Tag Archives: thin place

trashcans, tomatoes and trees – in(ter)dependence


Last Saturday something tragic occurred. Something that should not be, that should not have been.

My mind was in slow motion as I heard it unfold – first shouting, or was the shouting second? Almost at the same time, a loud bang, or more like a giant popping sound. I ran from the garden to see what happened to find this – my trash can, and, in the distance, to see the gas truck disappearing up the hill.

So I did what any sane person would do in such a situation – I ran after the truck.

Up the hill, panting despite my recent attempt to start running again, I finally caught up with the truck just as it had turned left down the road toward Viktorya’s house. As the truck came to a stop so did my Spanish, and what poured out of me was the worst load of Spanglish you’ve ever heard. “What are you thinking? You killed my trash can! What is happening here?!”

To which the young guy driving (the normal driver was in the passenger seat next to him) said “I didn’t see it.”

I didn’t see it. That was it. The extent of his explanation.

I realized, as I walked back down the hill that this wasn’t just any trash can – this trash can was a memory.  My dad, who died 9 years ago, had painted this trash can, carefully scripting the word ‘Dunigan’ along the side.

Sure it is old, sure it has seen better days, even before yesterday. But it was a reminder to me of him. A random one, of course, but for me it was a trash can, but it was also somehow more than a trash can – a visible sign, something tangible, of an invisible reality –  the religious word for that is a sacrament – something that we can see that mediates for us what we cannot see.

It was just a trash can, but it was also more than a trash can – now crushed, because the driver ‘couldn’t see.’


It is interesting, in light of yesterday’s events, that today happens to be the day, in churches at least, for reading one of the best known stories from the Bible.

I don’t always talk about Jesus – this is not because I don’t think he is important or worth talking about – I just usually leave it to Ron.

But today I want to tell you a story told by Jesus. A story which, whether you have ever opened a Bible or not, just by living in our modern world you have come into contact with at some level.

It is a story about interdependence. It is a story about relationship. It is a story that shows us something, and invites a response from us.

The story of the Good Samaritan. 

Something has always bothered me about this story.

The man asks, who is my neighbor? As the story unfolds we realize that the answer given is not ‘who is my neighbor’ but  ‘who is a neighbor to the man lying in the ditch…’   Not who is my neighbor, but Who is a neighbor to me?

That is a different answer than the question asked.

I am no longer the one in charge here.  I am the man lying in the ditch.

It is a perspective shift. A different way of seeing the question.


Last week I had just such a shift. Glenn was over, and, as it happened, we began to talk about the garden.

As we walked along the patio he happened to notice a cardboard box full of small pots. He asked me about the pots and I explained to him that I was trying to start new tomatoes from cuttings from my existing tomato plants – I had heard about it that week and wanted to see if it actually worked.

Glenn, in his gentle and kind way, proceeded to point out to me that what I had in fact done was to plant the leaves from the tomato plants. There was nothing wrong with this – except that they would never actually grow, never actually bear fruit.

So, though I had followed the steps carefully, I had thought, in preparing the soil in the pot, using a pencil to press a hole into it, and then putting the tomato shoot into the hole, pressing down the soil and then watering it I had made one slight error in the process – not using the right part of the plant.

So close, and yet so far.

Glenn, with his training and his background, could see this immediately. I, in my ignorance, could not. But once he pointed it out to me it became clear, my eyes were opened, and I was able to make the slight, but essential adjustment.

I was able to see.


There is a well-known question of whether or not a tree falling in the woods makes any noise – but the reality is that whether or not it makes any noise that we might hear, trees ‘talk’ to each other.

Trees are actually much more connected than it might seem to us, looking upon them from the outside.

They have, beneath them, under the surface, something called fungal threads – these threads can stretch more than a kilometer. It is the job of these fungal threads to collect minerals and then bring them back to the tree itself. The fungal thread gives the tree minerals, and the tree gives the fungal thread starch in return.

But what has also been discovered about trees is that these fungal threads, and even the roots of trees themselves, allow the trees to communicate with one another.

Studies have been done on a grove of trees that show that when an insect blight is simulated on one side of the grove, trees on the opposite side begin to release a chemical to prepare themselves for the onslaught of this attack.

This is true amongst tress of the same type, but what was even more startling for those doing the study to discover was that the same phenomenon was true amongst trees of different varieties – through their roots, unseen, under the ground, they are actually able to communicate not just to other trees, but to different types of trees as well.

The world, it seems, is far more connected than we might assume upon casual observation. It is a small shift that has the potential to change everything, if our eyes are opened, if we begin to see.


As we’ve talked about before, the origins of the meaning of the word religion is a bit unclear. But one of the early meanings is thought to be to ‘re-bind’ or to ‘re-connect’ – to take that which is separate, or which appears to be separate, and to connect it again. Or, in the case of trees, to take what we see and experience as separate and learn to see connection.

The word yoga has similar meanings at its root – to join, to unite, to attach.


Which brings me back to yesterday – to trash cans and to Trayvon Martin.  (You didn’t think we could talk about all of this without talking about that, did you?)

As I began to reflect last night on the court’s decision I began to realize something.

Earlier that day I had been outraged – because of a trash can.

The injustice of the driver seeing me, not seeing my trash can, driving over it, knowing he did so, and then continuing on his way as though nothing had happened. It was not the running over the trash can that was the worst of it – it was the callous disregard for having done so. As though it didn’t matter. As though it weren’t his fault. As though he could just continue on as if nothing had happened.

“I didn’t see it.”

Like the two religious people in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.

Granted, they weren’t the ones who inflicted the injuries upon the man in the ditch. But, in a sense, they might as well have. They saw the man lying there, and then they continued on their way, as though nothing had happened. As though it didn’t matter. As though they could just continue on as if nothing had happened. As though they didn’t actually see it at all.

But it did happen.

It does happen.

Trees can feel the pain of other trees, different trees,  on the opposite side of a forrest.  Can we?

Connection, it seems,  is the reality. Interdependence is the reality. It is separation that  is the illusion.

It is a shift that is needed in our world today. A shift not so much in our believing, but in our seeing.

The purpose of religion, of spirituality, of deepening in the spiritual life, is to help us to continue to wake up. To open our eyes. To see.

To encounter the sacramental in the everyday – that which though tangible, visible, points to that which is beyond, invisible. Trash cans as a reminder of a father’s love. Trees as a sign of our inter-relatedness – something that is, that points to something that is more. A portal, if you will, from the here and now to the here and now.

The ancient Celtic people used to refer to such encounters, such epiphanies, such moments of seeing, as ‘thin places’ – the places or times where that which was more, beyond, seemed to ‘break through the veil.’

It is what can happen in meditation.

It is what can happen over a delightful and delicious meal shared amongst friends.

It is what can happen when someone unexpected comes to our aid when we are in need.

It is what can happen when we take a long walk along the beach.

It is what can happen here, within us, amongst us.

It seems to me that our world is in need of a bit more of such seeing.

What does it mean to be a neighbor? To be one who sees. One who is awake. And one who acts. One who shows mercy.

I wonder what it might look like were we to go and do the same?

photo: holy place (no shorts)

“Clearly the voice of Lent is not a dour one. It is a call to remember who we are and where we have come from and why.”

– Sister Joan Chittister


holy place                                                 Sea of Galilee, Israel
© erin dunigan 2006

Clearly also this photo is not going to win any awards for beauty – but I took it not for beauty’s sake, but because I was intrigued by its message – somehow a ‘holy place’ means no dogs, no cigarettes, no guns and no short clothing – but would chewing gum be okay? Would eating a cheeseburger be okay?

Of course I realize the need for ‘respect’ in life and in space – and especially in space that has been so incredibly significant to so many of the worlds people for so long.

But I think we also miss something when we assume that a ‘holy place’ is somehow set apart or cut off from the ‘non-holy places’ in life. The word holy does mean ‘set apart’ – so it is not hard to see how this idea came to be. But if the Spirit of God is at work in the world, breathing it into being, sustaining it, renewing it, then can’t any place be a holy place? Shouldn’t we always be prepared for, be mindful of, the holy place that is in our very midst?

The season of Lent offers us such a ‘holy place’ within time. Set apart. And present. Both.

A  time to remember who we are and where we have come from and why.




liminal spaces and thin places (holy saturday)

Celtic crosses in a graveyard along the southwestern coast of Ireland

I first heard the term ‘liminality‘ from a book I read for a seminary class back in the late 90’s.  Liminality is a word used to describe the in-between places–whether culturally, geographically, or metaphorically–places or spaces which are often thresholds between one world, or way of being, and another. The book, “Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality (Christian Mission & Modern Culture)"".” The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality, planted in me an interest in this idea of liminal spaces that has continued to grow over the past decade, and has cropped up in all sorts of unexpected places.

Like the garden.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about permaculture (which is, of course, an entire subject in its own right) as it relates to more sustainable ideas for gardening, water usage and soil conservation. Within permaculture I came across the concept of ‘edge.’

Edge, used in this way, refers to the ‘boundary between two elements.’ Edge, as permaculturetokyo describes it ‘is where the action is.’ Edge is the intersection between two worlds–not entirely one, and not entirely the other.

Edge, ecologically speaking, is a place of diversity.  On the edge, “life takes advantage of these energy and material exchanges, and thrives far more easily at these discontinuities than in the more homogenous interior of an area.”*

Like La Mision.

La Mision is a small coastal Baja town about an hour south of the US/Mexico border. It is actually three communities: one primarily American expatriate, and two Mexican, all nestled within a river valley that opens onto the coast. La Mision is so named after the Spanish mission, Misión San Miguel Arcángel de la Frontera, which was built here in 1787.

La Mision, perhaps because of its proximity to the border and the intermingling of its Mexican and American communities, is, in many ways, a place of ‘edge’ where different cultures, people and worlds have the opportunity to, in a sense, marinade together in the same juices. Some consider the region to be a vortex, or a sort of thin place, as Celtic Spirituality would describe it. (For a fascinating (and quite in depth) look at this idea within the Christian tradition, take a look at Mark Roberts’ series of posts on thin places.)

A thin place, put simply, is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth, or the divine and human, is especially thin–a place in which we can experience the divine more easily.

In such liminal spaces and thin places we are given the opportunity to learn, to shift, or to be transformed. But such transformation is not forced on us. The edge is where the energy is, but we can always choose to move away from it, back to the comfort of the center.

Like today.

It was Catholic priest and author Richard Rohr, who’s Daily Meditation for today, Holy Saturday (the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday) got me to thinking of liminal spaces in relation to this day ‘between.’

As Rohr puts it, “A “liminal space” is the crucial in-between time—when everything actually happens and yet nothing appears to be happening.  It is the waiting period when the cake bakes, the movement is made, the transformation takes place.” Holy Saturday, the day that commemorates Jesus laying in the tomb after his crucifixion, before any idea of impending resurrection was yet known, is, in one sense, the ultimate of ‘in between spaces.’

The thing about liminal spaces and edge is that they can often be places of discomfort–even, in many ways, feeling like a ‘death’ of sorts. Because one is living in the midst of that which is no longer, but not yet living into that which will become, it can feel disorienting, difficult, and discouraging. Take living in another culture, for instance. Sure there is the excitement, the fun of learning new words or new foods, making new friends. But there are also the frustrating and challenging components like figuring out how the system actually works, or learning the difference between ‘ahora’ (now) and ‘ahorita’ (soon, sometime, not too long from now) if you’re waiting for someone to arrive.

One of my most painful cross-cultural experiences came when I was living in St. Andrews, Scotland. I assumed that since I was living in an English speaking country that the cross-cultural ‘confusion’ would be minimal. I spoke the language, didn’t I?

It struck me, literally, one day walking out of a photo shop in town. After picking up some prints I had made, I went to exit the shop, pushing on the metal handle of the glass door. I ran right into the door. Somewhat painfully, I might add. Somewhat embarrassingly as well, with the shop full on a Saturday afternoon and with my crash into the door causing a decent racket. Red-faced, I pulled open the door, and exited the shop.

That was when I realized what had, up to that point, been more of a subtle discomfort. In the US, almost always, if you are exiting a public space you push the door out–I believe it has something to do with fire codes and being able to leave in a hurry. In this particular shop, and in others, as I later discovered, that ‘rule’ of pushing to exit did not apply. I had made an assumption that things were ‘the way they always are’–at least ‘always’ in my own experience. Prior to this day, each time I had exited the store, it had been a bit awkward as I navigated the door. But it took me literally crashing into it to make me realize that my assumptions and my past experience, in this case, did not hold true. It’s a silly example, but a telling one.

What liminal spaces, edge, or thin places do is to present us with a similar sort of ‘crash’ of our ordinary assumptions of ‘the way things are.’ Immigrants, those living outside of their own culture, are often most in the position to encounter such insights, living, as they do, in a world that is often, in many ways, foreign to them.

Those within the dominant culture (or previously dominant culture)  may do well to listen to and learn from those groups who have long navigated life from within the margins of society.  Often this societal shift is mourned by those who sense that their place at the center is somehow eroding out from under them. Sometimes it can even be so intense as to feel like the death of the world as it always was.

But sometimes, as we are especially reminded of today, that which seems to signal death is often actually the path to new life.

* From Permaculture Theme: Mind the Edge