Category Archives: essay

tasting that which is*


the first tomato                                                                                     © erin dunigan 2013

When I pause to think about it, it was tomatoes that did it to me, really.

That first bite of a vine-ripened-fresh-from-the-plant-right-outside-the-front-door-onto-the-plate-tomato – it hooked me, caught me, captured me and coaxed me into becoming a gardener myself.

“You mean this is what a tomato really tastes like?!” I remember saying out loud, to no one in particular. “I never knew.”

The thing is, I had become acclimatized, slowly, over time, to that round red fruit that is sold in the grocery store under the label ‘tomato.’ The fact that this round red fruit did not always taste like much had somehow ceased to be of importance to me, so gradual was the fall from flavor.

Until I tasted the real thing – and that changed everything. I had to learn to grow such beauty myself.

Which, of course, is what spirituality is all about – tasting that which is, which is more, which is, we say, of God – and thereafter not being satisfied with anything else.

It is a conversion – but one that is coaxed from us, and then cultivated within us – and one whose whole reason for being is to bear much fruit.

Taste and see – for it is good. Very good.


*This piece was written originally for the September issue of  Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland, to address the question, “What are the spiritual benefits of growing your own fruit and veg?”

an impromptu posada (the miracle of the 8 tables)

It was a bit less ‘no room in the in’ and a bit more ‘no mesas (tables) in the storage area’ – not, perhaps, as poetic, but an unintentional modern day posada nonetheless…

A ‘Posada’ or really “Las Posadas” is more typically a reenactment of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay – knocking on doors, being told there is ‘no room in the inn’ (so to speak) until they finally find lodging (posada) and are invited in.

So, when Jose (which is, obviously, his name, but which is also how the name Joseph is translated into Spanish) arrived at the barn where we were setting up for our annual La Mision Holiday Celebration – yes, we hold it in a barn, and no, the irony is not lost – and said that the tables, tables we need for sharing the convivio (potluck) after the service, were not in the usual location, we began to wonder where they might be found.

Wondering turned to suspecting, as Bev realized said tables had probably been taken and used at the foodbank. So, Jose, Vita and I loaded into Jose’s truck and headed over to the foodbank. Looking in the windows Jose made the pronouncement – we are not taking these tables – to which I answered of course we are. Until, of course, I too looked in the window. The tables, 7 of the 8, were piled high with carefully folded clothes, laid out as if already sorted and ready for some distribution.

photo 1-8“Just move the stuff,” Bev had instructed, when she sent us off on our table posada. “Um, Bev, that’s not gonna happen,” I told her over the phone as she said she’d be right over. I’d list her response, when she saw the room, and the tables, but that might get this post flagged for inappropriate language…

So we went upstairs to talk to Estela, who was at home. “Do you have any tables?” Vita began to sing the song for Las Posadas, the song of Mary and Joseph – or in this case, Vita, Jose and Erin.

We got one from Estela as we took the one unused table from the foodbank. While we were there Estela also lent us 40 chairs, to go with the 50 we’ve already got. Meanwhile, I called Cindi on her cell phone – “I have a couple of tables we can use,” she answered.

photo 2-8As we drove back, along the mud road, in what had suddenly become a downpour, I asked Jose and Vita if their lives were not much easier before all these crazy ‘strangers’ entered into them. Laughing they answered something along the lines of, this craziness filled with strangers has become our life.

Which, it seems to me, is exactly the message of the Posada, of Navidad, Christmas…for we are both the strangers that go looking for lodging, or tables, or a place to lay our weary head  or a seat at the table, and we too are the ones who have the opportunity to open the doors of our lives, our communities, our hearts, and our families to that which seeks to be born to us this day…God with us, amongst us – even here, even now.

photo by Marty Harriman

photo by Marty Harriman

An addendum: I shared the above message with those gathered last night for our celebration – a celebration of Christmas/Navidad of course, but also of Hanukkah, the festival of lights and the miracle of the oil that was only enough for burning the lamps for one day, but lasted for all eight days.

As we were passing the light, Ron chanted for us, in Hebrew, the blessing of the light – and, was quick to point out, that the miracle had come full circle – from the miracle of the 8 days to the miracle of the 8 tables…may it be so!

why we gather



Tonight we will gather – an eclectic group, to say the least. Though most of us live in or near the same small town, we come from many different places.

We are Mexicans and Americans. We are also Thai, South African, and even Texan. We speak many different languages (including Hebrew!) but will limit ourselves to two (or possibly three) for our service this evening.

We are those who come from plenty, and those who survive and often thrive even in the midst of want – be it materially, emotionally, or spiritually. Tonight we will share with one another – in food, in wine, in conversation, in love and in laughter.

We will gather to sing, to speak, to offer light in the midst of the darkness of what is predicted to be a chilly winter’s night. We will eat together. We will drink together. We will add our individual lights to a bonfire that we hope will warm us in the midst of the cold.

Amongst those who will gather will be some who call themselves Christian, Jewish, Catholic, Atheist, Protestant, Mormon, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Science of the Mind and even a JW or two (don’t tell) – but also many who find themselves outside the traditional categories of religion, faith, or belief.

There are those in this world who decry the use of the word ‘holiday’ in place of ‘Christmas,’ siting it as further eroding of our religious heritage. But regardless of the name given to it, this evening will truly be a ‘holy-day’ – a time of transcending the boundaries that normally keep our world so neatly divided between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ – tonight there will just be ‘we.’

There have been those who ask, why in the world would this group gather together for such a service? How is there possibly anything in common amongst such a wide diversity of background, class, culture, and religious opinion – or lack thereof? What is the point? Why bother?

For me, the answer is simple – though I hope not simplistic. It is, according to the custom of Jesus of Nazareth, an answer that is, in return, a question.

Why would I want to be anywhere else?

on tiggers, gracias, and grace

Were I to have set out to obtain a canine companion – which I most decidedly did not do – I could not have chosen for myself a better match than the four-legged ball of brown fur and wagging tail that chose me. Truly.

For a long while I had ‘wanted’ a dog – like someone ‘wants’ something that is just out of reach, but always desirable.

But, faced with the practicalities of life, I didn’t put any action into actually obtaining that which I believed I wanted. But clearly someone heard. Clearly some intention was communicated out beyond the confines of my small self, to a world beyond that heard, listened, and responded – or maybe it was all just chance, coincidence, luck. I prefer to believe in serendipity.

Granted, at the time of the fluff ball’s arrival I was not so convinced – how can I possibly have a dog, I asked myself, and anyone who would listen. Until one day about a week into the adventure a friend pointed out that, having purchased a stylish matching leash and collar, it appeared that I had, in fact, admitted that I did, actually, have a dog.

But I don’t have a life for a dog, I protested, rather futilely, as the canine began to slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, to rearrange the life that I thought I had so well ordered.

Three years and some weeks later, I cannot imagine life without that dog in it. Yes, I do have a fairly crazy life for someone who now has not just a dog, but two cats as well. But there are ways of figuring those things out. The joy that creature brings to my life – and I chose the word joy intentionally – far outweighs the hassle of figuring out what to do with her when life takes me away from home and into the world.

She loves to play fetch. She loves the ocean. She loves running on the beach, chasing the birds, chasing the frisbee. She loves to swim. She looks like a bit like a coyote, my favorite animal as a child and the subject of my fourth grade report on an animal – any animal – of my choice.  She has mellowed out somewhat, from those first months, thankfully, and now sleeps peacefully nearby while I sit to write this.

I named her based on her high energy and her propensity for jumping – Tigger, was what a friend on facebook suggested – and it stuck.

But had I given her a name based on her place in my life, for her role rather than her behavior, there is one name that would have transcended all others – gift. Or perhaps grace. For that which I could not actually accomplish on my own, was graciously given to me. What I wanted, but couldn’t find the space or the way to encounter, appeared on my porch without the slightest action or initiation on my part – other than to allow her to stay.

In the debate about baptism in the Christian church (trust me, you didn’t miss a paragraph or a page here, this will relate, shortly) there is a discussion of whether or not one should be baptized as a baby or as an adult. “You should be an adult,” many will say, “for only an adult can make a decision on an important matter such as this.” The emphasis is on the importance of belief, the importance of acknowledging, accepting and embracing that which one believes to be true. That is a good and reasonable rationale.

But there is also the conviction, held just as strongly, that being baptized as an infant, an infant who has no choice in the matter, is just as valid a form of baptism as that of an adult. “Being baptized as an infant,” the reasoning goes, “shows us in a tangible way that God chooses us before we can even know what that means – that God’s love and graciousness are offered to us freely, long before we know how to respond.”

Not all that unlike a dog – the perfect dog for us really – who shows up one day on the porch without any decision, action, or belief on our part, and proceeds to begin a transformation of life as it had previously been known.

A gift, freely and graciously given – a gift that we are invited to receive. And feed.

lost in translation…

Whenever I travel I like to learn at least a few words in the local language. To me, it is a sign of respect to chose to at least try and communicate in the language of my host country. So, for instance, in Korean I can say good morning and delicious – in addition to milk and apple, but that’s another story. In Arabic I can say thank you, hello, how are you and God bless you. The list goes on.

So, when I was in Japan this past week I wanted to pick up at least a few words. I did realize that I already had some simply from pop culture – sayonara, and domo arigato (mr. Roboto) amongst them. But there were nuances that I wanted to pick up – instead of simply thank you, what about thank you very much, or thank you in a respectful way. Instead of just hello, what about a greeting with respect.

I thought I was doing fairly well, considering I speak basically no Japanese.

That is, until I got home and realized that rather than saying good morning I was actually walking around saying, thank you very much. Which, it seems, is actually not a bad way to greet the world – especially as we in the United States celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday.

So, good morning. And thank you very much.

john kerry bumper stickers (4 and 8 years later)

Obama rally, UCLA
© 2008 erin dunigan. all rights reserved.

Granted, I was in somewhat of a fog.

When, in the fall of 2008, I tried to remember the US Presidential elections of 2004, I couldn’t seem to really recall them in much detail. How could that have been? I did vote – I remembered that much. But as for the event of the election and its aftermath, there seemed to be a void of any thoughts, feelings, or memories.

Then it occurred to me – of course I wasn’t very involved, wasn’t paying much attention to the national political situation – my dad had just passed away in September, and, that, combined with my own state of vocational and geographical limbo, was fairly all-consuming. Granted, I did know that George W Bush had won a second term – I wasn’t that blind to what was happening in the world around me. But, as I think about it, the fact didn’t much strike me one way or another. It just was. (Grief does have a way of numbing one to the world around.)

Which, perhaps, helps to explain my confusion when, weeks after the election, I saw a car with a John Kerry bumper sticker. I remember thinking to myself – and for some reason this memory is vivid – “Why haven’t they taken that bumper sticker off their car yet? The election is over. He lost. Why would you leave the sticker of a loser on your car?”

It is honestly what I thought. It is honestly what I wondered. Why would someone want to admit that they were for the ‘wrong’ side, the side that had lost, the side that was not going to be president for the next four years.

It is with that same sense of bewilderment that I look back on my 2004 self in some sense of shock. Really?! I really wondered that? For now, to me, it is a no-brainer. Of course that person would leave the bumper sticker on! Of course they were proud of their vote, unhappy with the election results, and fine for all the world to know.

But the me in 2004 was baffled by this. The me in 2004, I am beginning to realize, couldn’t understand that there might be a higher value than that of ‘winning.’

Why would you admit that you voted for a loser, I wondered. Shouldn’t you be ashamed that your candidate lost? Shouldn’t you go into hiding?

It is amazing what a difference eight – even four – years can make.

For I remember, in 2008, as I campaigned for Barack Obama in California, Texas and Nevada – and as I proudly displayed a sticker promoting that allegiance – that, were he to lose, not only would I not take the sticker off, but I would intentionally leave it on, as a proud statement of my defiance to the clearly misguided vote of my nation. It would not be the sticker of a ‘loser’ in my mind, but of one who strived valiantly for the ideals I held dear. I would not be ashamed to be identified with it, but proud that I had been on the ‘right’ side, even if the right side hadn’t prevailed.

So today, on November 7, 2012, some eight years later, if I encounter a vehicle proudly displaying a double R sticker, though I will breathe a sigh of relief that it was not the sticker of the ‘winner’ I will also remember John Kerry bumper stickers. I will remember my response – I will be reminded that within that RR vehicle is someone who cares deeply for his (or her) beliefs, was passionate enough about his candidate to proclaim it for all to see, and likely does not see the day-after sticker as the mark of a loser, but as the mark of one who should have won.

I will be reminded that, ultimately, it is not about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ but about people who care deeply for their beliefs, are passionate about their country, and seek to contribute their energy and their passion to make it all that they hope it can be.

Which is perhaps why one particular line of the President’s acceptance speech last night stood out to me above all of the others – “Whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you and I have learned from you – and you have made me a better president.”

May it be so.

flesh-colored glasses

“If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000.
A broad mandate this is not.”  
-from: politico news

It was in college that I first learned about the ‘scandal’ of Crayola crayons – something, prior to that, I associated with happy, innocent, playful childhood. I mean, crayons are like puppies, right? Who can not like crayons?

self-portrait, Seoul Korea
© 2012 erin dunigan

The incident was around a particular crayola in the box – the one with the name ‘flesh.’ I remember looking at the particular crayon in question and being confused. What was all the fuss about? Why the drama? What was wrong with the name? The crayon was called flesh, and when I looked at my own white skin, I could confirm that, though this particular color was a bit peachier than mine, more or less it looked basically the same.

That is, of course, the problem, isn’t it?

That my being born, through no act of my own obviously, into the dominant group of my particular country at this particular point in time, completely blinded me from being able to see the world through the eyes of someone not just like me, whose ‘flesh’ might happen to be a somewhat deeper hue than the color on that particular peachy crayon.

There are those, I’m sure, who would be quick to point out – it is just a crayon. Why are you getting so worked up about a crayon? What’s the big deal? Isn’t this a bit of an overreaction?

But, of course, as the article from today’s politico news points out – it is not just a crayon.

That one small crayon is a microcosm of a much larger, more pervasive, more pernicious and ugly secret that threatens the very fabric of this ‘great nation’ that we claim is based upon the equality of all people, that welcomes the tired, the poor, the weary, the… It is the fact that, when it comes to issues of race, as Slate Magazine recently put it,

The defining part of being white in America is the assumption that, as a white person, you are a regular, individual human being. Other demographic groups set themselves apart, to pursue their distinctive identities and interests and agendas. Whiteness, to white people, is the American default.

It is precisely that belief that can lead Politico’s Vandehei and Allen to claim in an article that President Barack Obama has support from “Hispanics, African Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites” and yet claim, as though it is plain to see, that there is no ‘mandate’ in that – thus, apparently insinuating that for there to be a ‘mandate’ it must also include, presumably, white men, married (white?) women, and white people of, apparently, ‘average’ education.

I am not saying that if you are voting for Mitt Romney that makes you a racist.

I’m not claiming that those voting for Obama are morally superior, somehow.

But what is troubling is the assumption that multiple people groups, in their entirety, do not ‘count’ simply because they are not the ‘dominant’ group. That some ‘Americans’ are more ‘American’ than others.

Only a few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to see a phenomenal musical called Allegiance. Set during WWII, it is the story of the Japanese Internment camps, as told through one Japanese American family from Salinas, California. As musical theater does so well, it is troubling, funny, insightful, educational and deeply disturbing all at the same time. It’s a must see.

After the musical was over, as I allowed myself to ponder it, what came to the surface was the only memory I have of learning about the Japanese Internment camps at home. The comment came from my father, now deceased.

I don’t remember what he said word for word, but it was basically that, as a teenager during WWII, his family had some Japanese (American) neighbors – and no one was ever sure whether or not they might have had a ham radio in the basement… Meaning, I realized, in its not so veiled reference, that the internment was a necessary precaution for the safety of ‘Americans.’ The fact that the US was also at war with Germany and Italy seemed to go unnoticed, somehow. Or, in the words of one character in Allegiance, as the Japanese Americans are being evicted from their homes forced to leave most everything behind: “What about Joe DiMaggio? He’s Italian…”

It is easy to point fingers when we see racism rear its ugly head in others – other groups than my own, other people than myself, other religions than the one I cling to – but it is less eager a pointing when the finger pointed is at one’s own self.

Recently I visited the Chinese embassy in Los Angeles to obtain a visa for a brief stopover I will have soon in Beijing. After finding a parking place, putting my belongings through the X-ray machine, and taking a number, I waited along with a roomful of others for my opportunity to present my paperwork and hope that my request would be granted.

A few days later, recounting the details to my mom as we sat together at her kitchen table, she asked, “Were they all Americans waiting there?” to which I, without thinking, replied, “No.”

As soon as the word was out of my mouth, I realized, and tried to take it back. But it was too late. Not that my mom cared – she didn’t realize what I had just revealed, with my answer, as she was not there at the embassy to know. I am not sure what she meant, asking if they were all Americans waiting at the embassy that day.

But I do know what I meant, when I answered. I meant that they were not all white.

Not all with blond hair and green eyes, like me. Granted, I assumed that the two black men in charge of security as we entered were Americans. But the waiting room itself? It was full of ‘Asian’ people – people whose citizenship, other than the man next to me whose US passport I saw, was completely unknown to me.

As I tried to recover from my revealing misstatement I began to think, logically, through the likelihood – of course they were, most likely, all American, or mostly. What else would they be doing at the Chinese embassy in Los Angeles?

But, unfortunately, the logic was not what was troubling. It was the gut level answer of no – the realization that, as much as I’ve done in my life to try to learn from those different from me, to listen, to examine my own privilege of growing up white in a society that still values whiteness as the ‘norm’ and anything else as an aberration, in a moment of candor I showed my flesh-colored bias for what it was – that answer of no left me reeling.

It’s easy to point the finger at others. It’s easy to see the fault in them. Our culture is full of name calling of all sorts.

What’s the most shocking, though, is when the name you call turns out to be your own.