Caravans and changing rooms

I’ve been watching the excellent Amazon Original Series, ‘All or Nothing: Manchester City,’ which chronicles the remarkable and record-breaking 2017-2018 season the club enjoyed in the English Premier League. While there’s plenty of action on the pitch, much of the drama happens in the changing room, where Pep Guardiola inspires, cajoles and berates his players, who together form one of the most talented teams to ever play the beautiful game.

I was intrigued by glimpses of the writing above the players’ dressing area, which read, “Some are born here, some drawn here” and something else that wasn’t in the frame. I went online to see what the whole thing says, and this is what I found:

I became curious as to the origins of what I find to be a beautiful sentiment, and discovered that it’s a line from the poem, This is the place, written by Mancunian poet Tony Walsh, also known as ‘Longfella,’ his ode to the city he calls home. He recited it to a crowd of thousands at a vigil following the terrorist bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in 2017, in which 22 people were killed, and scores injured. It’s a powerful performance, worth taking 5 minutes to watch:

While it’s an ode to a particular city, it captures the love of a place that many of us have experienced, while invoking the very best of those who call that place home.

“Some are born here, some drawn here…” People continue to be drawn to the United States, believing that it can offer a better future than the one they face elsewhere. As I write, a caravan of people are walking thousands of miles to seek such a better future among those who already call this country home, some of whom were born here, while many others – myself included – were drawn here. Instead of wondering what those men, women and children who are wearing out their shoes and bodies in order to get here have to contribute to our shared life, some have already decided they have nothing to offer, or that they actually represent a threat to us, so much so that it is necessary to send thousands of troops to the border to ‘greet’ them. There is an undercurrent of fear and hate  in our midst that appears to be getting stronger, or at least, more visible.

It was fear and hate that led that man to strap bombs to himself in order to kill others in Manchester. The temptation is always to respond in kind when we’re afraid, and there will always be those who beat that drum to their own advantage. But as the poet Longfella reminded us – and it’s the poets and comedians who are the prophets in our midst – we are bigger, and better and stronger than that. His last words to the grieving crowds? “Choose love, Manchester.” In the face of those who call for fear and hate, may we, instead, choose love, wherever we are. Some were born here, some drawn here, but we all call it home.

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The price of protest

50 years ago yesterday, Tommie Smith and John Carlos walked to the podium at the Mexico City Olympic Games to receive gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter sprint, Tommie Smith having set a new world record in the process. Just another medal ceremony among many. Except this one would become an iconic moment in sports – and, arguably, world – history.

Smith and Carlos were students at San Jose State University. An invitation to South Africa to participate in the Games had prompted a call for a boycott in protest of apartheid, the threat of which caused the invitation to be withdrawn. But black athletes on the U.S. squad still discussed a possible protest against racial injustice in their own country. Earlier that year, Carlos had met with Martin Luther King Jr just a few weeks before the civil rights leader’s assassination. King suggested a nonviolent protest while all eyes were on Mexico. And so, as the American national anthem played, Smith and Carlos silently raised gloved fists.

The president of the International Olympic Committee immediately demanded the U.S. send the athletes home, or he would ban the entire U.S. team from further participation. They were stripped of their medals, and instead of the hero’s welcome medal winners might have expected, they received hate mail and death threats. They were banned for life from the Olympics, they found it hard to find employment, and their families suffered. They paid a heavy price for their peaceful protest.

But so did the silver medalist, whose name is not, perhaps, as well known.

Australian Peter Norman unexpectedly won a medal, breaking the Australian record for the 200m in doing so. But like his fellow athletes, instead of being welcomed home as a hero, he too suffered for his actions on that podium. The reason? If you look at the photo, you’ll see all three athletes wearing white badges, representing their support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which Norman asked if he could wear as a sign of solidarity with their protest. Refusing to decry Smith and Carlos’ actions upon his return home, he was also banned for life by the Australian Olympic Committee.

In 2008 Smith and Carlos received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. But ten years later, on the 50th anniversary of their iconic gesture, a new generation of black athletes find themselves the target of the same kind of vitriol and hatred as those Olympic sprinters did, for daring to non-violently protest institutional racism in the U.S. while all eyes are on their football stadiums. The insults, slurs and worse that they have endured from the highest level of public office down clearly indicate that there is still a large segment of the American populace that refuses to acknowledge the systemic racism that plagues society, 50 years after the civil rights’ movement. And so, when people protest, some continue to pay the price.

Even when the Olympics returned to Australia in 2000, Norman did not receive the customary invitation to attend as a former medalist. When the U.S Olympic Committee discovered this, they invited him to attend as a guest of Team USA.

Peter Norman died in 2006. Smith and Carlos traveled to Australia to be among his pallbearers, honoring their fellow athlete and friend. In 2012 the AOC finally issued a formal apology for the treatment he received at their hands, and earlier this year the organization awarded him the Order of Merit, their highest honor. Next year a statue honoring his legacy will be unveiled in his home city, Melbourne.

I heard Dr. Cornel West speak at an event in Cincinnati a couple of years ago. Someone raised the question of the importance of white allies in the struggle for equality. Dr West said something like, “Well, you know the trouble with allies is that they can end the alliance when the price gets too high. What we need are fellow freedom fighters, who will stay the course, and suffer alongside us.” Peter Norman’s quiet act of solidarity in 1968, and his refusal to denounce Smith and Carlos’ gesture, made him a pariah in his own country. When Victoria’s Sports Minister John Eren announced last month the plans to raise a statue in Norman’s honor, he said,

“Peter Norman stood up when others stood by – he deserves this honour and to be immortalised so his name and legacy live on forever.”

May the same be said of more of us in the fight to end systemic racism, wherever it exists.

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The Naked Man – pt. 54

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Mark gestured to the physicians sitting under the olive tree. “As my mother said, our practice of sharing resources across the rigid social lines we are expected to maintain continues to draw the same attention that Jesus’ actions did. I have mentioned before that the scribal class here in Jerusalem paid close attention to Jesus and his small school of disciples. Inevitably the Pharisees and some of those scribes came down from the city again and gathered around him. They had seen that some of his disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed.

“As you know, the Pharisees do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands first, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they ritually purify themselves. And there are many other things which they have received from the tradition that they are expected to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots. These dietary practices are part of the purity code which the scribes continue to defend as fundamental to our identity as Jews.”

Simeon spoke up. “But in reality, it is only the haverim – that extreme sect of the Pharisees – and some of the priests who keep these strict practices.” “Perhaps,” Rachel interjected, “But my father and his business partners insisted those practices applied to all who wished to believe themselves faithful to Torah. And woe betide me if I forgot to sprinkle my food with water before eating it. I can hear his lecture now: ‘Rachel – how do you know the farmer didn’t plant or harvest that grain on the sabbath? You threaten the purity of all at this table!’”

“Hah,” snorted Yiftach. “Spoken by someone who’s never got dirt under their fingernails. You plant seed when the ground is dry – even if that’s on the sabbath.” Rachel blushed and looked down. Yiftach, seeing this, spoke quickly, “I meant your father, Rachel. And men like him. The village Pharisees who constantly berated us about ritual purity. But how are fishermen supposed to observe the traditions of the elders when they’re constantly handling dead fish? Fish those same Pharisees are quite happy to eat, mind you.” Many heads nodded at Yiftach’s words.

“Well,” Mark said, “as I said, Jesus was on the end of the Pharisees’ critique again on this occasion. The scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?’” Mark reached down and picked up a loaf of bread from a basket. “After Jesus called the crowd to him again, he began saying to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand.’” Mark held up the loaf. “There is nothing outside a man which, going into him, can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile him.’

“After leaving the crowds behind, Jesus entered a house and his disciples questioned him about the parable he had told the crowd. Jesus said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and then is eliminated?’” Gesturing with the loaf, Mark said, “By saying that, Jesus declared all foods to be clean. Then he said, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.’”

“Jesus relocates the boundaries for what is pure or impure from external ritual to internal disposition: from our bodies to our hearts. And the vices that defile us which Jesus lists are rooted in the Ten Words – the covenant that created our people, the Jews. The social boundaries maintained by the kosher diet and other aspects of the purity code of the Pharisees and the scribes are thus subverted and redrawn along moral lines.” Mark laid the bread back in the basket.

Miryam leaned forward to speak. “As we have heard over these past nights together, Jesus constantly violated the ritual purity laws. He touched those who would ‘defile’ his purity: lepers, the woman with the constant flow of blood – even the dead body of a little girl. Nor did he guard against the ‘defilement’ that comes through eating – for he ate with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, with vast crowds, no way of knowing their suitability for table fellowship.

“But it is not that Jesus is unconcerned with what is ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ – as my son has said, Jesus redefined what they mean. And why should he not? After all, did not G_d declare, ‘This is my beloved Son – listen to him’? Did not the demons declare that he is the ‘Holy One of Israel’? Jesus is not defiled by those he touches – rather, he makes them clean. Jesus continually crossed boundaries for the sake of bringing God’s mercy to others. And he calls us to the same. And so the question that is constantly before us is this: ‘What boundaries am I maintaining to preserve my personal ‘purity’? Who do I avoid for fear of ‘defilement’? What comes forth from my heart?”

Miryam’s questions were greeted by silence, as the assembly considered her words. The silence was broken by Rachel, who asked Mark, “So, did Jesus just ignore the scribes’ critique of his disciples?”

“Oh no,” Mark responded, a gleam in his eye. “He had something to say about that…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 53

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

After finishing his meal, Mark looked around the courtyard at the gathered ecclesia. He noticed Yiftach and Adina in animated conversation and smiled. As Yiftach made a sweeping gesture, he noticed Mark’s gaze. The young man nodded in greeting, then turned back to Adina, who was trying to draw her friends into the conversation. I wonder what that’s all about, thought Mark. His mother laid a hand on his forearm. He turned toward her and caught the grimace of pain etched into her wrinkled face as she sat back. “Mother…” he began. She waved his concern off. “It is nothing, my son. Just the reality of living as long as I have. It will pass. Come, continue the story.” As Mark rose to his feet, he noticed another flash of pain on Miryam’s face.

“Sisters and brothers.” The murmur of conversation died down as Mark began to speak. “When we parted last night, we left the disciples astounded by what had happened on the sea of Galilee. The wind had blown them far off course, and so, instead of finding themselves at Bethsaida, when they had crossed over they came to land at Gennesaret. They moored to the shore and when they had climbed out of the boat, those on the shore immediately recognized Jesus. Unlike his disciples the night before!” He laughed. People ran about that whole area and began to carry those who were sick, lying on their sleeping mats, and brought them to the place where they heard Jesus was. Word had spread throughout the region that divine power to heal was present in Jesus, and crowds flocked to him, desperate for healing.” He glanced involuntarily at his mother, who gestured with her chin towards the crowd in the courtyard, re-directing his attention.

“As he traveled, wherever Jesus entered villages, or cities, or the countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and begging him to let them just touch the fringe of his cloak. The details of the healing of that courageous woman in Capernaum had been carried by merchants and herdsmen from village to village, and wherever Jesus went, he found hands reaching up to touch his cloak. And as many as touched it were being healed.”

Mark paused, and Rachel spoke into the momentary silence. “Is that power to heal still available? I mean, you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, but it’s not like he’s here in this courtyard with you, is it?” Her tone was skeptical, but not mocking. “There are many in this city who carry wounds and suffer with broken limbs from all the fighting. Can you help them?” “And,” continued Yiftach, “when the Romans lay siege to the city, there will be many, many more.”

It was Miryam who responded to their earnest questions. Leaning forward, a smile tinged with pain on her face, she said, “Yes, the power of G_d to heal is still present, and we pray for those in need of it. But our intercession does not always lead to the healing and relief for which we pray. Some of us have experienced healing, but clearly not all those who suffer have had their needs met.” She turned to Mark. “I confess that I sometimes wonder why the power we experienced in those early days after Jesus returned to G_d seems…not so present these years later.”

Before her son could respond she continued. “But divine healing is not always miraculous. There are some here who have been healed through the generous care of physicians.” Miryam gestured towards a couple of men seated under the olive tree. “Physicians whose care they could never have afforded but for the love we share as a fellowship. And, ultimately, it is that love that heals us. Not necessarily of our physical ills, but of our sin-sickness, our isolation, our fear, our bitterness and resentment, all that keeps us separate and divided from one another – and from G_d. That is the true healing of which we all have need.” The lines of pain in her face faded with the joy that now shone in her expression. Miryam reclined once more.

“That may be so,” responded Yiftach. “But when disease and injuries prevent you from participating in the life of our people, physical healing is a necessary step to that other kind of healing.” “Indeed,” responded Mark. “But it’s not only disease or injury that is the cause of the exclusion people experience…”

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A simple practice for a more intentional life

  • Do you feel a little frayed around the edges?
  • Do you go from one thing to the next without a pause?
  • Do you fall into bed exhausted without having physically exerted yourself?
  • Do the days just blur together?
  • Do you go from book to book, from one TV show to the next, from movie to movie and then find a couple of months later you don’t really remember what you read or watched?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to any or all of those questions, then I’m pretty confident that regular self-reflection is not part of your life. So many of us have been trained to stay busy all the time, to wear our tiredness as a badge of honor, to pack as much into our day as possible, that we rarely take time to reflect on what we actually did. And so we move through life at a frantic pace, even when sitting down to read or watch a screen, and thereby miss so much of the life we’re living.

A decade ago I had the privilege of hearing Fr. Matt Linn speak at a retreat in Houston, and became curious about one of the practices of St. Ignatius which he led us in – the ‘examen.’ I picked up a copy of the beautiful book he co-wrote about the examen, Sleeping with Bread, and began to practice it with my wife, Rebecca. When our kids were old enough, we began to share the practice with them. It remains part of our bedtime rhythm with our now 14 and almost 13 year olds.

At the heart of the examen lie two questions:

  • “What was I most grateful for today?”
  • “What was I least grateful for today?”

Simple questions, certainly, but ones which require a slowing down, a reflection on the day we have just experienced, paying attention not only to what we did, but also to how we felt, what we heard, what we saw, what we learned, perhaps. Some days we find our answers immediately spring to mind. Other days it takes time to identify what the questions ask of us. Occasionally I find myself unable to answer one of them.

While I imagine the vast majority of Socrates’ contemporaries were struggling just to survive rather than engaging in philosophical discussion for hours on end, his sentiment offers an invitation to commit some portion of our day to paying attention to what it might teach us. The examen is a simple way to do so, a daily practice that may begin to shape how we live the rest of our lives – with more intention.

When our kids were younger we asked the questions in simpler terms:

  • “What was your happy thing today?”
  • “What was your sad thing today?”


  • “What was the honey in your day?”
  • “What was the sting?”

Whatever form of the questions you choose, I encourage you to try this practice for a week and see what you notice about your life. Perhaps keep a journal of your answers and see if there’s a common thread that may invite a response of some kind. If you share living space with others, perhaps share in the practice together. St Ignatius would encourage you to pause and become aware of God’s presence before you ask the questions, and, after you’ve answered them, conclude by looking ahead and asking where you will need God in the day to come.

I hope you find the practice of the examen as meaningful as our family has.

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Guest post – my daughter Maggie

For a school assignment this summer, my daughter Maggie must publish something online. I’m delighted my high school freshman chose her dad’s blog as the platform, and hope you enjoy her short story as much as I did!

Maggie: So, here I am publishing something on my father’s blog. I have been writing almost every day this summer and this was my family’s favorite short story.  I hope you enjoy it!

“Kids these days”

The meeting began with decaf coffee, Earl Grey tea, and homemade sugar cookies and ended in a fight between a youngster and an oldie.  There was only one reason for the violence:

Kids these days.

The discussion started with a proud eighty-two-year-old bearing witness to her grandson’s numerous misdeeds. “It all started with his father’s well-intended gift of the 20th century’s terrible mistake: The Mobile Phone. Within a month of receiving this technological device, the boy was texting at the table, Snapchatting on the sacred Sunday, and following dozens of makeup-caked, scantily-clad teenage girls on Instagram.”  There was a collective gasp from the gathered group of grandparents.  “My once darling, innocent grandson cursed at his poor father after he threatened to take away his Xbox because of his many failing grades.” The assembled body all replied with a well-rehearsed,

“Kids these days.”

Another elder stood up gingerly, gripping his walker, and began railing against his next-door neighbor’s daughter. “Every day, she’s up before sunrise curling her hair, putting powders of many unnatural shades on once beautiful skin, taking showers! Why, that girl wastes more water than anyone else I know! She takes two thirty-minute showers every day. Her din awakens me every morning, long before I want to be woken during my retirement.  Her young mother pays no heed to my complaints. She just smiles sweetly down at her daughter and says that ‘My darling needs to look gorgeous every day.’  The assembled listeners shook their heads and muttered a collective

“Kids these days.”

On and on, aged men and women stood and raised their voices in complaint and anger, railing against “the kids these days.”  They spoke of the horrors of children and technology, “…not only are kids bullying kids in person, but they are now killing thousands through the internet.”  One Ancient even discussed the average cost of raising a child today.  “By the time they’re out of the house they have stolen $233,610 from their parents,” adding that that sum is quadruple how much it cost to raise her.  After every testimonial the congregation would respond like they were at church, except instead of “Amen,” it was “Kids these days,” that came to their lips.

Everyone but a hunched over figure sitting on a wooden rocking chair had said something and now all eyes landed on the character waiting for him to give a rousing finale.  A testimonial worthy of praise.  When he stood up, the group realized that this man stood at a towering height much different from the hunched over forms of the previous speakers.  The audience looked around nervously trying to remember his name on the guest list.  When he cleared his throat, the crowd began to titter, whispering behind wrinkled hands for his voice was not ragged at all, but in fact sounded young!

“Shut up you pile of moth balls!”  the man – or should I say, teenage boy – yelled as he ripped off his wig and glasses and began shouting over the din.

“You think you’re so much better then the younger generation.  At least we don’t have meetings to discuss how terrible our grandparents and elderly neighbors are. Really, you pretend you’re so much more mature then us, but have you seen yourselves lately? You have to bad mouth your grandchildren?  Did you ever consider that you were once a crazy kid too?”  The assembly got quiet.  But then a particularly grouchy old man stepped across and threw a heavy punch at the young intruder.  Quickly the boy blocked the attack and karate chopped the elder down.  Pandemonium ensued.  The crowd began yelling and attempted to hold back the loser’s wife, who looked mad as a hornet.

“See what I mean, you all threw the first punch.  You’re so concerned about kids these days when you should be worrying about your own mental state.”  He began striding out of the room but looked back and hollered over the din, “Grandparents these days!” and opened the door and walked out.

“And that’s a wrap,” called out a middle-aged man. “Way to go folks!  This will sure bring lots of laughs.  This is going to go viral!”  The group began to clap and laugh as they all removed costumes, wigs, wire-rimmed glasses and face masks, to reveal a group of young millennials.

Watching from the balcony, a janitor with greying hair shook his head and muttered,

“Kids these days.”

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Breaking down walls: lessons from a compost bin

From time to time I write about what my garden is teaching me about life. Paying attention to the plants, insects, birds and soil with which I share space helps cultivate within me the practice of listening to my own life. The informal education my garden provides continues to shape me as a person: humus making me more human. Sometimes formal education in gardening does the same.

Three years ago, I participated in a Master Community Gardener course offered by Seedleaf, a wonderful organization in our neighborhood committed to “nourishing communities by growing, cooking, sharing and recycling food.” The most interesting session for me was the one on recycling food, better known, perhaps, as composting. We’ve been trying to turn kitchen scraps, grass clippings and leaves into compost for more than a decade, with varying degrees of success. I had always heard if you could just get the pile hot enough, it would break down everything you put in it into ‘black gold,’ the nourishing soil amendment that is compost. But there were always those woody stems – thick cellulose walls – from the bigger plants that never seemed to break down. So, I assumed my pile wasn’t producing enough heat, pulled out those woody stems and put them in the yard waste bin.

But then in the session on composting I learned why that was the case, and how to change the way we went about composting in order to break down those thick walls. Along the way, I began to think about other walls that need to be broken down, (tasks in which we seem to be making little progress) and what we might learn from the humble compost pile.

There is no question that at this moment in US history, the walls with which we live – walls which divide us from each other – appear to be growing stronger. Walls that divide us based on the amount of melanin in our skin. Or the language we speak. Or our religion. Or the political party we identify with. Or the amount of education we have. Or our gender and/or sexual identity. Literal walls that create ‘gated communities,’ whether those are high-end housing developments or prisons. Walls that separate families, communities and sovereign tribal nations across national borders.

Protesters outside a federal courthouse in Seattle, May 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Over the past few years we have witnessed people take to the streets to protest these walls, in their hundreds and in their hundreds of thousands. I’ve walked in some of those myself. It feels good to be reminded that not everyone is in favor of such walls. These protests generate a lot of heat, both in real life and online, especially those that have drawn large crowds across the country. But when the cardboard signs have been placed in recycle bins, the hats hung on hooks by the door, and words to catchy chants forgotten, the cold, hard reality is that all that heat rarely makes a dent in the walls.

Enter compost. Yes, compost piles generate heat. But that’s not enough. In the Seedleaf course, I learned that there are two phases to composting: bacterial and fungal. The first ‘wave’ of bacteria are cellulose eaters, and they are mesophilic – they don’t like it too hot, nor too cold. They begin to break things down for what comes next – the heat. Because the second ‘wave’ of millions of individual bacteria are thermophilic – they love the heat – and they get the pile up to about 160 degrees, which kills the weed seeds and pathogens I don’t want in my garden beds. But then they die off, and unless the second phase happens, for all that heat, I’ll be left with half-finished compost, with all those thick woody stems – tough, cellulose walls – remaining. The second phase sees the rise of mesophilic fungal communities, who are lignin eaters (the woody stems). And their long, slow, steady work will eventually break down the toughest of those walls and leave me with the ‘black gold’ I’m looking for.

Marches and protests and the heat they generate are important. But they’re not enough. And they’re sometimes co-opted by people with personal and political agendas who are drawn by the heat of the moment, but who often overlook those who’ve been doing this work for a long time. Because just as my compost pile needs fungal communities to break down walls, we need people committed to the long, slow, unseen and non-heat generating work of building communities that will – in time – break down the walls we live with. People who may themselves march in the streets, but who then return to their neighborhood, roll up their sleeves and get back to their ongoing and unheralded work of dismantling the walls that have been built to divide people.

In my neighborhood, the people cultivating ‘fungal communities’ are often women of color. People like my friend Tanya, who opens her family’s home on Saturday mornings for a neighborhood breakfast. While she fixes waffles and brews the coffee, you might find a city council member sitting at the dining table talking about affordable housing with someone whose landlord takes their disability check and gives them $20 a week, while refusing to fix the stove/broken window/plumbing/heating in their draughty apartment of last resort. People like April, who, together with her sister Sarah, has quietly been doing this work for years. You’ll find April at a Fresh Stop market, organizing more equitable access to fresh produce with an innovative CSA. People like Anita, who lost a son to gun violence in the park at the end of our street, and who organizes ongoing ‘Peace Walks,’ and advocates for more creative ways to address conflict in our community. People like Christine, a master gardener herself, who helps bring all kinds of people together to grow food and flowers and friendship.

If we really want to do away with the walls that divide us from each other, while we may be drawn to the heat of whatever the next protest is, dismantling those walls will involve showing up within the fungal communities that already exist, and joining the long, slow, often unnoticed – and unfunded – work that has been going on for a long time. Especially when that gives us the opportunity to be led by people who have as much to teach us about the work as my garden has to teach me about life.

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