“At Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, members and neighbors buy fruits and vegetables from a black farmers market and work in an organic garden named after botanist George Washington Carver . . . “
The Greensburg District of the United Methodist Church (UMC) held their Helpshop on January 28, 2012 at Community Church in Irwin, Pennsylvania. The theme was “Mind, Body and Spirit” with Tanika Harris, the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the UMC, serving as the keynote speaker. At the GBGM, “she provides resources as well as training opportunities to communities and churches throughout the country that are engaged in community development and social justice through advocacy and youth/young adult empowerment.” (Helpshop brochure) The breakout sessions included “Healthy and Vital Congregations,” “Sexual Health and Wholeness,” and “Remodeling the Temple.
I was invited to facilitate a session titled, “Africans Americans, Religion, the Environment, and Health.” We discussed:
- Knowing one’s (environmental) history is good for you
- Nature is healthy
- Scripture and health
- Better health of (African) Americans by experiencing the outdoors
- Our Stories
- A healthy mind: environmental meditation with African American themes
One participant shared her memory of the fragrance of lilacs while spending time with her grandmother; the memory of those flowers evoked a spiritual connection, a connection to God. Our meditation included scripture, deep breathing, music, the sounds of the ocean, prayer, and silence.
Many thanks to those in the Greensberg District of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, UMC who organized the Helpshop: Holly Sawyer, administrative assistant and William Meekins, District Superintendent. Of special note: Community United Methodist Church did a wonderful job hosting the event. And of course, many thanks to Rev. Kathy Barnhart, Rev. Rhea Summit and Rev. Augie Twigg for their diligence and hard work.
Photo by Dianne Glave
Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life sweeps the film-goer into the universe and the life of Jack O’Brien, the character at the center of the film, along with his family. The cyclical and arcing non-linear narratives of universe and daily human life overlap one another with metaphors galore. The film is a complex masterpiece; it is a series of paintings on celluloid.
The film’s title, The Tree of Life, is significant as it points to everlasting life in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. The counterpoint to this tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam and Eve to stay away from the tree of knowledge. As is human, both were tempted to eat from the tree knowledge, and God cursed them with death rather than everlasting life on earth. Good and evil are central to Jack and his family lives, a dot really in biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the origins of the universe and life.
The film opens with passages from Job 38:4, 8 which frames the film: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”
If you missed these first words in the film, then you missed critical themes of the origins of life–foundation of the earth, water–H20 as life-giving and -altering, revelation–a door as transition and change, and the womb–birth as part of the meaning of human life irrevocably tied to death.
Malik’s overarching themes of religion, based in part on the Bible’s book of Job as a signpost, are origins of all kinds including the universe and Jack’s birth are traced throughout the film, well is actually the film.
The seemingly simple lives of the O’Brien’s are embedded in the Big Bang and religion. Jack’s birth is paralleled with the first spark that becomes the universe transitioning to simple and later complex forms of life-anemone to dinosaur–on earth. Jack and Mrs. O’Brien, his mother, narrate the entire film with whispered phrases filled with cosmological and theological meaning set against the backdrop of an expanding universe and evolution:
- Death of one of the middle O’Brien children at 19: “He’s in God’s hands now.”
- As the universe becomes . . . : “Who are we to you? Answer me.”
- In the midst of crashing water and moving clouds: “We cry to you . . . Hear us.”
- A meteor hits the earth slamming earth into an ice age: “You spoke to me through her . . .I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
- A boy drowns in a swimming pool: “Was he bad? Will you die too? You’re not that old yet, Mom. Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”
The last words intertwine with recurring themes of good versus evil–consider the Garden of Eden once again–central to Jack as he grows up. He’s born as raw material like the universe. Jack grows into evil; does the universe move along the same path? He vents his frustration when another brother, ultimately the middle child, is born. Jack’s anger expands and pulses like the universe as he bristles under the control and abuse by his father, and becomes his father full of anger and resentment. Both son and father’s ethics are skewed as Jack breaks a neighbor’s window and his father tells his children you have to look out for yourself. Is the universe, is God free of these ethical dilemmas? It seems Malik asks these and other question through the images and words in the film As is true of life in which we ask the big questions of who is God and how did the cosmos come into being, questions often remain unanswered.
Middle-aged Jack contemplates his life, the painful death of his brother, his damaged relationship with his father and mother, the meaning of the universe and life; it is all revelatory and cosmic. The towering trees and skyscrapers (spiraling urban trees)–reaching up to God vertically for comfort and answers; the water–a source of life, the skies–celestial heavens where God prevails are all part of a visual symphony that brings Jack around full circle from birth to death to after-life. His life parallels the universe which ignites with the Big Bang and closes with a supernova leading to a black hole, perhaps where the universe first begins again.
Another layer of the many narratives is religion paralleling in many ways the expansion of the universe, evolution, and human life. Jack’s experience is salvific. He is born unaware of sin, clay to be molded into good or evil. Ultimately, his father’s oppression turns in on Jack reinforcing evil. Jack does bad things like breaking into a neighbor’s, a woman’s, house stealing her underwear. He feels guilt even as a boy growing into adolescence. At the end of the film, Jack revisits his life through memories walking through a door, representing transition, to meet his family as if re-experiencing childhood. The family forgives the father with loving gestures. The 19-year-old son who died also appears as a child signifying reconciliation of past hurts. Perhaps Jack has died and is in heaven on the beach, experiencing a reinvention, redemption, happy times with his childhood family, much different from reality of his childhood.
At the end of the film, Malik shifts to scenes of a dying universe that parallels Jack’s experience of salvation–original sin, grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and perfection–coming around full circle. Interestingly, the last scene mirrors the second scene of the origins of the universe as flame-like. I saw the bosom of a woman in the flame at the end of the film. Perhaps the woman was Jack’s mother, reflecting grace through her gentleness and kindness toward her children. Malik closes the film with by returning to the beginning echoing words from earlier in the film by Mrs. O’Brien: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”
Like a Picasso, a cubist painter, The Tree of Life is what you make of it. And it changes with every frame and every viewing. The universe. Evolution. Humanity. Salvation.
Ok, there are black people in The Walking Dead! I was glad to see the British actor Lennie James, who was fabulous in the canceled TV show Jericho. Lennie plays Morgan James who is central to the first few episodes of The Walking Dead. In ensuing episodes when the two have parted, Rick Grimes, the lead character, played by Andrew Lincoln frequently invokes Morgan, the first person he met in the new world of flesh-eating monsters.
Rick travels on leaving behind bread crumbs or sign posts (i.e. notes on cars) for Morgan to follow Rick and his rag-tag of survivors of the zombie plague. Their travels show the familiar trope of film and television of the buddy road trip–this is the horror show version–traveling across many terrains. Transforming the trope, a group and not a pair of buddies travel across the land as the group bonds and develops. I have already seen forming and storming. I am wondering if the series will get to norming, performing, forming and mourning in the midst of living dead chaos.
The backdrop to the character development is disease and the landscape. The disease that triggers the transformation into zombies and the defunct Center for Disease Control (CDC) condemns healthcare system and perhaps even reform in the United States. The plague is winning, and modern science and medicine are losing.
In one of the first scenes is in a hospital. Rick wakes from a coma, stripping off the monitors to the machines that kept him alive; pre-plague, a suspect shot him while on duty as a police officer. He walks the corridors of the hospital stumbling about encountering the first of many zombies to come.
Looking at the environment, the telling landscapes are in the Atlanta Metro area are a grassy “plain” dotted with trees, the Bellwood Quarry, the empty streets of Atlanta, and the CDC.
One of the first times Rick kills a zombie is on a grassy slope, probably a park. I am assuming the scene is somewhere in Atlanta although I cannot name the place. A mangled zombie drags herself, half of her body gone below the waist, seeking to chomp on a human. Rick watches the futile efforts and then kills the zombie.
Rick’s humanity slowly seeps away, as he becomes less and less human and more and more dead like the zombies he shoots and bludgeons.
That rag tag group was already forming and living near a quarry while Rick was in his coma in the first episode. The location is Bellwood Quarry in Atlanta. The place is abandoned, unproductive, non-working–much like the people simply surviving in what is essentially a post-apocalypse. No one is planting crops. Great paintings are no longer being created. The 21st century War and Peace or Beloved are not being written. Civilization no longer exists like a quiet rock quarry that is no longer producing slate for kitchen countertops and outdoor walkways.
Before finding his new and struggling community, Rick makes his way to Atlanta in hopes of reconnecting with civilization–which ultimately serves as condemnation of Atlanta and more broadly dying urban life. The empty streets of asphalt and the sidewalks of concrete are an echo of what once was. The buildings tower, almost close in on Rick. Rather than being greeted by “society” he meets swarms of zombies during this first visit. Atlanta once Rick’s place of hope is now hopeless. The city in 2010 is full of empty condos and houses that will not move in the stagnant real estate market. Like many an American city, particularly downtowns, it is a bleak city. Atlanta is a metaphor for modern issues of poverty and crime overcoming ailing cities in the United States with more zombies than humans wandering around. Dead cities, dead people.
You would think the beacon of hope would be the CDC, another of Rick’s stops. Not. They do not use the real CDC which is on Clifton Road in Atlanta. Security did not allow for access, I’m sure. Pike fences surround the real CDC, which is closed off from the street.
The small group led by Rick arrives on the edges the alternate CDC on open terrain still searching for civilization, along with answers. They find dead bodies scattered on the campus; not a good sign. And the undead are lurching about as usual.
When they get into the CDC after much drama, one man, a scientist still remains trying to figure out what went wrong. Why does this disease vector trigger an illness that transforms people into zombies? He does not have the answers sought by this band of gypsies. And the unspoken question: was the CDC responsible for the plague? There’s no answer for that question either.
Without fuel–perhaps an allegory of 21st Century reliance on fossil fuel, the CDC begins automatic shut-down and goes into self-destruct (so the cache of viruses and diseases that remain in the building are not released) much like the survivors. When the scientist locks them in with him, locks them into his hopeless and futility, they fight to leave and survive.
The band, the cobbled community are still holding tight to their humanity in the midst of the dehumanizing plague. They still have free will, Christian theology for some, choosing to die with the scientist or continue to live on through the journey. The members of the community leave the CDC without a cure, without the answers to spoken and unspoken questions. Others stay behind choosing to die and give up on the journey, a cure, and their community. No matter the choice, there is free will.
Running across the grounds of the CDC dodging the undead, the survivors leap into the RV and other vehicles to continue their twisted frightening road trip.
What new place is next? Will the disease further strip the group of their humanity? As someone who loves show for the tortured troubled relationships, the struggle to create community, and maintain their humanity–not the zombies and many variations on clubbing and shooting them–I look forward to seeing what happens in the city, on the farm, and in the woods.
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Penguin Press, 2006.
But it is my understanding that the health of the planet is affected by the health of every individual on it. As long as even two souls are locked in conflict, the whole world is contaminated by it. Similarly, if even one or two souls can be free from discord, this will increase the general health of the whole world, the way a few healthy cells in a body can increase the general health of the body.
A Prayer to God by Elizabeth Gilbert (pp. 32-33)
Thinking back to my trip to Italy as I read Eat, Pray, Love: African American brother and sister on a journey. My travels to Rome to Florence, and finally Milan with train rides connecting the three cities flooded my mind and spirit with endearing images and sacred moments, some of which you can see in my photos taken in 2004.
Elizabeth’s–I will use her first name throughout my reflection because she takes the reader on such a personal intimate journey–non-fiction book is a travelogue. The book is much like 19th century travelogues or journals I remember reading by Europeans traveling through and living in the American South. I am thinking specifically of the actress Fanny Kemble’s journals that decried the atrocities of enslavement in the sea islands off Georgia.
Elizabeth travels and journals in reverse leaving the US, to see parts of the world beyond the borders of her home in New York. In traveling, Eat, Pray, Love becomes an exploration in geography and spiritual mapping by God that helps Elizabeth towards spiritual, mental, and physical wholeness and fulfillment. The journey takes her to Italy, India, and Indonesia. I was drawn to the first leg of her journey as I remember my own trip to Italy.
Spiritually and geographically, Elizabeth describes herself culturally as a Christian. She insists “that Christ is not the only path to God.” (p. 14) The path and by extension the many paths are a spiritual metaphor that extends from literally traversing across terrain, part of geography. She begins to trace and even reconfigure her spiritual map: “When you’re traveling in India–especially through holy sites and Ashrams–you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks.” (p. 1)
Elizabeth takes us with her to Italy where she falls in “supplication” to the floor in prayer in English and Italian thanking the universe and God. You see she is grateful to be alone in her hotel room without a paramour, a young lover in tow. (p. 9) Perhaps she offered a prayer of thanks because three years earlier she left a marriage and the possibility of a child. This might sound strange to some. Yet she left her marriage–her husband was emotionally remote–choosing to be alone without a husband or child. returning to the young Italian man she left behind in a restaurant, she decided to be alone. But really she wasn’t alone. She sought God and found him, found her.
During her time in Italy, Elizabeth also battles depression and loneliness. She eats and eats and eats, a panacea at least in part to what ails her body and soul. She puts on weight; yet when she glimpses herself in the mirror she sees a friend in better mental, spiritual, and physical health. This is thanks to the people called Italians and the geography, the country called Italy.
Elizabeth is flawed just like the rest of us, making mistakes and experiencing revelations along the way. I recommend reading this book though you may not share her beliefs or understand her choices. By the close of the book, you could be looking at your own reflection. I did as I remembered wandering the streets of Milan alone without a map, fearless and happy with what little Italian I knew. I spent a short time with people who treated me with love even when I couldn’t count change. Yes, Elizabeth does without a map in Rome!
Follow Elizabeth from beginning to end, from sorrow to sorrow, from revelation to revelation, reading beyond my take of her time in Italy, and beginning fresh with India and Indonesia through health, spirituality and geography.
Photos by Dianne Glave Except the Book Cover
Daphne, my mother, all 120 lbs of her, laid down sod and chopped down trees when we lived in our second house in Queens, New York during the 1980s. She was very serious about getting the trees down because she was tired of raking and bagging the leaves in the fall.
Two stories . . .
My mother would start by killing the tree by hacking away at the trunk with an axe. She started on one of many tree projects and our next door neighbor came running. She’ had crossed the property line–there was no fence–and was attempting to bring down our neighbor’s tree.
Some months later, she worked on a tree in the backyard. Whack. Whack. Whack. The tree started falling towards our HOUSE. The same neighbor came running out. With ropes he leveraged the tree from falling on the house.
I know everyone is saying poor trees. Looking back, I’m thinking the same thing. But remember it was her yard and it was the 1980s.
Consider some context for my mother’s own suburban world and experience. African Americans worked in logging and turpentining in the South so there is a parallel concerning labor/work and perceptions of trees as natural resources. To learn more about African Americans and the turpentine industry during the first half of the twentieth century, go to: http://www.cfmemory.org/Learn/Stories/StoryView.php?s=19.
I have no idea what became of the wood from the trees my mother chopped and sawed but looking back I hope the wood was used in someone’s fireplace. Utility trumps waste?!