifts in my overall emotional state, completed 15 of my 19 ordination essays, and begun in earnest to plan for my wedding. But nothing has changed, because there are no seasons.

I have always enjoyed the changes of season, but I did not realize until recently how important seasons are for my Michigan soul to mark the passing of time. It makes no sense here to say, “That happened in the summer of 2002,” or “Last fall was a time of deep introspection for me,” or, “I hope to learn to play the oboe this coming spring.” Without these markers, time compresses itself into one long, meaningless month that can’t decide if it’s spring, summer or fall.

In Bogotá, people speak of August as windy, and January as a good time to spot the far-off snowcapped mountains because the skies are clearer. They variously identify certain months as rainy, though I haven’t deciphered a clear consensus on which these are. Furthermore, with the unpredictable shifts in global weather patterns of late, even these paltry seasonal classifications have lost some meaning for people. In the end, it seems to me, all year it’s the same thing: highs range from 55-65°F and lows range from 40-50°F and sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t.

As if to compensate, however, Bogotá often invents seasons on a day-to-day basis. It’s something that I cannot quite explain with the usual factors of temperature, cloud cover, humidity and precipitation. It’s something I feel in my body when I walk outside. I never know when I open the door if I will be struck with the sweet, damp air and tentative warmth of the awakening springtime, or with the cold, crisp certainty of autumn, or with the startling, tingling jubilation of a hot summer day. I can sometimes even identify the timing more exactly: “Today is the end of April,” I think nostalgically, although it is October 8. Or, “Today is mid-October,” I say to myself at some point in July.

Clearly these experiences are of no use to my impulse to categorize time in seasonal cycles. But they do help me think about how different ways of sensing and understanding the world are needed in different cultural and ecological settings. My immediate ability to recognize what would be a Michigan spring, summer or fall is quite useful in Michigan—and would be even more so if I were, say, a farmer or a hunter. In Colombia it is significantly less useful.

Likewise, there may be important shifts here in weather, soil, flora and fauna that I do not have the sensorial capacity to perceive. My former anthropology professor and continual mentor, Carol Hendrickson, has reminded me that if I am making a blog about the senses, I ought to take into consideration that other cultures do not necessarily even maintain the same classification of the five senses that mine does. As this article demonstrates, some cultures count more than five, some less, and sometimes these do not correspond to our five (such as in Javanese culture, which considers the senses to include seeing, hearing, talking, smelling and feeling). The point is humbling and well taken. How could I have overlooked this in the initial conception of the blog?

I am certain that such varied classifications of the senses could enrich our perception of the world in ways we do not even realize we were missing from within our particular cultural frame. My “sense” of a certain season when I step out the door is a case in point. For the purpose of my five narrow categories, I have filed this blog entry under “Sense of Touch,” because it involves a certain feeling of touching the air itself. But in reality, the sense of touch is insufficient. “Touch” connotes contact with another material that produces a reaction via the skin. But in reality, I feel the change of season (or the illusion of such) in my whole body, including both the interior and exterior, in terms of the weight of the air, the way it moves in me and I move in it, and the emotions it produces in me.

What on earth do you call that kind of sensing? I do not know, but I hope to do further research on the varieties of sensory perception in different cultures as I develop this blog, and perhaps along the way I will find out.