The burden and joy of love

Last night the wind kept catching something metal on the industrial building across the street, and it would rotate with a mournful metal screech – not high-pitched as a dog whistle but lower, like a repetitive sharp note on an alto saxophone. Almost, but not quite, melodic; definitely hypnotic.

It was 3:30 a.m. and I was wide awake. And for some reason, my mind kept reaching back into my life and casting up memories that have long lain untouched.

Screeeeeech:  Hubert Humphrey was the first person I voted for who lost a presidential election. I was in, maybe, second grade – my friend Eleanor and I were his lone supporters in our class. (In case you’ve forgotten, he lost to Nixon.) There were protests against the war in Vietnam, in my town as across the country. Walking home from school that day, I saw them in Washington Park, despite the weather. They were not an angry mob. Mostly, they stood in small groups, or walked up and down the sidewalk with their signs. I waved at them, as I did every day. Sometimes, I recognized people I knew waving back.

Screeeeeech: I was with my mom and siblings, going door-to-door asking for donations to support The Cornerstone, a drug half-way house where “hippies” received care, counseling, and had a safe place to come down from whatever drugs they were doing. An older man in a sleeveless undershirt, sitting on his front porch, spit off to the side when I approached him. He smiled as he said, “I’ll tell you what, missy. I’ll give you money if you’ll use it to buy strychnine and feed it to the lot of them!” I was confused, too young to reconcile what seemed a friendly demeanor with words that didn’t seem friendly (though I didn’t know what strychnine was). I held out my donation canister, and took a hesitant step forward. I was grateful when my Mom stopped me, saying, “Jen, let’s move on.”

Screeeeeech: In college, my Dad and I joined the protest when Vice President Bush visited a local campus. I was protesting the military-industrial complex and promoting nuclear disarmament. Dad was focused on protesting Bush’s connection to Big Oil. Most of my friends vied for tickets to the pro-Reagan/Bush rally inside the Fieldhouse, and several of them told me the protest was a stupid waste of time. It was a chilly day, as we waited for the VP and his entourage to come outside after his speech. I moved closer to my Dad, and he took my hand and held it in his.

Screeeeeech: 1991, racial tensions were high in my home town, where crosses had been burned. The city had responded by creating the “constructive integration plan”, to affirmatively bring more diversity to the homogenous city. My father, one of the authors and vocal proponents of the plan, regularly received angry messages, some threats of violence or death, on his answering machine at home. I lived in another city, and I worried about my parents. My dad said not to worry, mostly people just needed to blow off steam. But the first time I heard the threats myself, I understood the word “terrorism” in a new way.




Eventually, I drifted into sleep. It wasn’t restful, and I woke again to the still dark November morning. I felt an oppressive weight – the same that has been on my heart for weeks now. How, I wondered, will I find a way to celebrate Thanksgiving – more important, how will I find thanksgiving in a heart burdened with both fear and worry?

And then my phone trilled at me. And again. And again.

Early morning messages of care and gratitude from friends and loved ones, near and far were my first experiences of the holiday. For me, politics have always been personal; my parents modeled compassionate activism, and I am more proud of that, and them, today than I have ever been. The political ideals I care about: freedom, equality, peace, care for the earth, justice – these are not just words or concepts. The extent to which each one of us experiences them is the measure of how we, as a society, have succeeded in meeting our purpose on this planet.

And all of it, every bit of it, stems from Love. That makes it not just a burden on my heart, but also a joy. In all my recent moments of fear and worry, I’ve forgotten that love is the piece I’ve been called to. That we’ve all been called to. Love in practice may sometimes be a weight to carry, but it also the very fount of joy.

Wishing each of you a Happy Thanksgiving – and much love!

John 15:12
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I loved you.

John 15:17
This is My command to you: Love one another.

Romans 12:10
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Outdo yourselves in honoring one another.

Romans 13:8
Be indebted to no one, except to one another in love, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the Law.

Romans 13:10
Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.

Galatians 5:14
The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”




Super, Moon

The moon is a loyal


It never leaves. It’s always

there, watching steadfast,

knowing us in our light and

dark moments, changing

forever, just as we do. Every

day it’s a different version of

itself. Sometimes weak and

wan, sometimes strong and

full of light. The moon

understands what it means

to be human.

Uncertain, Alone. Cratered

by imperfections.

–Tahereh Mafi

I intended to work until early afternoon on Sunday, but got caught up in one of those small crises that sometimes happen – not a big deal, but consuming a disproportionate amount of time. When I finally walked out the front door to head home, it was just after five o’clock p.m.  I was weary; it had been a long and emotional week, with the presidential election and its concerning aftermath, coupled with long hours at work.

Back when I worked on a college campus, I developed a habit after long days like this – walk purposefully, with my head down, so I didn’t accidentally make eye contact with anyone who might have a question or concern. I’m not proud of it, but some days it was the only way I made it out of the work environment. Halfway across the parking lot on Sunday, I realized that I was doing this and laughed at myself. I lifted my head and noted that the only vehicle in the lot was mine – it was highly unlikely that anyone would by lying in wait to prevent my escape home!

The sky that greeted my eyes when I finally looked up from my feet was…spectacular. The range of colors was breathtaking, with striations of clouds colored pink, lavender and red. To my right, the setting sun was a giant ball of  orange fire. To my left, the rising moon was a huge, full, perfectly round orb, glowing white.

I have a long history of taking comfort from the moon. It isn’t that I don’t love the sun – what’s not to love about that gorgeous star that makes life possible for us here on our blue-green marble? But I can’t identify with the sun, I’m way too introverted for that. I’m much more like the moon: reflective, changing, “cratered by imperfections.”

As the poem above asserts: the moon understands what it means to be human. Understands what it is to feel surrounded by darkness and often impenetrable space. Understands that sometimes it feels all you are capable of is reflection, shining someone/something else’s light back at the world. Understands that there are times when it appears to all, even ourselves, that our light has completely gone out.

And yet, the very next night, searching, we find the faintest sliver of light returning.

It is then we remember that the moon has powers and gifts not always visible to the eye (tides that ebb and flow, the stable tilt of our earth’s axis, the gift of workable metals). And we, imperfect though we are, have ours as well. We each have powers to wield staunchly, gifts to share unstintingly. Even those of us most cratered with imperfection are also capable of countenancing light.

Holding onto this thought, I take a hopeful step forward.


The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished.  -Ming-Dao Deng



Tertium Quid


Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. – Martin Luther King Jr.


I work in an unusual setting – a Franciscan ecospirituality center, founded by a community of Catholic nuns who were inspired by the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. Most of my work days, like anyone’s, are filled with administrative tasks and efforts to react quickly and appropriately to the small daily crises that arise. However, parts of most days are also intellectually stimulating and/or spiritually challenging in ways that stretch me toward greater understanding or deeper self-reflection.

In particular, one of my colleagues is a scholar and theologian whose intellectual capacities and sheer volume of knowledge dwarf mine and, often, leave me speechless. She has a propensity to pepper conversations with Latin, Greek, or German phrases, which she is then required to explain to me. One such phrase is the concept of the “tertium quid“.

Tertium quid: a third thing. There is a long history of the ways this term has been used or applied in legal settings and in theology. But I have come to think of it as a way of seeking something elusive in our polarized culture: a third way. Not one extreme or it’s opposite, but a wholly different thing, connected but distinct from both. The third way.

Here’s a brief  personal example: I grew up with a tendency to see the world as somewhat hostile to me. This view came through in automatic, frustrated thoughts like “why does nothing ever work out for me?” or “seriously, the universe hates me!”. One day a friend dared me to spend the whole day believing that the universe loves me and that everything was geared toward cooperating with me. It turned out to be a pretty great day. I soon found I couldn’t sustain the belief that the world was ordered for my particular benefit. However, once I stepped outside my entrenched view that it was actively hostile toward me, I could no longer sustain that thinking either. Enter the tertium quid, the third way, of thinking about this: the universe isn’t about me. I am, instead, one small soul within it, and the degree to which I relax and cooperate with it determines, in large part, how well the day goes! Taking myself out of the center of my worldview helps me tremendously (when I remember to do it, rather than fall into old habits of thought).

At this moment in our country, in this incredibly divisive political climate which is proving toxic to our humanity, and physically dangerous as well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tertium quid. Between the polarized ends of extreme views, there must be a third way.

I am guilty of not seeking it either as consistently or as passionately as necessary. During what, in Iowa, has been a full two years of constant political haranguing between the two parties and their almost comical (if it wasn’t so hurtful) need to force either/or thinking upon us, it has been very difficult to seek a third way. We’ve been so rabid to get our points across that we haven’t given any real time, or effort, to listening. At times, when we have tried to speak, we have given up because of the willfully deaf ears our voices spoke to. Far too often, we have had neither open hearts nor open minds.

Two days post-election, I have no panacea that can cure us – just a profound sadness, a deep fear of the chasm opening further between the “two Americas” we keep hearing about, and a heartfelt longing for us to find ways to heal. Right now, it feels like we are being presented with two roads: the Avenue of Violence and Division or the Boulevard of Dominance and Control. I prefer to seek, and pray we find, a Third Way.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

–Linda Hogan

River Water In My Veins

The Mississippi, the Ganges, and the Nile,… the Rocky Mountains, the Himmaleh, and Mountains of the Moon, have a kind of personal importance in the annals of the world.      –Henry David Thoreau

Image 3

I could not see the river from the yard of my childhood home, high on the bluffs of Dubuque, Iowa. Yet the Mississippi was a felt presence there, always that force by which I oriented myself in the world. Even at play, I paused for the low sad call of a barge whistle. In the Dubuque of my youth, there were the flats and the bluffs, dividing rich from poor; there was the north end and the south end, dividing Germans from Irish. But relation to the river defined them all.

All of my early life was lived along the Mississippi. We left Dubuque for Davenport and Hastings, MN, but both were Mississippi towns. For the four years we lived in Ohio, in a town along the Little Miami River, I yearned for THE river. Despite the fact that the Little Miami is a National Scenic Waterway, I couldn’t appreciate it. The Mississippi River was the water in my blood.

A couple of years ago, on a bike ride with friends in the Twin Cities, we stopped and gazed at the Mississippi, from a point high above it. My friend, V, born and raised in St. Louis, released a satisfied sigh and said, “My river!” I laughed, having just had the same experience – an internal relaxation like that of coming home, accompanied by a proprietary love. Neither of us owns the river, but we both love it fiercely.

Today, in North Dakota, there are people fighting to protect the Missouri River from the Dakota Access Pipeline. People for whom that river speaks of life and home. People whose histories are inextricably bound to the land through which the Missouri wends its slow passage. My heart is with them, because their fight is my fight too – the same “black snake” is intended to pass through our rich Iowa farmland, and then underneath my river, too. Their fight is my fight, and is bigger even than us: because water is life for ALL.

I can’t believe in the safety of this pipeline despite the many assurances we’ve been given by the private company building it and by our elected officials who support it. I can’t believe in it because the history of pipelines gives the lie to their assurances. Pipelines virtually always leak at some point. It doesn’t take long to learn this – check out this list of pipeline accidents in the US since 2000, if you doubt that this pipeline poses a danger to the waters of our rivers, our groundwater, our soil. Look at the pictures of the aftermath of these leaks and explosions – I did, and they broke my heart.

There are many issues and opinions associated with this pipeline. I don’t claim to have all of the information, much less all of the answers, though I am educating myself. What I do claim is my love for one special river and the ways that river feeds, slakes the thirst of, and enhances the earth and its people. And because of that love, I hear in the depths of my heart the voices raised in care for other special places: other rivers, waterways, beloved and/or sacred lands that are endangered by human action.

What I do claim is my belief that water is the sacred right of all creatures on this earth – not to be squandered uselessly, endangered through greed, or owned by corporations.

This blog is as faithful a record of my inner life as I am able to share publicly. I don’t write about issues because they are in the news, or because I think I have either the right or the authority to tell anyone else what to think, feel or do. I write about issues that I am currently grappling with myself, that are affecting my emotional and/or spiritual life. In that sense of giving voice to my inner life, I feel called to make this declaration: I stand with Standing Rock. I stand with them because my heart and my head and my love for this earth and the Mississippi won’t let me remain seated. As the old adage goes, we must stand for something, or we’ll fall for anything. I’m not falling for the oil snake, despite its well-heeled salesmen.