Where Many Paths and Errands Meet

Submitted by Ben on Sun, 01/29/2006 - 15:46

Presented at Groveland UU Fellowship, Sunday, January 29, 2006

Chalice Lighting (by Ben Stallings, based on Gaia Theory)

Great Gaia,
Living spirit of the Earth,
Mother of us all,
Thank you for this beautiful day!
Thank you for the ground we walk on, which is your body.
Thank you for the water we drink, which is your blood.
Thank you for the air we breathe, which is your breath.
Thank you for the community of life that surrounds us and sustains us. This is your living pulse.
Thank you for the kind thoughts of friends and strangers. These are your thoughts.
Thank you for another beautiful day!


Joys & Concerns

Hymn - "Blue Boat Home" by Peter Mayer

Sermon - "Where Many Paths and Errands Meet"

It's been six months now since I finished my ten-month bicycle tour of the continent. When I describe the trip to people, they often ask what I learned, or what my favorite part was, or any number of other questions that I can't really answer in under half an hour. It takes time to distill that much experience into a pithy lesson or even a satisfying story.

So now I've had six months to turn the trip into a twenty minute sermon. That's still a tall order, so I'm just going to skip everything I've already talked about on my Web site -- the address is in your program -- and if you have questions afterward I'll be happy to answer them.

The first rule of traveling by bicycle is to put one foot in front of the other. Once you know where you're going, everything else is just turning the crank. So I could tell you about selling most of my possessions so I wouldn't have to pay rent during the trip; I could tell you about sleeping in campgrounds and farmers' fields and hidden places by the side of the road; I could describe pedaling through rainstorms and mountain passes and seawalls flooded at high tide; but in the scope of the trip as a whole, all of that is just putting one foot in front of the other. Once I got the idea in my head to do the trip, I could either resist it or follow it, and once I decided to follow it, everything else just fell into place.

My minister told me before I left, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." So I'm going to skip over most of the details of how I came around to my current way of thinking. I got there by bicycle, and you can get there by whatever means you have at your disposal. If I get a little preachy, it's just that I'm trying to sell you on the destination even if you haven't yet made the journey.

I planned my route to take advantage of the changing seasons. Any bike trip in this part of the world would have to; otherwise I would have been terribly uncomfortable!

What I hadn't counted on was just how small our planet is. People act like the weather is unavoidable, even though most of us have had the experience of outrunning it in a plane or even a car. I'm here to say that you can outrun it on a bike as well. When I left Oklahoma, all the insects there had been killed by frost, but a few miles south in Texas, they were still alive. And all the way back north, I had to slow down and wait for the spring to catch up to me.

All the same, I was pretty well committed each day to staying in a particular part of the planet, and if rain was falling there, I got wet. One of the most memorable days of the trip was the day I spent pinned in my tent by a Nor'easter on the Atlantic coast. I didn't want to risk riding in such a strong and gusty wind. But when I gave up the next day and rode away, I found that the wind died down just a few miles from shore!

I had hoped that by living and traveling and sleeping outdoors for months on end I would develop a sense of kinship with nature. What I got was a sense that we are all in the same boat, the plants and animals and rocks and rivers, but that we humans have relegated everything else to steerage and then proceeded to sink the boat. Given the strain our relationship is under, it can be painful to experience kinship with nature for very long at a time, and yet our denial of that kinship is the source of the strain.

The best advice I received before my trip was also the hardest to follow: "Be where you are." I had every intention of cultivating a mindful attitude and experiencing every town and campground and road, but I just couldn't do it. Between the fatigue and the monotony and the sheer number of towns and roads, it all became a blur.

The best I could do was to have a few moments a day of memorable clarity and set them down in my journal. That's more than I can do on a typical day when I'm not traveling, so to that extent I guess I succeeded!

But I have to wonder how many of our problems as a species can be traced to not paying attention to where we are and what is happening.

A number of people have asked me what it was like to pass through "all those red states," referring to the TV maps of Presidential election results. I'm convinced that there are no "blue states" at all in this country; if you broke the map down by precincts, I think you'd see a "red" country with assorted sizes of "blue" polka-dots representing liberal enclaves.

Those of us living in the "blue" polka-dots dense enough to outvote the surrounding "red" countryside can maintain the illusion that we live in a "blue" state, but we do so at our own risk. We liberals cannot win conservatives to our way of thinking by ignoring, shunning, or dismissing them. Their beliefs and values may seem arbitrary to us, but they form a solid base on which any number of administrations can rise and fall without shaking the foundation. Liberalism may reach higher, but it sways in each and every wind that passes through.

That said, I rarely had to interact with conservative people, aside from doing business with them. It's very easy to find liberals anywhere you go, and the fewer of them there are in a place, the happier they are to see you.

I did accept home hospitality from a few strangers who turned out, after I was already in their homes, to be conservative, but we always had more in common than in contrast, which is of course why they invited me in!

A lot of people have told me they would never travel alone, or if they did they wouldn't stay in strangers' homes, because it's too dangerous. Perhaps it is; perhaps I'm a less desirable target for violence than they are. But I can't help thinking the fear many of us live in is exaggerated.

For example, all through the Great Plains, people told me I'd be crazy to bicycle through Texas, because everyone knows Texan drivers will run down or even shoot bicyclists. But I kept going, and I had no trouble -- in fact, I had less trouble with drivers in Texas than in most Midwestern states!

Texans, in turn, told me I'd be crazy to ride through the South, for the same reasons -- hadn't I seen Easy Rider? A mortician gave me his business card, saying I should carry it in my wallet, just in case! But I had no trouble in the South, either. Strangers continued to invite me into their homes, and I never regretted accepting their hospitality.

Southerners said I'd be crazy to bike into Florida, for the same reasons. When I got to the Florida Panhandle, the drivers were as civil as anywhere, but they told me I'd be crazy to ride into the peninsula. When I got there, I found at last that it was true, so I turned back north!

You may say, that pattern isn't fear, that's prejudice. But isn't all our fear based on prejudice, or at least ignorance? If you really know what you're getting into -- or if you're determined to do it regardless -- fear evaporates. The less fear you feel, the less you show, and the less you show the less of a target you make.

But my good luck continued even when I wasn't personally there looking fearless. I routinely had to leave my gear unsecured in public places, such as downtown Cincinnati on a workday or the side of a highway on what turned out to be the bad side of an industrial town, but none of my gear was ever stolen or tampered with in any way. Now, there's something to be said for having stuff that no one else wants or can expect to sell, but even so I think my experience speaks well for human nature. And if human nature isn't so bad, then why are we so afraid?

One pattern I found wherever I went was that people, as a general rule, don't know what lies a few blocks away from home or work. Even the ones who have flown all over the world can't give a bicyclist reliable directions through town. I'd wager that more New Yorkers have been to Niagara Falls on the far end of the state than the Great Falls of the Passaic just across the river in Paterson, New Jersey.

All through the South, people seemed to think Florida was incredibly far away, too far to bicycle, even though I'd already come thousands of miles. Coming north, I found the same thing about Washington, DC. I expected to find the same as I approached Montreal -- it being a whole different country where another language is spoken -- but Upstate New Yorkers thought Montreal was a very reasonable goal -- they'd just never been there themselves!

I have to admit I'm guilty of this as well... in the six months I've lived in Saint Paul, I've visited downtown less than half a dozen times, and I can't be bothered to attend a neighborhood meeting.

The one exception I found to this rule may explain why I find the rule so surprising: my father makes it his business to know every road, rail, high-voltage line, and sewer pipe from Tulsa to Kansas! The directions he gave me were the only ones that turned out to be 100% accurate, even 50 miles from his home!

Americans are provincial in time as well as space; we have a tendency to think that things have "always" been the way they've been for the past 60 years or less. This tendency is preventing us from responding to long-term problems such as global warming, because, as George W. Bush put it, "Our way of life is not negotiable," never mind that it would be unrecognizable to Americans of a century ago. But on the bright side our short memory may allow us to do a 180 in record time when we finally get the political will to do so.

So if we, as a people, don't know where we are, then where are we?

Precisely a year ago today, I was in Gulfport, Mississippi, having just left New Orleans. I ate dinner that night at a Waffle House whose sign, six months later, was the only structure left standing in an AP photo of the town.

One of the more difficult questions I've gotten since Hurricane Katrina is, "Don't you feel lucky to have seen New Orleans before the levees broke?" It took me a while to figure out why that question made me angry.

I want to say, if you want to see New Orleans before the levees burst, look around you. Virtually every scientist we have is telling us that our way of life is unsustainable in one way or another, that we're living on borrowed time, that the levees we've created to keep the consequences of our nearsightedness from affecting us will crumble sooner or later. But we go on about our daily lives. America is the New Orleans of the world, and we've been celebrating Mardi Gras for so long we think it's our way of life.

That doesn't necessarily mean Lent is the inevitable next phase. Ending Mardis Gras doesn't mean we have to sacrifice quality of life, any more than rebuilding New Orleans means it has to be a sitting duck for the next hurricane. That's a pattern, a rut that we need to break out of.

I visited a number of "ecovillages" along my route, communities that are trying to become ecologically sustainable. Some of them operate from a philosophy of Lenten scarcity that is unlikely to appeal to those of us who are still celebrating Mardi Gras. But a few have found ways to live lightly on their patches of Earth without sacrificing; they have more than enough food, water, heat, electricity... and all of it is renewable. I think these are the projects that have real potential to lure us out of our City In A Hole.

A stream won't flow uphill when there's a downhill course available. That doesn't mean it has to flow so fast that it erodes its banks, but it does mean that if you merely impede its flow, without showing it a new course to follow, it may choose a new course you haven't anticipated. So here's the big question: how do we give the mainstream of our culture an easier course to follow that will be less destructive? I can't answer that question for everyone, but I can tell you what I've been doing myself since I got back.

I used to joke before my trip that most nonprofit organizations see themselves as David taking on Goliath. By slinging one rock, they hope to win the battle, and then everything will be fine. The trouble is, Goliath is now so close and has so much momentum that if we did hit him with a rock, he'd just fall on top of us! Our only hope, I joked, is to use Aikido!

Finally it occurred to me that if I wanted to keep using that joke, I should at least learn some Aikido, so I've started taking classes. I think its philosophy is just what we need: it begins from the premise that there is no real difference between the attacker and the defender, and it strives to resolve their conflict without hurting either one. You reach that resolution by finding the path your opponent can least resist and guiding him or her onto it. I can't deny that the guidance sometimes involves arm-twisting, but there's no damage done. Also, you spend at least half your time in Aikido classes learning to fall gracefully and get up again, which I think is a valuable lesson for citizens of an inflated empire.

I've also started studying permaculture, which is something like Aikido ecology... you start by determining where you are and what resources are available, including things traditionally thought of as weeds or wastes, and your goal is to create an ecosystem that can sustain dozens or hundreds of species, including yourself. Each step along the way, when done properly, makes everything easier for yourself and for all the other species.

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is that there's nothing remarkable about my journey. I'm not talking just about long bicycle trips, though I've run into more than a dozen people who've made similar trips. I think we're all on the same metaphysical and spiritual journey as well, and I note that the people who are saying that tend to agree with each other, which is comforting.

Robert M. Pirsig wrote, "The One in India has to be the same as the One in Greece. If not, you've got two." I would make a corollary, that the Harmony that is the goal of Aikido has to be the Harmony that's the goal of permaculture; if not, it would be dissonance.

What I mean to say is, first, that I believe we all need to expand our concept of who "we" are to include not only our imagined opponents but also those we have historically ignored; second, that we need to see and understand where we are and where we want to be; and finally, that we will get there only by finding a new path of least resistance.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Everything else is just putting one foot in front of the other.


Hymn - "Gentle Arms of Eden" by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer

Extinguishing the Chalice

poem by J.R.R. Tolkien :

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.