Rich and foolish

 

 

Dear Walmart;
Let’s talk.
Once more, it is Advent. This holy season, when people of faith are preparing for Christmas, is also known to those of you in retail as The Holiday Shopping Season. Unlike Advent, which is always celebrated during the four weeks before Christmas, The Holiday Shopping Season comes earlier every year. In fact, this year, it began on Halloween! Not that you object to that at all—you don’t. In fact, as the epitome of the American retail experience, you unceasingly promote the idea that this is a season of shopping, rather than a season of sharing. The real meaning of the season of Advent either completely escapes you, or you deliberately obfuscate, in order that you may continue to line your pockets and to fill your storehouses with treasure. Rather than prepare our hearts, you would prefer that we prepare our credit cards.
Walmart, your stores represent all that is negative and destructive about retail. You, Walmart Corporation, encourage overconsumption, treat your employees unfairly and practice predatory pricing—selling goods below market value with the intent of reducing competition and insuring high profits—24.5% in 2012! Allow me to provide some examples.
“Why Can’t I Have Whatever I Want?”
-the American Consumer

“Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
(Luke 12:15).

Walmart, I know you have been preparing for this season all year. You intend to whip me into a buying frenzy and as soon as my desire is at a fever pitch, you will separate me from my money. Immediately upon entering your stores, fierce shopping pressure begins. I am goaded by sound systems that blare deafening music. I am assaulted with lights, both bright and plentiful–many strobe. I am drawn, zombie-like, to shelves stocked full with cheap, imported goods. It is a jarring, unnerving environment. It is an environment carefully crafted to encourage me to spend my money. It is an environment created to insure that I feel inadequate, in my deepest heart, without the purchase of your cheaply made, overpriced consumer goods.
Great deals, door-busters, one hour specials, limited time offers—all of these strategies are intended to incite a feeling of anxiety in me. The illusion of scarcity you create is intended to spur me to buy–early and often. You want me to shop without ceasing in a frantic, grasping attempt to blot out the real meaning of this season. And especially, you want me to shop to fill your pockets.
In the Walmart environment, there is no way to experience the feeling of “enough”. As you strive to create in me an insatiable desire to consume, I am overwhelmed by a delirium of goods, intended to be taken with a side of lights and music.
As the words from Luke’s Parable of the Rich Fool remind us, the measure of my life is not the amount of goods I can acquire. Just because I can purchase an item, should I? NO. With other people of faith, I have come to understand the American level of consumption to be unsustainable. In response to your relentless pressure to buy, I propose instead relentless sharing. Instead of goods, I propose gifts of time and our experience.
The voices of those around us who are in need of the basic necessities of life, and the voices of those who need spiritual sustenance, are muffled under the avalanche of material goods that you have helped to create. Excess goods not only insulate us from our own pain, but prevent us from hearing the cries of others. When we are busy guarding our earthly, material treasures, and filling our inner voids with stuff, we deny space in our hearts for the spiritual gifts available to us–through relationships with others, or with the divine. It is impossible for us to hear God’s call above the clanging din inside your stores. God’s voice is found in solitude and silence.
I know, of course, that you would rather I not hear God, since that still small voice is not urging me to shop, but to open my heart and to remember the poor.
By These Fruits Shall We Know You
Walmart, you consistently pay your workers low wages. You deny this. But according to Bloomberg, about 3044 lawsuits since 2009 involved issues of employment, like wages. These lawsuits tell a story of deprivation and exploitation. Your employees cannot support their families on the wages you pay.
Couple your pay practices with those of racial and gender discrimination, and you have all the necessary ingredients for worker oppression. You say you are a good corporate citizen, but what you do shows me otherwise.
The parable of the Tree and Its Fruits, Luke 6:43-45, tells us that it’s who you are, not what you say, that counts. We can see who you are by how you treat workers in stores and factories. Please be patient while I mention just few examples.
This year’s average wage of $8.81/hour allows a full time worker to make $17,000 annually. This forces a family of 3 or more to live below the Federal Poverty Guidelines ($19,530)for this size family. If you do not believe this to be true, I urge you to visit this website: http://www.familiesusa.org/resources/tools-for-advocates/guides/federal-poverty-guidelines.html.
Your own founder, Sam Walton, admitted in an interview to taking advantage of being able to pay low wages and offer few benefits! As reported in the New York Times, you force your employees to come in early and to work late, without pay. This practice of “off the clock” hours has been proven to be widespread! Yet, you continue to deny this practice exists.
It is not possible for me to believe what you say about your workers, or your working conditions, when your workers sue you regularly. In many places, they are even eligible for government assistance. It is clear to me that what you are practicing is mistreatment. And it is clear to me that you lie about it!
Let’s take another example. In China, the country that makes most of the goods for sale in your stores, workers are sometimes prisoners, forced by their captors to work for no pay at all. Other foreign workers make as little as .14/day. These workers often include children. They work in factories that are poorly lit and have unsafe wiring. There have been deaths from fires in these factories. You deny purchasing goods from these sweatshops, but investigators have shown me proof of Walmart-labelled garments visible in photographs taken after fires, and smuggled out by workers.
Walmart, I urge you to pay the workers in all of your stores enough to raise their incomes above the Federal Poverty Level. Additionally, I urge you to join with those socially responsible businesses who allow open access to their overseas factories by human rights groups. Your foreign workers too, need a living wage, appropriate to their local economic situation. They need sanitation and health care. Most of all they need their freedom.
Rather than spend your time and energy trying to convince me that you are a caring employer and a conscientious purchaser, simply change your behavior. Then, tell me the truth about what you do. Show me that you have compassion, and a concern for people above profits. The fruits of these actions will speak louder than any of your words.
Now, let’s talk about predatory pricing. Forcing your suppliers to keep costs low, and canceling your contracts with those who don’t, allows you to to charge less than other sellers for the same item. Since you have trained consumers to flock to the lowest price available, the result of your pricing policy is that other stores can’t compete. When you move into a town, locally owned stores are driven out.
Although it might seem to be a buyer benefit to be able to buy at a low price, in reality it is a buyer cost. Your low prices come at the expense of other businesses who once paid a living wage.
You locate your stores outside town. Consumers need cars to shop at your stores. Town centers, where local businesses traditionally locate, are left with rows of empty storefronts The very people that you purport to benefit are denied access to goods because of your policies on pricing and location.
Predatory pricing promotes exclusivity, too. When your store becomes the only one left in the area, the diversity of goods available, and the convenience of shopping locally, is effectively erased.
Walmart, I know that this is a long letter and I have probably stretched your patience. But since I am not shopping this year, I have lots of time to to be still and to dream about the kind of world I would like to live in. It is much different than the kind of world I now share with you. I want this dream to become reality. I want you to help make my dream real.
In closing, I want to remind you of all you have done to degrade the environment and to force your workers, and their families, into poverty. The abundance of cheap goods available from you is just amazing.
Perhaps now that many of your family members have a personal jet and a villa in Tuscany, you could consider the impact of your actions on the world in which we all live and scale back your profiteering–just a little? Maybe during this season of preparation for the celebration of the birth of the radical teacher known as Jesus, you could pause in your frenzied money making to remember the poor? I hope so.
Yours in faith,
Ms. Post-consumer

(Verses from The Message Bible; Eugene H. Peterson, 2013)

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Time as resistance

 

“I don’t have time for that. It takes too long to do it that way.” I cross things off my too long to-do list, promising to get more done tomorrow. I tell myself that I need to be more “productive.” I treat time as if it were scarce–in short supply–rather than abundant and eternal.
Our culture of work and spend tells me that time is money. We all need money, right? So how can we possibly take a sabbath?
Perhaps if we imagine sabbath-taking as resistance–as a step toward regaining human scale– it might become possible.
I resist the status quo when I question the value of my life–or any life–as a unit of production, and instead, see each life as a unique expression of the divine energy present in this world, deserving of care and rest.
I resist when I take a sabbath, because when I step away from consuming, I have time to notice what the world really needs–hint: not another manifestation of corporate culture! Taking time for sabbath gives me the necessary spaciousness to reconnect with my creative spark, and use that creativity to solve problems.
I resist when I spend a day without lists or a plan, when I am available to listen to the stories others tell, when I participate in making my community a place of care and concern–volunteering, being neighborly, sharing myself.In those moments, I experience time outside of time. Sacred time.
I sew my own clothes, bake bread and repair what’s worn, not because it’s easier or more efficient, but because when I work with my hands, I am resisting the cultural mandate of new, fast and cheaply made by someone else–the homogenization of my life that’s brought by consuming.
I use the public library and take walks with my neighbors not because I can’t buy books or sports equipment, but because I choose to nurture our common spaces and to deepen human relationships–to share the time I have been given generously, and as an act of resistance.

 

 

 

Sabbath

How to Grow A Sabbath:
A Lesson for Spiritual Gardeners

To grow a healthy sabbath you need fertile ground.
The ground you seek may not be immediately visible.
Keep looking. Often, you will find it, moist and waiting,
beneath a frozen layer.
Once it is exposed to light and warmth, it is ready
to be seeded.

Plant the seed of waiting. Step aside from your path.
Appreciate.
Hear the calls of the sea, the sand and the sky.
Take the time to touch the grasses,
the moss, tiny shells. Feel the wind.
Raise your eyes to the clouds, the birds,
the particular slant of the light.
.

Plant the seed of resting. Still your mind. Still your body.
Avoid accomplishing.
Expose your heart. Share love and comfort with all the
creatures who enrich your life.
Close your eyes and remember who you are–
a child of God. A miracle.
No more than other lives, but no less, either.

Plant the seed of embracing creation. Gaze softly.
Look deeply into the center of life. Connect.
Touch with gentleness and wonder.
Settle into your place in the web of existence.

Plant the seed of feasting on beauty. Nourish
your senses, your heart, your imagination.
In the natural world, while beauty abounds,
perfection is scant.
Cultivate your vision.

Once planted, feed these seeds with your attention. Soak them often with living waters. Expose them daily to the warmth of the Spirit. When sprouted, these seeds grow into strong practices that nurture, and honor, all of life.

Red bird, red bird, what do you see?

Whiteout winter world
Where powdered pine boughs bend
Resplendent, with tiny, twinkling flakes,
Red flier, turns his tail to winter wind.
Aloft, lined up on grey roof shingles, he holds–
Aileron at ready.
Now “Clear”,
in sudden, shining, sunlit sparkles, his true configuration comes confirmed.
Not flier there, lined up to wait,
but bright red leaf–iced and parked, in tie-down on the shingles.

It was all over the internet recently, and as neuroscientists tried to solve the puzzle it posed, they abandoned the work that had brought them together at a large convention to debate it–The Dress: Was it blue or white? Was its trim black or gold? Or, perhaps some other color, entirely? It was impossible to find consensus. Each person who saw it, saw it differently. Like the picture book by Bill Martin Jr., quoted in my title, what we see is influenced by more than our rods and cones. What we see is shaped by what we know, or what we have experienced, or even by our attitudes and assumptions. Often, what we see is what we’re looking for–like the cardinal I was certain had alighted on my neighbor’s roof at the end of a daylong snow storm! I needed to know that wild creatures had survived such bitter cold weather, and so I saw a sign–the cardinal on the roof. So if it’s true that we see what we want to find, how might we train ourselves–and our eyes, both inner and outer–to see not the darkness and turmoil that abound, but the true light that is surrounding us and all of this world? I suggest that it is the heart that is the key to this kind of seeing. When we can go beyond the physical–beyond seeing with our eyes–to seeing from our emotional center, possibilities open. This kind of vision allows an imaginative response to events, or to people, or to information, that may precede their transformation. Thus a painful story becomes a vehicle for healing. A tragic loss may open way for a larger gift. A person from another culture may help us to re-think our own. The transformation that occurred when I looked at that simple, red leaf and it became–in my eyes–the sole avian survivor of snow-pocalypse offered me laughter and hope, especially once I realized the true nature of my vision. Since then, I have become more conscious of the necessity of seeing the world imaginatively. It is imagination that may open way for growth and change. And while it takes work to do this, I believe it is work worth doing. Imaginatively transforming darkness with light is essential to seeing the sacred nature of all of life and is, most certainly, the work of the heart.

Holy Companion

In a vacant lot near my home, a single tulip bloomed each spring. As the snow melted, my father and I would drive slowly by looking for it. When at last we spotted its brilliant red flower among the weeds, we rejoiced. To us, that was the moment spring returned. When I asked my father how the tulip came to bloom there, in such an unfriendly place, he told me, with a shrug, “God knows.”

I now know that either an animal or a bird had probably stolen a tulip bulb from someone’s garden and dropped into the middle of that overgrown thicket. But as a young child, it was a miracle to find that bright red tulip blooming in solitary splendor in that vacant lot!

I still experience the Spirit in the natural world. The Holy is closest when I am outside: on the trails I run, on the rocks I climb, in my garden. The breath of the Holy is like the wind: too strong and too unruly to be contained in a building, moving everything and bringing abundant life everywhere—even in a vacant lot.

I value my spiritual community for its fellowship, and for being a place where I can hear and be heard, but it is in the woods or the mountains, at the seaside or in the desert, where I sense the presence of my Holy companion, and where I am filled with reverence.

Place

Autumn rain bows flower heads

Like mine–a prayerful moment shared,

Walking home from church.

My seaside flower garden looks a little ragged now. The lush, pink profusion of summer blossoming is reduced to a dwindling swarth of green and brown. The echinacea, the foxglove, the primrose and the campion have dropped their petals in favor of forming seed pods. But the roses bloom on.

Lulled by late summer sunshine and warm breezes from the south and sheltered by an ancient apple tree in a corner of the back garden, the roses don’t seem to know that it is, officially, autumn. Their scarlet petals remain as a brilliant reminder of the summer just passed.

These roses, strong climbers with thick canes supported by a sagging white trellis, have bloomed in this spot for over forty years. Planted by a previous generation–a professor and his wife now in their eighties—the roses have been lovingly nurtured ever since by caring hands. Despite their age and the challenge of the volatile New England–if-you-don’t-like-the-weather-wait-a-minute climate–they thrive here.

Eighteen months after hurricane Katrina had laid waste to the Crescent City, evidence of the storm’s devastation was still widely visible. In New Orleans as a volunteer librarian assisting with the clean up and reopening of neighborhood libraries, my early morning walk to work took me through a boarded over neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain. As I turned a corner, I came upon a single, white flower anchored firmly in a crack in the sidewalk. It’s hopeful presence caused my eyes to prick with unexpected tears.

With energy and concern, with care and love, many of us had come to New Orleans to share strength and hope with the residents there who had been left without much of either. But nothing we did or said as volunteers could bring the kind of hope found in the sight of that single flower. In spite of all the debris, all the broken promises, the lack of food and housing, this flower thrived. Did this mean that the people could thrive again, too? Did this somehow explain their unwillingness to leave for a less volatile climate?

Places root us. In an age where we are urged to give up our specific places to become citizens of global space, it is difficult to find those who will admit to the importance of this very particular attachment to their place. Despite urgings to the contrary, a sense of rootedness and connection to place calls us to stay still, even when the urge to flee is more powerful.

Despite icy winters and rocky ground, the roses bloom in Maine in October. Despite the lack of resources and support, those visited by disasters in cities like New Orleans remain and rebuild. In this way, each life expresses a deep and authentic attachment to a particular ground called home.

Great Marsh

Cape Cod–perhaps first visited by Vikings, but certainly by Nathaniel Gosnold–who named it for the abundance of cod fish in its waters–sits on the eastern edge of the state of Massachusetts. In the center of this peninsula that juts 60 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, lies the town of Barnstable. On Barnstable’s northern boundary is a barrier beach known as Sandy Neck. Sandy Neck is a crooked finger of land attached precariously to the rest of the Cape by a narrow joint, separating Barnstable’s working harbor from the sea. A bit over 100 acres of Sandy Neck is made up of a boggy, grassy ecosystem called The Great Marsh.

Summer at the Great Marsh is bleached white on the ground and faded blue overhead. Tiny cottages weathered gray by the salt air, are strung like beads along the road to Neck, their shutters flung open as if to offer conversation, their sun-bleached white curtains blowing in breeze like a blond’s sun-bleached tresses. Rosa rugosa grows along the roadside and clumps of Queen Anne’s lace and Black-eyed Susan fill the fields. Oak and sumac are here, their growth stunted by the winter storms off the Atlantic. You share the winding approach to the Neck with a corps of beach-goers, called by the sun and the smell of salt air to head for the sea.

Winter here is steel gray clouds and a strong easterly wind that takes your breath–as if you had fallen on your back off a swing. Deserted now, the cottages are void of speech. They sit, silent, anchored on their sandy cushions, as if in meditation. The roses are past their bloom. In their place, the sumac explodes red and the dune grasses wave in the wind. The foot traffic is lighter. Instead of beach goers and sun-seekers, there are bike riders and hikers. They are headed for the trails through the Great Marsh.

Entering the Great Marsh trails from the parking lot at Sandy Neck, it doesn’t take long before it seems as though the rest of Cape Cod has vanished. The cedar trees wrapped with hanging vines, the huge dunes that hug the trail on either side, evoke the feeling that you have gone through a portal into a small, hidden kingdom apart from the rest of the Cape.

No houses are visible from the trails. No people either. Beach sparrows flit over your head, calling their territorial songs. Higher up, gulls and osprey circle over the sea, looking for fish. The coyote lives here. Several large packs are sustained by the Marsh ecosystem, as well as by forays into surrounding neighborhoods where cats and small dogs are their favored prey. The coyotes are shy and nonaggressive with humans.

Late afternoon in the Marsh brings with it a special quality of light. It is the setting sun reflected upon the acres of deep green marsh grass that gives this light its luminous aura. Walking here in late afternoon, the light seems both to illuminate and to obscure. Shafts of blinding brightness penetrate each moving shadow, as if the movement is celestially choreographed.

Leaving the trails to enter into the Great Marsh is not encouraged. Nesting boxes for Northern Harrier and Osprey are placed there. Human proximity makes these raptors less likely to breed. Those compelled to venture off trail find thick grass, about three feet high, with the texture of scouring pads. Deep gray muck is under that. If your foot sinks into the muck, it can be difficult to extract. Once the Marsh gets you in its grip, it lets you go only reluctantly.