Looking for Lake Huron

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, September 9, 2018

Our summer vacation trip this August took us up into Canada. We spent time in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. We also went camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, and we stayed at a modest family resort just west of the park where I used to go with my family when I was a boy.

We thought of this as our ‘old rocks’ excursion. Last year we went to the Pacific Northwest and saw ‘new rocks.’ Last summer we saw volcanoes of recent geologic origin in various states of formation and explosive destruction. We saw Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, and Mt. St Helen’s. We saw the Cascades and Olympic peaks, we saw lava fields and calderas. It was good; it was very, very good.

This summer, on the other hand, we wanted to see the oldest rocks in North America. There they are north and west of Toronto: the Canadian Shield. Once there had been a mountain range tall as the Himalayas, perhaps even taller: the Grenville Orogeny (Ellen taught me that). But that was a million years ago. Its rocks have been buried and compressed, folded and eroded. They don’t rise very tall today, but where the rocks are exposed you see beautiful colors in folded layers, pinks and blacks, whites and silver flashes of mica.

That’s what we saw that this summer, and it was good, just as God pronounced of creation in the Genesis story. It was very, very good.

As we planned the trip, we saw another possibility. Maybe we could see Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes. There it was, we could see on the map, just west of that family camp where I went as a boy. I’d never seen Lake Huron, or I couldn’t remember that I ever had. I was sure we never went to see it when I was a boy. So we decided to add that to our trip.

We’ll drive over to the edge of Lake Huron, we said to ourselves. We’ll see the big lake stretched out before us in all its majesty. We like big water. There’s something awesome about it, something that fills you with wonder – something spiritual.

The day came, and we set off to see Lake Huron. It’s a huge lake: the fifth largest freshwater lake in the world — about the size of West Virginia. How could we miss it?

Our first attempt was to drive to a place called Honey Harbor. (I’m not making that up.) It proved a delightful town. It had a bit of a resort feel. There were signs for marinas, places to buy or repair or store boats, places to get ice cream. We could tell we were near some big water.

But did we see it? Not really. We saw a finger of water with a few docks and a few boats. In another place we saw a marina with more boats and another finger of water. But we saw no broad expanse, just a sliver here and a finger there.

We tried again. We drove farther away from people, beyond the 45th parallel. We drove northwest on the Trans-Canada Highway, a well-paved four-lane, limited access highway. You can’t see Lake Huron from the Trans-Canadian. So we exited and turned west on a long road out towards O’Donnell Point along Twelve Mile Bay – or so it said on the map.

We drove straight at the lake –- or straight at where the map showed the lake was. We drove a very long way, mostly no cars in sight. We saw some beautiful exposed rocks. From some signs, we realized we were on land owned by indigenous peoples. Eventually we came to an enormous marina. There were hundreds of cars and hundreds of boats. There was another long, narrow finger of water on which the marina sat. We could imagine getting in a boat and going out that long finger and eventually it seemed we would get to the big water, the broad breath-taking expanse. But we couldn’t see it that day, not from where we were.

We never did see Lake Huron that day. Or, rather, we saw only little bits of it.

We realized the shoreline of Lake Huron where we were is like lace, thousands and thousands of little islands and inlets. The roads take you to places to dock or store a boat. But to see the lake in all its majesty, you have to get into a boat and go out onto the water, out some distance. You can’t go just by land. We weren’t prepared to do that on this particular day. So it was a little disappointing. We saw wonderful things, but we didn’t really see Lake Huron.

As I’ve thought about that day, its many joys and its one less-than-perfect accomplishment, I’ve come to think of the excursion as very much like the experience of my spiritual life.

Much of life, I think, is like driving on the Trans-Canadian Highway, or like driving on I-95 or Route 1. You can get somewhere pretty fast. You can deal with the necessities of ordinary life. You can get to work or to a store or to a friend’s house. But the majesty and mystery of life, maybe not so much. That majesty and mystery may be nearby, but the highway won’t take you there. You have to go looking for the big water, and you may not find it. Maybe you have to get into a boat or walk a rocky path. Maybe you have to go to Meeting.

There are many days I’m looking for the big water. There are many days I’m looking for the experience of the divine, the presence of God, the holy. More often than not I never quite see the big water. I might catch glimpses. I might see bits of water through some trees. I might see boats that maybe could get me there, but they aren’t my boats, and most of the ones I see aren’t being used by anyone. I keep hoping to come round a bend and see the big water open up. I keep hoping the next bend will give me the long view, maybe even the eternal view, and take my breath away. Most days my view of the holy is blocked by dozens and dozens of bits of ordinary life.

For all the talk of God in the Bible, there are only a few instances where God makes a direct appearance. Think Moses and the burning bush. But that only happens a few times. And most of those few instances are times when someone simply heard God’s voice. Think Noah, or Samuel, or Paul. Most of the time people are just trying to find out what God wants them to do without ever catching even a glimpse.

Quakers often talk of being seekers. We talk of seeking God. We talk of stilling ourselves, quieting ourselves, getting off the highway away from the buzz, hoping to hear God’s voice. We know it takes effort, practice, prayer, waiting worship.

What’s more, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes we go through spiritual dry spells. Other times the big water, the holy, takes us by surprise. But we know, don’t we, there’s no direct route there, no simple turn-off scenic vista that promises us a view of God.

Still, I know the big water is out there. I know it is, and it’s worth looking for. It is worth the seeking. I know have to get off the highway. I know I have to go out the long peninsulas. I know I have to find ways to go out onto the water.

I’m glad we went looking for Lake Huron that day, even though we only caught tiny glimpses of it.

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Quaker Values?

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, July 1, 2018

Quaker values are on my mind this morning – that phrase ‘Quaker Values.’

Partly Quaker Values are on my mind because the last week or two – or really the last year or two – have been especially trying for me and I know for many others. What’s in the saddle in Washington, in the White House and in the Congress, are values that are not my values – not ‘Quaker Values.’

Quaker values are also on my mind this morning for another reason. We had a visit from Adrian Brody this week. He’s the newish Head of School at Ramallah Friends School. Some others from Friends United meeting came with him: Eden Grace (Global Ministries) and Dan Kashtelan (Communications).

Ramallah Friends School was founded in 1889 as the Girls Training Home. (Quakers had been educating girls in Ramallah for a decade or two even before that.) The parallel Boys Training Home was founded in 1910. Later, the two schools were joined together. Ramallah Friends School was founded by Quakers from Maine long before Israel/Palestine was a place of unrelenting strife.

It is today a remarkable school. Much of Adrian Brody’s presentation focused on RFS as a vibrant school for girls and boys, one committed to excellence in education. He described it in these terms:

  • It has a commitment to academic excellence
  • It’s graduates go on to excellent colleges and universities in the U.S., U.K., and Europe.
  • The education it provides is hands on, experiential.
  • It focuses on the whole person.
  • Ethical concerns are central to its curriculum and community life.
  • It has a real commitment to sustainability.

In listening to him, we heard many of the same terms and themes we might have heard if the presentation had been about Friends School Portland, or about Westtown School where my son Robbie attends.

Only after he had fully presented the school in these terms did Adrian pull back the focus to talk about the school in its context – the context of Palestine today. The school is in Ramallah, now a busy city just 10 km from Jerusalem. The headquarters of the Palestinian Authority are nearby. Adrian Brody talked about the Green Line, the wall that separates Israel from the West bank, the encroaching settlements. He talked about endless checkpoints for Palestinians, even within the West Bank, and about armed Israeli soldiers. He talked about frequent demonstrations and rubber bullets – sometimes, real bullets. It was painful to take in. It certainly is a challenging context for a school.

On their website it says this:

“Despite prolonged political unrest, Israeli military occupation and economic hardships today, the Ramallah Friends School continues to demonstrate the resilience and patience of the Palestinian community keeping alive the hope and vision of a better future.“

It’s also a Quaker School: Ramallah Friends School. Adrian reminded us that it is difficult to sustain this because no one on the staff is a Quaker, and there is only one Quaker family left in Ramallah. (There are frequent Friends visitors – Friends in residence. Martha Hinshaw Sheldon, from our Meeting, has been a Friend in residence there.)

So what makes this a Quaker school – beyond its having been founded by Friends, and beyond its continued support from American Quakers through Friends United Meeting? The answer we heard – and I think it’s a sensible answer in some ways is this:

The school is committed to affirming and teaching and embodying Quaker Values.

And so, towards the end of our discussion with Adrian Brody, we found ourselves talking about “Quaker Values.”

“Truth, Simplicity, Peace, Equality, Tolerance, Service, Creativity, Discipline, Justice.” That’s the list on the Ramallah Friends School website under “Living Our Quaker Values.”

That list is very like the SPICES list of testimonies that Friends in the United States often talk about: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.

Where did these come from? That’s a complicated story, probably one for another day.   Let’s just note this: you won’t find this list or anything like it in any Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice before about WWII. The SPICES list is of relatively recent origin. Nevertheless, this list of Quaker Values has come to define us – or we have slipped into letting them define us.

We say, “Let Your Life Speak.” That’s a Quaker phrase I like. By it, we mean our beliefs should be active, not inert. We should live out our values, even when it is difficult – like the difficult week or year we’re having now. These Quaker Values, these Testimonies, are orientations to action.

These are values that Quakers hold. They are ones we lift up and practice daily – or at least try to. Sometimes they even seem quite distinctive, as if Friends are committed to these things even when others are not.

Take peace, for example. Our Peace Testimony, our pacifism, seems especially distinctive. Or take the commitment to equality in earlier times. Some Quakers were among the early abolitionists. Some Quakers were among the first to insist on equal education and opportunity for men and women. The gathering at Seneca Falls in 1848 to set in motion the call for women’s suffrage was largely organized by Quakers.

But where did the SPICES list come from? I like to think of it this way.

Quakers believe that God speaks to each and every one of us — if we’ll still ourselves to listen. We believe there is ‘that of God’ in each and every one of us — that allows us to hear God. And thus,

  • If there is that of God in each and every one of us, then we are all fundamentally equal. No one will be better than another.
  • We are all called to community, because we hear what God is saying better in community.
  • We are called to be peaceable one with another because all lives are sacred – all having that of God within.
  • We are all called to be truthtellers and people of integrity because we carry God’s sacred hopes within us.
  • And we are called to stewardship of the earth because that too is a gift from God.

And so we have SPICES list: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship. It’s a good shorthand list – perhaps a Quaker rosary.

But — here’s the but. Are these values our values in the sense that we own them, or have a special claim on them – a claim that others don’t? Are they especially ours? Are they our brand? Is that why we call them ‘Quaker Values?’

Are these our Spices, and other people use different flavorings? Do these values make us special? Set us apart? Do they make us better? (Heaven forbid!)

If we are to let our life speak, do we think that other people’s lives should speak in different ways – upholding war or selfishness or deceit or waste? How do we expect to persuade anyone of anything if we few think we have a corner on goodness, because ours are ‘Quaker Values?’

Or are these values for everyone?

Are these values for everyone because they speak to something fundamentally right about being human, about living a good life? Some would add: Are these values for everyone who is listening to God?

Aren’t these the values of the Sermon on the Mount?

Put another way, do Quakers hold these values because they are Quaker, or do we hold them because they are the right values – right for everyone?

If they are right for everyone, and I’m pretty sure they are; if they are right for everyone because these commitments are what God expects of all us, what should we call them? Not “Quaker values,” I think.

One more question.   If we should not call these Quaker values, if we shouldn’t think that these values are what makes us distinctive, what does make us distinctive?

What makes a Quaker School a Quaker School? What makes a Quaker a Quaker?

+++

Dilbert provides a postscript.

Posted in Beliefs, Quaker Identity, Quaker Testimonies | Tagged | 3 Comments

Swinging Bridge

Over the Androscoggin River between Topsham and Brunswick, Maine.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.52.01 AM.png

This was the “Where in Maine?” picture in Downeast this past March (2018).  The bridge was constructed in 1892 by John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, the engineering firm that designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and other bridges around the world.  More information on the the bridge here.

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Moral Gravity

This weekend I’ve been gathered in a 50th reunion with classmates from Haverford College, class of 1968. Perhaps four dozen of us returned, many with spouses. We were an all-male class of 144 when we entered, something like 100 or 115 when we graduated on a rain-soaked day.

The reunion was filled with lunches and dinners, panel discussions and award ceremonies, and a great deal of sharing stories with one another. I was struck at how many good lives had been lived, how varied; and I was struck, too, by the relative lack of prominence-seeking among us.  “We live in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have,” one of my classmates quoted early in the reunion. That’s from Henry James though my classmate had learned it from Parker Palmer. That seems a fitting tagline for my class, or at least where we are now.

This morning, we gathered in the Haverford Friends Meeting House, a short walk from campus, to remember the 20 or so of our class who are already deceased. Like all Quaker memorial services, this one was full of laughter and tears, and stories about people we missed. I knew all the deceased because we were so few to begin with, but a few I knew better than others.

Sitting in the midst of these stories at the memorial service, I found myself imagining us as planets, separated by distance one from another after graduation. We have continued to exert influence on one another, I thought, through remembered conversations and shared past experiences and escapades. For example, one classmate talked about the lasting influence of a difficult conversation he had with a roommate, now deceased, about a borrowed car. Such a small thing, a few minutes’ talk, but such a long tail of consequence. It’s like celestial gravity it seems, the way we have nudged one another in unexpected directions or set expectations for one another that continue to exercise influence over the decades. Story after story testified to those gravitational influences.

One thread that ran through the memorial service was AIDs. Two of our classmates had died of AIDS, both passings a surprise to nearly all of us. Sexual orientation was nothing I recollect talking about with my all-male classmates in the mid-1960s. How could that be in a time we thought of as an era of sexual revolution?

Nearly constant in my mind through the weekend was the disturbance in the cosmos we call the Vietnam War and probably should call the American War on Vietnam. All of us in the class of 1968 graduated into the predicament of what we would do with the near-certain prospect of being drafted into the U.S. military, likely, if we submitted to that draft, to be sent to combat. I know the stories of many of my classmates. None among the 20 deceased had been killed in combat. Only a few of us served in the military. Some had gone to Canada; some had found unlikely deferments or medical exemptions. Two had gone underground after the Chicago Days of Rage. There were several conscientious objectors in my class, not surprising for a Quaker college. A few, like me, had refused induction but never been prosecuted.

One, Bud Alcock, had rejected his offer of conscientious objection (he was a birthright Quaker) and had instead chosen jail by refusing induction. He served 22 months in Allenwood. (Bud was among the deceased. I don’t know what cause his death.) I saw Bud only a few times after his stint at Allenwood. I could see that he was more reserved after that experience. In an article about him a few years before he died he was quoted as saying, “You know you’ll lose time [in jail], but most of us lost our self-confidence too. Prison destroys your self-reliance. I imagine that some of us didn’t recover.” That was sad; almost certainly true. Yet one of my classmates talked at the memorial service about the moral influence that Bud’s decision to go to jail had had on him.

If we are planets, separated from one another by time and distance and yet exercising moral influence on one another – keeping faith – then the Vietnam War was like a chill wind through our galaxy that scattered us all the more. It sent people on unexpected Odysseys, all of which led to different futures than had we graduated into calm weather. All were affected; some of us were battered much more than others by that wind.

I was fortunate never to be prosecuted. The experience of refusing induction stiffened my moral spine. There is probably more good than bad in that. A friend was rejected when he tried to enlist because of a minor skin rash. He might never have finished college (or lived very many more months) save for that fickle gust of wind. A friend went to Canada and has never again lived in the U.S., an unthinkable path save for the war. To win a deferment, yet another friend went to medical school as well as pursuing a Ph.D. Years later, because he could see patients and do clinical research, he could engage in the struggle to save people from the scourge of HIV, a challenge he took up with determination. He attributes that determination, in part, to the examples of his classmates who had been engaged in earlier struggles for peace and justice.

For every one of the classmates whose stories I know (many, by no means all), I can see the effect of the war’s scattering wind on the moral gravity that has held us together over five decades. But I can also still see the continuing influence of that moral gravity that binds us together. I am grateful that our planetary paths brought us so close together this weekend.

We talked only a little about the current travails of this nation; we know we share a perspective on that. Instead we renewed friendships. Who knew gravity could have such a buoyant effect.

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Follow the Bad Guy?

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, April 1, 2018

Do you like crime stories? I do.  Ellen and I watch them on TV: Magnum PI, Inspector Morse, Major Crimes.  I am almost always reading one, too, and when I’m done I read another. Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard, Ruth Rendell, Louise Penny:  it is a long list that began with my father’s Ellery Queen magazines, a kind of pulp fiction of the 1950s.  I even read the stories again once the details have grown dim in my mind – as they regularly do.

It’s not just that crime stories are entertaining, though they certainly are. I also find I learn a lot about human beings.  What are people capable of doing and why?  How might they have been more sensible, or more clever?  Often I learn things about myself. Would I have known how wicked that person could be, I wonder?  Am I capable of anything like that? If I did that could I avoid being caught and punished? Could I commit the perfect crime?  I suppose all this is harmless entertainment so long as I don’t get any ideas that I might act on.

I’ve been reading one story over the past week – one of a series that features the same bad guy, and I want to tell you a little about it. It’s one of those stories where we know who the suspect is right from the start. The question is will he be stopped?  This bad guy is especially fascinating to me.

He moves around a lot.   He never seems to have a job that gives him an income, but he always seems to have places to stay, clothes and food to eat. He doesn’t want for anything. It’s suspicious.

He’s attractive and always has people around him: his crew you might say, his gang. When he needs accomplices to pull off something, there they are, always close at hand. None of them seem to work, either.

What does he do that’s so bad? That’s part of what’s so fascinating about this bad guy. The authorities know he’s a bad guy. They are always keeping an eye on him.  They frequently stop him on the street and question him. They don’t like his answers much, but he rarely says anything directly incriminating. He’s clever. Sometimes it seems he is toying with the authorities, mocking them.

At first the authorities think of him as sort of a grifter. Always has money; never works; seems charming.  He forever seems to do things that are against the law, but it’s hard to pin down – hard to catch him right in the act.  At other times he performs tricks that look like sleight of hand. He turns one thing into another, or seems to, plain water into something else, for example, something more valuable.  Sometimes he even seems to do miracle cures. Of course he isn’t a doctor. He doesn’t have any of the right training to make people better. That’s suspicious – but also a little worrying. Is he just scamming people?

Other times he just tells provocative stories that gather a big crowd. That worries the authorities.  He doesn’t come right out and tell people to disobey what the authorities tell them, but that seems to be the gist of every one of these stories. The crowds can’t get enough of them.  Suppose the crowd gets unruly. Suppose the crowds turn on the authorities. When he gathers a crowd, they seem more likely to follow his lead than to do what the authorities ask them to do.

This can’t go on forever, of course. It wouldn’t be much of a story if he just continued to dance outside the reach of the good guys.  Eventually the authorities arrest him. They are just fed up.

This bad guy goes off to jail peacefully. But he acts strangely as he goes. He seems to know this is what was next. Oddly, his mind seems elsewhere. And he acts like he knows they’ll never be able to hold him.

In this story the trial comes quickly. There is plenty of testimony against him, even though much of it is contradictory and some of it simply false. Still, the outcome is never in any doubt: he’s going to be found guilty.

The big surprise is the main charge against him. He’s accused of treason, a crime punishable by death. He’s accused of presenting himself as the king or the lord of all things. Treason: who would have thought a grifter would have been accused of that?

He doesn’t even protest too much. His attitude is resigned, unconcerned. To his friends and followers he seems to say ‘what did you expect?’ Did you expect that this merry adventure of ours would lead anywhere else other than execution?

It’s clear treason is a put-up charge. So much so that some of the authorities try to coax him to plead out to a lesser charge with a lesser punishment.  But the prosecution team is really steamed up, really angry. They want this treason charge to stick, and this bad guy doesn’t do anything to try to show the charge is foolish. When he is put on the stand, his responses only make matters worse for him.

If the trial was quick, the appeal is quicker still: over within hours.  And now the general population is into this as well. While this bad guy still has some friends and supporters, the mass of people want him put to death, no doubt about it. They crave a humiliating, slow and painful death. That will teach him and his friends a lesson.  And so he is taken to be executed.

Nothing that I’ve told you so far really makes this story unusual, really. It’s what happens next. Even his odd behavior at his trial doesn’t prepare you for it.

He escapes. But here’s the odd thing. He doesn’t escape before he’s executed in this slow, painful way. He escapes after we all know he’s dead.  Anyone would be dead: you can see it; his body is broken and bloody. He’s buried quickly to make sure he’s forgotten.

But the next day the body isn’t there. It’s just disappeared. Talk about your locked room mysteries. How did he pull this off? This is no ordinary grifter’s trick. It’s no three-card Monte, no pea under a shell trick. This is stupefying.  He hasn’t just escaped the tomb.  He has escaped death itself.

Told as fiction none of us would believe this, would we? It’s beyond credibility. But this story isn’t told to us as fiction.  This is the story of a man called Jesus (or The Christ, or The Messiah or The Promised One). It’s the story of an escape from death that we celebrate today as Easter. How’s that for a crime story?

We wouldn’t tell this astonishing story if we thought it was just a grifter’s tale. We wouldn’t tell it year after year if we thought it was all just a con or a made-up story.  We tell it because we think this tale of a bad man is really an account of the best man ever.

Most crime stories end up with a resolution: all the loose ends tied up. But this story is different. It ends with questions for all concerned.

Was he really a bad guy? The authorities thought so. Probably still would.

Most people thought so — at least thought him a troublemaker. Deep down, probably still would. How about you?

What do we make of the authorities, both political and religious?  Are they good guys or bad? Should we listen to what they tell us to think and to do?

Is this bad guy Jesus still with us, now that he has escaped? Does he yet live? Or has he gone away and could come again?

Will we escape death if we follow him?

And whatever might that mean: to follow him? \To escape death?

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Beloved Community

February 20, 2018

At a gathering this past weekend, we reflected on what the term “beloved community” means to us.  To all those present, the term is part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vocabulary and legacy.  But is King the origin of this concept, or did he draw it from someone else?

Josiah Royce is the answer.  Shirley Strong (for example) writes:

The term “Beloved Community” can be traced back to Josiah Royce (1855-1916), the 19th century American religious philosopher. It was a part of the popular theological vocabulary of Boston University’s School of Theology during the early 1950s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a doctoral student there. Royce characterized the Beloved Community as “a spiritual or divine community capable of achieving the highest good as well as the common good.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good overview of Royce, someone who deserves to be better known and appreciated.  Says that entry,

[S]ome communities are defined by true loyalty, or adherence to a cause that harmonizes with the universal ideal of “loyalty to loyalty.” He refers to such communities as “genuine communities” or “communities of grace.” Other communities are defined by a vicious or predatory loyalty. These degenerate “natural communities” tend toward the destruction of others’ causes and possibilities of loyalty. Finally, beyond the actual communities that we directly encounter in life there is the ideal “Beloved Community” of all those who would be fully dedicated to the cause of loyalty, truth and reality itself.

“Loyalty, truth and reality itself:” these are not the first words one would hear today in imagining the beloved community.  For example, Strong defines the “beloved community” as “an inclusive, interrelated society based on love, justice, compassion, responsibility, shared power and a respect for all people, places, and things—a society that radically transforms individuals and restructures institutions.”  I think most others would say similar things.

Good words all, but I also like Royce’s grounding in commitment, reality and truth.

(By “loyalty,” Royce meant “the practically devoted love of an individual for a community” [The Problem of Christianity, Royce, 1913].)

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Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”

February 7, 2018

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

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