In 1997 I moved to an inner city neighborhood of South Bend, Indiana with my wife and two daughters, then ages 2 and 5. We had purchased a bargain-priced home as a temporary residence to cut costs while I, first trained as a lawyer, returned to graduate school for a theology degree. Twenty-three years later we’re still here, but I’m a different man. The experience of inner city living has changed my religious orientation, upended my social and political beliefs and transformed and deepened my spiritual life. Particularly my relationship with the natural world and my ongoing study of nature-based healing with gifted shamanic teachers here and abroad.
The inner city experience was a jarring one for me. Not for the supposed crime, random violence and horrible schools my peers warned of (largely myths sustained by white anxiety and coded racism). But rather for the utter absence of unspoiled nature and the odd, almost willful non-awareness of the natural world and associated “N.D.D.” (nature deficit disorder) demonstrated by my neighbors. Symptoms of deep soul-loss, to use a phrase from my shamanic training.
I love year-round outdoor activity, adventure and contemplative time. I enjoy daily, direct grounding connections with the earth and am naturally drawn to expansive natural vistas. None of which seemed available, of course, in the concrete and noisy realm of the inner city. The resulting crisis forced me to seek alternative ways to connect with the Earth. Ways that no one had ever told me about.
And I found them. My search for meaningful spiritual connections with the earth in the urban landscape of Cottage Grove Avenue has turned out to be a spiritual journey with difficult stages similar to the classic rites of passage in a mythological hero’s journey: separation from the familiar, descent to a dark place of testing, and return with a boon to the community.
I’m no hero. That will be obvious in the stories you’ll read here. But this blog is an attempt at making that return: my attempt to share both what I have lost and discovered. Because I now see, to my great surprise, that the inner city has been my spiritual teacher. And that every single problem I have struggled with here for over twenty years has provided great wisdom, one damn lesson at a time. Barking dogs, resilient children, absentee landlords, another filthy sofa dumped out onto a snowbank. Mixed interactions with neighbors, city officials and wandering pit bulls. My illogical passion to transform our residential plot of weeds and chain link fencing into a lush urban retreat space with a pond, wildflowers, ornamental trees and a rustic hermitage.
In recent years I have begun to see the broader applications for my personal learnings. For example, that the future of our planet depends not merely on rearranging our consumer habits (e.g. buying more hybrid cars or energy-efficient windows) but on transforming our whole orientation to the Earth, and what we consider sacred, or holy. Beyond theologies that separate us, toward honoring the sacred, living earth that vibrates right beneath the asphalt, the Newport cigarette packages, and the Burger King bags under our feet.
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