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This piece first appeared as a Spiritual Perspectives column in The Gallup Independent on October 8, 2022. Reprinted here by permission



It has been said that here on Earth, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. Rather, we are spiritual beings having a bodily experience." When I was a child, I had a tremendous longing to take communion in church. I watched my mother, the missionary's wife, cut ordinary white bread into cubes and place it on a silver-plated salver. Then she laid a pure white napkin over it. Suddenly the bread from the plastic wrapper had become holy. I watched people in the worship service put the bread into their mouths and chew it with great solemnity, and I felt so left out. There was something deep within me that recognized, not consciously, the value of this ritual. It was much later that I understood that a sacred rite, which employs our five senses, our bones and muscles, has the power to carry us to the heart of the Holy One more swiftly than less embodied practices.
Back to the idea that we are spiritual beings having a bodily experience, I think there are reasons we're made this way––made of earth. In the biblical story of the creation of the first human, the Holy One takes clay and sculpts Adam and then breathes into him the Breath of Life––inspiring him, inspiriting him. First the body, then the spirit. This is not to say that the body is more important than the spirit in our relationship with the Divine, but our bodies can be used to connect with the sacred. Maybe we even need our bodies for that ultimate connection.

Franciscan father Richard Rohr writes, "The human need for physical, embodied practices seems universal."  In 1969, Rohr was assigned as a deacon to work at Acoma Pueblo. There he was amazed to see that many rituals practiced by the Acoma people had parallels to practices of the Catholic Church, and it was this experience that led him to believe that the need for physical ritual is universal. He saw altars on the mesas covered with prayer sticks, not unlike the candles people lit as they prayed in church. He saw that the Acoma people sprinkled corn pollen at funerals, just as priests sprinkle water at burial services. He felt that mothers teaching their children to wave to the morning sun was like Catholics blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. He saw smudging with sage as a parallel to waving incense at Catholic High Masses. He writes that all these practices have one thing in common: they are embodied expressions of the human spirit.

Rohr also notes that Protestants, who have traditionally valued the mind as a spiritual vehicle more than the body, have more difficulty embracing our need for bodily practices. I can't tell you how often my father, who was a Protestant missionary, applied the words "empty ritual" to Catholic church services. And yet, Sunday after Sunday our church services followed the same pattern every week:  a piano prelude, Bible verses calling us to worship, an opening prayer, singing of hymns, reading of the text for the sermon, preaching followed by a very long prayer, then the taking up of the offering, a final hymn, the Doxology, and at last a postlude. One definition of ritual is "a repeated practice" or a "repeated spiritual practice."

We had repeated spiritual practices at home, too. Before every meal, one of my parents prayed, and we children followed by chanting a blessing in unison. After breakfast my father or mother read from the Bible and a devotional booklet; after lunch we memorized Bible passages; after supper, we heard stories from a children's Bible storybook. The scripture lessons were always followed by another prayer. Ritual. Repeated spiritual practices. And there is something comforting about the repetition, something that nurtures our souls.

There is a way that ritual calls us to attention: now we are going to do something that is different from our ordinary lives. Some people light a candle before praying, and the candlelight takes our minds away from the rush of the everyday. The soft glow can bring us into a space of silence, of contemplation. It can carry us into the God-space. When I attended the yoga school in
Sweden, a teacher lit incense before we began the evening meditation, and that helped us prepare to quiet our busy minds. For yes, we are spiritual beings, and we live in earthly bodies. Sights and sounds, smells and tastes help us join our physicality with our spirituality.

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Arial View of Hogback

My first stop in New Mexico is the place I used to ride to with my father, to a small coalmine where the mission pickup would be loaded with coal for our furnace. The mine was nestled into a gap at the base of a hogback, a type of  rock formation seen often in New Mexico. Actually, I am at the home and farm of my friend Gloria, which is immediately across State Highway 491 from the two-rut dirt road that winds in toward the defunct coalmine.
As kids we called those two-track roads "paper roads." I don't know where the appellation came from. Maybe we sensed that they were less permanent than the graded dirt road we usually traveled between T'iis Názbas (Teec Nos Pos), meaning "A Circle of Cottonwoods," and Naat'áanii Nééz (Shiprock), meaning "Tall Leader." And, of course, less permanent than the two-lane asphalt roads that were rare in our lives then.
The Diné (Navajo) name for this place where I'm staying is Tsétaak'á (Hogback), meaning "Rock That Tilts Down Into Water," the water being Tooh (San Juan River), meaning simply, "River." The San Juan River runs very close by this rock formation, which extends for miles into the distance, appearing from above to be an ancient, snaking river of slanted rock.
For a long time, no one seemed to use the word Tsétaak'á. The place was always called "Hogback." Then people started writing the Diné names for places. Usually today, it's written Tse Daa K'aan. Written Diné is an artifact of colonization, the first known attempt at developing an orthography being in the late 19th century by military surgeon Washington Matthews, who was stationed at Ft. Wingate near present-day Gallup. Today there is standardized written Diné, but the majority, when they write something in Diné, do it phonetically, rather than in the standard orthography. The Tse Daa K'aan spelling is a phonetic spelling.
Up against the opposite side of the formation are the ruins of Hogback Trading Post, just outside the Navajo Nation, where liquor could be sold and infamously was. Because of the San Juan River, there are farms here. Gloria's farm thrived in earlier times, especially when her parents were living, but today it constitutes just a small orchard.
From time to time Gloria will text me a photo of the hogback, its colors and form changing at different times of day, depending on the sun's light and angle and cloud formations.
When I stay with Gloria, we talk about old times, when she was my boss at the Native American Materials Development Center. We talk about writing, she being a poet whose use of language takes my breath away. She is also a painter and her artist soul enlivens all of her home. My first full day there, we visited two of our artist/writer friends in Cortez, CO to see a magnificent exhibit on the theme of movement/migration––a theme dear to my heart. All the artists and writers, are well known to Ed and Sonja. 


After four days in and around Shiprock, I drove to Regina, just outside Cuba, NM, where I once lived and worked as a school counselor. More about that another time, but my plan is to review a book of poems and paintings by Gloria in my next post. Until then...

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When I have passed my patio, I walk up a flight of concrete steps to the parking lot behind my building. To my right is the garden I shared this summer with the man from the building next door. I only grew heirloom and cherry tomatoes and bell peppers this year. At level with the tomato garden, I turn left and am almost immediately in the shade of a great maple tree. Red squirrels and black ones dash about. There are more of them than usual this year. We've been hearing that it's going to be an extremely cold winter, and I've observed that plants produce more blossoms, hence more seeds, in harsh weather conditions to hedge their bets for survival. I suspect the wild animals may do the same, producing more offspring than usual. The squirrels here spend a lot of time running up and down this tree, sometimes sitting on a branch as still as a deer, observing us humans with curiosity that leads them to dig up what we've planted to see if there's anything worthwhile there. In fact, they are the reason I only had tomatoes and peppers; they dug up my cucumber and zucchini seeds twice.


Two small saplings that are not maples grow in the low cleft of this tree. One is an evergreen, a type of cedar, with dusky blue berries similar to juniper berries. The other, which is now beginning to turn color, is a species I haven't yet been able to identify. I'm hoping one of you will help me out here. So far no one I've asked on the ground has been able to tell me. 


Maybe you've been wondering about that title, "Flogrogn." In fact, I'm sure you want to know––unless you're Norwegian and you know about trees. I sent a picture of this phenomenon to a friend of mine who loves trees and who lives in Bergen. She told me that there, if a rowan tree grows in a niche of a tree of a different species, it's called a flogrogn, a flying rowan. You're welcome.


I know this little tree, making its home in the maple is not a rowan. Rowans have red berries and feathery leaves and are members of the rose family. But it's such a charming idea––that these little trees have flown into the welcoming cleavage of the maple––that I wanted to share it. Trees that do this are epiphytes, not parasites, as they live in companionship but do not take sustenance from the larger tree.There is something lovely about these diverse species sharing space with one another––modeling something good for us all. Getting along, not taking from, but adding their beauty.


I delight in this sight every time I pass it, and that reminds me to mention The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. It's a book that can make you more aware of the delights in your everyday life as Rossy (as he was called as a boy) shares with you a multitude of often quite unexpected things that delight him. He decided to write a mini essay every day for a year about the delights that overtook him in his poetic life. It is a delicious book. 


My big delight yesterday was seeing a monarch caterpillar on the leaf of one of the milkweed plants I grew from seeds I collected on the prairie and broadcasted in one of my little patches last fall. 


Tomorrow I will be leaving for the home country––New Mexico––and I'm very excited about it. It's my intention to interrupt the stories about my walks in Elk Horn (so soon, I know) and treat you to some delights from the Land of Enchantment. And now, if you didn't before, you have the word flogrogn. And you've seen my photo of two little flying trees.

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I wouldn't be me if I didn't go around changing things up. Lately I've been mostly sharing my responses to the voices of other writers––ones I felt had something important to say from places different from where I stand in the world.


And now I'm changing it up with a series of blog posts called "A Writer's Walk." It could as well be called "The No Pretzels Here Walk." It is my habit to repeatedly set my timer for 30 minutes throughout my writing time. When the Blues ringtone goes off, I get up and walk, usually for around 10 minutes. This is to avoid becoming a human pretzel. But it also jiggles things loose in my brain and heart, often helping when I'm in a stuck spot in the writing. My town of Elk Horn, Iowa, is very small–– population reported at anywhere from 550 to 650. So the number of potential 10-minute walks from my apartment is quite limited. Sometimes, because I walk them so often, I confess to feeling bored and have a hard time choosing a walk, wishing for variety. I use a pedometer, and my goal for the day is 10K steps.
A few days ago, I discovered that one particular circuit gives me 1.5K steps. I thought it would serve several purposes nicely to just do that walk throughout my writing time, eliminating the need to choose during this part of my day. Other, longer walks usually happen later in the day, in order to complete my goal, and can offer more variety. I did wonder if I would become even more jaded if I did the same small walk several times a day, but then I found an answer to that question.
A large part of this pathway is on Elk Horn's Main Street. When I got home, I wrote from memory the various businesses and other structures I would pass, and it struck me how really interesting each one can be––the thoughts they spark, the people I sometimes meet and exchange a few words with, bits of local history, and what it's like for this Southwestern girl to live in small-town Iowa. This new blog series began to take shape.


Herewith, the first installment:

The first thing I see, when I step out of the back door of my apartment building, and taking the back door is essential because it gives me more steps than the front does, is my patio. My neighbor across the hall––we've taken to calling ourselves the Westsiders––is a consummate flower gardener, and I felt considerable peer pressure when I moved into this senior apartment to make an effort, knowing I would never produce anything like Barb's magnificent showing. I have neither the time nor the expertise nor, quite frankly, the interest that she has.
This year I went for color on my patio (I also have a flower bed, which is sorrowfully languishing at this point in the summer). I've already, as fall seems to be coming early this year, emptied some of the containers on the pavement. The coleuses are gone, a couple of cuttings from them having been started indoors. One geranium (I don't seem to be very successful with geraniums, and I'll speculate as to why shortly) is still producing lovely hot pink blossoms, and the oh-so-faithful marigolds are giving their all. The snapdragons, petunias, and zinnias are doing their best but faltering. Soon I'll be closing down the patio and the flowerbed, because I will be gone from mid-September to mid-October, and if I let them go to pot, so to speak, I would be letting down the Westsiders.
I have learned in the last two summers, that I need to be very thoughtful about the species of flowers I choose and also the placement of my patio collection. We are the Westsiders because our two of the four apartments in our building are on––you guessed it, of course––the west side. You would think that would result in plenty of light, but the building blocks the morning sun on into early afternoon, even in August. Then the hill and tall trees in the west block it further as the sun is retreating. This, I believe has been the problem with the geraniums, as I never had this trouble in New Mexico. I am learning and will never likely be a consummate flower gardener. Thank goodness for nature.
Stay tuned for more on this writer's daily walk. I'd love to hear about some of your walks. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised when the occasional book review or other reflection pops up.

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