On Renewal

John Owens

On Renewal

When I think of renewal, I first imagine Mother Earth, who, as part of her yearly circuit around Sun, nods in precession, creating our seasons. From where I stand now, in southeastern Minnesota, that means from November to April or May a sterilization and suspension of life. Insects and annual plants die or hibernate, trees draw their sap far below the frost line, many birds leave, animals hibernate or go into torpor, and we humans retreat to the warmer parts of our homes and virtually stop interacting with our neighbors except when removing snow or taking out the garbage.

In another part of the world, in India, with which I am familiar, from March to the beginning of June there is a different sort of sterilization: by heat. Temperatures rise from the 90’s into the 100’s and even much higher. Trees lose their leaves, the ground cracks open and dries, insects die and desiccate, and animals seek out shelter in burrows, and rely on the few remaining sources of water to survive. People retreat indoors from 11 AM to 4 PM to sleep, seek shade and air conditioning, and only venture out in midday with umbrellas to shield them from the scorching radiation of the Sun. In midday sun, you can seemingly feel the force of the photons of light streaming down on you, like an invisible weight of oppressing intensity.

Finally the clouds come and cover the sky. The winds pick up, and dust storms cover all surfaces with a veneer of red dirt. The sky is alive with lightning storms from horizon to horizon. Still no rain, but the whole world anticipates the relief that must come to assure the promise of survival. Without it, there will surely be starvation and death. Farmers hitch up oxen or tractors to the plows, and turn over soil that is more like concrete than growth medium, and sow their hope and faith and wealth in the hot, dry soil. If the rains are delayed too long, they may be ruined. Too soon, and the land is turned to mud.

At last, in the stifling heat and dusty wind, the ocean of air delivers its renewing gift to a desiccated Earth. Clouds, having been cooled by air returning from the Himalaya, condense their moisture. And down comes the rain in torrential glory. Adults and children alike stand on street corners, arms upstretched and unprotected, to soak in the cooling, delicious joy of life-giving rain. Many dance for joy, a whirl of colorful saris and dresses, umbrellas and shirts and songs of love express the relief of summer’s stress, and the belief that life is good.

Instantly, it seems, grasses magically appear overnight. Dusty, barren hills become covered with vibrant greens. Trees bud forth leaves and flowers bloom on every terrace and garden. Flies and mosquitos and butterflies become abundant. Washed clothes hang for days on sheltered lines, taking forever, seemingly, to dry. Moods lift, with popular songs hummed in the kitchens, and late afternoon happy family gatherings happening while the storms and winds pour forth in the early evening.

This is the time of the Goddess, when all things are nurtured, fed and held in gentleness and love. It is a time when traditionally war was virtually impossible to wage. This is a time to stay home while paths are flooded or washed out and impassible. A time to celebrate, and to receive and give promises and thanks at temples and home shrines to a benign and generous deity, who bestows upon us humans all the means and delights of joyful existence, and the promise of the continuance of our tribe.

Renewal has other forms, too. Some are dark and violent, like the cycle of war and peace. Here the dark elements of destruction, chaos and death, of a whole people grieving loss and deprivation and disease and despair, hopefully will come to an end and give way to peace and a rebuilding of society. Sometimes this process can, relatively speaking, go well, as the renewal of Europe and Japan after the ravages of WWII are examples. All too often in our contemporary times, the process of violent renewal by conflict has become stuck in permanent dysfunction. Think of Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia, to name just a few such nations where conflict has become endemic, and renewal is a frail and distant hope. What ingredients are needed in such places, to catalyze movement out of war and aggression toward the knitting together of the social fabric and the renewal that peace can promise? What can our world’s institutions and leaders do differently that will help to cause what has always been and remains a natural movement from war to peaceful renewal?

I won’t leave you on this somber observation of the dark underbelly of renewal. There is so much more to explore, and I’d like to bring a piece of it home, and make it personal to me and to you. One can imagine renewal as a four-part cycle, starting, if you will, with a slight change or disturbance in a stable system, like that first snowfall. That’s Act I. Act II is the intensification of that disturbance, and the introduction of chaos or profound change, like the freezing of the ground (and water pipes), more snow, dead batteries, white-outs, respiratory diseases, and the rest. Act III is the beginnings of a new or returning order: the lengthening of the days, the arrival of migratory birds, melting snows and runoff and swollen rivers. It’s still in this place of chaos and tension and distress, and without certain knowledge one might imagine that it might go on forever like this. And finally Act IV arrives, replacing all with a new or renewed order, fresh, optimistic, and full of promise and potential.

How does the cycle of renewal play out in our individual lives? I’ll share an example from my own life, and perhaps you can recognize or resonate with this idea in your own story.

I became intensely aware in my early 20’s that, in my belief, I was alone in the world. Yes, people populated it, but from my perspective, my life was mine to live, my world was most real internally, and to a great extent, I did not much need people for my existence. I felt connection to a few individuals, and for them I was a good, loyal and reliable friend. I did not see any particular relationship to most of the rest of the world. Now for many of us, and in particular those, like me, whose worldview and self-view are skewed significantly from reality, somewhere near the magic age of 40, a disturbance happens. You can call it midlife crisis if you like. In short, my act, my collection of beliefs and behaviors, just did not work so well for me anymore. That was the curtain call for Act II for me. Stuff started happening that was disturbing. Reorganization at work, a shakeup that left me with the realization that maybe I need to think about the impacts of what I say and do have on others, particularly the managers. I got married, and ended up three years later divorced. My life seemed to be stuck, vaguely unfulfilled, and except for a few close friends, I was alone. Act III unfolded with my joining a group, one that helped me recover my repressed emotions. Until then, I was primarily able to feel anger and hunger. The rest was not even part of my awareness. Doing the hard, scary work of emotional recovery, I felt alive again.

Too much story to go into details here, but I found myself in community, and joined a group of men who likewise shared their emotional and spiritual lives. And one day, and this is my fourth Act in the cycle of renewal, it dawned on me that I contained a paradox: I am alone in the world and I am in community. Like breathing, as I inhale I am alone, and as I exhale I am in relation to all beings. Life made a new sense. I started talking with anyone I met as if they were my brother or sister or other relation, because I now see with renewed eyes my relatedness to everyone and everything.

So from this perspective of relatedness, I know that we are all unique, but we are all not that different, either. What’s your story of renewal? How may your past belief in one thing, rubbed up against what is real, has collapsed to give way to something new that has enlivened you? How do you form and share your story? How might sharing that renew both you, and those who hear you?

As always, I’d love to hear your comments!



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