The Sinking Island

And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
The sea came.
Without warning.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.

The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.

Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.

Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …

I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!

I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.

The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!

So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”

 

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Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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Turbulence! That Annoying Necessity of Life

“What gives value to travel is fear” – Camus

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You’d think I would be used to it by now. Considering a number of untold hours I have spent in the air over my lifetime, you would think that turbulence and I have a solid, unfazed relationship. Not true. I detest turbulence. The minute the plane starts shaking and bumping with all of 40,000 feet of free fall between it and earth, my heart starts pounding and I wish I had not said ‘no’ to that glass of red (it’s the plastic cups, you know, nobody should drink wine from plastic cups … but that’s a different story). No matter how bored and casual the pilot sounds as his voice drawls across the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it seems we have hit a tad of turbulence (no friggin kidding, Junior?!). So we ask you to return to your seats (yep, done that, curled up in the seat) and fasten your seat belts. The cabin crew will cease service (please cease service, keep your salad and bread roll, just throw me some valium) at this time.” He doesn’t have me fooled! Turbulence is not my friend.

It seems that flying and turbulence go together. I wish they didn’t, but it is simply a cruel part of this unnatural experience. If you are going to place your body in a metal and plastic aerodynamic structure and hurl it through space, the likelihood of striking turbulence is about as high as the possibility of drama and weeping on The Bachelor. Turbulence reminds me that there are many unforeseen air pockets and storms that we will encounter in this thing called ‘life’.

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Without turbulence, it would just be one, long smooth flight to our next destination. How utterly boring (doesn’t boring sound wonderful?!). Turbulence cuts through the bollocks and delusion of control. It reminds us that we are vulnerable and that the notion that we have control over our lives is as illusionary as an oasis in a bone dry desert. We can map out the most beautiful destination, set the most splendid route that promises us sunshine and unicorns farting butterflies, but with one shudder of that plane we remember that life seldom follows the path of glorious boring monotony. Life is all about facing our fear. Turbulence makes sure we do.

Be wary of anything or anyone that tells you otherwise. In a consumer culture there’s always someone selling something that promises “No Turbulence Guaranteed”. If you drink this potion, eat this green slime, say this prayer, mouth this mantra, wear this talisman or have this much faith, then you will encounter no turbulence. So you buy into the farce with gusto, only to discover a few months or years later, it’s not true. Turbulence is one of those annoying necessities of life – and there’s no way round but through. Turbulence has your number – because turbulence shakes out of you what sunshine, butterflies and cupid kisses won’t – your shadowy fear.

Fear, like turbulence, is a part of life. It is not fear in and of itself that creates all the problems. It’s the denial of fear. The suppression of fear. The inability to own or recognise how fear has held us back in so many areas of our lives. Turbulence exposes our captivity to fear. It is only when the storms of life hit that we have the opportunity to examine what lurks in some of the dungeons of our heart … but only if we pay attention … only if we are honest …

Turbulence has often come into my life in the most inconvenient of times! Just a few years ago it came to me through the lives and stories of those on the margins. It totally upset my nicely held set of beliefs and ideals. It exposed some of my darkest fears – what if I listen to my heart and lose all I have built in this beautiful, tiny, hyper-real bubble of existence? Facing that fear was traumatic. There was no way round but through. And I did lose. And it did hurt. And I did grieve. And I also survived. And I could never go back. Turbulence broke fear’s spell.

I still don’t like turbulence. There’s no real way we can make peace with it. We are wired in such a way, that, if at all possible, we will avoid it. This is not a post about welcoming turbulence. Friend, this is a post to let you know that you are not alone when facing it. It will impact your life and change your travel plans. But there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you. You are just fortunate to walk the path of the living – and the living face turbulence and with it their fears. May you be brave.

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” Murakami

 

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In the Path of the Storm

“We live in a world that is beyond our control, and life is in a constant flux of change. So we have a decision to make: keep trying to control a storm that is not going to go away or start learning how to live within the rain.” 
– Glenn Pemberton
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Ten days ago we had a huge wind storm here in Melbourne. The effect of this storm was felt for days afterwards as trees came crashing down, blocking roads and cutting of power supply to hundreds of homes. Bushwalking with my fur children this morning, the pug became very engrossed in inspecting the huge root system of a massive gum tree that stood in the path of the storm and now lay smitten across our regular walking track. There is a whole separate, tiny ecosystem that lives under these wooden giants.

The storm that came brought winds of over 100 kilometres per hour. It seemed to come out of nowhere. No one could predict its path accurately. Storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. Even our most modern societies stand little chance when Mother Nature thunders with terrifying magnificence.

Every year we witness all sorts of storms which beat up a part of our planet. Somewhere, someone will be in its path and the result is never pleasant. Superstition and extreme religious views often fuel the misery. Storms have been considered as God punishing innocent people for hundreds of years. The marginalised and oppressed people groups, according to some, are always to blame for the heartache that storms bring. And people, afraid of disasters, buy the complete voodoo spiel!

Perhaps it is easier to blame someone for storms than to face the fact that storms are part of life? Perhaps, when people buy into a religion that tells them that no bad things will ever happen to them and that their God always protects them from storms, the natural reaction to disaster is to look for a cause? How easily we revert to karma; the idea of some angry, retributive ‘god’ that needs appeasing. It is very uncomfortable to think that just like my gum tree friend, now lying by my feet and being inspected by the pug, we too will find ourselves in the path of storms not of our own making but simply because storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. Storms, dear friend, are a part of life.

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There will be days, months, years, when it will feel like your life is directly in the path of an unyielding, merciless storm. Most of the time we don’t have a clue why this is so. Guard your heart against the ‘counsellors’ that will attempt to pontificate from their perceived moral high ground or soap box into your life. You don’t need to take their rhetoric board. You see, friend, storms come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to. They come into the lives of the just and the unjust, they will rage in palaces and the poorest hovels, they will find a path through the most modern city and the deepest jungle. Storms are what storms are … and now and then we will find ourselves in the path of a storm.

Faith does not guarantee the ceasing of storms in your life. Storms come and go. Trying to create a religious ideology that ‘storm proofs’ our lives will only bring deep disappointment and resentment. Faith recognises that the Divine walks with us ‘through’ the storms. You are not anymore loved, holy or special because you have not experienced many storms. Neither is there anything ‘wrong’ with you if you happen to find yourself in the path of a storm.

Storms, after all, come when they want to, how they want to, and where they want to … and you, dear friend, are still loved.

PEOPLE IN A SNOW STORM CAMBRIDGE
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