Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Standing in the Light

I have just finished Sharman Apt Russell's book, Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist, which I found in our public library's new book section. The book combines information about the history of pantheism and some of its major figures from the early Greeks on, with musings about nature (especially bird watching) in the Gila Valley in New Mexico, where the author and her husband have homesteaded for many years, and her experiences with a Silver City, NM Quaker circle she attends intermittently. The result is an eclectic blend of interesting information presented in a meandering style more than slightly akin to the Gila River, which also winds its way through the book.

I found this image of the Gila River on the WikiMedia Commons website. It was taken by Joe Burgess and has been released into the public domain.

Quite a bit of information about present day Quakers is included, along with bits of Quaker history. I was intrigued to learn that pantheists find themselves welcome and at home in Quaker Meetings, some of which consist of an hour of sitting silently in a circle waiting to hear the voice of God within. Russell explains that this is a traditional Quaker format, referred to as "unprogrammed." "Programmed" Quaker services, which more nearly resemble other Christian church services, were a 19th century development. I wrote a passage of Russell's description about Quaker Meetings in my journal:

Silence is another defining tradition. We know the divine best through personal, immediate experience, and that divinity, that Light, is here right now, all around us. Silence is how we listen for the Light. In a moment of listening, we will hear a small, inner voice, the voice of God within. We will know what we have always suspected: Eternal life is under the words. (p. 146)

The book concludes with a section of selected notes and references, which outlines much of the reading sources Russell used while writing the book. This serves as a handy source for additional reading. An index is also provided.

Both nature lovers and spiritual explorers will find much to appreciate in this book.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Relaxed Christmas

Thanks to Christmas falling on Thursday this year, coupled with a change in hours at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Elly had the week of Christmas (Monday through Thursday) off, a rare thing in retail. I took Monday and Tuesday off from work, and worked from home Wednesday morning, so we got to spend the week together.

Apart from some grocery shopping in midtown KC (where we live) on Monday, I didn't leave home. I can't recall the last time I was home for three days in a row without getting in a car once. It was such an enjoyable and relaxing holiday. The only way it could have been happier and more fun is if Samba, our dog who passed away in July, were still with us. We do have a new pup on the way, though, which helps.

We spent the time watching birds at our backyard feeders, cooking holiday recipes, listening to Christmas music, reading, watching Christmas movies, and enjoying each other's company. I wrote out nine Christmas cards to family and friends, Monday morning, a little late, I know, but most of them arrived on Christmas Eve so it worked out well.

These are three house finches and two goldfinches on our niger feeder, which we moved up to one of our hackberry trees. The goldfinches love the new location. We've seen as many as six at a time on the feeder. That is a lot for an urban backyard. At least for our urban backyard.

Years ago we scaled back on Christmas presents, which not only saves a lot of money but also reduces time spent wrapping. That leaves more time for everything else. It is better for the environment, too. If holiday shopping doesn't increase every year, the shopping season is supposed to have been a failure. Just calling it the "shopping" season is a symptom of what is wrong. How much of this stuff do we need? What is the cost to the environment? To future generations? Should we be measuring our success by how much more we consume each year? I heard on the radio today that shopping was down 8 percent in the United States this holiday season. I wish that were cause for celebration rather than lamentation.

Enough of that! Here is a Christmas ornament my grandmother made for me in 1974. Elly and I have been giving each other Christmas ornaments for years, but my grandmother's ornament is the oldest one we have on the tree by a long shot.

Elly is pretty much the master of the clever gift card. Here she is hinting about the library I need to build.

Naturally, the hint occurs on a gift that turns out to be a book. In fact, most of my Christmas gifts from Elly are books -- my idea of the perfect present. Dracula may seem a little out of place at Christmas time, but this is a lovely new edition annotated by Leslie S. Klinger, who I think I interviewed years ago.

Here is Elly with our new cat Brulee, who has decided it is high time she receive Christmas dinner. Brulee is sort of an unexpected Christmas gift. And, since she is pregnant, also the type of gift that keeps on giving. We will be calling on friends once the kittens have arrived...

And our own Christmas dinner. This included two types of croustini, both of which were delicious but the roasted tomato and goat cheese croustinis were out of this world and surprisingly simple to make.

The croustinis accompanied a fabu asparagus salad.

For dessert we had Christmas cookies, made by Moi. :-)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A New Name

Aficionados of the Fiske Miles blog may notice that it now has a new name. I made the change to reflect a central value of my own life. At some point along about my late 30s I found myself more and more frequently lamenting the hectic pace of my life. I often fretted about the increasing rate at which information poured in and events (both wanted and unwanted) seemingly occurred. This is not a unique concern. In fact, it is much more the rule than the exception based on what I have observed in those around me. I asked myself the same question that many others ask: am I enjoying my life? Am I doing what I want to do? I found myself looking for books about "downshifting" and life in the slow lane. I found a few, but, honestly, they were not much help.

Ever the pragmatist, I started looking at what I was doing to figure out how to slow things down. How to spend more time doing the things I wanted to do and how to enjoy them more. How, essentially, to live a less hectic life.

Gradually, as the years passed, I began having more and more success at this. I have found more and more ways to remove, or at least minimize, the frenetic from my life. I'm more relaxed. Stress is not a problem for me. I am happier and healthier. I am doing more of the things I want to do. Surprisingly, it wasn't that difficult to accomplish. It didn't require moving to a mountain top, years of meditation practice, changing jobs, or giving up things that are important to me.

I didn't find some profound secret. There isn't one. There is no "get relaxed quick" scheme. When I talk with people about the changes I made, the changes I'm making, they don't usually seem impressed. How would that really make such a difference is a question I see them pondering. Usually, they are too polite to ask. Or, maybe, well that's okay for you but I wouldn't want to do that. I still hear them complaining about their hectic lives, though, and not having enough time.

My blog reflects those things which are important to me, which I value and enjoy. I think it reflects the relaxed pace of my own life. I haven't written any posts specifically about how I have slowed down, but I think I will do. Maybe they will help someone else find their own way to enjoying their life more. At any rate, changing the name of my blog is a commitment to making it a place of peace and serenity in the blogosphere.

About the robins. We have a heated bird bath. Water, it turns out, is as critical for birds when the weather turns icy as food. Elly and I were watching birds in our backyard during a snow storm a few mornings ago, one of our most favorite things to do, when several dozen robins flew in for a drink. We haven't seen this before. It was fun -- a magical event and a wonderful way to start our day. Spending time watching the natural world is an excellent way to make one's life less hectic.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Another Family Member on the Way

We lost our beloved Rottweiler Samba in July -- one of the saddest events of our lives. After several months we realized we would simply never stop missing him and not having dogs in our home was making things worse. We decided that our next dog (dogs, really, because we plan to have more than one) would be a Labrador Retriever. We searched for several months, made one false start, and finally found a breeder we are happy with in October -- Susannah Joy, who operates Top Form Labradors in Sedalia, Missouri. Susannah has been breeding, and showing, Labs for 35 years. We were fortunate to find such an excellent breeder so close to Kansas City. (Sedalia is about 90 minutes southeast of where we live.)

We met Susannah in early October, and also met Bing (BISS CH. Waifin's Topform Conundrum RN, WC), and Emma (Topform Patience Pays) and Zena (Topform Face The Music N’Dance) who Susannah planned to mate with Bing for litters to be delivered in December and February respectively. We put a deposit on a male puppy from Emma's litter, or, failing that, a male puppy from Zena's litter.

Here are some pictures of Emma, whose breeding with Bing was successful, just days before her litter of puppies was born.

In this second picture, Emma is staring (hungrily, Susannah believes) at a lovebird.

Emma had ten puppies Wednesday, December 10. She had six yellows and four blacks. Elly had her heart set on a yellow male and there are several in the litter so we will get a yellow boy. The puppies won't be ready to leave their mom until they are eight weeks old, so our new puppy will come home in February. We get to visit the puppies for the first time on Sunday, January 4, 2009.

Susannah has posted several videos of the new puppies on YouTube and has links to them on her website.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Insightful Dialog

The following is a response to an atheist friend who observed that our beliefs are farther apart than he had imagined after reading my analysis of a series of questions presented as a "doubt" quiz on Krista Tippett's "Speaking of Faith" program on American Public Radio. The quiz is drawn from Jenifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History. (Link to quiz provided below.)

I have come to realize that insightful dialog doesn't depend that much on agreement from both parties. What is important is a non-dogmatic spirit of inquiry and exploration.

I guess the differences in our position is why we have agreed to disagree on the use of the word God. :-) What I discovered when I found my faith is that my problem was not with God but with what I believe are false conceptions of God.

Sorting that out, understanding it, has helped me be much more confident, even comfortable, considering the beliefs of others. I don't mean in an argumentative way, but in the sense of understanding (and accepting) where my beliefs diverge from those of others.

As a quick example, when I hear statements about God's judgement, it is easy for me to disregard them. God does not judge. People judge, and sometimes ascribe their judgements to God. Profound and needless suffering often results from such behavior. How can one be certain that God does not judge? Simply by observing the natural world, God's creation. We might not like everything we see (because humans do like to judge) but denying what is clearly before us, or attempting to rationalize beliefs that are not consistent with experience, is nothing other than making God in our own image, which is absurd.

It is just as easy for me to dismiss statements that the universe is without purpose. I don't believe we can understand its purpose, but we can discover and understand the natural laws which give it order and govern how it operates. This pattern and order serves some end, no matter how mysterious it must remain to us. I think accepting this central mystery is much the same thing as accepting God. A universe without purpose would be chaos. If you consider any statement insisting that the universe is without purpose, they almost inevitably depend on the notion that humans aren't at the center of it. :-) Just reread the last question in the Doubt Quiz.

I find it more rewarding, spiritually, to accept that I am part of something far larger than myself, and be happy that I am a part of it. Maybe this is why I have never felt insignificant when doing astronomy. I find it thrilling to be part of something so stupendously grand.


After reading this post over, I decided to provide my analysis of the Doubt Quiz questions. My overall response to the quiz is that the questions depend heavily on viewpoints informed by traditional monotheistic belief systems. If one's beliefs fall outside those traditions, the questions are poorly formed and the available responses are not meaningful.

1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life?

My answer to this is easy: no. Accurate knowledge of ultimate reality is not available to finite beings. Also, it is up to each of us to determine the purpose of our own lives. In doing so, we serve God's purpose, whatever that might be. Some (many?) people turn to religious organizations to find purpose in their lives. This seems perfectly legitimate to me, though I would point out that turning to religion is a personal choice each believer makes.

2. Do you believe that some thinking being consciously made the universe?

I think this questions is incoherent. I responded that I'm not sure, but what I would rather have said is that the question is poorly formed. Thinking and consciousness have meaning in a human context, but what meaning can they have in the context of God? Also, what does the word "made" mean in the context of God? The way humans make things can bear no relation to the actions of God.

3. Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

I said yes to this, but it is another poorly formed question. The issue partly turns on the word "identifiable." In other words material or available to scientific analysis? The universe clearly operates according to "identifiable" laws, and I would say that those ARE dependent on God, which is why I said yes, but the idea of a God force or the equivalent is naive in my opinion.

4. Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

I struggled with this too. From my perspective, the purpose of prayer is not to ask for things one wants but to experience communion with God. In that sense, it is effective. Since I believe God is ultimately beyond human conception, I can't possibly know the relation of my thoughts or words to God.

5. Do you believe this being or force can think or speak?

More anthropomorphism. God does not think in the way humans think. Still, human thought is probably the closest we can come to a symbol of God's thought. Speak? The word seems inappropriate to the feelings I have concerning the presence I have felt.

6. Do you believe this being has a memory or can make plans?

Same issues as for 5.

7. Does this force sometimes take a human form?

I answered no to this because it seems like an obvious reference to the divinity of Christ, which I don't accept. BUT, I could have answered yes because I feel that the form of everything in existence is dependent on God. In this sense, Christ was divine, but then so are you and I, as well as every living and nonliving element in the universe. This sounds like pantheism, but is probably closer to panentheism and I'm not sure I understand either position well enough to be comfortable with them. I don't think of myself as a pantheist.

8. Do you believe that the thinking part or animating force of a human being continues to exist after the body has died?

I answered no pretty easily to this one, though the term "animating force" worried me somewhat because it relates back to my feelings about question 7.

9. Do you believe that any part of a human being survives death, elsewhere or here on earth?

I answered no easily to this, because I would say that what survives is not specifically human, or, perhaps more accurately, we are part of something much larger that is eternal. Again, this sounds close to pantheism/panentheism. Have you read my Samba's Last Day posts?

10. Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

I struggled with this but answered yes. My reasoning is that I don't think feelings can be admitted as evidence concerning material existence, in other words, objective knowledge of the natural world, but I think think they support the reality of God. I have a problem with the use of the word evidence, though. I would say this question is poorly formed and probably incoherent. There is also a serious logical fallacy -- begging the question of what reality means.

11. Do you believe that love and inner feelings of morality suggest that there is a world beyond that of biology, social patterns, and accident — i.e., a realm of higher meaning?

Answered not sure. I think morality is a human response, and so is love. I don't think they apply in a coherent way to God. But, I believe in a realm of higher meaning. Or, more cogently stated, I believe humans can comprehend only a tiny fraction of all that is meaningful.

12. Do you believe that the world is not completely knowable by science?

This was an easy one. Yes. Answering no is scientistic.

13. If someone were to say "The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered," would you say, "Now that's going a bit far, that's a bit wrongheaded?"

Another easy yes. Though, what I would actually say is not that it is going a bit far but that it is blatantly wrong. :-)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Addition to the Family

Somewhat unexpectedly, a new member of the family has arrived. Brulee (it took all of two minutes for Elly to name her "like creme brulee because she has a burnt sugar look about her, but I'm not thinking of keeping her" "no, of course you aren't, dear") appeared on our doorstep Sunday afternoon indicating she would like to come in and was ready for dinner. We have never seen her before. She is an affectionate and very pretty cat -- possibly how she got herself into a "family way." I posted her picture on our neighborhood egroup, but no one has claimed her. Our theory is that her previous owner didn't want to contend with a pregnant cat and abandoned her in our neighborhood far from home. She is obviously used to being inside, not outside.

We took her to see Dr. Byer at Westwood Animal Hospital for a "well kitty" visit yesterday. Dr. B thinks she is about three years old and will probably deliver kittens in a month. She got a rabies vaccine. The rest of her vaccines (and a few other procedures!) will have to wait until after her kittens are weaned. Two cats is our household limit, and we already had Beatrice before Brulee arrived, so we will be looking for homes for the kittens.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Union of Actual and Ideal

-- from A Common Faith by John Dewey

"These considerations may be applied to the idea of God, or, to avoid misleading conceptions, to the idea of the divine. This idea is, as I have said, one of ideal possibilities unified through imaginative realization and projection. But this idea of God, or of the divine, is also connected with all the natural forces and conditions -- including man and human association -- that promote the growth of the ideal and that further its realization. We are in the presence of neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are mere rootless ideals, fantasies, utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name 'God.' I would not insist that the name must be given. There are those who hold that the associations of the term with the supernatural are so numerous and close that any use of the word 'God' is sure to give rise to misconception and be taken as a concession to traditional ideas.

They may be correct in this view. But the facts to which I have referred are there, and they need to be brought out with all possible clearness and force. There exist concretely and experimentally goods -- the values of art in all its forms, of knowledge, of effort and of rest after striving, of education and fellowship, of friendship and love, of growth in mind and body. Theses goods are there and yet they are relatively embryonic. Many persons are shut out from generous participation in them; there are forces at work that threaten and sap existent goods as well as prevent their expansion. A clear and intense conception of a union of ideal ends with actual conditions is capable of arousing steady emotion. It may be fed by every experience, no matter what its material.

...One reason why personally I think it fitting to use the word 'God' to denote that uniting of the ideal and actual which has been spoken of, lies in the fact that aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism. I do not mean merely that the former is mainly so negative that it fails to give positive direction to thought, though that fact is pertinent. What I have in mind especially is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation. For in spite of supernaturalism's reference to something beyond nature, it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man as the apex of the whole scheme of things. It regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance. Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible. Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural piety. The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly. The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance. A religious attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe. Use of the words 'God' or 'divine' to convey the union of the actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance." (pp. 50-53)

-- from River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Monday, December 8, 2008

How to Crack a Hazelnut

I looked over my 2008 New Year's Resolutions a few days ago. Embarrassing! Still, I have accomplished a few things, among them improving my culinary skills. I can't say I have made great progress in French cuisine, but I definitely learned a thing or two about cracking hazelnuts on Thanksgiving Day. Elly needed hazelnuts for several dishes she wanted to cook. I came home with a bag of unshelled nuts, and she said "Great. Now how are you going to crack them?" "Crack them? Is that my job?"

I started off with the traditional nutcracker, which, frankly was not up to the job. I had a hard time breaking the shell and frequently crushed the nut inside. After a minute of this I thought to myself there has to be a better way and consulted the ultimate authority. Google.

I didn't find that much about how to crack hazelnuts. One source suggested boiling them first, which sounded like a total mess. Another person said, not about hazelnuts in particular, but just nuts in general, that if you didn't have a nut cracker, you could use a pair of pliers or something from the workshop. A light bulb turned on ever my head. Channel lock pliers! They exert considerable force and can be opened to convenient widths -- much wider than regular pliers. After a few experiments, I found that exerting force from top to bottom was the most reliable way to crack the shell without crushing the nut inside. There were a few tough nuts. With these, I found rotating them a bit, putting pressure on from multiple angles, was a good way to open them without exerting too much pressure.

A few broken nuts can be seen in the picture below. These were caused by the traditional nut cracker. Once I started using the channel locks, I had almost no trouble with crushing them. Now, if I could only come up with an easy way to get the skin casing off the roasted nuts. Rubbing them together did't work that well...