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Spiritual Currents

Dwayne Eutsey

BIO: Who am I? Well, that happens to be one of life’s most vexing spiritual questions, isn’t it? Great philosophers have grappled with it throughout the ages with mixed results, so who am I to think I can answer it here? Ok, for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say I’m a local writer interested in spiritual issues. I live in Easton with my life partner Amy and our three children. We are members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton.

“Spiritual Currents” is a regular column that promotes and explores the Mid-Shore’s deep spiritual diversity—with “spirituality” broadly defined as our search for enduring meaning in life. This ongoing quest can unfold within religious traditions and without them, within our relationships and in solitude.

If you would like to share a local event or a personal story that reflects this journey on the Shore, please contact me here (put “Spiritual Currents” as the subject line).

Tough Economic Times Call for Community Action

By Dwayne Eutsey

About 10 years ago, I worked briefly in a small homeless shelter in Frederick, Maryland.

I remember thinking one evening as I looked out from the staff room to where our residents watched TV in the lounge that the televised images they saw must have seemed as alien to them as transmissions from Mars.

It was the late ‘90s, so the dot-com bubble was still inflating many Americans’ perceptions of endless prosperity while heralding a new faith in cut-throat corporatism. Popular shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Survivor reflected these prevailing sensibilities while the persistently high homeless rate at the time barely made a footnote in the national narrative relentlessly promoted on TV sets around the country.

As I saw our homeless residents in the shelter’s lounge that evening watching commercials for shiny new luxury cars and SUVs, I wondered how they must have felt seeing the elusive promises of consumer bliss beamed into their impoverished reality night after night.

After watching an unsettling episode of Frontline recently, I think I may have an idea. Called “Close to Home”, the show “chronicles the recession’s impact on one unlikely American neighborhood -- New York’s Upper East Side.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/closetohome/

Unlike most of the people featured in this show, I come from a poor, working-class background and can appreciate some criticisms viewers have expressed about the upscale people featured on the program. “If times are so hard for them,” many viewers have asked, “do they really need the expensive haircuts and massages some of them still charge to their overburdened credit cards?”

Relevant question, but overall, seeing how the worst recession in 63 years has shaken even the most affluent members of our society underscored for me just how unstable the economic situation is for all of us today. In particular the story of the not-so-affluent carpenter featured in the program was heart-wrenching. Not only did his business go under, but his wife died three days before the bank foreclosed their home and dumped all their belongings on the curb.

A Spirituality Rooted Somewhere between Science and Superstition

By Dwayne Eutsey

As Halloween approaches and autumn colorfully marks the year’s demise, two recent items in the news reminded me of our culture’s generally paradoxical view of death. At the risk of oversimplifying it, it seems to me the two main ways we try to make sense of what happens when we die involve either superstitions or science.  

On the superstitious side, for example, Rolling Stone reports that researchers claim a photo of Jim Morrison’s ghost haunting his gravesite is “unexplainable.” Although it isn’t clear who these researchers are or how they reached their conclusion, the article notes that they believe the photo of the dead rock-and-roll legend’s apparition “was in no way manipulated, and also rule out any possibility that it’s merely a trick of the light.”

http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2009/10/16/unexplainable-photo-snapped-at-jim-morrisons-grave/

On the scientific side, CNN ran a story about a neurological researcher who says that cryptic near-death experiences (NDEs) are actually quite explainable.

Dr. Kevin Nelson asserts “that near-death experiences are part of the dream mechanism” the brain uses to cope with a life-threatening crisis. He goes on to say, “The most common cause of near-death experience in my research group is fainting. Upwards of 100 million Americans have fainted. That means probably tens of millions of Americans have had these unusual experiences.”

http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/10/16/cheating.near.death/index.html

Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in either view represented in these articles. The skeptic in me finds ghost sightings like the Morrison photo dubious (the “researchers” are selling a book of ghostly images, after all), while cold clinical attempts to explain phenomena like NDEs seem sterile and too narrowly focused to me. As Shakespeare might have said to the neurologist, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Dr. Nelson, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Not-So-Scary Origins of Halloween

by Dwayne Eutsey

Although I love a good horror film, I suppose I’m a bit old school when it comes to what I look for in celluloid spookiness.

For instance, I’m not much into slasher or splatter flicks like the popular Friday the 13th or Saw movie series. I find their slice-n-dice sadism more nauseating and depressing than entertainingly frightful. One exception to this genre is the first Halloween movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis, but I can’t really stomach its sequels, especially Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

The movie’s muddled plot—involving a scheme to sell Halloween masks that somehow cause snakes and spiders to crawl out of your head…or something—is just plain silly. And by linking this sinister plan to the ancient Celtic holiday Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sah-van), Season of the Witch perpetuates a negative falsehood about Halloween’s origins that we often hear this time of year.

The movie’s bad guy claims that “the last great (Samhain) took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red...with the blood of animals and children.” This claim echoes a modern misperception that characterizes Samhain as a creepy sacrificial rite for a Celtic “God of the Dead” by the same name.

Because so much information about Samhain has been lost or distorted over the centuries, specific details about the holiday remain obscure. However, according to Religious Tolerance.org, there never was a god of the dead named Samhain (although there was a minor Celtic hero named Samain).

http://www.religioustolerance.org/hallo_sa.htm

In fact, most sources agree that the Gaelic word Samhain, which literally means “end of summer,” simply refers to a harvest festival celebrating the beginning of winter in pre-Christian Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Like many such Pagan festivals throughout Eurasia, this autumnal festival combined the agricultural cycle with a deep reverence for dead ancestors. 

Harriet Tubman’s Legacy Lives On

By Dwayne Eutsey

On October 3, 1849, 160 years ago this past Saturday, the following notice from Eliza Ann Brodess, from Bucktown in Dorchester County, appeared in a local newspaper called the Cambridge Democrat:

Three Hundred Dollars Reward.

Ran away from the subscriber on Monday the 17th ult., three negroes, named as follows: HARRY, aged about 19 years…he is of a dark chestnut color, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high; BEN, aged about 25 years, is very quick to speak when spoken to, he is of a chestnut color, about six feet high; MINTY, aged about 27 years, is of a chestnut color, fine looking, and about 5 feet high. One hundred dollars reward will be given for each of the above named negroes, if taken out of the State, and $50 each if taken in the State. They must be lodged in Baltimore, Easton or Cambridge Jail, in Maryland.

The “fine looking…5 feet high” Minty the notice refers to was an African American woman originally named Araminta Ross, now more famously known as Harriet Tubman.

Brodess posted the notice after Tubman and two of her brothers made their first attempt to escape race slavery on the Eastern Shore. They didn’t make it to freedom that time, but as Tubman would go on to demonstrate throughout her life, she wasn’t one to let setbacks hold her down.

Not long after she and her brothers returned to Bucktown, Tubman successfully escaped to the North with the help of the Underground Railroad and the community of Quakers living in the Preston area. Even so, she secretly returned to the Shore numerous times in the years leading up to the Civil War. At great risk to her life and liberty, Tubman helped lead hundreds of escaped slaves to the “promised land” of freedom, earning her the well-deserved epithet “Moses.”

Ghosts and Goblins Might be Trying to Tell You Something

By Dwayne Eutsey

With the hint of chill in the air and the morning and afternoon sunlight becoming a bit more golden with each passing day, I’m reminded just how much I love autumn.

I’m pretty easy going when it comes to all the seasons. However, summer’s stifling heat can drain me, soggy spring’s allergies irritate me, and I shudder to think about winter’s heating bills and the sore back I get from shoveling snow.

Fall, on the other hand, is a season that’s better suited for my more laid-back, contemplative nature. I can slowly ease into and savor it like a cup of hot apple cider late on a brisk afternoon. Autumn’s meditative appeal isn’t surprising when you consider that in many pagan cultures this time of year, traditionally marking the end of harvest, was literally a time for taking stock of your life amid the encroaching cold. According to one pagan source:

“This is the time when thoughts turn towards the culmination of a year’s work; for our ancestors it represented the culmination of the year’s endeavors in ensuring that they could look forward to enough food to see through the winter—the grain which would provide the following year’s bread and beer, the fruit and meat were laid down and stored for the coming months of scarcity.”

http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/harvest.htm

As the natural world goes into its cyclical remission, fall is also known for its festivals of the dead. I’ll write more about these haunting celebrations as we get closer to Halloween. For now, however, I’d like to reflect on why ghostly folklore might be so inseparably entwined with this time of year like tangled vines in a pumpkin patch.

Cycling and the Art of Spiritual Maintenance

By Dwayne Eutsey

I just returned from an awesome bike ride, man.

Now, I’m not typically the kind of person who goes around saying “awesome,” but in this instance it fits.

Far from the bland, overused buzzword it’s become in today’s lingo, “awesome” literally means stirring within someone a sense of awe, which itself can be defined as an emotion inspired by the sacred or sublime.

Earlier today I was hunched over the dining room table counting and rolling coins to help us make the proverbial ends meet until the end of the week, so I was about ready for something a little more sacred or sublime than mounds of dirty pocket change. I’m happy to say I found it while cycling around my little chunk of the Shore on this late September Sunday afternoon.

The Dude Abides - Book Review

By Dwayne Eutsey

The Dude Abides CoverIn The Dude Abides—The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, award-winning religious columnist Cathleen Falsani offers a unique and engaging look at the “spiritual messages” she finds permeating the Coen Brothers’ movies.

Now, “spiritual message.” Odds are, that’s not what most moviegoers expect to find in the darkly comic and brutally violent cinematic vision of Joel and Ethan Coen. Neither is the word “gospel,” for that matter. While wisely resisting the temptation to cram their films into what she calls a “God-shaped box,” Falsani succeeds in tracing the theological threads she sees holding the “Coeniverse” together.

She writes, “While marked by murder, mayhem, deception, and all manner of chaos, there is an order—a moral order—to the world depicted in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. That’s the good news. The bad news is that when the moral order is upset, the consequences can be dire, brutal, and swift.”

Water, Water Everywhere…The Spirituality of Water

by Dwayne Eutsey

Last Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton (UUFE), we celebrated the opening of our church year through a ritual called the “Water Communion.”

According to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA):

The water service is a UU ritual, usually conducted in the fall when friends and members return from their summer travels. They are invited to bring a sample of water from their travels or water that has other significance for them. All of the samples are poured into a common bowl or vase to signify coming together again. It’s a way of symbolizing that many are one, and a way of getting reacquainted.

The first Unitarian Universalist Water Communion in 1980 took the sacredness of water and originally transformed it into a symbol of empowerment for women. Organized by attendees of a Women and Religion Conference, the ritual was initially intended to speak to the worship needs of women, with the water symbolizing the birth waters; the cycles of moon, tides and women; and all the waters of this small blue planet.

Water, as the key ingredient of this service, is an appropriate symbol of such ingathering and also of true communion. It is, like the air we breathe, something we all need and all share in common. It is something vital that each of us must have in order to sustain the interconnected web of life to which we all belong.

Because of its importance to life, human beings have revered water as holy throughout our history: Genesis tells us that the Spirit of God moved over the surface of the watery depths before creation began; Jesus began his ministry after being baptized in the Jordan and the Spirit descended on him like a dove.

Cinema by Starlight Series Brings Community Together

By Dwayne Eutsey

One of the times I remember feeling like I was part of a larger community when I was growing up was when my family and I went to the drive-in movies together. This was back in the early ‘70s when there were still plenty of these outdoor theaters around, especially in Southern California where we lived at the time.

If you’ve been to a drive-in you probably remember that it was a lot different than going to a multiplex is today. I remember it being cheaper, for one thing. My family didn’t have a lot of money…we didn’t have any money, really. Yet my mom took us regularly to an evening at the drive-in.

This included admission, popcorn, sodas, maybe even hotdogs and a box of Raisinets. Today, I almost have to take out a small loan just to so my family and I can see a matinee over at Easton Premiere Cinemas.

Juneteenth Reminds Us of Victories Won

By Dwayne Eutsey

Based on the tragic shooting in the nation’s capitol this week, it appears as though some people are still sadly fighting battles that were long ago (and deservedly) lost.

Such incidents make it all the more important for us to celebrate the victories that have been won against racism and intolerance. One way to do that is to observe Juneteenth (also called Freedom Day and Emancipation Day) next Friday, June 19.

According to Juneteenth.com (
http://www.juneteenth.com[_new] www.juneteenth.com), the day (a combination of “June” and “nineteenth”) “is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.” It’s a holiday—or is at least observed—in 31 states and the District of Columbia. The day is even celebrated by people around the world, including countries as far apart as Honduras, Japan, and Israel.

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