Archive for July, 2011


July 21st, 2011 (No Comments)

It is 100 degrees outside. My garden is sweltering and wilting in the fiery onslaught. My soul is sulking, sleeping with one eye closed while I type. Was it only a few months ago that I thought the ground would be permanently frozen? How does nature negotiate this remarkable change? In the never-ending winter of this year, I dreamed of summer, of gloriously hot days where my spirit would flit like a butterfly from sunrise to sunset. Frankly, I am finding this season a lot more complicated than I dreamed.

As a gardener I now find myself spending hours at a time holding a water hose. How tiresome. There is nothing else you can effectively do when you are watering, because as any gardener will tell you, to wrestle with a water-hose demands your entire concentration. Not paying attention leads to death by negligence – plants forgotten or crushed, hoses curling around your feet waiting for that perfectly timed moment to catch you unawares. After only one brief thunderstorm in the last 7 weeks, my mind-numbing, daily watering routine feels almost senseless – especially when I read the news of the terrible famine from the drought in NE Africa. When pictures of children with bloated bellies loom – it is easy to question the value of keeping my garden green. Our well pumped dry last weekend, xeriscape landscaping appears the only rational way to go. Spring fevered anticipation of giant tropical leaves and an English country garden can quickly shrivel in the heat of summer.

Summer appears to be a season of ‘too much’. I used to think of this season’s abundance as something entirely wonderful – a harvest of colorful blessing that rises from the cold depths of winter.  This year, if I am not watchful, all I see is the hulking shadows of summer parading just beyond the air-conditioner. Weeds grow rampantly without rain. Tornadoes, floods, then drought, march through the land in quick succession. The heat saps the urge to work, or even move outdoors. At high noon, a chilled glass of wine whispers seductively from the refrigerator calling for siesta-time.  The cute fawn that last year was gamboling along my front walk has become a voracious tomato thief – nipping off each fruit just as it forms and lunches in the wee hours of the morning on tasty greens and my favorite hosta flowers. Is it worth it – this painstaking, energy-demanding work of gardening? For whatever reason, life at 100 degrees has considerably less resilience than my life force in a snow storm. Maybe that’s because I am still a Canadian on the inside.

As I write, I am reminded of Rumi’s – the Guest House:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Guests come in every shape and form into our life here at Stonehaven – inside and out. … I am reminded how the hospitality of the garden seems to magically draw guests in. Despite the overwhelming “crowd of sorrows” I recall today, we have also been blessed with remarkable guests this season.

Last weekend because Uli is the board chair of the Dialogue Institute, we had the privilege of hosting 18 University students from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon for an all-American BBQ.  How delightful to watch a young woman flying high on the swing under the oak tree – her pink hijab floating in the breeze. Another young man from Egypt spent much of the evening playing with his friends on the hammock – he reported later that evening around the campfire that for years it has been his dream – just to be in a hammock! In another corner, a group of students, staff  and  board members engaged in a galvanizing discussion about Palestine, until they were called away to make their own ice-cream sundaes.

The Dialogue Institute, together with the International Center for Contemporary Education, has been selected by the U.S. State Department to conduct five-week programs on Religious Pluralism in America for undergraduate student leaders. This program offers students of diverse cultural backgrounds, from the Middle East and Indonesia, an introduction to the principles and practices of American democracy through the lens of a particular topic, in this case, religious diversity. On the afternoon we met, the group had just returned from Lancaster County where they had been part of a conservative Mennonite Congregation Sunday service and an Amish farm visit – the young people still were talking about the wonder of all they are learning, but most of all how significant it is to have this dedicated time to be together and learn from one another in community.  This is what Stonehaven’s mission is all about – offering hospitality to groups and individuals in their search for the deepest and most meaningful conversations about life, and how to bring about change on our increasingly complex globe.

At another Stonehaven garden party in June, we had an inter-faith feast. Jewish, Bahai, Muslim, and Christians of many ilks and denominations, joined together just for fun – to celebrate summer. We sat around the circle and talked about childhood summer memories and what this season means for us now. What reward to have someone, when thanking us for the hard work of planning this event, say with a catch in their throat, “I need this inter-faith community dialogue. I don’t find it anywhere else.”

It’s become even hotter outside, but I realize that as I write, these guests now stand alongside my earlier paragraphs of frustration, uncertainty and disparagement. I think of the Congolese government officials who are coming to lunch next week to talk about renewed peace processes using dialogue practice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or of the email I received today about the beleaguered Kurdish mayors who will be in town in September to learn to tell their stories of genocide. What a humbling privilege to welcome all these holy visitations of suffering and hope.

I am reminded that it takes lot of work to keep this property alive and vibrant so that it can appropriately host each honored guest. But the Land itself also somehow does the sustaining work of repair and restoration. As humans we do not work alone. From experience, I know I can trust the seasons to bring my soul whatever I need, whenever I need it. As humans we are being called into many fresh conversations of hope and enlightenment with all the Others in our lives – all those ‘inner’ selves that arise in fear and disillusionment and all those ‘outer’ neighbors and surprise visitors who wait on the doorstep of summer to be welcomed as teachers and friends.  May we as privileged people find the grace to host each and every one of our summer guests with the priceless gift of compassionate and loving attention.

Carol Kortsch

July 14, 2011


Soul Gardening in Summer

July 20th, 2011 (No Comments)


Summer is here. This season calls to the writer in me. As I begin to type this morning, I note my swollen fingers, my dirt encrusted fingernails, and the scars, insect-bites, and bruises along my limbs. It has been a busy gardening season, but yesterday with relief, I put the last of my seedlings into the ground, and composted some left-over leggy vegetable plants with a sigh. Enough is enough. It is time to stop working in the hot sun and relish the fruits of my labor. The heavy work is done; Nature takes her place as the Master Gardener now.

Summer invites me to rest in a special, more active way than winter rest. Every moment of summer calls me to stop and pay attention.  From the first robin song at dawn, to the gleaming dance of the fire-flies at night, I am invited into a delightful symphony of awareness. Every leaf, every flower, every hopping, squirming or flying thing shouts out its magnificence, its uniqueness in this Circle of Life.

Winter’s season is more about finding warmth and comfort from the complexity of layers of meaning, of digging deep beneath the soil line of our lives. Summer is the season to strip off the clothes of work, and revel unashamedly naked in the abiding presence of creation and her summer song. It is the time to boldly step out and let loose our deepest soul voice. It is the time to lift our heads and then bow to each grace-filled thread that connects us in this web called Life.

Despite this, I notice with some chagrin how remarkably hard it is to actually stop and relax into the natural world of growth. How much easier to continue to see the weeds that need attention, to worry about whether it will rain, or to plan for next year’s projects. Like the still drops of early morning dew on a flower, pure undiluted pleasure waits for us to join her. I long to more easily and consistently revel in the wonder of summer’s abundance. I’d like to write a concerto extolling the hilarity of nature’s ways. Instead I am apt to find myself wallowing in the dark shadow of the compost pile and moldering, along with last week’s water-melon rinds. God knows how much sordid delight there is in focusing on all the refuse of this world.

Those of us called to be soul gardeners tend to gravitate into the depths of mystery, to lurk in cloistered carrels searching for the alchemist’s stone, rather than flying the heights of sheer delight. Frolicking with my muse is one of my goals this summer. I wonder – what might it look like to abandon myself to nature’s love? My floral containers, garden rows and borders, and exact word placements are laughable but creative attempts to copy and control the mystery of that burgeoning wildness called Love.

In ‘The Seven of Pentacles’, Marge Piercy profoundly describes soul gardening as a season of unparalleled, mysterious growth.  “She is looking at her work growing away there actively …” It is interesting to note that the Tarot card, the Seven of Pentacles, offers itself as a time for assessment, a reward for hard work done, and yet a turning point for change. Today I hear the call to join Marge, along with Mary Oliver and Thoreau and Jesus; to put away the plans, resist the urge to commit myself to one more project, and with deep silent gratitude to all that is seen and unseen,  accept the invitation to enter the restful, abundant joy of summer.

…for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,

after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

Summer Solstice 2011

Carol Kortsch


Angola-Sakeji Reunion

July 20th, 2011 (No Comments)


MAY 20-23, 2011

Almost exactly 50 years ago I left Sakeji, a boarding school in Zambia,  to travel back to Angola with a group of about 20 other missionary kids.  From the ages of 6-13, four times a year, we made this trek … mostly travelling first by truck, then footbridge over the crocodile infested Mukulwezi River,  and caught the first of two trains to get home. Once we even discovered that the train tracks had been bombed in the war-time upheavals in Katanga province of the Congo so were forced into the hold of another truck and drove overnight through many military checkpoints to the border where the posh colonial railcars in Angola ferried us across the ‘Everlasting Plains’ to our anxious waiting parents. To say that our being “dropped” into the 60’s era of North American life was traumatic,  would underplay the significance of that transition and the many others that followed over the decades.

This past weekend many of our little band met again here at Stonehaven.  There were 24 of us including  other school friends and a few brave partners who just couldn’t stay away. We spent three days, laughing, crying and telling stories of those years that have mostly been silent or gone underground into our unconscious.  These were stories that needed to be repeated, witnessed and digested with the hearts, heads, and ego-strengths of  now 60-70 year old adults. As a group facilitator and one of the two organizers of this event, I found it a challenge to provide enough structure for group process while also offering generous space for the unknown to emerge:  in play, conversation, prayer, song … or one of the hundreds of stories that came from boarding school life. It was a non-stop voyage back into the past and out to the present.

After the last trip to the airport today, I wandered my garden for a long time, quite aware of how bereft I felt.  It seems like a dream, but there are bits and pieces of my friends strewn everywhere.  Pieces of pink Bazooka bubble gum, hidden beside our campfire where we sat talking late into Saturday night. (Ginny won the biggest bubble contest on Sunday and Jackie came in a close second.)  A song sheet lies open to the Golden Bells hymns, the ones we sung on Sunday together as tears ran down many of our faces.  Those words that reminded us of walking to church, jumping across the stones in the river, dressed in our Sunday best, hats for the girls and white shirts for the boys, the anticipation of Sunday chocolate fudge, and a good dinner – no boiled liver and onions that day.  (This weekend we had fudge on our night-tables too and a posy of lantana; a bittersweet reminder of having to pick it as weeds for punishment from the Headmaster!)

As we watched DVD’s of old movies, we lived suspended between times, inside the skin of our youths – witnessing our tiny faces, joyful and exuberant one moment and serious as child-soldiers the next. Still, we remarked that we hadn’t really changed.  Those faces still shine through wrinkles and grey hair, divinely graced with resilience that comes from the other side of decades of abundant living.  These past days were packed full of laughter and life, our souls restored; more capable of truth in all forms, more comfortable with our familiar and very odd family. It was crazy to laugh and respond to old nicknames as if nothing had ever changed. We recounted the daring escapades out of the dorm at night, and grossed ourselves out with tales of ghastly food and school kid entertainments.

We delighted in remembrance of the soft fingers of our pet bush-babies that unknown to teachers, slept in our pockets in the school room and fed from doll’s bottles. We enjoyed familiar tastes, so comforting on the tongue, like Marmite and rice cakes.  We laughed at our annual rituals of Guy Fawkes, pinch-and-a-punch, and the Sakeji folklore  of “snipe-hunts” and the once a term purging of hook worm, when we all had to drink the poisonous brew and go for a long walk before rushing back to the toilets, but not before collecting  cow-patties for our gardens and playing  ant-hill tag.

We were awed, now as parents and grand-parents, at the comfortable companionship with risk that marked our lives as children growing up in Africa. Hours of stories about playing around fire, snakes, trauma and war, water-games, jumping from heights, walking barefoot at the river- so we wouldn’t lose our shoes.  Risk was the norm for us.  For others we remembered the tenderness of those teachers and those wonderful missionary ‘Aunties and Uncles’  who “saw” us, who stopped in their busy lives to be with us as little people. The ones who attempted to shield us from the pain of loneliness – the big bear-hugs, the gentle loving squeezes and teasings, the bedtime stories, the ones who taught us to cook and sew and take photographs – all those personal attention moments that kept us connected to each other and in our little beings.  As children we felt this but now as adults can more fully articulate and continue to practice with compassion for those we love.

I was not surprised that we needed to speak a lot about the darker side of boarding school, our complicated relationship with authority, of the evil and the good that perversely came from that same experience. Many of us had been sadly censured into a terrified silence , but together now, we listened openly from many perspectives, sharing our truths. For the first time, thank God, after 50 years we could weep with the wounded and not turn away from the rejected. We talked of public humiliation. Our meeting rooms this weekend had no place for shame.  It was OK to speak about fears and failings, of long held personal and family secrets because nobody was going to punish, reject or bully you. We shed tears for those hurt by our own childish meanness that came from our own unrecognized pain and anger.  We asked questions and we didn’t have to have an answer – there was no need to pretend to have one voice anymore. As adults we honored our diversity and respected the need for personal identity, yet still could remain close and listening.

We even had a train ride on a vintage steam train in Strasbourg, PA which included white table-cloth fine dining at sunset while clicking along through the rolling hills and picturesque farms in Amish country. This time nobody threw unwanted soup out the window, and no slices of bread slid down into the window-wells – never to be seen again. This time Maruchi, one of our group, just after we had finished our meal and came to a halt at the station, burst into a grand operatic song. In that moment, opera was possibly the only medium that was capable of describing the rich tapestry of those days together.  It was a perfect ending to a day of still travelling on this train of our lives that keeps on chugging, getting us closer and closer to home.

I had never realized that my propensities towards a monastic way of life were channeled deeply in this primarily Plymouth Brethren school. Quiet time before breakfast, a Bible verse a day to memorize, then each week‘s verses to recite on Friday. Whole swaths of scripture channeled into the recesses of our pores.  Boys and girls separately marching single file down to morning hymns and meditations, then afternoon prayers before supper – the ritual singing and chanting of choruses became our language.  The movies showed us little ones kneeling before our beds, shrouded in mosquito nets, before lights-out.  Then those existential moments some of us talked about – me hidden away behind the bathroom window sitting out on the ledge under the African sky, asking the big questions about  ‘Where are you God?’.  I heard about another who sat in the bath alone noticing the sand at the bottom of the tub and remembered asking those same deep questions.  We didn’t have lots of time, but some of us started that conversation again, all the why’s and  ‘what if’s came much easier now.  It felt good to just be free to question and put out a little of that infernal fire of doubt in the power of love and goodness.

It was interesting to note how many of us are now professional care-givers.  Our room was full of doctors, therapists and teachers, business partners, all of us evidently serving in creative ways to give back into the world the very best we can offer. I think one of the biggest take-aways from this weekend, after the joy of just the re-connection, was how we all remarked that out of some of the toughest places of our lives, much growth has come. Time and again, we noted that strength that comes out of darkness, (reminds me a little of the Lyles Golden syrup motto, “out of strong comes forth sweetness!”)  We are a remarkable group of people who like our parents keep giving out of the wellsprings of our hearts, often from the silent, more hidden parts of our lives.   I do marvel about our incapacity as a group to re-connect until now.

The gift we brought to ourselves this weekend is that of each other-our truest and most passionate and authentic selves. As we listened to Steve and Peggy and Shelia Foster speak of their work in Angola, as we heard of the incredible work of RISE based on the life gift from Andrew Cole, our schoolmate, as we hear of Etienne and J’Pete Brechet who pour themselves into Angola as dedicated citizens, let’s keep building fresh ways to connect and serve each other and this planet. God is with us and in us, building and expanding our Sakeji family.

Tu vero permane…

Carol Kortsch

May 24, 2011