I pride myself on my capacity for informed choice about all manner of things: food, writing, garden design, paint colors, politics, religion. This is also known as Snobbery. Since my early twenties, when part of a summer internship was harvesting fish (read: clubbing them to death in a shallow pond), I have bought into the worldview that All Meat is All Bad, All the Time. So it’s a fine how-do-you-do that for this Father’s Day slash Fourth of July, my family has celebrated by purchasing a grill. To grill meat on.
Our family’s vegetarianism was shaped by a variety of factors: general health, animal welfare, economics (personal and global). Our change of heart was shaped by changes in the meat available (local), the quality of it (high), and economics (personal) that allowed us the privilege of buying that local meat from local farmers. Plus, y’know, it tastes good.
God is on everyone’s side, right?
So perhaps you can imagine why I shudder every time I see a sentiment similar to this. I’ve experienced the expansion and humility inherent in reversing my righteousness about dietary choices: if that lesson can be found in pork loin, I think it’s very likely that claiming one’s nation is blessed by god/lord is equally un-humble. Yet from the Amish to the Zen Buddhists: we claim the way. We are living the right way. The best way. Some of us do with humility; some of us with rigidity.
It’s similar to poets proclaiming the purity of their pantoums, the novelists touting the truth of their tomes, etcetera.
I have discovered that sometimes a poem is what I need to percolate through my morning*; other days I want to drizzle a short story atop my pancakes. And on summer afternoons, what joy to forget the heat and humidity in a deep cool pool of a novel. The range of expression and connection available to us through words is the ultimate just-right gift. We can connect and ponder and be awed through whatever form works for us.
Despite experiencing the power of the breadth of literary choice – or choice in anything: Ice cream flavors! Car colors! Fireworks! — we deem our choice of spiritual practice all-or-nothing. We are either tripping lightly down the lovely shaded path to salvation or tramping through the briars on the overgrown trail to damnation.
I know a spiritual practice is different from a readerly practice. Although both are, ideally, daily events, spiritual reflection and connection is often most effectively sustained and deepened within the frame or structure of a specific set of beliefs; it’s hard to go deep when surveying the surface. Just as the poet might splutter and flail about in the novelist’s form, so might the Buddhist flounder in a Catholic mass.
Except: some of the more effective prose writers have been poets; some of the more effective spiritual and secular (read: political) leaders lift up and articulate religions’ fundamental similarities. We are most powerful when we expand ourselves to integrate the blessings of other forms of writing, of praying, of being in the world.
America came into being in large part so that folks could practice a non-governmentally approved religion – so we could practice different ways than The Way that had been decreed. It was a good idea then, it’s a good idea now. And it’s always fun to have a big ole party. With ground-beef burgers and veggie burgers.
Happy birthday, us.
* Because no birthday is complete without a poem, I offer this, which was part of Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac yesterday and offers a different perspective about narrow choice than the one I promote above. Like most of life, both-and are true.
by Freya Manfred
When you’re young, and in good health,
you can imagine living in New York City,
or Nepal, or in a tree beyond the moon,
and who knows who you’ll marry: a millionaire,
a monkey, a sea captain, a clown.
But the best imaginers are the old and wounded,
who swim through ever narrowing choices,
dedicating their hearts to peace, a stray cat,
a bowl of homemade vegetable soup,
or red Mountain Ash berries in the snow.
Imagine this: only one leg and lucky to have it,
a jig-jagged jaunt with a cane along the shore,
leaning on a walker to get from grocery to car,
smoothing down the sidewalk on a magic moving chair,
teaching every child you meet the true story
of this sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world.