Ashes to Ashes… or not

…you were made from dust and to dust you shall return…

On Ash Wednesday I received the imposition of ashes. This is a Christian tradition that marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a period of fasting, penitence and preparation for Easter.

IMG_9875Since a child I have noted that people often “give up something” during Lent, such as a food or treat. The idea is that denying ourselves something is good for us, that self-denial forms our character. While I would argue that Lent is supposed to be a season that includes more than a perfunctory self-denial, that it is a season of fasting with ebbs and flows, that it is a season for self-reflection, than mere “absence” of something–I have no wish to judge or characterize what the season may mean for others. And this year I am actually practicing some particular fasts myself.

I have two particular “fasts” and there area two sides to each: what I won’t do (the fasting part) and what I will do (an active discipline.)

My first fast is Netflix series. I’m hooked, and it’s not just Netflix. Over the previous months I have watched multiples seasons of Narcos (Colombia and Mexico), El Chapo, Outlander, The Americans–those are just a few. These series are designed to be addicting and have spawned the term “binge watch” which means to watch an entire series in one-go, kind of like over-eating. While I have learned something from these, they also have eaten up huge swaths of my time, no pun intended. So, instead of watching, I’m going to read books–six books, in fact, one for each week of Lent.

My second fast is from plastic bags. This is a bit easier for me because I have largely given them up over the past two years and the only real requirement for success is that I remember to take one of our reusable bags into the store when I shop. My wife has already mastered this habit. I was deeply disturbed recently to see an article that they are finding plastic residues in the deepest part of the ocean–the Mariana Trench. That, coupled with the fact that many municipalities are giving up on all or part of recycling, has meant that I need to personally come to grips with my own consumption. As part of my penance, I’m going to make a record of how much plastic that my household consumes during Lent. My personal discipline will also be to see how I can find alternatives to the plastics that I use, great hazards to the environment.


My forehead was an easy target for Pastor Paula Stolzfus.

How ironic that when we receive the imposition of ashes and we hear, “from dust you were made and to dust you shall return…” –and we are reminded of not only our own mortality, but of the fact that our bodies actually will decompose after death–how ironic that plastics let loose in the environment may not decompose so easily–“go to ashes”–for thousands upon thousands of years.


Minimalism #1

DSC00334There’s quite a bit of talk around our house these days about “minimalism.” It began with a message to our whole family from my youngest son, away at college, who said he had just seen a documentary by the same name. We should all check it out. So my wife and I did.

I heard a story on The Minimalists on the radio a few years ago and had actually started to watch the film, but never finished it. It is very thought-provoking, to say the least. We have now added “minimalism” to other terms/values in our life, alongside simplicity, localism, frugality, de-cluttering and anti-consumerism. I find it a pretty good, all-inclusive term to refer to a conscious decision to have less stuff, so that we can free up our time and enjoy life more.  And help the planet along the way.

What provoked me the most in the documentary was the fact that people are generally happier with less–a lot less. I’ve known it in my own life and am a bit ashamed to say that I have drifted away from that. More than once I’ve lost everything–had it stolen or voluntarily gave it away. As a family we lived in an intentional community for seventeen years, fourteen of those pretty much without private property at all. Just about all of what we have in our home has been accumulated in the past 20 years. As simple as I think we are, it’s still too much.

Since the new year began we have been on a mission to “de-clutter” our home a la Marie Kondo and have found it energizing and freeing. Now we want to go further and pursue what it means to be minimalists.

I came across a book recently, The Man Who Quit Money, Daniel Suelo, whose blog can be found here. He lives money-less and house-less and has done so for more than a decade. Debates about his lifestyle aside, he points out that all the major world religions promote the core value that an abundant life is not about abundant possessions.

This is sparking deeper conversations about how we want to live–now, and in the future–and the legacy my wife and I hope to leave behind. IMG_7109When I walked 500 miles across Spain last year on the Camino de Santiago (and am writing a book about it which I hope to self-publish this year) I carried about 16 pounds in a 38 liter pack. I discovered that was about all I needed in life. Ever since returning home, that fact has been on my mind. The most difficult lesson I learned on the Camino was actually from other people, the ones who had too much with them. They knew they needed to get rid of something, but couldn’t figure out what to shed. For me that comes back to this period of life and what we are going through right now. What can we get rid of so that we can walk more freely through life? What is it that we really need?


A year of downshifting


In the Bierza Valley, Spain.

“So, what are you doing these days now that you are retired?” This is a question that I get asked regularly.

“It’s complicated,” is my first response, followed up by, “actually, I’m not retired. I’ve downshifted.”

In a car, you downshift to slow the vehicle without having to brake. The term came into use a decade or more ago to describe people who have deliberately decided to slow the pace of their life. Sometimes they are younger people who have worked crazy hours at some start-up, earned a fortune–but not a satisfying life–before the age of 40 and decided to sell it all for a tidy sum. Nice idea, but that’s not me, as much as I might wish.

If you search for the term online you might come up with this definition, “[to] change a financially rewarding but stressful career or lifestyle for a less pressured and less highly paid but more fulfilling one.” That’s closer to what I’m doing.

I decided some years ago that I did not want to retire in the typical fashion, which according to common wisdom seems to mean to pile up a lot of money and then stop working and play. I have no problem with people who want to do that, but I have a different plan.

I’ve also known quite a few people who worked hard for many years at jobs they did not enjoy, pinning a lot of hope and excitement on retirement, only to be faced with severe, unexpected health problems, even death, before they could do it. Their “pile” was left to someone else.

My children are mostly grown and the financial and time demands of raising a family have eased. I’m close to, but still a few years from the age where people can retire (AKA the age you can get Medicare.) I have some “margin” so to speak in life and so a year ago I left my job–which I enjoyed, but which was also very demanding– and decided to make this past year a sabbatical of sorts, a year of rest and a year to learn a new, slower pace of life. In slowing down, my wife and I also adjusted our family budget, living more simply so that our needs would be fewer. My personal mantra became, “I’m not in a hurry.”

In the past year I did a lot of travel–more than usual–and fulfilled some dreams. I visited coffee farms in Colombia, walked 500 miles across Spain, biked 1,000 miles across England. I caught up on some projects at home which had been waiting for a long time, like a new vegetable garden. I started reading the books I had been collecting for years. I began to write a book (and this blog.) I began to get rid of stuff. I learned how to slow down, to refuse to let “hurry” back into my life.

And lately I’ve pondered what to do next, especially how to earn a living and how to work for the next few decades.

In the course of my life I have met many people who worked at something they loved well into their 80’s. (Think of Supreme Court justices, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is still serving at age 85.) Some had to adjust their pace and work fewer hours, but they never stopped doing the thing they love. I believe that if you work at the things in life which you love–which come from your deepest self and which help meet the world’s needs–why would you ever want to stop?

So, I hope to keep doing what I love and what meets the world’s needs, to exercise a  creative and entrepreneurial nature, to use my experience in the areas I’m passionate about: publishing, nature, peace and justice, the environment, all informed by my faith. I hope to tinker with new ideas, new dreams, new visions, to co-create with others a world for our children and grandchildren that is more sustainable and is less consumptive. I will continue walk, bike, travel, discover and write, at a slower speed of life. I’ve downshifted for good and I’m not in a hurry anymore.


Refugees, long ago

The immigrant caravan seems to have dropped off the literal and figurative front page of the news these days. For those in political power–or seeking political power–they were never real threats, never more than just convenient scapegoats. But for those fleeing violence in their own countries the story was a matter of real life and death.

All of which brings me to some thoughts this Advent. The Nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are not just quaint history. They are timeless stories, with people on the move because of the dictates of empire (the Roman census) and with unhinged and lying tyrants storming inside their palaces (Herod) frightened by nothing more than a little child. The death threats then were real and the Holy Family had to be on the move, escaping to Egypt,  just ahead of the brutal murders of the innocents in Nazareth. It has all too much of a contemporary feel.

As I contemplated this, an image of the Holy Family came to my mind, from the famous artist Fritz Eichenberg. An assimilated German Jew, he fled Nazism in 1933 and ended up in New York. Over the years he became a Quaker, but his best-known art were woodcuts he gave to the Catholic Worker newspaper over the course of more than 30 years. I include here one of my favorite images and I hope by reproducing it I am not violating any copyright laws. It shows a tired but determined Joseph and a hopeful Mary clutching a sleeping baby to her bosom.


In the introduction to the beautiful book, Fritz Eichenberg–Works of Mercy, Robert Ellsberg (editor) wrote the following about this:

In one of his drawings of the Holy family, Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus are shown as homeless refugees on a barren road. One senses Joseph’s exhaustion and near despair in a world in which rulers murder children. At the center of the panel is a barefoot Mary. While the Savior of the world sleeps in her arms, she looks up at the night sky with a look of dependence on God’s mercy. It is her contemplative, prayerful attitude more than the halos that make us recognize her as the Mother of God. Fritz gives us a dramatic reminder that the world into which Christ was born, far from being a doll house village under a Christmas tree, was similar to our own with many fleeing for their lives.

In this case Emmanuel–literally “God with us”–is a reminder that the incarnated God took on human form, not in the palace of the mighty, but in the caravan of the refugee. Merry Christmas and a joyful Advent to everyone, but especially those without homes and on the move, this time of year.

Fritz Eichenberg–Works of Mercy was edited by Robert Ellsberg and published by Orbis Press in 1992.


Before and after the Camino

Starting in March of this past year (2018) I walked the Camino de Santiago, or more specifically, the Camino Frances, a 500 mile stretch that is the most commonly walked.

I written two pieces about that experience so far, one published before I left and one after. The “before” is here:

My first (of hopefully, many) “after” is here:

In 2019 I hope to publish a book about my experience. Keep an eye out.