This I Believe: Dana Boyle (2019)

As I enter my eighth year as a member of WBUUC, now is as good time as any to introduce myself more intimately to you and to honor my relationship with our church.

To give you context, I was born in Seattle in 1957. My father worked for 3M and so we moved every few years, living in Minnesota multiple times, as well as in many other states. During high school – we were transferred to Milan, Italy, and in the early 80’s, I chose to return to the Twin Cities. All that moving was great, but I longed to be part of a community where I could simply run into people I knew.

I have two younger sisters—one here and one in California — my beloved 22-year-old son, who lives in North Carolina—and my canine companion, Buster.

A few years before I started coming to this church, my husband of 25 years died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was only 48, and our son was 12. The worst part is that this bright spark of life was extinguished way too early. But his loss sent a shock wave among the rest of us, and to carry on in his spirit and stay strong, I had to learn to lean on others. A focus on work was critical to my survival too. I will say, that despite the tragedy, I noticed in those first few years, that magical things happened around us – many involving strange encounters with nature.

As for work, in the main chapter of my career, I served as a Trade Commissioner with the Canadian Consulate General in Minneapolis, working closely with artists and manufacturers, and getting to travel to every province and territory over the course of 20 years. Then, in my last professional stint, as a community engagement leader at a local trade association, I developed programs to integrate and support Minnesota’s biomedical community.

When my job was unexpectedly eliminated, four years ago, I began to navigate that rocky transition from full-time employee to “retired person.” I went back to the U of M for a Master’s degree in Human-Centered Design. And, since then – through very intentional volunteer activities – I have found relevancy, purpose and lifelong learning outside the structured frameworks of job environments, family settings and formal institutions.

Honestly, my biggest challenge these days is to stay active while not over-committing, and I hope that I’m getting better at predicting my limits.

I am what Yvon Chouinard – the founder of Patagonia – would describe as an “80 percenter.” That is, someone who pursues a wide range of subjects and skills at about the 80% level, as opposed to someone who is deeply devoted to one or two chosen pursuits that they take to the highest level of accomplishment. Variety is tempting to me, but so is meaningful engagement.

When I reflect on some of the biggest influences in my life, one comes from knowing the history of my maternal grandmother, Satenick Kulahian. She was only 15 years old when the Turks murdered a million Armenians, including all but one member of her family. She survived a death march and other horrendous atrocities. Thankfully, a nice Turkish family helped her escape. When she made it to America with my Assyrian grandfather (an arranged marriage in a refugee camp), she was miraculously able to let her warm, loving spirit shine through, as she raised five beautiful children in San Francisco. Our mother, who is now 90 years old, was her youngest. This legacy has served our family – both genetically and spiritually – reminding us that we come from a line of survivors who have adapted and thrived.

Another great influence from my childhood was Scouting. Our father was an outdoorsman with a keen sense of direction and desire to explore. In elementary school, Girl Scouts under the leadership of my mother, took that love of nature to a deeper level and taught me other important skills and perspectives. I resonated with the motto “Be Prepared” (which you’d believe if you dumped out the contents of my purse today). But I was recently surprised to read that the 1947 Girl Scout Handbook explained this motto to mean, “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.”

Those who know me will agree that I am usually – for better and for worse – one of the first to jump in to solve a problem or get a job done. Over the course of my life, I have saved my nephew from choking, fought off an armed intruder who entered my college bedroom while I was asleep, and kept my cool while I tried to save my husband’s life in the middle of the night. I believe that Girl Scouts helped me sharpen my senses and focus them on ultimate service and swift action. In those formative years, I learned the practice to “do a good turn daily” and to try to “leave no trace” – or, better yet – “leave a place better than when I found it.” I believe this applies to people as well as to our planet.

Like many of you, I have taken this responsibility seriously as I work toward social and environmental fairness and justice whenever and wherever I can.

And as for the environment, I am at a point in my life’s journey where my appreciation for the interdependent web of life is actively being reframed. Up until now, Nature was a beautiful mystery to behold. That is, to be stimulated by and to love exploring. But lately, I have started really internalizing how Nature is far greater than us – not just larger, but more like a parent-child relationship where it is the parent, and we are subservient to that much smarter, more complex and more dominant force. To know that in our minds is one thing, but to feel it in the heart is something else; it calls us to be deeply humble and fiercely protective of our habitat. I think back to my former Episcopal church, where one sermon’s message was that God – as the Father – wants to be invited into our lives, just as a parent yearns for that relationship with each child. To not only allow that intimacy, but to encourage it, creates a shift inside our beings.

I believe – as other naturalists do – that the forest (because that is one of my most common touchpoints with nature these days) – actually does want us to invite it into our lives. Science is revealing that trees communicate with one another and form inter-species communities – networks designed for overall survival. Is it possible that they also try to communicate with us? Some people believe that forests do indeed beckon us to come back into closer relationship with them. Now, when I take my daily walks into the woods, I am keenly aware that underneath the trails, the tree roots and fungi are storing and sharing energy along with strategic messages within and across species. If this arboreal research excites you too, I recommend you listen to a Radiolab podcast called “From Tree to Shining Tree.”

Another piece of framing is the belief that our world represents a puzzle. As humans, we are challenged to understand our place in the larger context of the universe and find solutions that optimize what is in and around us before we ruin it. There is an urgency I know that many of you keenly feel, to keep our planet hospitable and to not “foul our nest” for our sake and that of all living things. We are engaged in a race against time and power, against lack of knowledge, against greed and laziness – including our own – to live well and in harmony with our home planet. Here I have found a tribe of like-minded people.

This brings me to the subject of my relationship with our church, because it has become so significant in my life. We have in common a deep appreciation for the spiritual and religious guidance and inspiration that we receive each week at our services. But in addition to our ministerial leadership, many of you have taught me so much. Recently, one of our members voiced that our church is like an institution of higher learning. I think I know what he meant, because I have been turned on to yoga and meditation, birding, camping and kayaking, poetry, land stewardship and multi-faceted aspects of social justice by members of this church. I have worked beside many of you as we shape a shared experience of value to us and, we hope, to the larger world.

Having gotten to know many of you, I see that each of us faces our own challenges and disappointments differently. And, yet, we seem to hold one another – together, as members of a beloved community. Even in disagreement, we show respect because we know that what we have here is something to be cherished and actively protected. We, as people of all ages choose to brave the interesting, sometimes terrifying, undefined path, as we take on the responsibility to become architects of our own faith.

Though we represent diverse religious backgrounds and beliefs, I appreciate that we come together in covenant – as opposed to creed – agreeing on an orientation toward compatibility, which can overcome many odds. We suddenly – or gradually – open ourselves up to vulnerability, allowing our goodness, our flaws, our grace, differences and willingness to keep trying every day – to show up in honest and meaningful ways.

I believe that we dive into the tough work of being Unitarian Universalists, in part because we acknowledge that this may be our only life. We’re not sure, but we are willing to consider the possibility. And if that’s the case, why would we spend this precious time repeating the same experience week after week, seeking comfort in the routine? As much as humans crave ritual, I believe that life is both too short and too long to nod off. We’re called to be open-minded, ever-vigilant stewards of our time here.

When I took the Wellspring course a few years ago, I was drawn to something called Process Theology, which sees people in context and relationship with the larger, ever-changing world. Process Theology has a place for God, though not one that is all-powerful. I don’t believe that we are saved or charmed by being good, or that we are necessarily damned for evil. There is no guaranty that God or karma will actually “right the wrongs.” And, yet, I do believe a greater Creator spirit walks with us.

In his piece “The Ultimate Canvas,” UU minister Gary Kowalski says: “God is the One who rejoices in each creature’s ecstasy and also feels their anguish — for God is as closely related to each of us as the Whole is related to its parts. … It may no longer be possible to believe in a deity that is omnipotent or immutable…..but in the One who accompanies all creation and invites us to expand the horizons of our concern to all the earth, we can still affirm that God is Life and God is Love.”

This seems to be the blend I need in order to feel supported, inspired and fulfilled throughout my life. I want to believe – and I do believe – that we are not alone. I feel the presence of a greater Holy spirit. I also feel a strong connection to those I have loved who have passed along, much like being part of the forest where even the dead trees continue to nourish and strengthen the living ones. I call on these spirits, I invite them to walk with me and I believe they answer me. At times, they appear to call my attention to things I may have otherwise missed. I perceive they have a sense of humor and, quite honestly, I believe they mysteriously come to my aid in emergency situations.

With God, Mother Nature and my spirit companions, I have only expectations that they are listening – that they are beside me on this journey and can help guide my way when I am listening. This allows me to be my bravest and most adventurous self – whether that means taking on the challenging work of self-discovery, the daily responsibilities of being a mother, sister, aunt, cousin, daughter, community member and friend – or the experimental work of trying new things.

Ultimately, my goal is to be of service to the world in a way that takes advantage of the gifts I have been given. I want to make the most of this life. And, circling back to our faith community, I believe I am in the company of many, many others who share similar goals for themselves. I feel so blessed to have found this church and this religious way.