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Urban Quest Field Note #174: The river as compass

The Chowan River, April 2017

Life is a ceremony within itself.                                                    Anonymous

Mom died on Tuesday morning, April 11th during Holy Week after suffering a severe stroke while taking a nap at home just two days prior.  Fortunately, Kingsley, my brother, was already on the ground in this familiar, rural community, the home place of our maternal grandparents, Lonie and Lester Harrell, and more recently, home since 1992 of our retired parents.  Kingsley spent the last two nights with Mom at her bedside in the hospital, before she died early in the morning.  She received comfort care those last two days she lived.  Only a few hours after Dad and King returned home after Mom died, the pressure to make decisions about the scheduling of the funeral was upon us.  There was little time to just be still and present with the space that had just been made in our lives by her departure.

It’s customary in this farming community to turn funerals around within a 2-4 day window.  It’s been like that since my grandparents time, even before, I’m sure.  A well-oiled communication machine is activated in this community as the news spreads through the prayer chain and the custom calls to and from the pastor and funeral director.   The home of the deceased is quickly transformed for the receiving of friends, family, and lots of potato salad…and chicken, desserts…of course.

When I arrived on Wednesday evening, the sign-in book on the small podium by the living room door clearly marked that this living space, this living place, was now being used for visits of a particular type…receiving story…reflecting aloud on memories and conversations…silences…remembrances of connections in the past…and, of course, the latest local tale.

It felt strangely comforting to arrive under the cover of darkness.  I had imagined falling into the arms of my Dad, but the driveway full of cars indicated my entrance would not be a private one.  Dad met me at the door, insisting I come in to meet all the people gathered.  It was jarring, and I felt a bit on display.  All I wanted to do was just hug my Dad.

The next morning (Maundy Thursday), I learned more detail about the ‘decorations’ that had been made to the sanctuary at Rocky Hock Baptist in preparation for the upcoming dramatic production of the life of Jesus.  This drama was scheduled to start on Good Friday eve. Kingsley had warned me that there was a life-size tomb complete with a hand-cranked door for a stone, positioned stage left.  We had decided the day before to have the service at the church instead of relocating to another space, given that most of the people who would be attending would be members from that community.  We figured they would be fine with the props in the sanctuary, tomb included, and well, we figured we could live with it, and felt like Mom could live with it too.  We also figured Mom would want the service to be there, the church she grew up in.  And so it was.

I went over to the church around lunch time to meet with the pastor in charge of the drama production as well as the organist.   I was able to see the space for myself.  Actually, I was pleasantly surprised.  I was struck by the beauty of the hand painted back drop of a river hanging over the stained glass windows behind the baptistry.

While I would have preferred the view of the windows with the beautiful light streaming through, there was the issue of the 300 gallons of warmed water in the baptistry that would have to be drained in order to remove the painted back drop.  The pastor said they could drain it, and I immediately said, “No way.  We’re not going to waste 300 gallons of water to do that.”  I felt complete peace with that call, and, the fact that the back drop was of a river…the Jordan, of course…well, it was just meant to be.

Mom often sat in a favorite chair at home by the bank of windows in the sun room looking out on the Chowan river. She was baptized in that river. She swam and fished in that river.  She had lived by that river for the last 25 years, watching it, witnessing its unfurling life.  In the last year or so before she died, she offered spontaneous reports at meal times on the conditions of the river, the birds she had seen and the weather she saw happening outside. These were always delightful moments to receive from her as she often was so quiet.  Even as the dementia progressed, I think the river played a central role in orienting her to place, to her home.  She knew where she was, that she was home when she was looking out on the river, and this was her last view.


Urban Quest Field Note #33: Relational seed beds for questing in urban areas

Harriet:  When I think about urban questing, I link it with continued pursuit of the TRUE Self, or native self, which is soul.  I understand it as a tool, a way for people to leverage a threshold into another way of being.  I’m imagining there are lots of ways people can practice ‘questing’ at home in their neighborhood.  This is my curiosity edge. It’s not that I’m not open to having a traditional, formal quest experience, but at the moment I’m curious…I feel like I’m already on quest…

Krystyna:   We all are.  As we say at the end of quest, ‘Okay, now you’ve completed a quest, now you are returning to the quest [of life].  Your curiosity, calling on the ‘structure,’ ‘architecture,’ or ‘ecology,’ into your awareness, your body based practices like InterPlay, all those you have already been reading, Campbell, Estes, they have entered your vocabulary and are supporting you to realize the nature of questing.  Curiosity is an expression of questing…Questioning…as questing. 

2/8/16 – Original Draft

 Krystyna J. eventually became a formal quest quide for me in late winter 2015.

Urban Quest Practice:  Know where you are.  Know who’s with you.  BE where you are.

Krystyna and Madeline, 2015

Cynthia Winton-Henry, 2015, Hidden Monastery


Urban Quest Field Note #19: Dialing in to the signal field


It’s a new practice, a new way of being, to walk out into the front yard with the restocked bird feeder in hand and to speak a morning greeting to those creatures in earshot of me.

“Hello,” cheerfully pitched, I offer my greeting to my aviary friends.  It feels like a bow.  I do it because, like a prayer, it turns me on to the signal field within me and around me.  It reminds me that I am entering their habitat.  It reminds me of who’s the guest.

Urban Quest Practice:  Know where you are. Know who’s with you.  BE where you are.                                                                      


Urban Quest Field Note: Do I love the land enough yet?

What does organic have to do with a spiritual journey to reconnect with the natural world?  Vandana Shiva, soil conservationist and organic farming activist of India, writes, “Organic farming is the answer to drought and climate change.  If we do not respect the soil and if we do not recommit ourselves to ahimsa, we can rapidly disintegrate as a civilization.” *

What does ahimsa mean?  Ahimsa, in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions, refers to the principle of non-violence toward all living things.

I confess that in the past I have not lived mindfully in relation to the land. I have not wakefully considered the reasons for supporting the growth and consumption of organic foods.  The concept of ahimsa, the notion of mindfully considering the necessity of recycling organic matter – nutrients, as a means of being in peaceful, harmonious relationship with the earth, is relatively new to me.  Albert Howard writes about the spirit of the Law of Return, “Taking without giving is a robbery of the soil and a banditry; a particularly mean form of banditry, because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.”

So what to think of this?  I feel quickened in consciousness to continue to evaluate my living, my relationship to the land by looking more closely at what I consume, the places where my food and other things I purchase come from. Up next to my conscience and my base sense of willingness to consider these things, I ask of myself, do I love the land enough yet to care about the balance needed?  Do I care – enough, love – enough yet… to change my behavior toward the land?


*A Soil Pilgrimage, 10.8.15  The Asian Age

“Wild Space” Wednesdays: Sojourner’s outdoor sanctum

Whilst yet a child, [Sojourner] listened to a story of a wounded soldier, left alone in the trail of a flying army, helpless and starving, who hardened the very ground about him with kneeling in his supplications to God for relief, until it arrived.  From this narrative, she was deeply impressed with the idea, that if she also were to present her petitions under the open canopy of heaven, speaking very loud, she should the more readily be heard; consequently, she sought a fitting spot for this, her rural sanctuary.  The place she selected, in which to offer up her daily orisons, was a small island in a small stream, covered with large willow shrubbery, beneath which the sheep had made their pleasant winding paths; and sheltering themselves from the scorching rays of noon-tide sun, luxuriated in the cool shadows of the graceful willows, as they listened to the tiny falls of the silver waters.  It was a lonely spot, and chosen by her for its beauty, its retirement, and because she thought that there, in the noise of those waters, she could speak louder to God, without being overheard by any who might pass that way. When she had made choice of her sanctum, at a point of the island where the stream met, after having been separated, she improved by pulling away the branches of the shrubs from the centre, and weaving them together for a wall on the outside, forming a circular arched alcove, made entirely of graceful willow.  To this place she resorted daily, and in pressing time much more frequently.

From The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 1850, by O. Gilbert

Excerpt in Sacred Journeys, J. Richardson, 1995

“Wild Space” Wednesdays : Reflections on Marching and Why Wild Space?

Today, I’m instituting a new rhythm post for Wednesdays called, “Wild Space.”  I’m borrowing and improvising with this concept I recently discovered from Dr. Sallie McFague, Eco-Feminist, who, two plus decades ago, began a systematic revisioning of her own theology of God, Humanity, Salvation, the Church…Creation.  She suggests the church has lagged behind in waking up to the reality of climate change and the gnarly, challenges of  the addiction of consumerism that feeds the damage being done to the planet.

I’m inspired by the concept of wild space because it’s roomy for interpretation and improvisation.  Here’s a little more about the context. In her recent writings, McFague presents a path for “ecological praxis of incarnational compassion in action.”  Fancy words, I know, but words I find visionary and inspiring, rooting progressive, creation-based, theological reflection with action. Yes!  One of the steps on this path is voluntary poverty.  In her brilliant, honest manner, she writes of this spiritual practice as a part of a kenotic spirituality, a practice based in self-emptying.  She presents profiles of luminaries like Dorothy Day, Saint Francis, John Woolman, folks who show us what it looks like.  It seems strident initially, but she’s not proposing we become saints and give up everything we own. She is suggesting, however, we avail ourselves to the wild space of self-restraint in our consumption.  She is suggesting we (folks of the middle class, folks with means) do everything we can to leverage our influence on social justice policy…this of course includes climate.

Wild space for Dr. McFague, refers to

A window of opportunity to see a different vision of the good life, [one that is broad and inclusive].  Being a Christian means having a wild space.  This different vision is counter-cultural.  It is based in the radical, generous, abundant love of God and God’s desire for abundant life for all [creation].”

I’m with her…and her…and her

The Womxn’s March experience was a wild space territory for me.  It was a march about abundant life for all, for sure.  Taking action in this way with my body, showing up for myself…walking on behalf of all my women cousins and loved ones in small towns across this country who wouldn’t dare step forward to march, walking on behalf of the Chowan River and Puget Sound, I feel in deep alignment.

and with her…and her…and her

Writing field notes: A spiritual practice of connection

It’s been a couple of years now since I set out to explore and cultivate a deepened connection with the natural world right outside my door. Like many, I live in an urban setting with ample amounts of cement and asphalt, but I was not to be deterred.  I wanted to know the names of the trees and plants in my yard.  I wanted to know the names of the winged ones coming to the bird feeder, the ones hanging out in the nearby city park as well.  This desire for deepened connection sprang from an evolving, awakening of spirit, and a discovery of new capacity to wonder and to pay closer attention to what’s happening around me, especially in the natural world.  It also emerged as I became more conscious and curious of what interdependence meant on a day by day basis.  To realize that my place in the interdependent web of life is actually NOT at the center after all, I am being reoriented to place and to growing relational capacity to be able to receive freely extended revelations offered by the living beings around me.

Today, I confidently identify a fair number of birds and water fowl by name.  Coots and Cormorants, Mergansers and Wigeons, Shovelers and Mallards, Ring-billed and Mew gulls, and those Northern Shovelers, recent arrivals.  Juncos, Chickadees, Finches and Sparrows of various stripes, Wrens and Towhees, Robins and Cedar Waxwings. Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks.  Yes!  The sighting, the naming delights me endlessly!

This practice of cultivating connection with the living beings in my yard and neighborhood takes expression as a spiritual practice I refer to now as urban questing.  Urban questing is about knowing where you are, knowing who’s with you, and being where you are. Seeking to explore and build connection, I’m practicing placing myself out there in the field of my yard, in the field of the local park, by the fields of waters, listening, receiving, because I know I must now.  I am a part of the interdependent web of life and I have so much to learn yet about being in relation this way.

Identifying, naming birds, can be a first incremental step of connecting, discovering one’s place in the larger scheme of things.  What I’ve noticed in placing myself outside time and again, is that I’m beginning to really care.  Yes, you heard me say it.  I CARE about the beings in a way I never cared before.  I care about their habitat.  I care about the conditions impacting them.

So there are natural consequences for practices like this, some intended, some discovered.  I am finding welcomed, new capacities to see, to hear both in the outer fields, but also within. I’m becoming more finely tuned to the pace of the places I enter.  The places are requiring me to slow down. I’ve also noticed that as my care is deepening, I’m challenged to look more clearly and soberly at the impact of my way of life on the environment.

There are consequences to practicing connection.  If you care enough to make connection, you eventually will face a disorientation that comes when you become aware of how your actions are directly impacting the wellbeing of the larger web.  Eventually, there will be a necessary review and reorientation that reflects a deepened re-alignment of your behavior with this new consciousness.  It will be too uncomfortable NOT to realign yourself, otherwise, the connection is doomed.

“Making new maps”: Placing attention on what matters



“….in honor of what can be born of darkness, and care, and rooting deep in place, may we make new maps together out of hope, and fallen twigs.”  S. Lindsteadt, A Green Language


Leading with a series of questions is risky, but I’m going to take the leap anyway because I don’t know any other way to begin this.  Perhaps, I’ll suggest as a preface that you consider these questions when you have some quiet moments for reflection in the next few days. The end of the year, even the winter time, is a good period for rest and reflection, so we can figure out our next steps.  Don’t worry about a deadline.

What matters most to you, now?  Who and what do you feel a meaningful connection?

Do you feel divided in your energy and time because of feeling ladened with care?

Are you desirous for deeper alignment of your values and your actions/behavior in your life and in the world? 

 Do you experience connection to the sacred when you’re outside in the natural world?

Do you feel you have energy to fine tune your commitments?  Do you feel you have choice here or do you feel trapped in some way?

Are there people/dates/organizations on your calendar that you need to ‘let go of,’ ‘quit,’ ‘remove,’ ‘unsubscribe’ from?  

Who and what is missing on your calendar, in your schedule?

These questions are surfacing in my interior reflection pond in these last days of this year.  There’s both promise and pressure to a new starting point like the new year.  It’s a time to re-imagine what’s possible now, given where we are, given our individual – collective energy.  Having a fresh starting point like the new year, can allow us to re-place [place again] our divided attention/energy on the places, people, organizations/movements, commitments that are in deepest alignment with our values and what we hold as sacred.

Sylvia Linsteadt’s words of invitation and blessing to ‘make new maps of hope,’ appeals to my idealist side, the side that lives in the ‘what if.’   What if I shift attention more completely here?  What if I release this?  Who will I be making room for?

My map of hopes and twigs

As I place my hope-filled commitments in words now, I do so with an intention to honor the lands and waters of my ancestors that have and continue to nourish my bones and spirit. May they guide and direct my heart and actions.

~I commit to continue to practice as an urban contemplative, nurturing connection to the natural world, practicing embodied connection with self/others/the Divine through song, movement, story, and stillness, and sharing this journey more publicly through writing, to build connections

~I commit to be more vulnerable and open to the Divine, to “Love’s way”

~I seek to travel with others who are practicing loving, stewardship of the earth, and acting on her behalf as led to do so

You?  If you sense a desire arising for revising, paring down, shaping up, re-focusing your attention and energy, a revising of your interior map, I’m hopeful to share more questions, reflections, prayers, field notes from my wanderings and pondering in the future to accompany you.