I turned off the news, but I couldn’t get it to stop playing in my head–the young black mother, her baby girl in the back seat, “I’m right here mama.” Her fiancé dying in the seat next to her while a cop, still pointing a gun screams and shakes. He is so out of balance. Oh my God what have you done what have you done?
My heart won’t stop aching for the cops shot to death while they were trying to protect the protesters. I think about their families and their children and the big gaping wound it has left. Everywhere, the light of life is being snuffed out in our world and no one can see in all this darkness.
And politicians have been greedy and lying for so long that no one remembers the truth. Public service is just a quaint term that doesn’t mean anything, anymore. Only losers serve, isn’t that right? We want winners, isn’t that right? And who wins when we are shooting each other up? Got an axe to grind? Get a gun and go for it. God Bless the NRA. Is this what we have become? In Washington they stand safely behind their podiums and speak their ugly rhetoric. They point fingers and sneer while people around them die.
You know where the love happens? Not at the top, that’s for sure. It happens with old ladies in churches who reach into their pocket books and give up that last crumpled five-dollar bill that they’d been saving, so that someone else can have food. And those at the top who should be humbled by such a strong and noble gesture mumble “loser,” “taker.” It’s all backward, isn’t it?
And I pray “sweet Jesus where are you in all of this?” And damn if he doesn’t keep whispering in my ear, “get up and do something– don’t come running to me– you all made this mess. It’s yours to clean up!”
My heart is sick from watching cops getting shot, gays getting shot, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Blacks, children getting shot to death. When did we become so full of hatred? When did we start believing that guns are what would redeem us?
I keep hearing a truth. It bounces around my head. It is that we are all equally precious in the Creator’s sight.
I cannot sleep. I turn off the news but I cannot sleep and I want to cry because my heart is sick and I think I can’t be the only one. Our whole heart breaking. It creaks and moans from the strain and weight of so much anguish. I do what I know how to do and I sit up late with my keyboard and I write it down because words are my wailing. This is not my pain or your pain this is our pain. And it rushes out through my fingers onto the keys and onto the page.
Give me your hand and let me tell you that I see you, and that you matter before some
asshole on Facebook tells everyone to stop whining and sucking up all the oxygen. That is what our leaders have been modeling for us — ignorance. Just be numb. But I am not that. And you are not that. Look at us. We are all violence weary, suffering from a collective PTSD.
Each one of us is precious in the Creator’s sight. The asshole on Facebook is precious in His sight too. Take my hand. I feel you and you matter, I want to tell him. Stop worshiping “mean.” It won’t help you.
And today I will keep the news off again. I have to look away and catch my breath. Today I will look for the little things that affirm life: squashes ripe in the garden, a pink sunrise, a long walk with the dog. But I can’t stop hearing the unrelenting pain in that black woman’s voice, her baby girl in the back seat, “I’m right here with you mama.” And I can’t stop seeing all the senseless killing. We kill each other instead of loving each other. How did we get here?
I am not alone you are not alone. I see you and you matter. Here take my hand and I will take yours and we’ll walk together. Better, link your arm with mine and with the person next to you and let’s walk together. Love matters. Not the killing. Not the death. Not the news. Not the politics. Love matters. You are God’s precious child and you matter. I am not alone, and you are not alone and we are not alone together. Maybe if we cry together. . . then we can start the healing.
The impervious feeling of youth is a delicious drunk of newness and firsts: first apartment, first true love, first heartbreak; the delight of garage sales and thrift shops, that furnish the backdrop upon which one begins to build a life, blissfully unaware of the baggage of childhood that follows them into independence and self-sufficiency. In my twenties, I surfed in the mornings with Bernie, napped in the afternoons and then waited cocktails at night to pay for a life style that was both joyous and fraught with uncertainty as well as longing and idealism. All that created its own kind of pain and regret. No one escapes the wrong turns, but instead we seem to spend our lifetime burrowing into the core of what ails us before we find the gifts within the inevitable ruin.
At twenty something, I swung my long, gangly legs over the precipice of the 1970’s, watching Viet Nam unwind. The grainy television images of so much human destruction were soon to be replaced by Nixon and the exposure of con and corruption that would define the word “sensational” for decades to come. And as twenty marched ahead into thirty, I realized one day how difficult it was to pay the rent, and repair the car and I had new empathy and understanding for my mother, who worked at a time when the cartoon character of a wolf chasing a nubile secretary around the desk wasn’t that far off the mark.
While the twenties, for many of us underscored a time of adventure and ideals, the thirties was of time of finding a comfortable position within the grip of unrelenting responsibility. Overtime at my work place became a way of life, a badge of proof that I was committed and in the game for the long haul. I bought my first “new” couch and read T.S. Eliot, Yeats and May Sarton for leisure. I wrote in dozens of spiral bound notebooks– an attempt to discover who I was and who I was becoming, and whether or not I had just put on the costume of adulthood without really checking out what I was wearing. Thirty gnawed the bones of idealism and free-spiritedness, replacing the hunger for those things with “want.” Want is a thorn in the foot of human condition, a lusting and longing for those things or people just out of our reach; a strange coming to grips with a shadow of greed, that if we are honest, dogs us until we wrestle it to the ground and learn to balance it with a generous heart.
When I turned 40, I had a realization that life was just a series of stories and somehow we were all connected by those stories. By then I was married, with a choice to remain childless, but with a passion for creating business and a raw and reckless spirit, still wild from my surfing days that allowed me to take the risks necessary to be an entrepreneur. And having a partner with which to play that out remains one of the great satisfactions of my journey. The time of work and creation was marked by this decade and the joke of “over the hill” was really more about the pinnacle of the hill and the overview provided from the vantage point of focus and determination.
Fifty saw the departure of my mother and though I felt beyond independent and accomplished when she left, her absence was piercing in a way I could not have anticipated. She lingers still, her hands seeming like they are mine, veined with age. I catch glimpses of her in the mirror, a face layered over my own as I brush my hair. Life is shorter than you think.
So in my sixties now, the question of age as a number and whether that means anything or not? It means everything. Age is a marker, the signs that dot the highway that tell you how far you have come. Age is a container for the experiences that push us forward and challenge us to unfold. Age is a reminder that physical strength lessens with the years and beauty fades. Whether or not we like it or want it, age is what pulls us to our knees while it knights us with the sword of humility and hard-won wisdom. What lies beyond? In my twenties, I could not sit still in the morning hours, knowing that the surf was up. Forty years later finds me on my deck, holding a cup of tea and easing into the day as I marvel at how the apples on the tree in my yard have gone from green to red and are becoming larger in the summer sun. The cycle of beginnings and endings are everywhere around me in nature. In my heart I let go of memories that are stitched with pain and discomfort. They drop like apples from the tree. I like to recall instead the touchstones of surfing and careers and a life education that was beyond divine. I revel in the partnership of a marriage, now tender and softened with grey.
I embrace the years, each decade a lamp unto the soul, lighting the way into becoming human. The striving for some sense of self-honesty and awareness, for a sensuous breeze in which to throw back my head and close my eyes as life takes me; this has made the journey purposeful. To paraphrase Mr. Yeats: “I am an old woman with a dry mouth, waiting for the rain.”
Each year I plan a retreat for my community. This year I am bringing Dr. James Finley to Boulder, CO on September 20, 21 and 22, 2013 to lead a retreat on Meister Eckhart and Letting Go. This is an interview that I conducted with Dr. Finley a couple of weeks ago. To learn more about the retreat and how to attend, please visit: http://www.finleyretreat.com
A Dialogue With Dr. James Finley About Letting Go
With Stephanie Raffelock
“Letting Go” is a phrase employed by psychologists and theologians alike that inspires and encourages us to loosen our psychic grip, if you will, on outcomes and desired resolves. But how exactly, beyond lip service, does one actually “let go?” And what does letting go mean in terms of our spiritual unfolding?
I sat down recently with retreat leader and psychologist Dr. James Finley to explore these and other questions about what it means to let go and how that particular process might inform in our daily journey into prayer and contemplation.
When we talk about letting go in spiritual sense, are we talking about a kind of surrender into something greater? Would you please distinguish between letting go and surrender?
The starting place for me is to accept the fact that it takes a committed effort to reach any kind of wholeness or fulfillment. For example, as it applies to love: Two people meet and fall in love and they have high hopes that over a lifetime together they are going to grow in love together, but for that to really work, they have to be doing love’s work. That is to say, the desire must be bolstered by a lifetime of effort.
The same thing applies when a couple decides to have children. It takes a lifetime of fidelity to challenges that good parenting requires. So too with committing ourselves to one of the healing professions, or to going through our own healing process. So too with poetry and the arts—all the fundamental modalities of a fulfilled life require an ongoing effort.
Yet, what happens as we commit ourselves to these transformative processes is that we come to points at which we reach the end of our own resources. We experience our limitations in being unable, by sheer brute force of our own efforts, to achieve our noble goals.
It is at such times that we are tempted to panic or get discouraged. Then we discover the way forward lies in learning to let go of imagining that we can force our way through to the goal we seek. As we relax into the situation, we begin to realize that the way forward lies in learning to let go of our own abilities as having the final say in what is possible, so that resources within us and beyond us can come rolling through, bringing us, in all sorts of unexpected ways, to the wholeness and fulfillment we seek.
The need for effort remains. But the effort is infused with a quality of an ongoing letting go that allows graced possibilities to flow through our limitations and shortcoming, leaving us grateful and amazed. Such is the disciplined effort of the mature lover, the parent, the poet, the healer. The way forward lies in leaning into what needs to be done in an ongoing stance of letting go that renders us supple and responsive to what needs to appear, what needs to happen next.
Shortcomings, both real and imagined, when deeply seen and accepted, are an important part of the transformative process of learning to let go. If we do not let go of the need to be perfect, our need to be perfect will get in our way. Likewise, if we do not let go of our fear of failing, our fear of failing will get in the way. But as we learn to let go of the need to be perfect and the fear of failure, the intimate, earthy stuff of being a vulnerable, loving human being begins to shine through. In an ongoing process of learning to let go we bear witness to the great truth that the master limps. The mastery of life is intermingled with the ongoing weaknesses and limitations that gives life its rich and many layered texture and meaning.
This blending of ongoing effort merged with an ongoing interior stance of letting go, gives insight into the nature of spiritual practices. Lovers cannot make the moments of oceanic oneness happen, but together they can engage in the acts that embody a mutual letting go that offers the least resistance to being overtaken, yet one more time, by the gift of oceanic oneness.
The poet cannot force the poem out onto the paper. But the poet can assume the inner stance of letting go that offers the least resistance to the gift of poetry welling up and out onto the paper. The one committed to healing reaches points at which he or she cannot make healing happen. But the one committed to healing can assume the inner stance of letting go that offers the least resistance to the graced event of healing.
The spiritual life seems to evolve out of moments in which we fleetingly glimpse a mystery, without which our life will be forever incomplete.
This awareness is followed by the realization that I, by my own powers , cannot force my way through into mystery of the fulfillment I long for. Nor can I coax the mystery to take me to itself. What I can do is learn to let go of the illusion that my inabilities have the final say in what is possible for me. What I can do is let go of the control I think I have over the life I think I am living. What I can do is get vulnerable in the messy, intimate process of letting go, so that what I am powerless to achieve can grant itself to me in my very powerlessness to achieve it. That is what makes the awakening event to be an “amazing grace.” Who would have guessed it? The mystery that is always beyond me is always giving itself to me in my ongoing stance of letting go of my ability to reach it on my own terms.
Much as we humans may try, somehow superstitions can and do creep into our faith. Would you talk a little bit about letting go of superstition and immersing in spiritual letting go?
Superstition is magical thinking that we buy into. A closer look reveals that it is not really trustworthy. In the light of the wisdom traditions, we can single out four superstitions we sometimes buy into: the first is the superstition that the ego can, by its own abilities, reach ultimate peace and fulfillment in love, in creativity or any foundational aspect of life. The opposite superstition is that my inability to achieve the noble goal condemns me to never reaching it. The third superstition is that some power will achieve the noble goal for me if I perform the right ritual or believe the right thing. And the fourth superstition is that anything other than whole-hearted effort accompanied by an ongoing stance of letting go is going to bring me to the wholeness and fulfillment I seek.
Someone said to me once, “Just surrender into God’s love.” And while their direction sounded poetic and beautiful, I didn’t really understand what such an action really meant. What is meant by surrendering into God’s love?
Someone comes into therapy, distraught and traumatized. If I say, “ Just surrender to God’s love,” I am disrespecting the painful place in which they find themselves. I must first acknowledge the reality of their suffering, let them know that I am so sorry this is happening to them and then sit with them in the intimacy of such suffering. Within the space of compassionate empathy, I may say, “I get the feeling that this suffering is not the only thing going on here. I get the feeling that this suffering does not have the final say in who you are. If it did, it would have annihilated you. Therefore, there must be something in you that is not reducible to this tragedy.” The point being that the notion of surrendering to God’s love in the midst of suffering becomes a real and helpful goal in the context of an intimate acceptance of suffering, infused with an intimate sense of God being somehow present in the suffering as kind of promise or hope that is somehow already present in some obscure manner that is not easy to explain. A lot of healing flows from two people sitting together in this intimate and obscure path to wholeness.
I know that recently you have been doing some work with The Twelve Steps of AA and the process of letting go. Surely there is a letting go process in the healing of addiction. Please tell me a little about that.
What I have been exploring is that each of the twelve steps of Alcoholics anonymous is a pathway to “mystical sobriety,” that brings a person to a liberation from the tyranny of suffering in the midst of suffering. Each of the twelve steps can be explored as a path leading to mystical sobriety that brings a person to freedom from the tyranny of death in the midst of death. The art of letting go lies at the heart of this path to mystical sobriety.
It’s easy to keep “letting go” as an ideal in your head, but is there a concrete process that you would share with your readers that each of us can take to begin the letting go/surrender process?
There are three guidelines in the wisdom traditions that can help us in the ongoing, daily process of letting go. The first guideline is to find your practice and practice it. That means to find that act, that person, that community, which, when you give yourself over to it with your whole heart it unravels your petty pre occupation with your self-absorbed self and in doing so sets you free to be who deep down you really are and are called to be. Your practice might be sitting silent and still in meditation. It might be gardening, or taking long slow walks to no place in particular. Or your practice might be reading or writing poetry, painting or some other creative activity. Or your practice might be being vulnerable and open with the person in whose presence you are taken to the deeper place. As Eido Roshi, put it, “if you are faithful to your practice, your practice will be faithful to you.” Little by little, practice becomes habituated into your day. Little by little, your life becomes practice.
The second guideline is to find your teaching and follow it. By this is meant to find those words that access your heart and elicit a deep “yes, this is true.” These words name me. They reveal to me who I deep down really am and long to be. These teaching may be found in the scriptures, or the words of a poet, or someone whose presence and teachings offers guidance and encouragement in your life. Little by little your daily life becomes your teacher.
And the third guideline is to find your community and enter it. Your community is found in a person in whose presence you know you are not alone on the path of letting go. Your community may be the presence of a teacher or mentor, a spouse or fellow traveler on the spiritual path. Your community might be found in a group that gathers for meditation or prayer that offers support and guidance on the spiritual path. Eventually, you discover everyone you meet, that all your fellow human beings are your community.
In the spirit of these teachings, James Finley will be in Boulder, CO September 20, 21 and 22, 2013 leading a retreat on Meister Eckhart and Letting Go. To learn more about the retreat and how to attend, please visit: http://www.finleyretreat.com
Tangle and wild is what birthed me. The first few years of my life were in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where my father was the Park Naturalist. An early photograph shows me standing in a back yard of desert, cactus and sky. I am wearing a sombrero and a diaper, sucking on a bottle. It would be a familiar pose later in life too, sans the diaper. Blond hair, tanned skin, and life was good. My family swam at the river, sat in the caves and walked the surrounding area in search of prickly pear, which is a cactus blossom that my mother made into jelly.
At four my parents divorced and my father relocated to Glacier National Park, which presented a whole different pallet of nature than Carlsbad’s desert. In that park, I climbed up the steep hill next to the cabin and ran to the bottom, arms out stretched as if in flight. I gathered huckleberries for pies that my sister made and stood at the kitchen window watching a bear cub take our rug off the clothes line and carry it up a tree.
My parent’s divorce created an interesting phenomenon in my life: what with everyone’s angst and new beginnings, I became basically, unsupervised. A psychologist might call it abandonment, but it’s not like I was neglected. I was just left alone to the wild of life. As such, I delighted in a summer rain one day, warm and pounding, unleashed from the skies with a great, gray power and beauty. I got this idea that I should be outside in that rain instead of watching it from a window.
Out the back door I went, got on my tricycle, not bothering with shoes, and began riding the streets of Glacier, peddling hard through the puddles and delighting in the warm water soaking my clothes, hair and skin. I was having great fun when a woman, who also happened to be the local sitting judge, saw me, stopped her car and demanded that I get in. She put my tricycle in the trunk and drove me to her house where I was toweled off and given an over-sized shirt to wear, while my clothes were in the dryer. Then she called my father.
The judge was everything un-wild and had no appreciation for the freedom that I found so delicious. I was told to sit in the living room and she turned on the television for me. The show that was on was the Oral Roberts Healing Hour. Oral Roberts was a grainy black and white image that barked about things I didn’t know of. He talked about sickness and injury and told you to put your hand on the television screen and then he would yell, “Heal God, heal,” as though he were talking to a class of canines instead of people. I tried to think if I had a sickness or injury so that I could put my hand on the television screen, but no one would know whether I did or not and I really wanted to feel what would come through the television if I put my hand on it, so I did. And as Oral Roberts was yelling, “Heal God, heal,” with my little hand on the screen, my father walked into the room.
He had on his National Park issue uniform with a plastic thing over his hat that kept it dry. As he looked down at me he seemed to grow taller. Water dripped off his hat and he said, “Am I raising a moron?” I wanted to tell him no, but nothing came out of my mouth. He gathered me up, leaving my tricycle for another day in the hands of the un-wild judge, and we went home. I don’t remember that I was punished. I was probably off into the woods soon after, looking for berries, barefoot and wild.
I was eight or nine when my father was transferred to Washington DC and began working at the Department of the Interior as a program analyst. As in previous summers, I was packed up and shipped off to spend some time with him. And just as before, I was totally unsupervised. I found my way around to swimming pools, bus lines and walking long stretches of highway. I was fearless, and thinking back–my parents were foolish. Still I wouldn’t have traded those wild days for something more structured. Skipping stones on the Potomac River and walking to the airport were among my favorite activities. I could follow the highway all the way to what was then D.C. Airport and spend the entire day watching the planes take off and land. I had wonderful conversations with the stewardesses who were enviably stylish and were nice to me, sometimes buying me a coke and telling me all about the places that they had been. I wanted to go places too and I went home and told my father that I wanted to be a stewardess when I grew up.
First of all I got busted for walking barefoot, of course, to the airport and was told I couldn’t ever do that again. Then I was told that stewardesses were only glorified waitresses in the air, and that was the end of the conversation. I spent the rest of the summer cutting white paper and building a city out of the pieces in a corner of the living room. I was bored from waiting for weekends when I could go to the river with my father to skip rocks. Being unsupervised and being told to stay put was torture.
That was the last summer of my wild. . .for a while anyway. As I got a little older, I became interested in being like other girls and matching shoes and belts became more important than exploring new places. Though by the time I was 17, I was ready to leave home and explore again. Seventeen is way to young to leave home, but having learned self-reliance at such an early age, it wasn’t that big a deal. I got into a lot of trouble when I left home and just like riding a tricycle in the rain, some of it was great fun.
Now in my sixties, the time of silver reflects upon the path that I followed, illuminating those wild times. It’s not so much a past as it is a state of mind. And I no longer confuse recklessness with wild. It is more an authenticity that speaks truth without worrying about what others may think. It is the rawness of heart that drinks in the world. Wild is crying when the full moon rises and the geese fly overhead. I was born into the wild and I know it will carry me home. Something about the journey and the embracing of knotted, wild places, tangled in weeded flowers and planes taking off comforts me to my core.
That eerily silent wind that blows into the house filling it with a sense of foreboding—it was just like that. Women walking next their husbands and sons in solidarity, love and support, suddenly turned toward the wind, hairs standing upon end on neck and arms as they spun around and opened their mouths to speak.
It was soft at first. The words of a small Pakistani girl named Malala who said “educate girls,” and strung together sentences on a blog of activism, using the power of speech to such a degree as to bring the Taliban to hunt her, kill her, a fourteen year old girl. They could not kill her and they fled her wounded body, trembling in the kind of fear that only cowards know. Her voice became stronger and today she spoke before the United Nations about the power of education.
Sandra Fluke, despised and feared by the American version of the Taliban, a shadowy group who hijack the teachings of the Christ in order to use it for the judgement and oppression others in the name of an equally extreme theology, dared to testify before Congress about women’s health care and the correlations of public health care policy. She had been asked to render an expert opinion and though she spoke in a strong, articulate manner, it garnered her insults of “whore” and “slut,” from cowardly media pundits who twisted her words and opinions to seemingly be about unabated sexual appetite; a ploy that has been used against strong women since the middle ages.
Elizabeth Warren stepped into Congress, and just the way that the good ol’ boys club of pasty-white, elitist males would have it, she came with a broom and a dust pan in hand—only she intended to use them on the very factions that would scream “foul” if their boys club wanted to wreck the economy—she swept mightily and the cowards, who are not real men anyway, tremble in her presence…and she inspires all of us to sing.
It is happening everywhere. The single voice, once soft but strong is becoming a choir and Wendy Davis came with her own orchestra who joined in the mighty refrain of “you will not take away our rights. You will not hold us down.” While sometimes battles are lost, I cannot help but feel that the war is being won when I see Sarah Slamen chastising the ignorant and arrogant Texas legislature as they drag her away, because just like the Taliban and the old boys club, these people think they have all the control. Meanwhile her speech goes viral—gotta love the Internet—and television rolls out the red carpet so that the entire nation becomes aware of her, and she is able to finish her speech. And the collective voice grows louder.
Western fairly tales are filled with stories of Kings without Queens who must figure out a way to save their people. And the task is completed when a certain son returns with a wife—returns with the feminine missing from the picture that caused the people imbalance and famine and the need to be saved in the first place. I feel we are in the midst of living out that myth; of bringing back the feminine to a country so lost to Patriarchal values that it cannot even govern itself in the simplest manner. It still thinks that by oppressing more of the feminine, it is sure to heal itself. Meanwhile the voice grows louder.
Oh there is healing coming. It is coming in the resounding and unified voices of women like Malala who will not be silenced; who put forth an argument of peace and compassion for all people. This is what women bring to the world and now most especially to this country—a message of equality, a message of strength. You cannot control me by controlling my body. You cannot control me by controlling my mind. You will never control my heart and my spirit is so damn strong that unless you get out-of-the-way and welcome the change that women are bringing, you are likely to get flattened into the ground by a million feet marching to the sound of the same drummer—the rhythm of a rising chorus.
Edges of the early morning hugged the grey sky as I drove home from the grocery store, Saturday rituals igniting the day—a gathering of food for the week and a mountain of laundry waiting for me at home. I will ascend the height of its earthy socks and ledges of shorts. It is mine to conquer!
The chores of Saturday somehow soothe me. The act of putting things in their place marks the ending and the beginning of the cycle. I love to have my life ordered. It makes me feel secure. So it was in this frame of mind that I stopped at the light on McCasslin Boulevard and saw to my right two young women of 15 or 16 on their bikes, waiting for the walking sign. They were wearing plaid cotton pajama bottoms and matching striped t-shirts, green and white. And even though the rain was staring to spot the street and my windshield, even though a small rumble of thunder warned of more, these two young women wore no shoes, and only some stretchy slippers on their feet. When the light changed, they pedaled off toward the coffee place across the busy boulevard, hair flying, laughter on their faces and I thought: how wonderful to be young and outrageous. What happens to that “wild” as we grow older?
Note to self: after the orderliness of things are embraced; after the food is put in the fridge and the recycling bins have been placed on the curb; after the laundry is washed and folded, placed gently into drawers, is there any wild left for me, or have I snuffed it out with this grown up sense of responsibility? I want to ride a bike in my pajamas in the early morning rain!
A friend told me that my dog, Jeter, was a great gift to me because I could not control his chronic shedding; could not keep him clean and smelling nice. Jeter is the wild, outrageous that lopes through my house leaving muddy paw prints and blond Labrador hair everywhere. My friend is right, he is my gift—a slobbery oaf of a dog who underscores the lack of control and the joy of abandon in living a life.
My husband and I fell in love dancing. That was our wild. We still dance to old Motown—in stocking feet next on the living room floor, a reprieve from the more serious life that urges us toward the expiration date on the to-do list. The dog’s wagging tail keeps time to a never hidden joy that seeps into our hearts when music plays and the rain taps against the windows and doors. Screw the to-do list!
Monday morning finds me writing these words, finishing the story of young women who inspired a wonderment of the wilds. I know that in a few minutes, I will push the “publish” button on this blog post and find my way into a day that will be orderly, but tinged with dog hair, reminding myself to keep my wild close by. Perhaps I should go to my office in pajamas today!
Sufficiency: What is enough? A small closet of clothes that can be worn to the office, and a few things for the weekend—or a walk-in closet filled with fifty pairs of shoes and sweaters that still have the price tag dangling from the sleeve? I happen to love clothes. I like to dress up for work. I like to dress up to have lunch with a friend. In the past I have been known to tell my husband that a woman cannot have too many pairs of black shoes. Now I am asking, at what cost?
As my income increases, so do the contents of my closet. Some new summer clothes, even though the old ones are fine. Bags taken to Sister Carmen’s filled with fashion from a couple of years ago make me feel that I am doing my part. What is enough? Following the story about the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh with one eye open and the other closed, I began to wonder about the true price of my fashion jones. Nothing in my closet is made in America. Have you ever tried to buy clothes that are made in America? They are very difficult to find. Everything is made in China, India, Mexico and I, along with my fellow Americans have come to expect and demand quality clothing at a more than reasonable price, made by human beings who work 14 to 16 hour shifts, or more for .48 cents per hour in conditions that are neither safe or pleasant in any way. I don’t like to think about it, do you? There is someone literally slaving so that I can have more—someone with a mother and a father, maybe children; someone who goes to sleep at night worrying about taking care of their family. A human being.
I’d like to see jobs come back to America. We can make our own clothes, but they will cost more so maybe we won’t or can’t have as many things. Would that be okay? In this country, buildings have to be inspected to be safe and well ventilated. Workers need to take breaks for lunch. By law they can only work eight hours and some amount of over-time with extra pay. In other words, American workers, in most instances are treated like human beings and not slaves. I would feel better about wearing a skirt made by someone in this country who has a job in a safe environment for a decent wage. The question all of us should be asking is what is sufficient? Is it a small closet of clothes or a walk-in? Where do you really sit with giving up a little bit so that someone else can have a little bit too?
Sustainability: Aging teaches you a lot of things and one of those things is this stark recognition that no matter how much you have acquired in your life, you cannot take any of it with you. Right now my husband and I live in a big house that is both beautiful and comfortable and we are talking about purchasing a different house that is smaller and on one level, because taking care of a house this size and running up and down the stairs is not going to be sustainable as we continue to get older.
I open my cupboards and I see the dishes that we bought two decades ago and I remember how it was snowing and we were so excited about finding the right pattern to go with our newly remodeled kitchen. When I die, those dishes will be so much junk. Knowing my nieces, they will probably box them up and take them to Sister Carmen’s. My mother’s china, that I have never used, delicate and filled with roses will go as well and that milk glass olive dish that I remember at every single Thanksgiving dinner of my childhood may find its way to the dumpster. I can only hope that it is with a parade, a little bit of pomp and circumstance that honors its noble role of holding olives for so many decades. None of this is sustainable though—landfills are bursting with once treasured items. But how many of us would be willing to eat off of mismatched dishes that tell a story? Eventually wouldn’t we want to make a trip to Pottery Barn? That has become the American way.
Sustainability threads its way through our culture just asking to be felt. What we are seeing is what is unsustainable: oil, our current health care system, the banking system, the true cost of goods that involves the cost of human life, and waste. We are not asking ourselves what is enough or what is sustainable. Or if we are, more of us need to be asking more often.
The Common Good: Somehow Ayn Rand’s words of fiction have been twisted to represent a real life world of “winners” and “losers” that makes it oh so easy to turn a blind eye to factories collapsing in Bangladesh while we eat our salad for lunch and go for a mani-pedi. If you are a winner, good for you. You are therefore a superior person and it is not your job to worry about poor people or sick people or old people, because they are all losers and takers. And it you are a loser, then screw you. You did your life wrong. Go get a job and take that little brat with you. It’s an ugly, ugly consciousness that permeates a small but powerful segment of our society and its leadership. It says there is never enough for me, and you do not deserve any. It turns a blind eye to anything that smacks of compassion.
The common good is an inclusive term that makes all of us responsible for one another. Who am I and what have I become if I do not acknowledge and want to alleviate the suffering in the world? Who am I if I need so much stuff in my closet to feel good about myself that I don’t stop to ponder who made the stuff and under what conditions?
I don’t have any easy answers. I just have the beginnings of a dialogue that I want to have with myself, with my friends and with those twerps in Washington who I occasionally email. What is enough? What is sustainable? What is best for the common good? What will give my soul peace so that I leave this world a better than I found it? No easy answers, but it is certainly time to start with the questions, don’t you think?
Occasionally, I teach a creative writing class. I teach off the beaten path in dark corners that don’t get too many visitors—homes for seniors, halfway houses and jails. The stories in these places are less polite than the stories you get from a class at your local community colleges. I teach in these places because writing has helped me to better understand and accept myself, so I share the process in hopes that it may help someone in this way too. Writing is how I make sense of who I am and what I’ve lived. Writing is the talent that I give as service.
Aside from a few newspaper articles and a couple of magazine pieces (I wrote a piece for Quilter’s Magazine once) and few big blogs like Care2, I am not a widely published or famous writer. I write because I am a writer, one of what I imagine to be millions who get up each day and scale a white screen or blank page, looking for the right turn of phrase to convey the story, the life within life. I blog a couple of times a week, because it just feels right to see a finished piece that you are willing to put out there. It’s a risk. The more authentic a writer you become, the more you risk.
I knew a man when I was in my 20’s– Murray Schisgal. He wrote a whimsical book: “Days and Nights of a French Horn Player.” He went with me to an acting class that I was taking. On the drive home he gave me a great piece of advice. He said “don’t worry about whether people like your work or not. You should worry about whether or not they remember you.” I write to leave something of myself, just the way the Sumerians did. The written word is the story of being human. We live in a time when literacy has never been higher and in spite of inane tweets and texts, there are those of us who want to tell the human story in complete sentences. Please God let me be remembered for half-way decent descriptions!
Jessica was a student of mine at The Jefferson County Detention Center. She was eighteen and landed herself in jail for over-using, abusing and in general screwing up her life with meth. She was so pretty, so young. Armed with Jesus and G.E. D. she always sat close to me, beyond excited about discovering Emily Dickinson and May Sarton. She wrote strong, haunting poems about the sensory experience of meth, longing essays about “getting it right,” and I so believed that she would. When I knew she was being released, I left a Natalie Goldberg book for her. I penned a note of encouragement and gave her list of resources—a contact at Naropa’s Writing program, a lead on a writer’s workshop that would give her a scholarship. But she never called anyone. I heard months later that she was back at Jefferson County and sent her regards. The system slithered and coiled itself tightly around her. Drugs lulled her into submission. Now she belonged to them and I learned the sad song of “you cannot save anyone,” you can only give what you’ve got and the rest is just the rest.
I read books about writing. I look for ways to deepen and keep it real. Some mornings I think about Jessica and I wonder where she is and I am afraid to know. I sit in my warm little house, with my nice cup of tea, caffeine being the only thing that I am addicted to. I write my life on a laptop and I look for where my story connects to others. I was connected to Jessica. We both longed to get it right. We both wanted to leave something that asked to be remembered.
There are a lot of people and things about this life that are rasty—politicians and banks are my two personal favorites. I want to know what is going on in my world, my country and my community, still, I can’t take a steady diet of news feed. It makes me feel as though we have all gone mad. I cannot ignore these things either. Somewhere in the spongy corridors of my little brain, I have hope and vision. How can we possibly reach solutions to the challenges of our world if we are unaware, or worse, conveniently apathetic about the work of making the world a better place? I have met people who tell me that they never watch the news because they only want to accentuate the positive in their lives. What is positive about deliberately hiding your head in the sand?
I am not certain if “making the world a better place” is something that we are taught or if it’s something that rises up from within us. I don’t remember learning, or even making a decision about trying to leave the world better than I found it—it was just sort-of, kind-of, always with me and one day I woke up to it. Maybe it was the prayer that I was afraid of that acted as the alarm clock– the one where you ask: “please show me Your will and Your way,” and then hope that Greater will is something you actually want to do.
How are we in any position at all to determine or judge what is positive and what is negative in our emotional life or the life of humanity? We bandy about these words as if we knew what they imply– and the truth is, we often don’t. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, said, “when a thing happens, you don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.” I return to this quote again and again, because of its compassionate reach and reminder. We have all met someone who gets fired from a job and feels devastated. Then a year later they might say something like “getting fired from that old job was the best thing that ever happened to me.” When a thing happens, we don’t always know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
A week ago I was telling a friend about this pocketful of grief that I had recently pulled out of an old pair of jeans. She listened empathically and then said to me in her well-intended way: “just don’t think about it.” On the one hand, not focusing on something painful is sage advice. On the other, if we don’t face the fears and pain in front of us, how will we deepen in understanding and compassion? While true that turning grief over in one’s hand, examining its edges is what some would call a real buzz kill, looking at how that particular grief arose when it did, often allows the space to forgive, give over, and move ahead without the pain of limiting and un-resolved baggage. So initially such a discovery appeared not to be such a “positive” thing, yet ultimately became a lesson that brought both resolve and liberation from the hard pebble of something past that had been stuck in your shoe.
Now, back to the news. When I read about our corrupt banking system or hunger in our own county, I am angry. That anger in turn informs a kind of activism to make a change for the better. So, is anger really a negative emotion, or like “fight or flight,” does it hold a deeper message if we are willing to acknowledge it and explore the opportunity underlying the whoosh of feeling?
For me, the emotional life is meant to be fluid and it’s meant to be full. It’s when we get stuck on any emotion that we falter and slide into unintended consequence. I cannot go through life only feeling its losses; yet by feeling life’s losses and being true to that process, compassion and tenderness grow. I cannot go through life in a constant state of joy, not if it means ignoring the ache of my heart that aligns itself with the needs of the poor, the sick, or the hungry. I am suspect of those who claim to have “reached” a state where joy is static by some force of will—the “I will be happy no matter what” mentality that excludes anyone grappling with the state of the human condition.
There are various self-help gurus in our world who pontificate that they have no investment in, or need for emotion. It seems a terrible affect, fraught with wasted opportunity if you eschew having your heart-broken open in order that you might better serve the world and leave it a better place. The emotional life of humankind is a complex and interesting journey, meant to inform the fullness of the life experience.
In the end I would be more sad if I hadn’t let life move me to great heights and great depths of all feeling; more sad if my heart had gone through life unscathed because I had never watched the news, never had a negative emotion and never opened myself in compassion and caring because of, and in spite of those things. It is the jagged edges of life that I find most interesting and delightful, the horrible beautiful journey of becoming a human being. For me, part of making the world a better place is living life fully. One more time, with feeling …as the acting coach used to say.
Here is something that both of my parents gave to me: they taught me that it is wrong to judge another human being by the color of their skin. I grew up with a sense of inclusiveness. My father told me that it was the contents of a man’s heart by which he should be measured. I never knew any other way of looking at the world. I also grew up in all white neighborhoods and went to all white schools, so I couldn’t possibly grasp what it was to be black in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I didn’t meet my first African-American person until I was 18 and had left home. Moving to Los Angeles in 1969 provided me with a much more richly textured life that exercised the inclusiveness with which I was raised, and educated me to the tremendous amount of inequality, which still needed to be made right in our country. And though a lot has changed since my girlhood, I still see the injustices of a white America and a black America all around me. My work with incarcerated women underscored that heavily. Most of my students at the jail were either African-American or Latino women, revisiting the system for the umpteenth time, sentenced by a judge and sentenced by the conditions from which they came.
Yesterday I saw a movie that inspired me–a story of racism in America and the possibility for change. “42” is about Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first black player to be integrated into the major leagues. Until 1947 there was major league baseball and there were the “Negro Leagues.” Like everything in America, life was segregated. The sign on the bathroom door said “Whites Only.” The sign above the drinking fountain said “Whites Only…” an ugly, shameful part of American history.
Branch Rickey was a businessman who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers, who in those days actually played in Brooklyn. He loved the game. Here is what is so moving to me about Branch Rickey: He was a business leader who had a deeply rooted sense of social justice, and he was willing to try to make the world a better place because of it. A business leader with a strong sense of social justice is practically an oxymoron these days. You just don’t see that anymore. As Branch Rickey points out, Jesus tells his followers to “love your neighbor as you would love yourself,” more than any other directive found in scripture. And this inspired him to bring Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.
In 1947, the climate of American was neither kind nor receptive to an African-American playing ball in the major leagues. The major leagues were the exclusivity of whites. Everything was set up to underscore a wrongly perceived inferiority of African-Americans and a wrongly perceived superiority of white people. There was one game where a policeman tried to arrest Jackie Robinson for playing on the same ball field as white people—even though he is a Brooklyn Dodger. Robinson had to leave the game. Back then, that stuff happened. Any association between the two races was held with contempt.
Robinson was called horrible, ugly and demeaning names. But Robinson was not only a great baseball player; he was a great and courageous man. He did not fight back. He couldn’t. Any fight in which he participated would have been construed as his instigation. The press back then was mostly racist and ignorant too. So Robinson became the ultimate peaceful warrior, who suffered great humiliation to further the game of baseball and right the wrong of segregation in sports. Moreover, he suffered great humiliation in order to advance and evolve the hearts and minds of a racist America. He paved the way for a new generation of black athletes and a new mind-set for Americans.
After the movie, my husband and I talked a lot about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey over dinner, and drew the correlation between the hard-fought battle for equal rights for African-Americans and gay marriage rights. At the end of the day it all comes down to human rights. The right as a human being to live your life fully, without being ostracized or excluded because of the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or any other external nuance of nature. We still have a long way to go.
“42” is a movie that I will see again. It’s a reminder of how horrid people can be and how amazing people can be. There were plenty of individuals who supported Jackie Robinson, and were not afraid to stand up for what they believed and Jackie Robinson gave them a reason to stand tall in the light of that truth. 42 was the number on the back of Robinson’s uniform. After seeing the film, that number will serve as touch stone in my life of how important inclusion and compassion are in the grand scheme of things.
I’ve read that if there is a question when you die, it’s probably this: Did you live fully and love well? In my sixties, I am more taken than ever by what really should be for me, a daily inquiry. There is an arc to life that I feel I have crested, but not yet completed. Is the trajectory down hill as potentially invigorating and vitalizing as the strong trajectory up? Today, I would have to answer yes, but it is a different yes than the one I might have given twenty-five years ago.
Twenty-five years ago, tennis was my game. I loved the feeling of getting up early and hitting for an hour before work. I loved the cute little tennis outfits. It was a vibrant game and it made me feel vital. But as nature sometimes compels, that particular sport was finite in my life. A scoliotic back and disc degeneration saw to it. Those two physical messengers had their way with me. Eventually I would stop playing tennis, downhill skiing, or any type of aerobics where my feet hit the ground and my back took a pounding. So, what was left? Walking.
Walking is an activity that nurtures aliveness. I have learned to walk all year-long and in all conditions. I walk in the spring and marvel at the wild flowers that fill the meadows and mountainsides. I walk in the summer and stop to take sips of cool water and breath in the offerings of the panorama. In the fall, I delight in the changing of leaves. And of course, the great winter snow hike has become one of my favorites, because in my way of seeing, there is nothing quite as joyful as watching my dog romp through snow, and nothing quite as exquisite as the lone grey heron standing on the ice, keeping watch over the frozen water.
Being in my sixties has given me a perspective of the grace contained within the conflict and challenges of life. Cocky thirties made me think I could do life without such things, but I realize now that I would not have wanted to. There is a comfort in knowing that your marriage is so solid and committed that in spite of disagreements, snarls and frustrations, there was never an instance where you didn’t eventually sit down and work it out, thereby strengthening the union.
As for failure, you can put up all the posters of “Failure is Not an Option” that you want, and good luck with that! I have failed many times. Sometimes I have beat myself up for those moments, wrapping the failure around me like a scarlet letter. Failures though, have propelled me forward in business, friendships and making peace with the limited, finite human being that I am, albeit with an infinite and loving soul. Failure has taught me that God loves me in every moment. Failure is, as Billie Jean King once said, “only research.”
There was a time in my fifties that I mourned the loss of youth and its beauty. I don’t know a woman (if they’re honest) who hasn’t stood in front of a mirror and gently pulled the skin of her face back to remind her of a time that her face was not headed south…and then entertained for a moment some magic surgery that would restore it all, if only for a while longer. In the blink of an eye, the world seems as though it is no longer yours, but belongs to women who still wear high-heels and know their way around an i-phone. But the grief of that passing, was kind and swift and I have started to grow comfortable with the sags of my face. The important things are that I stand tall and straight and that I walk. I am learning that the geese that fly overhead sing their songs for me. I have begun to understand that the fox that trots across the open field and stops to look at me with curiosity can fill me with wonder. In short, I have slowed down enough to take in the sights and sounds of the natural world, letting it fill my heart and speak to me, and that makes me feel as though I am living fully. I know that I can and will walk until the end. When Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gentle into that good night,” I believe that he was talking about living until you squeeze out the last drop from it.
I still stress too easily. I give in to the sorrows. But even those things, when observed with clear eyes and distance show me that they have added texture to a journey that keeps edging me toward the meaning and purpose of being human. Stress is just a wake up call to stop and breath deeply, go read People Magazine and take a hot bath. Stop and realize that nothing is so important that it should disturb your health or your peace of mind. That’s the tough one—we all make things too important and over identify with that importance. It’s a killer. As for sorrows, a little sorrow in life can break open the heart to the suffering of a world that needs you to reach out. Too much sorrow is like indulging a seductress that will take you somewhere you don’t really want to go.
Cycles of the season, cycles of age, all of it meant to be. The sixties are not so bad. In a way, I feel like I am doing my best work. I finally have some perspective on life and am now looking forward to what my seventies might bring. I love to write my thoughts and then go walk in the early hours of the day. And as Irenaeus said; “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” Did you live fully? Did you love well? Is it ever to late to take those questions to heart and count the blessings and the joys of waking up and doing the day one more time–fully alive?
Enormous in the sky, a full moon cast a glittering ribbon of light upon the dark, black waters, a path that if followed leads you to the weaver. Deep, deep, down at the bottom of the ocean, the old woman who does not remember how she came to be among the fishes and the coral, sits at a loom and weaves the loose weave of nets from seaweed strands brought to her by her by dolphins. A shuttlecock made of shell moves back and forth, back and forth in her bony hand, stringing the weed over and under as the net takes shape. When finished, she will give it to you to cast into the realm of dreams, but you must know how to ask her—to tell her that you long to gather the inspirations and visions of what might come to be. You must ask her nicely and promise to pull these things close into your heart, nurture them with delicate care so that they will grow.
Bringing offerings of small round stones and sea glass eroded by the undertow into smooth, shiny currency to lie at her feet, I wait for her to sing to me–long, beautiful sad songs. When I do not sleep well and cannot enter the dream, I try to remember the melodies to sooth myself.
Morning brings a headache, and cups a strong black tea sweetened with honey and cinnamon. A deck of tarot cards and “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” sit next to a notebook and pen on the side table. A pair of severely smudged reading glasses, slightly bent have been folded and placed where I am sure they will be found again, even though I end up searching, never remembering exactly where they were left. Light has entered the room enough that the lamps can be turned off and the day begun. Old woman, don’t let me lose the feeling tone of you. Don’t leave me.
What will the dolphins tell you when they come to swim by your side? Will they nip at your hands and feet and push you with their long dolphin snouts, urging you toward your fate? Did you bring the net?
How did we get so big? When I was a kid there were local shops where I bought school clothes. Even the larger department stores were not in every city. You could tell an area by the uniqueness of its small businesses. Not every town or city looked the same, like it does now.
My mom knew the president at the bank. The company that delivered milk and eggs to our house was a local company. These days if you travel the country, you can see Wal-Mart everywhere. Bank of America is everywhere. McDonald’s and Starbucks are everywhere. Nothing distinguishes one place from another anymore. The local flavor of small business and small community has been stripped of individuality. What happened to the rules and regulation about monopoly? What happened to the rules and regulation about banks? Everything has become so big, and we blindly or impotently accept that too big means don’t fu*k with it, or something bad will happen.
Something bad has already happened and it is breaking the collective American heart. What has happened is that the greed of power and money has seeped into Washington like an innocuous gas and put our leaders (who used to be public servants, but aren’t anymore) to sleep. . . Asleep to the corporate-ization of America. We are a corporate-ocracy. We are no longer a democracy. The bi-partisan stand-off in Washington, where nothing gets done anymore, is the result of corporate money that speaks louder and stronger than the voice of the people. Look at what has just happened with Monsanto. They were granted all kinds of leeway in spite of a huge outcry from the public. The results could be harmful to our health and our land, but Monsanto’s profits became center stage for “importance.” Too big” means “Big Bully.”
I read a lot of blogs, newspapers, and books and the prevailing theme of our current “too big to fail and too big to jail,” system is creating a terrible despair among the citizens of our country. It is a despair that is resigning and resolving itself to be voiceless and powerless, infecting the heart and soul of our citizenry.
We have become so “business/profit” oriented that we are forgetting that great nations take care of their own and work through and with government and leadership to make a country that works for everyone. There is a lot of rhetoric from big business these days about how government is bad, and while I agree that government can always improve, it is not really a bad thing—it is the thing that unites us a people and directs us to living a good life—it can be a protector and advocate for its people, but it has stopped being that. Now there is a war against the poor—those lazy losers; a disdain for the elderly and the sick—they should have made millions so that they could care for themselves, and a sickening attitude of intolerance when it comes to women’s reproductive health care and gay marriage. In other words, lets unravel the bad, bad government, but let’s make sure that we regulate people’s bodies and bedrooms. It all feels like Alice on acid, stuck in a rabbit hole from which there is no return.
The problem, so clearly defined, raises then the question of the hour: what can one ordinary citizen do? How can I as an individual who loves my country make a change in this horrid “too big” corporate-ocracy that is trying to pass itself off as America? How do we find our way again, shake off the despair and compel our leaders to lead? It’s a hard challenge. I cannot afford to make $10,000.00 donations to various members of congress, so why should anyone care what I think? Are we resigning ourselves to a truth that without money to control Washington, we ordinary citizens are powerless? Is there one thing that each one of us can do to turn this ship around, or is it too late?
Topanga Canyon was a place filled with old homes, built in the 1930’s as resort homes for movie stars. A craggy old canyon that wound it’s way from the ocean on one side to the San Fernando Valley on the other, a haven to artists and musicians in the late 1960’s into the 70’s. There were plenty of trails that led to small streams and rock outcroppings, where you could smoke a doobie and meditate upon the wind rustling through the scrub oak. Someone told me not too long ago that Topanga Canyon was now filled with million dollar homes, with million dollar views and was no longer the enclave of art and creativity that it once was. It’s probably my generation too, that built it up, deciding to return to the place that had rocked them so gentle when they were young and idealistic and change it to reflect who they had become.
The house on Fernwood Pacific was up the hill from a health food store, called The Food Chakra. The structure leaned slightly into the canyon, enough so that you could put a marble on the floor in the sun room and it would roll downhill. It was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. There was only one bathroom for the three roommates and never enough hot water. And forget about closet space. It was heaven and it was perfect. I often walked down to The Food Chakra in the mornings with my mug of coffee in hand, to buy fruit and engage in the local conversation. I had great and wonderful, good-natured arguments about the benefits of garlic, the value of raw juicing and whether or not to include the papaya seeds in the morning smoothie. In the meeting room above the store is where I went to yoga classes, played my dulcimer, and sat with other like-minded spirits to talk about Ram Das, Muktananda, Ken Kesy and Krishnamurti. There was so much opening in my heart and mind back then.
Kitty and I were 21 when we met, filled with life and vitality, often colored by an annoying self-assuredness. She would later become the next roommate, as I moved from Topanga to Laurel Canyon. Laurel Canyon was closer to what was now becoming “work,” the thing disruptive to a social life. Still we managed to spend leisurely Saturday mornings, listening to Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt records while we cleaned the house and told stories about the latest, greatest guy we were dating. We nursed each other through a myriad of broken hearts and encouraged each other to grow up, even though life with musicians and some good pot seemed much more appealing.
Kitty and I did grow up. Each of us got married. I got divorced and then married again. She had a child. I had Labrador retrievers. We each carved out careers that involved partnering with our husbands in business. And when I moved back to Colorado in 1989, we stayed in touch through lengthy letters that painted a picture of our lives on different paths, but with a singularity of heart. We never stopped caring deeply for one another. Somewhere along the line, in those young and wildly beautiful days we became “best friends,” and neither time nor distance has unraveled the tight weave of that bond.
So yesterday, as I was rushing through a day of caring for a husband down with flu, picking up as much slack as I could at the office, a card arrived from Kitty. It was my birthday, and this year it was more about the tasks in front of me than it was any sort of celebration. The card read “We have been friends for 40 years now. You are a best friend to me. Happy Birthday.” It made me stop and rewind to those early years when life was spread out like a banquet asking you to fill your plate. There have been good times and painful times, broken hearts and promises fulfilled and no matter how hard I have tried to design the details of living, life just always had its way with me.
I have been blessed to have a history of youth tinged with a mixture of tender regret, love and loss and above all memories of days in the canyons of California when my heart and mind were opened to the possibilities and potential of dreams I would eventually follow. To have a good friend who remembers the hard won miles, who knows you to your core and loves you anyway…that’ the stuff that is cause for celebrating yet another year. As she did back in the days when we so wanted to be one of Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon,” Kitty still slows me down a little bit, enough to recall how much struggle and triumph there is in living a full life. That makes her a best friend to me too.
Some mornings, most mornings, I wake up with the committee blaring in my head. There is the usual to-do list, then a tremendous amount of junk-copy enticing me to grab and chew on it. I have to sit for a while with my tea and stare into space before everything calms down enough to prioritize the chatter. Some mornings I read something inspirational. Right now that would be Brother David Steindle-Rast–“Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer.” I like the focus of the book. I find that gratitude practice is a useful tool if the large committee in your head is sometimes harsh or unkind. In other words, counting blessings can heal a lot.
This morning, I was going to read, maybe sit on the back deck for a bit and ponder writing. With so much going on in my head, it’s hard to believe that I feel I don’t have anything to say, but I often hold that thought. My friend Jennifer is teaching me to let things percolate, sit with them for a time before you start pouring them out onto a page. That’s hard for someone who lives life honoring the most immediate of tendencies. Still, I learn…some days just sit with what is going on. Ponder before you dive for the laptop.
I read my emails in the morning and today there was a post from “Finding Amy.” Her post read:
Hi there, I nominated your blog for the Liebster Award! Congratulations! If you hate me for that just ignore this. It means I enjoy reading your blog and you have under 200 followers and someone nominated me so I’m paying it forward! So now the request is that you do the same – answer the following 11 questions, nominate 11 (I only had 6) blogs under 200 followers you like, and relish in the glow of the Liebster.
Thanks for this. We all like to be acknowledged. I had received another of these awhile back, and wasn’t sure what it meant or what to do with it…and I certainly don’t know how to grab the little badge thingy and paste it on the sidebar, like I see on other sites…however if anyone feels that they can teach me that trick, this old dog would be happy to learn something new about cyber space. So now, I will answer the questions…which get me to shift my focus from the committee (oh just shut up, will you?) and do the Leibster.
1)What was the last thing you said?–Do you want a cup of tea? I asked my husband that at 6:20. He’s down for the count with a nasty flu. I think that tea cures everything.
2) What are you doing after 5pm today?–Running a hot bath and soaking away the day.
3) What would you do for a profession (anything) if you knew you would succeed?–I wouldn’t give up. Even when things looked bad or were tough. I would keep my vision close by and I wouldn’t give up.
4) Favorite quote?–I don’t know where this came from, but I love it–“Living is like licking honey off a thorn.”
5) Do you search forever to find a close parking spot or just park and walk?–I sing a silly little song “My right and perfect parking place is coming to me now, my right and perfect parking place—” you get the idea. It annoys my husbands and my dog, but I usually get a place near where I am going.
6) How do you deal with anger?–Sometimes I stuff it in the eff-it closet. Sometimes I peel it back and wait for the tears. Sometimes I just stew in it until it speaks and I understand it’s purpose. Then I let it go. I never hold a grudge for more than a couple of years…;-)
7) Have you ever had shark?–Never had a shark, but swam with the dolphins once.
8) Gold or silver?–I prefer silver and that’s mostly what I wear. Gold was never my thing.
9) What is your primary responsibility?–Running a couple of different companies. They are small, but mighty. Taking care of hubby, home and dog. Everybody needs a walk, including me.
10) What’s one thing you want to know about me (not that I’ll answer)?–Describe to me when you knew that you had to write, just as much as you had to breath?
11) Pet peeve?–People who talk on their cell-phones when someone is trying to help them at the bank or a store–it’s just rude.
Well, I guess that I have now done the Leibster. Below are a list of links that I encourage you to visit for a little inspiration, hope and thoughtfulness:
Snows flew and swirled about the month of March, biting frost and cold mornings announcing the days; thaw and mud wrapped about a promise of spring. A sudden surprise, as though we had forgotten, in greens and buds pushing through what seems to be the last of the big cold, appears in strips of grass that line the meridians and creep from the edges of curbs into lawn and meadow.
A box was delivered on Saturday. I had ordered some small French pots for the front porch, anticipating the garden center at Home Depot and an afternoon where I could feel the sun on my back as I bent over them with soil and flowers. I like to arrange things on my porch; a wreath of dried spring flowers, pots and planters filled with colors and blooms; a welcoming to guests—“look life is happening here and inside. There is beauty in our world.”
I remember a Sunday morning, decades ago—an Easter choir at the Unity Church I attended in Santa Monica, California. We practiced for a couple of months “Morning has broken, like the first morning. Black bird has spoken, like the first bird.” I always felt that we were singing in the spring. Yesterday as I drove back from the grocery store, I was singing, watching my car thermometer inch up from 39-degrees to 50 by the time I got home…singing in the spring. This Easter, church is in the meadow where I go with my dog. I feel much more at home giving thanks to a miraculous world where geese provide the sermon; where rising water in the creek tells the story of death and re-birth than I do in a building committing to story that I can find alive and fluid in the natural world.
It’s too soon to plant, but I have unwrapped the pots where I can see them and imagine them filled with pretty flowers. Buds have appeared on the lanky arms of the berry bushes just off of the deck and I know that in a short time, diaphanous green will grace the trees. Sometimes in January I envy my Southern California friends and their 68-degree beach weather—but I don’t think I would trade that for the cycles of the seasons that teach me over and over about life renewing itself.
Sunshine and blue skies today, warm and happy weather that will dip into colder tones tomorrow. I walk the trail and say thank you, holding fast to the imagination a brilliant green that will soon become the color of this temple.
The train whistle slices through the edge of the night, a low rumble of metal on metal, weight on weight making its way across miles that are pulled tight against horizon and sky. I lay unmoving on my bed, slouched into pillows and quilts, playing the scenes of the day through my head, stirred by the sound. Suddenly I am back someplace I know but have never been: my mother told a story of being a child at the convent, swinging on a swing, hearing the sound of the train and trying to pump higher and higher so that she could see over the convent wall, all the while wondering where the train was going and wanting to go there too. Now I am in her story, a piece of history shared from when I was a little girl, a piece of story that I remember when the train goes by, pulling the twilight into dark.
Sometimes it seems so clear; where I am and who I am and what story is unfolding. I had grandparents that slept in separate bedrooms; that spat and grunted communications that were interlaced with whiskey bottles and wooden rosary beads. I vowed to never be like them. My husband and I dance a different dance. We will not, cannot sleep apart. I love this story. It is punctuated by small acts of tenderness that reach out like vines into shared cups of warm ginger tea, someone to fetch the mail; “oh, wait, I’ll get that for you…” check the oil in your car, drive with you to a doctor’s appointment so that you will not have to sit alone. This is my story of the ever after that happened after youth rode into the sunset.
Remember the Catholic schoolgirl who smoked pot behind the high school gym, who wanted to help the poor, but also enjoyed a good make-out session? Can’t you be it all? Can’t you do it all? That was me. I remember feeling forced to choose, and as a result began to see life in a small and shrinking way, squeezing myself into something I thought I was supposed to be, but never really could be. Then one day I woke up with a dry mouth, symptoms and sorrow for what might have been.
I wish I could gather all of my nieces and nephews into one place. I would bring us around a large fire, where we would sit late into the night. I would tell them stories among the crackle and hiss of leaping flames. Stories about Viet Nam and how Brent came back with only part of a hand and couldn’t sit with his back to any door, anywhere, ever again; stories of how I learned to grow impatience and ferns in a shaded flower bed and would sit there for hours reading; stories of walking in snow under a full moon. I would tell them stories, because it feels like that is what I am meant to do now. Instead, we text—we call—we make dinner plans in lives that are over scheduled and tired.
I reflect upon what has been as I lean forward into age, that for this time affords me strong legs and the desire to keep walking and filling my lungs with fresh air and my heart with the beauty of the natural world; learning that the stories themselves are like thick, wonderful murals, layered with paint that portrays the laughter and the wounds, the celebrations and grief. But the files in which I place those stories in my mind… the labels that I write onto each one, those are dangerous. Those make the story less important than how they are categorized. I am too organized for my own good sometimes.–alphabetizing spices and filing memories. You cannot continue to do that. It’s really just one big story and we are all connected by it. I should go mess up that spice drawer just to take in the aroma of each dish they have inspired in my kitchen. What was that wonderful quote I read somewhere, that now seems so appropriate? “Life is like licking honey off of a thorn.”
A grey and windy storm lumbered into the foothills and left 6 inches of wet, spring snow. At 9:00 this morning it was still snowing, but the dog nudged my hand and did his doggie talk version of “it’s not a work day, so get your ass out of bed and let’s play.” A sane person, even a reasonably sane person would have told the dog to go lay down and made themselves a cup of tea. I am not a sane person—not on snow days and even though it’s the weekend I know that I have to get up, put on my snow pants and boots and go do “snog.”
The word snog is a combination made-up word, for which there is not another word, and that’s why it had to be made up. Snog equals snow and dog, thus snog. But snog is not just a description of the dog. It is, in fact, a state of mind and heart of both dog and person. In my estimation, snog is the most visceral experience of snow that you can get. It is prayer wrapped in great celebration. However, I found out that snog is a real word that has nothing to do with snow or dog it is a verb: 1. snog – touch with the lips or press the lips as an expression of love, greeting. Okay, well my “snog” means to kiss nature then and be kissed back by nature and it has to do with a labrador retriever!
Eighteen degrees out and still snowing, the roads were snow packed and icy. The clouds hung low and tight next to the mountains creating the feeling of being in an ice dome instead of in open country. The snog, named Jeter paced in the back seat while we drove 10 miles under the speed limit to Dry Creek Trail. Past the Baptist church at 70th with all its dire warnings printed on their sign board; past the black cows that didn’t look their usual apathetic, oblivious selves encrusted in ice and snow; and past Mallard Pond Drive where the trust fund baby of a major seed company lives and does the best Christmas decorations in the county. We drove until we slid into our left turn and pulled into the empty parking lot at the trailhead.
Oh boy: snog and a trail all to ourselves. I opened the back door of the car for Jeter, who flew from the back seat to the gate, paws barely touching the ground. There was no one else around. A perfect snog day. Six inches of fresh snow and a trail unblemished by the sane people who lingered late in bed or the coziness of their kitchens. Snog ran onto the trail to the first spot where he could flip over on his back and make a snog angel in the snow. It was pure joy. Fresh snow is like walking in sand—you work it, but for Jeter fresh snow is like sailing among the clouds. He runs in circles. He burrows his head into drifts looking for old tennis balls left on the trail. He sticks his butt up in the air, wags his tail and barks. He fills himself with the moment. The quiet here is such that we can hear the snow fall.
The practice of gratitude comes in a lot of different packages. In this package, I am alone with my dog in nature, infected by the joy and delight with which he celebrates fresh snow on a March spring day. All around me is the beauty of the natural world, infusing my heart with happiness, easing and dissolving the concerns and obligations that are my weekday baggage. In this moment, my snog has taught me to love life so fully that I too delight in this cold, white, wet stuff that has frozen my face and numbed my finger tips. I walk with a goofy smile on my face, laughing out loud at Jeter, calling out good morning to geese flying overhead. We are being kissed by nature, and we are kissing her back.
I walk at a good clip as far as the bridge, while Jeter runs in circles around me, breaking trail, occasionally stopping to create another snog angel. Enveloped in the joy of this appreciation, I know I made the right choice in getting out of bed to get us here. A group of birds sitting on the fence that follows the creek seem to sing the snow down harder, and the wind swirls the snow around us while we make our way back to the car. Wet dog, wet person filled with gratitude and joy. I learn a lot from my dog. He nudges me into nature on a daily basis. He keeps my heart and legs strong by demanding daily treks to various trails. And he loves life unabashedly with a contagious enthusiasm. We pull out of the empty lot, blasting the defroster, the car permeated with the smell of wet wool and wet dog, the great snog adventure in the rear view mirror and a stretch of frozen road leading us home.
A small, blue Smith Corona typewriter in it’s own case and a box of typing paper—that is what was under the tree the Christmas when I was fifteen. It was an invitation, a longing, a magical box that would coax out of me all of the things in my head and my heart that struggled to be felt. I wrote poetry and hid it from my mother. I wrote letters to my father, who wrote back in long, swirling penmanship. I left home with it a few years later and then lost is somewhere along the way. I probably abandon it in one of the love-hate battles that I have had with myself and writing my whole life, but it never left me. Instead it hung around my neck–sometime like a shiny, beautiful pendant and sometimes like a dead bird. I knew that it was mine forever.
Spiral journals came after that, more poetry and lyrics to songs, short stories about my parents divorce. I swooned over Anis Nin and May Sarton; fell in love with T.S. Eliot and Yeats. Discovered Margaret Atwood and imitated all of it in notebook after notebook. I signed up for classes at the Adult Learning Center and got to be the best one. I sat around writer’s tables and dove into short stories, had lengthy conversations with a man old enough to be my father who gave me books and encouragement while I dreamed of sleeping with him. These were my touchstones– The Smith-Corona tumbleweed that blew across the landscape in my head.
In classes at UCLA, I sat in the back. I didn’t want to be seen or heard. The professionals around me who held degrees and were important intimidated me. At my job the writers all had masters degrees from writing programs. My job was to type for them, to read and summarize for them, but I wasn’t one of them. They were well-groomed flowerbeds, the kind that people slow down to look at when they are driving through expensive neighborhoods. I was the bright, yellow mustard seed that grew in vacant lots next to old tires and beer cans. I was the wild weed between concrete sidewalk slabs. You can yank it out by its roots, but it always comes back.
A minister told me, inspired me to go to college for real, not just extension classes here and there. I did. I followed that old blue Smith Corona to community college then to a Buddhist College where I sat and then wrote then sat some more. I was never a good meditator, but I did it anyway. I never found peace or enlightenment, but I did develop a sense of humor and I did come to understand that I was meant to write.
I am in my sixties now. Sometimes I teach creative writing. I teach in jails and halfway houses. I teach in senior centers where the stories are rich and ripe. I teach because it’s a way to give away the gifts that I learned from the Smith Corona that opened me and made my life richer. It may be too late for me to write a book, to gain public favor with what I have shared of this heart and mind in reams of journals and Word documents. I am the president of my own company. I have a good, long marriage… but no matter what I do or where I am, I write. I would say to any young writer, write because you have to, be true to the Smith Corona or whatever it was that threw water in your face and told you to wake up to the world and write. Don’t be afraid to be the wild weeds in sidewalk cracks. Sometimes those weeds are the only things beautiful in dry, ugly lots…sometimes they inspire hope in someone who may be walking by.
A couple of days ago I wrote about “A Place At The Table,” a documentary film now in theaters and also on Amazon.com. This is something that everyone should see. As a result of my writing about that film, a friend sent me a You Tube link about a gentleman in South Central Los Angeles named Ron Finley. Mr. Finley demonstrates for us what one person can do; how one vision, one heart can make our world a better place. We have a real problem with hunger in our country. We cannot turn a blind eye any longer. Good people, hard-working people, people who have hopes and dreams for themselves and their children do not have enough food to eat. And when they do have food, more often than not, it is the wrong kind of food–food that is filled with empty calories and little nutrition. It is this kind of food that makes people fat and sick. Obesity is linked to food with calories but no nutrition. Ron Finley has an answer to that problem. It’s simple. It’s cheap (a lot cheaper than the health costs of subsisting on junk food) and if you are like me, I’ll bet it will fill your heart and your head with your own ideas about how you can create a better world by starting with your community.