Monday, April 29, 2013

Earth Season

photo by Jaye Wile Sewall
Earth Day may have been last week, but  it seems to me that all of spring is Earth Season, and I want to stay playing outside.

Jesus spoke often of the natural world: lilies of the field, fig trees, fish, seeds, sheep, sparrows, wheat fields, wolves, wind, and water. The psalms call us to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness," and that's not just about stained glass windows and exquisite liturgy but about seeing God's hand in all the complex beauty of the universe, down to the flowers in our neighborhoods, the birds tending their nests, and, as I said a week ago, the soil itself. Genesis tells us that when God looked at all of creation, God saw that it was "very good." We need to be out there in the midst of it with our children.

So today I'm going to go back to my suggestion of last week that we build fairy houses with our children: it gets them playing in the dirt, hunting for natural objects to help build and beautify the houses they make; it introduces them to the different textures and weights of such things as stones and sticks, leaves and flowers, bark and shells -- and it satisfies their need to "make something." (Theologians write about how human beings are "co-creators" with God; all you have to do is watch  children draw or build to know the truth of their inherent creativity.)

For those of you with access to sand beaches, you've probably already built sand castles with your children. Fairy houses are an inland version. The only "rule" is that you are supposed to use only natural objects in the creation of these houses (although my very favorite book about a fairy house is one from my own childhood: Twig, by Elizabeth Orton Jones, about a little girl who makes a fairy house in her small back yard using an empty tomato can that she sets under a dandelion, so I would say use whatever you find in your own environment....).

The fairy house pictured above is one that my sister-in-law built in her garden -- children aren't the only creators, after all -- and you can see her exquisite attention to aesthetic detail.  When I took my grandson, at about nine years old, to the pine grove on Mackworth Island to build a fairy house, he was interested in the solidity of his architecture, in his sturdy stone floor and square windows and solid walls. He didn't care about the shells and flowers the island offered; he built to last. Clearly, everyone's vision and implementation will be different.

Doing this kind of creative play in the natural world may be one of the best prayers we can offer, among the best gifts we can give to the children in our care. So go play in the dirt again!

(And, if your children do make fairy houses, send photos so we can all see them!)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Holy ground

Today is Earth Day.

Earth Day closely follows the anniversary of explosions that destroyed the lives of participants and spectators at the Boston Marathon, and it reminds us of the violence we humans do to this good Earth as well as to one another.

How do we raise children on this fragile, damaged planet, amid the chaos caused by human violence? Despair and depression can overwhelm us and pull even the littlest ones into our downward spiral. The ways in which we respond -- what we do today and in the days ahead -- will leave its imprint on the children entrusted to our care.

So on this Earth Day, I'm going to make a simple suggestion:  go play in the dirt, and (quite literally) ground yourself and your children in the earth. 

In case you haven't been following recent research reports in journals such as Neuroscience or Discover or various gardening magazines, dirt is the new healing agent.

Some researches call dirt the "natural antidepressant" because bacteria found in it (Microbacterium vaccae) triggers the release of serotonin in our brains, and as Robyn Francis writes from Permaculture College Australia,  "Serotonin is a happy chemical, a natural anti-depressant that strengthens the immune system." In other words, playing in dirt is good for both soul and body.

The bombings in Boston -- bombings around the world --  are horrifying reminders that, even with the best intentions, we can't protect our children. The only response I know is to give our children and grandchildren the best life we can. 

Give them the Earth on this Earth Day. 

A few ideas:

* My first instinct was to say, "Plant something, whether in your yard or in a container on your windowsill," but if your children are too young to care yet about gardening,  just give them a small shovel or sturdy spoon and a container of some sort, and find them a patch of dirt to dig around in.

* Build a fairy house with found objects from your yard or neighborhood (if this concept is new to you, google "simple fairy houses" for a wide range of options)

* Create a "construction site" in the dirt and invite the children to dig a foundation; if you have toy trucks, bring them out, too, to help with the project.

* And here's a link to 50 suggested Earth Day activities with children:  <>

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bread and Blessings

If you want to sell  your house, I was once told, bake bread before potential buyers come; it makes a house smell like home. Ah, I thought, so if we actually want our homes to smell like home even when we don't want to sell them, we should bake bread anyway? Of course.

This print from German artist Kathe Kollwitz hangs in our living room. The mother's posture has always reminded me of a priest bending down to offer the consecrated bread: "Take, eat....the bread of heaven...." Bread, it seems to me, must be the food of angels.

Today my workshop at the prison was canceled because the women were quarantined, so I sat in the living room across from this print and read Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. There's a passage where the narrator recounts a childhood memory of watching the grown-ups deal with a burned-down church, salvaging what they could, burying destroyed Bibles and hymnals. At one point, his father "brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands.... I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him.... I remember it as communion, and I believe that's what it was."  The passage made me weep, remembering times of sharing bread and blessings with my young children years ago, and all the years of loss and gift and blessing since then. The accumulated years of bending down to feed a child began to prepare me for offering the Eucharist. Sometimes it's hard to know which is more sacred.

This Sunday's gospel tells my favorite story in all of Scripture: Jesus' post-resurrection invitation to breakfast on the beach, where he is cooking fish and bread over a charcoal fire for his confused and uncertain disciples. On the hillside for 5000 people, at his Last Supper in the upper room at Passover, on the road to Emmaus, on the beach -- in all these places, before and after his death and resurrection, our Lord took bread, blessed it and shared it.

In our call to follow in his Way, it seems to me that baking bread with our children, filling the home with its aroma, then sharing it with them offers wordless blessing. There are a lot of really lovely bread recipes out there, but even buying frozen bread dough and starting with that will work its holy magic.

So sometime during this Easter season, bake bread with your children, knowing that it carries within it deep and inexplicable blessings for the home, for the children, and for you. -- And, in case you worry, the blessings far outweigh the carbs.