Saturday, November 25, 2006

Rough Words--Kind Words--Justice Words

I recently read an admonition from a spiritual teacher who basically wanted people in our society to stop using what he called "rough speech". He advocated kind speech, only. It occurred to me that this polarization between "rough speech" and "kind speech" leaves out a very important balance: Speech that is non-violent but which stands for justice. I
think in particular of Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from the
Birmingham City Jail" (as many other of his speeches). In that letter
in particular, written to some of the city's more liberal clergy who
were really trying to calm a city on the bring of self-destruction, King
responds to their message of "wait, now is not the right time". His
basic response was firm and direct:

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily
given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I
have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in
the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of
segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the
ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost
always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished
jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

In early paragraphs of this letter, King directly labels Birmingham's
recently defeated mayor and it's recently elected mayor both as
segregationists. He says that groups of people are frequently more
immoral than individuals. He highlights the history of how black people
have been told "to wait".

And there is this rather smoldering indictment of what he calls "the
moderate white" who likely include the clergy who have written the

"I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish
brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been
gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the
regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his
stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku
Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order"
than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of
tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who
constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot
agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically
believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives
by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to
wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people
of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from
people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than
outright rejection."

Throughout this lengthy letter, King does an incredible job of using
language that is non-violent and at the same time does not soften his
message of justice at any point. Many were incensed at this letter, and
in some respects, this letter made the fires burn brighter in the
horrible oppression of black people in this country. But these things
that King said were true, and had to be said. The moderate white had to
be confronted in the name of justice and compassion. One of the things
we learn from the civil rights movement is that the oppressor eventually
suffers as much as those who are oppressed. It is the Buddhist
principle of non-duality.

King's letter could easily be written today, with only minor changes, to
those religious folks who oppose full rights for gay people including
marriage, and it would put the finger of justice squarely in the eyes of
those in the large majority who simply want their status quo.

I agree that too often too many in our culture simply appeal to
strong language in violent ways. It only deepens and broadens the cycle
of violence. There is a place, though, in non-violent thought, for
words that are exact, to the point, and at times confronting.
Interestingly, in this letter of King's, one of the early paragraphs
outlines all of the principles of non-violence that he and his movement

If you've never read King's "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail", you can find it here. It is masterful.

Bob Patrick

Friday, November 24, 2006


I read a reflection recently by Thich Nhat Hanh about our hands and how, if we look at our hands, we can see our parents, our grandparents, and all our ancestors there. He concludes: and your hands are always available for reflection.

It made me remember noticing the adult hands in my life growing up. Those images are, surprisingly, still very strong within me.

My dad's father's hands. Rough, calloused, oil stained, and parts of three fingers missing on his left hand. He was raised in a farming town. His father died when he was 8. He had two older sisters, and on his father's death bed, he became "the man" of the family. He began farming at age 8. I find that unbelievable, but the family stories are insistent. I only knew him as the owner of a "filling station" and as the man who taught me to garden. His hands told his life story, and it was one of very hard work, deep heart hurt, and a love of the outdoors.

My mom's father's hands were always well-groomed hands, clean, skilled, educated. He could do extremely complicated math with his slide rule and a pencil. He could create engineering maps and had impeccable handwriting. He could also do woodwork and thread a lure on his fishing line with perfect boyscout knots. His mother died when he was 7. His father was a coal miner. His hands didn't show all of his story, but they demonstrated where it propelled him to--college, study, and a different world than his parents.

My grandmothers' hands were as different as my grandfathers'. My dad's mom had unadorned hands that owned their own tool box. She was the "go to granny" when bicycles failed to work. She had a pocket knife that was always sharp enough to get any job done. She could shoot a gun and did when she had to. She cooked southern-country food as well as any. She wrote her own poetry with them. She hugged really well, and always had a handkerchief to dry tears. My mom's mom's hands were always in the kitchen, tiny, delicate, soft, sweet smelling. They made beautiful and tasty things. They touched gently. They required precision and perfection and politeness. They were hands that guarded tightly kept secrets and fears, and that often enough gestured to others who knew her when she was afraid. We always knew by how she held her hands.

I guess I do see them all in my hands. And my hands are always available for reflection. Hands are our inheritance. It makes me wonder how much my children know about the hands that are in theirs.

Bob Patrick

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Beginnings--Thanksgiving Day--2006

This Thanksgiving Day of 2006 seems to me to be a good beginning for a blog named "Earth Notes". A series of serendipitous events occurred to bring me to this moment. As always. Here are the things I love: my family (I am a husband of 24 years, and a father, of almost 20 years); gardening, Classics (I am a Latin teacher, now for 18 years, and working on a PhD in Latin through the University of Florida), mythologies, theologies, painting and art in general, teaching, trees, things Celtic, things Native American, languages in general and the cultures that go with them, the human body and pathways to healthy living, and breathing. I love breathing.

How's that for an introduction to Earth Notes? A word (or a few) about each.

Family: there is no religion, spirituality, or philosophy which could offer me more to reflect on, learn from, or grow in my daily life from quite like family--family in general, family of origin, and the family that my wife and I have constituted over these 24 years. It is every day a mirror to gaze into, see (or not!) and decide how I shall walk with what I see today. Family is, for these reason, sacred to me. Living consciously in a family is the most wonderful, awful, difficult and demanding thing I've ever done.

Gardinging: I grew up in a rural community in Alabama where family gardening was, as I look back, the deep center of my life, as were the woods, the mountain, the creeks, the wild animals. Hence, Earth Notes. Nothing is more stabilizing to my life and my mental health than digging in the earth, cultivating, planting, growing, and adoring the beauty of the earth.

I don't know why, but early on in my education, I fell in love with Latin. I've been studying Latin now for 33 years. I don't think it a particularly magical language, or more difficult or intelligent than any other. But, it is a language that has been in constant use for what is approaching 3000 years in Europe and in the world, and the culture of Latin, that of the Romans and then Europe, lies underneath western civilization. I am not a traditional Latin teacher, and I love to explore the interweave between the ancient and the modern.

For me, much of making sense of life boils down to our stories. This is what mythology is--the stories we tell that help us make sense of life. Stories convey truth as we have come to understand it, and truth has little to do with historical fact. The two can be connected, but they need not be the same thing. So, I understand mythology to be both those personal stories we tell to make sense of things, and the ancient stories that we re-tell. And they are all "sacred" story.

I have an undergraduate degree in Biblical Literature (Hebrew and Greek), and a M.Div degree from Emory University's Candler School of Theology. I was, for 8 years, a United Methodsit clergyman. I left the UMC and became Roman Catholic. I taught theology for the Catholic Church at the high school and graduate level for 15 years. I was granted permission from Rome to be ordained a priest as a married man. Then, our diocese got a new bishop who didn't like the idea. Despite all of my preparations to become a priest, he squashed that. In retrospect, being ordained under him would have been a disaster for me. I continued to teach for another 7 years. I left the RC Church 5 years ago. I am now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Theologies, as I see it, are the words we use to explain our stories. See "mythologies" above. They are all, in a sense, sacred, and they are all, in a sense, terribly misleading, when they attempt to offer anything absolute or final. Theologies are always human, and relative, even those that claim to be divine and absolute.

One of the most important things that has ever happened to me was the night 25 years ago when I took my first painting lesson in the basement of a women who lived in the small community where I was the Methodist minister. Several things happened all at once: I fulfilled a life-long intuition that I was capable of making art; I experienced for the first time, consciously, what an altered state of mind could be as I completely lost myself in the artwork and became oblivious to time; I did something entirely for me and allowed that that was okay.

Teaching is such a comlicated art, and I love it. Two years ago, I was granted National Board Certification in Latin for Adolescents and Young Adults--after a grueling process of portfolio work, reflection and writing (about 80 pages) and an intense exam. I am very proud of my NBCT status, but more, am grateful for the process of serious reflection on my work as a teacher that it afforded me. Every single day that I enter the classroom this dance happens involving: 1) what I know of my content area (Latin), 2) who these people are walking in the door of my room 5 times a day (and they are all different); 3) and how to connect what I know of Latin with who they are as human beings at their level of development and skill in the language. In my experience, I can never do anything twice the same way. Ever. Pedagogy (how we teach) is as important (maybe more) than what we teach. Teachers who don't understand this are very dangerous. That's not hyperbole.

Very simply, they speak to me. I am born a Druid, in that respect. There is an energy in trees, and if you stop and give a tree your attention, it will begin to speak to you not in words. Every kind of tree has its own energy, and every tree withhin its kind speaks a little differently. I don't find hugging trees all that special, but sitting with them is a special privilege.

Things Celtic:
I bleed Celtic any way you scratch me. My maternal great-grandfather was born in Ireland and his wife, my great-grandmother, in Scotland. I know less of my other great-grandparents, but they all have Welsh, Irish and German names. All Celtic. So, over the years I have followed my Celitc inclinations to read and learn of Celtic mythologies, ancient rites and customs. They speak to me, to my genes.

Things Native American
: I have it from my paternal grandmother that there is an "Indian" in the family line. Her saying that it was so only confirmed what I already resonated with in my body. The land, animals, the Native American flute (I own and play with two cedar flutes) all speak to me, to my genes.

Languages and Cultures:
I guess at this point this is redundant, but I have working knowledge of Latin, Ancient Greek, Hebrew (very rusty), and Spanish. I recently passed a proficiency in German and French, but that's only reading. I have dabbled in Sanskrit and wish some day to do an intensive with the American Sanskrit Institute. I would love to go to Ireland for a summer and do an Irish intensive there. My Latin and Spanish make reading Italian fairly easy, and this past summer I was in Italy for a month, and found myself increasingly able to understan Italian as it was spoken.

Human Body
: I spent 5 years in an active massage therapy practice. I am national board certified in Massage and Body work, and that whole experience woke me up to my body and the deep intelligence that it has. This along with Tai Chi and meditation practices of various kinds have helped me understand that "mind" exists throughout the body, and not just in my head.

4 years ago I spend a week in retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. I took the Three Jewels or refuges with him: The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, that is, the path of wisdom as embodied in the Buddha, the teaching tradition of wisdom, and the community of those who practice this wisdom. The breath, enjoying the breath, being present in the breath, right now, is the centerpiece of that for me.

These are all topics that I may write about from time to time. These are the threads of my life. There are others. Life is such an adventure and always, a path unfolding. I have learned so many times (I can be very slow) that while I may want to see where the path is leading before I take a step, what I usually get and what life usually demands of me is simply taking the next step. Now is all there is. The next step is right in front of me, and it is loaded with such beauty, such mystery. Who could ask for more?

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am so grateful for this next step.

Bob Patrick
November 23, 2006