Posts Tagged: spiritual crisis

Me Too, and Us Together

The courage to tell the truth and then to live it is at the beating heart of my understanding of feminism. I can still clearly recall the precise moment that this knowledge was born.

I was a newly married 21-year-old who had moved from the Midwest of the early sixties, through a time warp and straight to the hive of the counter culture that was Eugene, Oregon in 1969. The university town was becoming a growing refuge for a motley collection of hippies and yippies and draft-dodgers. Many of them had fled north to get away from the dark aftermath of Haight-Ashbury’s famous Summer of Love.

I, on the other hand, was just fleeing my sorority in the Midwest.

On our first day in Oregon my brand-new husband George and I were unpacking our wedding gifts and settling into our first apartment when a scruffy-looking guy came up the stairs to introduce himself. …and to check me out. Somehow I was surprised because I had thought that marriage was going to change all that, to keep me in a safe bubble. A couple of days later he showed up at my door when I was alone. But George happened to show up about that time, and my “admirer” did a quick about-face.

About a month later, Vanessa, one of my new friends, was raped as she was walking alone on campus at night by someone who jumped out of the bushes at her. Within the next week the same thing happened to two more female students. Vanessa was already a timid and shy person, but now she was even more quiet and withdrawn. Our small group of graduate students made sure she never walked alone. One evening while I was walking her home from dinner, I stopped to say hello to my downstairs neighbor and “admirer.” My friend kind of shrunk, becoming almost invisible. When we got home, she said that “that guy” seemed eerily familiar, that he might even be the perpetrator. She agreed to go to the police. We were there for several hours. They took polite notes but said they couldn’t go further “because the other two victims had already left for Christmas and couldn’t be interviewed.” We never heard anything back.  As far as I know, the case went unsolved.

This is one of my many “me too” stories, but it’s also a kind of “her too” story. Or an “us too” story, as I soon discovered.

Women’s Rally for NOW, the poster said.  Something about it caught my attention, some unresolved feeling left over from my friend’s rape.  This was that new group I had vaguely heard about.  I was no “women’s libber,” a label the people around me had always used with an eye-roll. But something about the poster, on the heels of my friend’s rape, beckoned me to move straight out of my comfort zone.

I went to the rally by myself because I was pretty sure that men weren’t invited. Never before had I been in such a large group composed entirely of women, and these women were so loud. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about the word “oppression,” but when these women gave true-to-life examples of women’s victimization, I just knew these things. Then some of them started talking about men as “chauvinist pigs.” But there was a funny feeling in my body, like something was popping. It was a bodily sensation that started in the bones and seemed like truth. Each time a new example of the social injustice of being a women was described, I felt the same feeling.

A flush of realization took over. What I saw in bold relief, was the oppression in my own mind.  I could see so clearly how I had shrunk to fit the people around me my whole life. And there were other ways I tripped over myself, too. And I couldn’t put it all on “them.”

It was “me,” too. Somehow I knew that THIS was also a part of what needed to change.  I knew clearly that I could do something about this, starting right then. All I knew was that the voice inside my head was strong.

I’m not a mic-grabbing kind of gal, but something was different that night. My voice shook, a reverberation that started with my knees and moved up. I was sure what I had to say wouldn’t be popular. But when someone handed me the mic, I said whatever needed to come out. I talked about my own internal obstacles, and made the commitment to starting with my life and cleaning up the ways I sabotaged me, before I started blaming the men in my life. The crowd cheered. Right on, Sister! I was stunned at their response. I had expected an argument. All I knew then was that something was happening, and I was a part of it.

I’m pretty sure I had never heard of the “personal is political” idea, which came to define the “second wave of feminism” which began that year. I’ve since learned that this move toward awareness was happening all around the country at the same time, like seed pods popping. The consciousness-raising groups that followed were “me too” groups, but we were all in the same room. Geographically limited compared to a Facebook movement, but it had its advantages.  We told our stories. We held each other’s hands. We also held each other’s feet to the fire, naming and questioning the internal obstacles to being a Strong Woman. Assertiveness groups were born.

Since that day I’ve been in more consciousness-raising groups than anyone I know. And those groups were followed by other women’s circles, book groups, spiritual growth groups, and artists’ and writers’ groups: probably twenty in the last fifty years. I created classes on women’s history and literature studies at high schools. During my 25-year career as a teacher I listened to hundreds of young women. So by now I have heard thousands of stories from women of all ages, describing the ways they have been discounted or humiliated by men.

But what I noticed is that sometimes in the telling and re-telling, people didn’t seem to move on. As they repeated their story, they seemed to rehearse a plot with themselves as victims. All the energy that could be used for real change, to create powerful lives, got lost. They were shrinking to fit.

This is a price that we can’t afford to pay at this time in history. The time is right for abuses to be named and for abusers to be exposed. As we tell our stories and stand together we stand taller. But the vital question is this. Where to go from here? Will the Force within us and among us give us the personal strength to step out, to keep going, to question and change a culture that shapes us in so many ways to lose our inner knowing and strength? Will we make this work so important that we will have the strength that we never admitted to before, starting inside ourselves and manifesting in how we show up in the world? Will we then continue to be moved to act as one, a force of survivors?

Yes. We do need to tell our “me too” stories. This is how we are becoming an “us too,” a collection of women and men who will demand respect for all. We will run for office, we will support our sisters. We will stand tall… taller… together.

And, most important, we will not shrink to fit.

People-Watching at the Mandalay Bay (& Beyond)

A week ago yesterday I sat at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, immersed in my hobby of people-watching. It was the perfect, calm finale to a colorful week of nature and hiking with lifetime girlfriends in Utah’s brilliant landscape.  A couple of us had decided to soak up a few more hours of sun while waiting for our evening flights, and my friend suggested we have lunch and loiter at the resort across the way.

While we hung out, I got curious. I had no idea what brought all the fresh-faced young people there. They didn’t fit the image I’d always had of Las Vegas, which I’d only visited once before in my life.  I felt blessed by their happiness as they lined up with big inner tubes to float in the pool. I like to think I blessed them back with my eyes as I appreciated their humanity. To me this is the essence of people-watching. It’s like a blessing, a basking in the joy of sharing the planet together in a particular moment, because that’s all we have. Later Sunday I got proof of that.

As we returned to the airport after a couple hours, our Lyft driver Javier pointed to something that looked to me like a construction site.

“There’s a big country-music festival here this weekend, with big stars,” he said.

“My wife is so excited about this guy tonight with a deep voice . . . Jason somebody. She’s going to be in the front row, she says.”

I glanced back over my shoulder at a chain link fence with warning signs. It looked like your basic construction site. Apparently the venue was in a deep pit, I thought.

The next morning, in my bed in Oregon, I began to get texts checking on my safety. One of the first reports described a shooting “like fish in a barrel.” I thought back on the “construction site.” As tuned in as I like to believe I am, I’d had no warning that it could also be a “destruction site.” I wonder still about Javier’s wife.

Disbelief. Shock. And then a parade of the faces from the day before. More disbelief. Tears. A deepening grief. When I told someone about it, my refrain was, This is not about me.  My “thoughts and prayers” went into overdrive as I imagined each person I had seen there, now possibly dead or struggling for life.

Next day I saw a drawing of the shooter’s window. That was when I realized the courtyard where I had lunched was a direct shot. Twice as close as the amphitheater. Suddenly my world began to seem less predictable, less like something I would want to take for granted. There have been waves of grief, anger, and shock since then, mixed with tiny flashes of understanding. I’m guessing that insights and perspectives will continue to pop.

It’s too big, too close still for a landing place or a Tidy Take-away. I sit still in “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. I’m not done looking for the best way I can make a small difference when it comes to violence within our country and outside it. But I am committing not to forget or get so fogged in by all the stories and distractions swirling around me in the culture at large.

I truly have no idea why bad things happen. I’m just not in charge of that. But one of my life practices is to find some wiggle room in even the worst of circumstances.  It’s sometimes enormously challenging to find a slight break in layers of dark clouds. But I have lived long enough to understand that sometimes something good, some healing comes from tragedy. I put my faith in that. Because from that margin of wiggle room I am more likely to embrace my own life, to embody a loving presence in the dark face of ignorance and insanity. I’m by far more likely to take an action on behalf of wisdom and sanity. And, most important, I’m far more likely to have unclouded judgment about what that action will be.

Photo “Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas,” (c) Erin Khoo, used under CC by 2.0 license

“Perhaps”: the Power of the Long View

I just spent election week driving across the country, cutting a swath through red states to blue on my way. I was traveling with my daughter, with the plan to celebrate her birthday and the first woman president on the same day, Nov. 9th. You already know how that went.  Since that morning I’ve become painfully aware that my living in a blue bubble might have warped my vision a bit. But I spent most of the fall in the Midwest, and I’m just as aware of people there I care about who have their own reasons to be celebrating.

The oddest inner whisper has been haunting me all the way:  A simple word, perhaps, repeating in my head like a mantra.

An image of white smoke comes to mind, and a memory:  Sitting with my spiritual ama or mother, at a Benedictine monastery where I was studying interfaith spiritual mentoring. Before this I had never paid much attention to popes, having somehow concluded as a child that they were similar to the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.  Sister Antoinette was one of the most transparent, illuminated, and open-minded people I‘ve ever met. She was also a “cradle to grave” Democrat, by her own description, and a strong progressive by mine. In her mid-seventies at the time, she glowed with Life. When I was a pre-teen in a Southern Baptist camp, I had been warned of the Catholic plot to take over the world.  In the company of Sister Antoinette, I could see how this could happen.

The news was full of updates on the process of selecting a new pope, which included white smoke from a chimney. This was the second day of a process that could last weeks. While I was sitting with Sister Antoinette, the silence was pierced by the chapel bells right outside our window. A phone down the hall rang, and Sister Dorothy, her slightly irreverent friend, tapped on the door.

I knew enough about the candidates to surmise that one of the cardinals, Ratzinger, was strictly literal and a bastion of conservative forces. I had already formed a strong bias against him. I had shortened his name for memory’s sake to “Rat.” I was fairly certain that my friends would have a similar feeling about him being selected Holy Father.

So when Antoinette opened the door to get the news from Dorothy, I watched carefully.

“It’s Ratzinger,” Dorothy said softly.

The Sisters looked into each others’ eyes.

“Perhaps….” They said at the same moment, as each nodded gently.

This moment has stayed embedded in my memory ever since.

They were like visitors from another planet. I saw that their minds were wide open and deeply accepting, at the same time I was pretty sure they wouldn’t change their political activism.

This past week I’ve begun to understand the depth of surrender this takes. My mind and heart haven’t been able to sort through all that is happening. So many parts of the process just haven’t made sense in my world. I’ve been working through my fears and my preconceived opinions about the elected president. At the same time, I’m finding my own way to take effective action to protect people who are bullied or threatened.  In the meantime, I’ll practice putting my ultimate trust in the power of the long view.

Cardinal Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict II, was a less than perfect church father who was politely retired for complicated and disturbing choices he had made in his past. The eventual result was the selection of Pope Francis, a much-revered bringer of reform and change.  Perhaps it took the house-clearing and honesty that was required to confront priestly child abuse to allow a new leadership to surface. These developments could have never been predicted ten years ago. Who knows how things will continue to evolve? Not me.

It’s now a week after the news, and I’m back home. My mind settles a bit. I make a list of the issues close to my heart and begin to think about how I will support them with action and money. I’m feeling a strongly renewed commitment to stay awake and alert on behalf of justice for my fellow beings and for the earth I love.

And always…I just keep thinking… Perhaps.

Deep Conversations in Cool Pools

The medium-sized college town in the Northwest where I live could be described as homogenous. It’s a “cookie cutter” kind of place, which is to say there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity. A few years ago I was a part of a gospel choir led by an inspiring African American campus minister who had been raised in East St. Louis, where the cookies were a different color. It took him a year to teach us to sing, sway and clap at the same time. I called it a remedial choir for white folks like me.

I caught most of the news about last Friday’s fatal shootings in the airport as I was on my way to Austin, Texas, just an hour from Dallas. Like most of the people around me, I felt sad and powerless, confused, a little angry and deeply tired about all of it, from mass shootings to racial violence to hate crimes. It felt more poignant somehow as I landed in a community that seemed to have more racial spice than my own.

So on Sunday I started searching for a way to connect with a local Austin black church or a gospel choir the next day. I may have missed it, but nothing jumped out at me. I assumed I was out of luck, so I headed for the hotel pool. The only other people there were an African American couple. In my segregated childhood I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to share a swimming pool with the black people in my community. It was a few years more before I learned to have conversations that transcend the racial divide.  This was several decades ago, and yet images contrasting the past and present popped up in my memory as I slipped into the water.

I asked my pool mates where they were from. Dallas. Much went unsaid as more disturbing images, from the north of our country to the south, crowded into my mind.

“Just a getaway,” they answered. I got it. They knew I had. We began to talk about many of the deep gaps in understanding and fissures of misinformation that lead to the violence of gangs, to fearful police, and to psychotic gun toters.

I told them about all I had learned in my remedial choir, and we all laughed at our fumbling attempts to understand each other.

When they left, the gentleman of the couple turned his head back and said, “Praise Austin. You can find it on the radio.” It seems this local cathedral offers a weekly gospel service called Love. With my limited vision, I hadn’t even known where to look.

My heart landed at home again, a little expanded from the exchange. And I realized I needed to share this experience, which I think has been happening throughout the country this week. None of us can truly get away from the suffering brought by misunderstanding and bigotry, but we CAN have deep, kind conversations in pools and lakes and rivers all around the country this summer. We can let the coolness wash over our fear and mistrust, heal our hearts and bring us clarity; as we continue the difficult work of learning to sing, sway and clap together. This is how the world changes.

Resting in the Grace of the World

It’s been an unsettling time. A time when unpredictable acts of violence make it hard to make any sense of things. The mind can’t comprehend, and I notice myself caught up in the detailed accounts, trying to figure it all out. Trying to find the kindness in the Universe that I have come to trust. There are times that Grace seems like a highly abstract concept. I turn to words of wisdom and poetry during times like this.

Today I came across one of my favorites, a poem by Wendell Berry that has always given me deep comfort when I was ready to settle into it, like a warm bath. And then these words emerged, like very irritating instructions: “Rest in the Grace of the World.” What? Impossible. Where’s this so-called Grace right now? My mind raged.

And then. Then. The day-blind stars reveal what I’ve been missing all along. Peace has once again become possible. From within, from that place where all wild things reside: inside. From the place that holds this poem.

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Positive Paranoia

1975. I’m 26 years old and my life is just what I always dreamed it would be, yet I’m raw and desperate. I’ve achieved all the things I set out to do: travel, happy marriage, a meaningful job. I’ve somehow proved myself Successful in conventional ways and unconventional ways, taking on all the tasks of being an acceptable member of the Counterculture of the time. And then, without knowing why, I hit a dead end.

It happens in a moment. I’m walking down the street and I suddenly feel flat and hollow inside. Not there. It seems like a dead end: there’s no exit in sight. I’m deeply scared, and my bed seems like the best refuge.