Taking the Outdoors In

Its a sick-day today at our house.  And a rainy one to boot.  Fevers and coughs, snuggles and sighs, and relentless rains are keeping this family inside.  For a group who typically goes outside no matter what (we are firm believers in the “there is no such thing as bad weather, only being poorly dressed” theory), these days are hard.  Furthermore, the Celtic Christian that I am, I get at my sacred space when I’m out of doors, whether it be in my garden, in our neighborhood greenspace, or trekking a bit beyond to the beaches and burrows of Seattle.

Considering this dynamic, I knew I needed to intentionally employ some resources to sooth and ground our souls, in spite of the sickness.  I’m a tactile person, hence the great benefit I personally receive from our forest restoration work, digging deep into my garden and even my seasonal knitting.  The feel of a tree, a stone or yarn passing through my fingers quiets my Self and wills my soul to show up and be present to my daily realities in ways that invites me to see the Divine all around me.  Synthetics and plastics just don’t cut it; they lack the heft and tactile reality that natural elements embody.  For example, a plastic “toy” rock simply cannot achieve the appropriate weight and texture of a true stone.  Nor do I have the same soul-response to a simulated stick or floral spray.  I need to engage the natural world in real and tangible ways daily; it is how I connect with God, myself and the greater community of things all about me.

It is common-culture in our house to bring the outside in in whatever appropriate and inspiring ways that we can. So while, yes, we have Playmobile Knights fighting battles throughout the house, we also have baskets of chestnuts collected last autumn for counting games and cannonballs, sliced wood blocks, scores of sticks, and easily accessible balls of woolen yarn for spontaneous story string making or finger knitting.  Absolutely, the outside comes in for fun and play.  But we also create intentional spaces and places that with a mere glance reminds us of the goodness of creation and the One behind it all.

NatureTableOne such example of this planned kind of place is our Nature Table.  Our Nature Table is a dynamic display that morphs daily depending on who brings back what from a walk, from school, or from the woods.  It tells the stories of our days.  This dedicated plate contains memories of adventures, tokens of loved ones and connections to sacred places.  I’m delighted when, with fluttering finger strokes, my children recall special memories of our family’s time on the beach that are imbued in a shell.  Or when they want to be the ones to light the daily candle, for as this place is like our family altar, they understand that by bringing light here, they are inviting divine illumination on our lives .  For it is here that we bring natural items to represent prayers and hopes, and reminders of beauty and blessings.


We also have bowlfuls of green stones from Iona, Scotland around the house on tables, next to couches, on bookshelves.  They are kind of like rabbits here, I guess.  These favorite rocks have been rolled, tossed, counted, used for doll’s food, blasted at by Lego ships, the whole gamut of play.  But they are also fingered when we are having hard conversations, or laying sick on the sofa, or reading books.  To some degree, they have become like prayer beads for our family, as fingering them seems to help keep in prayerful mindfulness the stories and events of our lives.  Every member of our family has a favorite stone and we also make a practice of giving away Iona stones to friends who are having birthdays or need something especially special and hopeful.

But, today.  Today, a wearied mom-of-two-sick-kids, I needed something.  I needed to figure out how to get my “gift of grace.”  An important aspect of Celtic Christianity is the refusal to separate the gift of nature from the gift of grace, for both are seen as of and from God.  Celtic scholar, and former warden of the Iona Abbey, John Philip Newell, unpacks this theological perspective further by offering, “The mysteries of creation and redemption are one. They are not in opposition to each other. Holding them together allows for a celebration of the essential goodness of life as a gift from God….” (The Book of Creation, p13).  We were not going to be putting on the rain gear to discover God’s goodness today outside…I had to find some fresh displays inside to buttress my rain-soaked-fever-weary spirit.


While rifling through some of the children’s books, I found some forgotten-about pressed gingko leaves.  These lovely fan-like, yellow leaves offered themselves up to become a garland for the piano in our front room.  By gently tying regular knots around each stem, and guesstimating equal spacing, we created a simple and natural bunting that is not only unique and attractive, but also a reminder of this neighborhood we call home, for ginko trees line the avenue to which our small road connects.

By bringing in something in from the outside world, we are creating reminders of where we are.  As a result of big-box home stores going global and all the home decorating catalogs that infiltrate our front doors, our home interiors can begin to reflect a homogeneous look and feel.  We could be inside and really be anywhere.  Our regional landscapes give us bold reminders of where we live and inform a sense of our identity and spirit.  This connection to place is critical in a global, technological driven era.  Simple objects from just outside your front door can distinguish your homescape and provide a native anchor to your home.


Our children recently learned how to make the Ojo de Dios (Eye of God) in Sunday School.  This weaving craft is surprisingly simple and meditative.  The repetitious pattern of bringing the yarn over and under the sticks is calming and centering.  Today, of course, no popsicle sticks could be found anywhere in our house, so I went out to our covered front porch where I keep a decorative stash of cut branches from my parents’ Red twig dogwoods out at their place in Snohomish.  I cut larger than normal segments, and my son nestled into the arm of the couch to ensue a time of creating with sticks and wool yarn.  Over, under, turn. Over, under, turn. Over, under, turn.  His cough actually slowed down.  He relaxed into the rhythm of co-creating with elements from the natural world. He commented on how different it was to do this project with real twigs compared to prefabricated popsicle sticks.  It required more focus and dexterity.  But the end result is beautiful and is already hanging over the interior of our front door, a visual reminder of God’s watchful presence in our lives.

Our Family Cairn-stones from the WA coast representing each of our family members

Our Family Cairn-stones from the WA coast representing each of our family members

My sense is that most of us live with items from special landscapes throughout our homes.  While outside, we are naturally drawn to look and touch.  While our feet carry and tarry us, we scan and search for a treasure to remind us of this time of feeling connected to the Source of it All.  Reflect upon occasions when you have walked along beaches and looked for drift wood or shells, or hiked through the mountains and come across interesting rocks or sticks.  These experiences tend to be imbued with a sense of calm and wonder. Sure, you can buy up tons of cast resin shells, coral and such from West Elm and Pottery Barn, and they will look wonderful on your shelves.  But there is something priceless about the seek and find of a natural object that comes into our home to serve as a reminder of an interconnectedness to the Creator and the created world all around us.

Indeed, I found what I needed today.  My gift of grace came by way of reminders and representations of the blessings that have come by way of surrounding landscapes, and being held and known by my children’s hands.

Please share how you intentionally create spaces in your home to collect and display found, natural items.  Is this a practice you regularly engage?   How do these objects/spaces make you feel?  

Tulips collected from our front garden is a reminder to be prayerfully present to our neighborhood.

Tulips collected from our front garden is a reminder to be prayerfully present to our neighborhood.

Creating Sacred Spaces – Do We Really Need Churches?

My friend, Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates, reflects on the deep value of the outside world for inducing awareness of God all around us. This inherent inclination to see the divine in the beauty and goodness of Nature was a prominent practice of the early Celtic Church. God is revealed to us through the created world; how will you get outside today to encounter the Creator?


Our annual Celtic retreat is coming. We hold it in August on a beautiful parcel of undeveloped land on Camano Island north of Seattle. There are no buildings. Our sanctuary is a cathedral of trees – cedar and maple and alder that rise above is in a breathtaking green canopy. I particularly love to sit in the early mornings before anyone else is awake, drinking in the beauty of God’s awe inspiring creation. This is a sacred space for me, what is often called a thin space where the veil between heaven and earth seems to be translucent and the glory of God shines through in a special way.

Special places where we feel almost physically embraced by the love of God are important places of prayer for all of us. Be they a comfortable old armchair we return to day by day, a special place to walk or a…

View original post 521 more words

Cheasty Greenspace: A Place of Goodness and Grace

The detective called inquiring after whether or not we had found “anything” in the woods since the fatal shooting that occurred near Cheasty Greenspace/Mt.View on February 4, 2013.  While we have certainly unearthed some curious, and somewhat disturbing, artifacts during our forest restoration work parties (lined up pairs of shoes next to an axe, dismembered dolls, rosaries, and large singular bones to name a few), no, we had not found the weapon involved in this fatal incident.  He went on to inform us that a team of officers with metal detectors and a K-9 unit would be canvassing the area the following day.  Mind you, just a few months ago, there was the horrendous reality check that came along with 40 search and rescue volunteers and cadaver K-9 units looking for the remains of a young women in Cheasty/North, so I was already edgy about the resurfacing street-cred of our Rainier Valley forest.  However, I don’t think I was prepared for the potential emotional unraveling the impact of this dynamic in our beloved forest would have on me.

You see, we have been faithfully involved in the reclamation and restoration of this urban forest for the past six years.  We have hosted over 80 community work parties dedicated to the vision of reimagining this landscape as a safe and welcoming resource for our neighborhood.  We have written for, and received, grants that have funded our hope to build trails within this 10 acre woods that would connect neighbors, encourage walking to public transit, and provide local access to nature.  And the beauty that has resulted from this grand grassroots effort is as real and glorious as the noon-day sun!

What used to be a landscape filled with invasive plants, such as English ivy and Himalayan Blackberry,  and illicit behaviors, such as prostitution rings and illegal drug trades, has been replaced with the balance that true restoration brings.  Our native Northwest understory is thriving due to the absence of ivy.  Children now play in the forest, and their laughter mixes with the chatter of songbirds and the cries of our resident Red Tail Hawks.  The trails are a resource to neighboring youth organizations who now can bring their students into their own backyards to study, learn and just be in nature.  Our neighbors, who have worked literally shoulder to shoulder for years to see the effects of this hope-filled vision, have become a networked community of friends and families.  These woods have become apart of the vibrant, social fabric of our neighborhood.

And so my heart was heavy when I saw dozens of marked and unmarked police vehicles lined up against our trees.  My spirit sunk when I witnessed uniformed men, shoulder to shoulder, working their way through freshly budded Indian Plum, Trillium and Sword Fern.  Their presence conjured up the spirit of negativity that brooded over this place for so many years, the very spirit that we have worked so hard to drive away from this place.  I felt my repose unravel and give way to the erosive work of despair and hopelessness.  “You can never change these woods,” the line-up of police cars seemed to sneer. “These woods will always be the cover for dark deeds!  No vision for hope and help can change that!”

I awoke the next day to clouds over my head and heart, hardly able to utter a morning prayer, but with the imperative to get out of bed and prepare for our monthly work party we host.  Begrudgingly, I set out shovels, buckets and First Aid kit.  Grumbling, I laid out our registration table materials and sign up sheets.  Demoralized, I wondered if this slow and steady, long term effort to affect change in our little corner of the world was even worth it anymore.  Yup.  My little pet dark cloud was beginning to rain on me.

However, contrary to Saturday’s Seattle forecast (and my attitude), sun began to beam on South East Seattle and neighbors began to convene at our home to gather up tools and gloves, and log their dedicated time towards making a tangible difference.  And then Ed approached, scuffed toe-shoes ambling down our sidewalk, threadbare coated-arms raised in greeting and dusty top hat ready to blow away with the wind.  I presumed he was on his way past our home to visit one of our neighbors, who are involved in some unsavory practices…but he stopped.  Right in front of me.  And smiled.  Turns out, he was here for our work party, but his car ran out of gas and stalled in the middle of the street, just up from our main trail head into the woods.  Can I help, he asked?  My heart softened towards Ed; of course, I can help, but give me a minute to kickstart the volunteers and get the work party going.

Lesson #1: It always amazes me what kind of help shows up in a minute. The momentary pause before immediately responding to a need that you know you can meet is almost an invitation to allow those around you to participate in an assistance that is easy to presume only you can do.  All that to say, when I was able to finally direct my attention back towards Ed, Neighbor Mike had already fixed him up with a five-gallon gas container and a Seattle Parks worker was ready in the wings to tow his truck to safety.  I felt a sun beam penetrate my hopeless haze.  This community that has been created through a hope for the common good, without question, took care of a stranger in our midst.  My heart tried to soar with the pride for my ‘hood, but quite honestly, I figured I would never see Ed again and that sense of being “had” was enough to tether my fragile mood.

2013-04-06 21.42.16

I followed the last volunteers up into the woods and was mentally making a game plan for the variety of ferns we would be planting (grown by spores from a forest friend), and how we would disperse the five cubic yards of mulch, when I was called out of my reverie by the beating of a drum.  The repeated rhythm was coming from the trail head where we would be working for the bulk of our work party.  I crested the trail into view of the forest’s entrance and there was Ed, top hat and all, sitting on a stone, surrounded by a medley of musical instruments and a growing number of children.  Ed smiled at me and proceeded to play music for the duration of our work party.  Trombones, clarinets, bongos, tamborines, all were enlisted to lift the spirits of the volunteers and provide a special joy for the children.  Oh, forgot to mention the unique detail that we were the host-site for a local preschool co-op parent group who wanted to participate in a local Earth Month volunteer opportunity.  We had dozens of preschoolers running around the woods on Saturday.  And it would be important to note, too, that the sun shone during our entire work party.  Sunshine.  Children.  Music.  Ed.  My heart was unfettered and finally flew.

2013-04-06 10.40.25

Now, some who knew of these back to back unique and unplanned occurrences probably could just attribute it to the Wheel of Fortune, for that would explain such a social spectrum in Cheasty Greenspace.  However, I’m one who is always interested in the quiet cadences of God and what one would call a coincidence, I’m eager to see the synchronicity.  Essentially, this means that when you really need something, and often when you really want something, it is there.  Furthermore, the ancient practice of pilgrimage maintains that help, and the divine answer, are most often found in the company of a stranger.  Pilgrimage is this radical practice that turns upside down the ways of the world; in each other and in the strays and strangers en route, pilgrims meet-not the paupers-but the princes.  In the gestures and greetings in gravely roadside places, prayers are answered, and what you are in need of is given.  In this nontraditional way of journey-living, the road taken to a better place is one where divisions are bridged: race, status, and gender are irrelevant.  I would further go on to say that this mode of being also exists in Nature.  For in the woods, all are recipients of the goodness and grace inherent in nature.  All are apart of the greater community of things.  And to a degree, all become Kings.

2013-04-06 10.40.09

Lesson #2: Rough, worn edges and the grime of a harder-than-mine-life under the fingernails are trumpets heralding the presence of a stranger who has the potential to deliver great gifts, should we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.  Ed transformed my day and realigned my hope-filled vision for Cheasty Greenspace.  He was a vehicle of grace to me and his music was like incense, cleansing and purifying the bullet-weary woodland air.

Following the work party, volunteers (including Ed!) gathered under the large tent we had set up in our drive way.  As the expected rains began to pour down, we shared meager cookies and rich laughter together.  The rains were washing away the sundry steps of the officers and were watering our newly planted ferns.  And we, we were an intimate community of Kings, believing and working together, shoulder to shoulder, for a better place.