Sunday, September 11, 2016

Water communion

I am blessed. Last night, after a week of occasionally heavy downpours, I walked from my house to the Milwaukee County Grounds where I was treated to one of the more spectacular sunsets I have had the pleasure to witness. Brilliantly lit by the setting sun, a thunderhead moved off to the north, still visibly drenching the earth below it. The sun on the horizon in the west lit up the underside of the thunderstorm and created an intense perpendicular rainbow, like a scene from Close Encounters. (The image, shot with my iPhone, doesn't do it justice!)

Caught up in the spectacle, I didn't stop at the time to think further about the thunderstorm or the role that rain plays in the water cycle. But the theme of the service at church this morning brought that image into sharper focus, metaphorically speaking. I am a member of Unitarian Universalist Church West (UUCW) and it was our annual "Water Communion" service, which signals the start of the church year.

Smallmouth bass, Riveredge Nature Center, Mke River, 5/16
The Water Communion is a ritual that symbolizes not only the importance of water to all of life but also the spiritual community of the congregation. Congregants are encouraged to bring water to church that comes from a place we have visited over the summer or that represents a meaningful event that happened. During the ritual people pour their offering into a common bowl, mingling the waters.

The litany that accompanied the ritual included this: "We bring water water of sunrise and new beginnings..., water of harvest and sunset; the sweat of a job well done; the tears of endings..., water of quiet and peace...." We paused in meditation, to reflect on our water, its source and its meanings in our personal lives. As I reflected on this I was struck, not for the first time, by how much my life is blessed. I have been privileged with experiences relating to waters both near and far. 

Kayaking the Menomonee River, 5/16
Here I offer a selection of images and brief reflections. (The links embedded in the text will take you to previous blog posts.) I fulfilled a long-time goal in May of kayaking the Menomonee River. In the process I found it to be surprisingly wild even given my already high expectations. The smallmouth bass (above) was caught by naturalists at Riveredge Nature Center as part of World Fish Migration Day.

It's true that I saw many scenes involving Lake Michigan that were quite similar to this one. But in June I had the great fortune to spend the solstice in Finland. This sunset occurred at approx. 11:45 pm. over the Gulf of Finland. I was on a cruise-ship-size ferry on my way from Helsinki to...

St. Petersburg, Russia. The highlight of my two days there was the Hermitage, seen here from across the Neva River.

The UUCW house band played Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game for the Water Communion. I hadn't heard it in years:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

"A community is a network of relationships and the places where those relationships interact."

Water and more specifically the Kinnickinnic River was the theme of my most important art exhibit of the year. Concrete River: Memorial and Promise on the Kinnickinnic, a collaboration with Melanie Ariens, opened at the Alfons Gallery in May and ran through July. Collaboration continued when the dance duo of Andrea and Daniel Burkholder, pictured here, performed a site-specific dance created especially to harmonize with the exhibit.

And while the Concrete River exhibit showcased the planned rehabilitation of the KK River, it was gratifying to see the last stretch of concrete channel finally disappear from the Menomonee River this summer (near the stadium, visible in the distance).

The limestone ledges and cliffs of the Niagara escarpment along Green Bay framed a week at The Clearing, a self-styled "Folk School" where I attended a writer's workshop in July. Along with few (well, more than a few) photos, I returned with a water-related haiku:

sitting on stone
scent of cedar
clear horizon

August was a busy month and water was a constant theme. On August 7 the Milwaukee Water Commons staged its annual We Are Water celebration on Bradford Beach.

"People want more community these days because contemporary life in mainstream America can be pretty discouraging. We're bombarded every day by messages that promote individualistic behavior--and the more disconnected we feel the more...we consume." To me these words from the Water Communion service extend beyond the human community to include all life.

Because we are an activist denomination, the Water Communion included a call to action. One of this summer's actions was the second annual "Convergence at the Confluence" rally to promote oil train safety. It took place at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers on August 14.

"In community we lend our strength and support to one another--in community we can do things we could never do alone!"

August 25 marked the centennial anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. I marked the occasion by visiting the closest National Park to Milwaukee, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. There, along with some of those Lake Michigan horizons, I discovered a wealth of other habitats, including this wetland called the Great Marsh (although the discerning eye will note that it is in fact a swamp!) (It's the trees.)

September got off to a watery start when I decided to explore the Root River sections of the Oak Leaf Trail for the first time. Here you see it in high water, a condition that will be far more common when the Waukesha water diversion project is implemented and that community's wastewater will be dumped into the Root River.

Another quote from the Water Communion: "The water we have gathered comes from the world's far corners and our own kitchen sinks. It is as salty as tears, as cool as a deep spring, as turbulent as a rushing river, as calm as a deep blue lake."

My most recent water-related adventure was just yesterday, when I led a stalwart group of Sierra Club members on a guided hike along the Menomonee River. In the rain. I was concerned that no one would show up. It being the Sierra Club, however, they knew what to wear and we all enjoyed the wet. An Englishman named Alfred Wainwright is credited with a saying I am fond of recalling in these situations: "There is no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing."

One of the hymns we sang for the Water Communion included this line: "When our heart is in a holy place we are blessed with love and amazing grace." I saved what I consider my most amazing photo for last. It is an undoctored image of the sun rising out of Lake Michigan.

I am blessed. The best week of the summer was not my voyage to the foreign shores of Finland but, as I said, right here on our own Great Lake. I spent a very relaxing week staring at that horizon. I saw the sun rise each day. Each day it was different and new. It looked like this only once. My heart was in a holy place that day. (And my camera was on a tripod!)

But one last water story. My favorite.

Until she started school for the first time last week I took care of my granddaughter once a week, as I've done for the past 4 years. The best day of my week was when Lynncita came to play with me. On hot days in the summer we liked to walk to Hoyt Park Pool. Even in cold weather when all we have is the sink, she enjoys playing with water. This summer she invented a new game. I would fill the watering can with water from the hose and then she would pour the water into pails. Then she lifted the pails and dropped them to watch the water splash. There is nothing like a 4-year-old to make you feel young again!

One warm day she was doing her pail splashing thing over and over, continually asking me for more water. Then suddenly, with no warning or hint of her intentions, instead of dropping the lifted pail she turned it upside down over her head. I watched as she sputtered and wiped her eyes, wondering what would come after. She erupted with the most gleeful chortling laugh.

And then she did it again. And again...

I did not get a still photo of it. But you can see it on YouTube.

I promise it will make you smile.

I do feel blessed.

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