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The Courage to Look Under the Hood

I’m not a mechanic, although I experimented with it once, when I was 23. My husband and I owned (and lived in) the required VW van that summer. A funky hippie book called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive became our bible. I decided to try my hand at tuning up our VW bus, thinking this would prove my commitment to the feminist cause. It so happens that this was just before my Midwest parents’ first trip to visit me in my newlywed life in the Oregon forest. The result of my efforts under the hood was a stalled van by the side of the road, a rental car, and a unique camping experience.  This is a longer story, and a good one, but not for now.

And yet…somehow this all seems relevant today. Life in these particular times seems to engage my inner mechanic, the quick-fix problem solver. But when I rely too heavily on this approach, I always discover how very difficult it is to just remember to keep in tune from the inside out, to take the time to check in with myself before taking the next action. This is especially true when the outer world presents so very many invitations to solve problems in advance (think COVID 19). A big part of my identity rests on coming up with solutions, something that often provides huge immediate pay-off. It’s also an ancient habitual loop for me, stemming from a belief I’ve had since I was about two years old.  Life Rule #1: I’ll be okay once everyone around me is okay. But the long arcing spiral of reality has taught me that there’s always another problem right around the corner to solve, either for them or for me. And it’s never over.

Lately I’ve been supporting and maintaining relationships with loved ones who have given me lots of chances to focus on their needs, their fears, their problems. Glad to help, except for one thing. If I do this for too long, it gets more and more difficult to find my way back to myself. My habitual landing place in my journal is preempted by lists and responsibilities. Meditation gets trickier as the mind just keeps answering each thought with solutions. Top off this tendency with a generous helping of worry about global or political news, and it seems hopeless.

Pretty soon I don’t even want to open the engine compartment to look under the hood. Who cares about my authentic thoughts or feelings, anyway? I think. All you need to do is (Fill in the blank: Use hand sanitizer. meditate more, eat less, find a new diet, eliminate dairy, get more cardio every day.) There’s a strange pay-off to this because sometimes I’d simply rather live in denial or avoidance. Also (and this is important), sometimes I just don’t want to feel things, so being an Instant Helper is a useful dodge.

But even more important, there’s that big part of me that wants to protect herself and keep things exactly like they are. The one who fears the changes that might come from truly listening to my inner guru. So instead of applying a flexible mind and the curiosity to see what I might do differently in my life, instead of showing up for me, I perseverate about all the sources of worry around me. I overdo my preparations for all the scary possibilities, and I lose myself in fear. When I do this, I also lose my effectiveness as someone who hasn’t abandoned herself to the fears so rampant in the so-called Real World. I’m no longer that person I want to be, the one who can hold the bigger context in the midst of all the flights that imagination offers.

When I’ve abandoned my inner life to the ongoing needs that the outward world seems to demand, I’m simply not functioning on all cylinders. As hard as I crank on the ignition, it just doesn’t seem to start. So I leave myself behind by the side of the road while I take the sleek new rental car, filled with others’ thoughts and feelings and advice, for yet another spin. The funny thing is that, when I do slow down and give attention to that still small voice, there it is. Humming away, as it has been all along, that pure neglected inner guide who has been drowned out by all the demanding voices, inside and out.

This thing is worth not forgetting: the hardest shift of all is to even remember to slow down and calm down enough to listen to my inner wisdom. When I do, I remember that, yes, it takes courage to peek inside and look at what’s really going on. At first it often feels awkward because that timid inner being is deeply distrustful, for good reason.  But once I remember this, I’m better capable of making that 180-degree shift. I have the courage to overcome the influence of others’ fear loops and look under the hood. I say a prayer, meditate, take a long walk in nature. And there she is, patiently waiting while I’ve given my heart and attention to all the so-called problems around me.  I open my journal or find my laptop, and I listen. And listen. And listen. The gas line clears, the tuning light comes on, I begin to question assumptions that no longer work. Clarity appears, gradually.

The inner tuning light flickers on and then holds. All because I found the courage to open that engine compartment, to take the risk to find my way back home.

Mermaid Life / Walrus Life

Always Be Yourself, Unless You Can Be a Mermaid.
Then Always Be a Mermaid.

Every morning these words, carved on a plaque directly across from my meditation space, greet me. I’m in my Ocean room, a space dedicated to my Orisha, Yemaya. Some explanation: In 2003, I visited Cuba to learn about Afro-Cuban folklore and music. While there, I discovered Orishas, archetypal guardian spirits who guide your life, according to the Santeria faith. Curious about who my archetypal fairy godmother might be, I requested a formal divination. I met with three Babalaos (or priests), who chanted and tossed black and white stones on the floor. After some discussion, their conclusion was unanimous: Yemaya, the ocean. My Orisha.  

Returning home and sponge-painting a room blue to create an underwater cove, I remembered the Santeria priests’ warning. Yemaya must have an anchor. In the mythology, her other half is Okulun, who lives in the deepest part of the ocean. Unseen, he anchors her so the waves don’t tip her over. Since then, every time I go near the ocean I take a small blue jar of water with a tiny anchor inside. In a tiny private ritual, I fill it with ocean water and take it home to place on my altar.

Also in my meditation space is an altar with objects that serve as totems, or wayfinding symbols to take me back to my essential self. When I light a candle, I see the blue bottle and I’m reminded to be anchored in the mystery of that which cannot be seen. I often see meditation as a time to dip into a watery, less linear state of mind. It helps me remember a different self than the one who navigates the daylight world and reacts to the challenges served up by everyday land-bound reality.

In that dreamy underworld space, I can swim with purposeful abandon, gracefully flip my mermaid tail and dive to clean underwater castles and shipwrecks. My inner life as a mermaid is pristine, uncluttered with daily compromises and responsibilities. I treasure this mermaid world. It’s a place where I can commune with the ineffable essence of the deep unknown and still stay anchored to my inner world with equanimity. But then there are the twists and turns that real life brings up. The troubling feelings and thoughts that keep coming back for examination, requiring a look at less charming aspects of my inner life.

That’s where the walrus Walrus comes in. Long ago in Anchorage, I spent hours in a tourist shop seeking a totem, a “power animal” to call my name. My eyes kept coming back to a tiny walrus, carved from ivory tusk. This attraction definitely wasn’t what I’d planned. I had in mind something sleek (say, a wolf) or something sturdy (like a bear or a moose, even). Definitely not a large, blubbery animal who’s mostly stationary.  

But there she was, refusing to let go of my imagination. I bought the tiny icon and brought it home. Then I did a little pre-Google research on walruses.  They feed in the mud and muck, excavating for their food by using their extremely sensitive whiskers, “mustacial vibrissae,” as detection devices. I can relate to that, I thought as I placed my tiny totem on a small craggy rock on my altar. And there she has perched for thirty years. A reminder of the nutrition to be gained from the darker challenges that life offers.  Over time I have been reminded that what is pretty or acceptable or even graceful or fun may not take me to my deepest truth. My walrus amulet reminds me to be brave and to learn to have compassion for less attractive or appealing parts of myself.

She serves as a reminder that, as much as I love the pretty mermaid dive, sometimes her song may be a distraction fueled by denial.  Over time I’ve learned to trust something I think of as the walrus dive. I’ve learned to value shadow work, which has taken me into (and through) the troubling, ugly, unacceptable things in the world and in myself. Through extensive inquiry, I’ve discovered that even the pettiest or most troubling thoughts and feelings deserve respect.  The walrus world may not be as pretty or pristine as my imaginary mermaid world. But when I dive into the muck and messiness of my thinking, I often discover the innocence of even the darkest recesses of the psyche,  I return feeling truly anchored in the truth and kindness of the deepest mystery.

The Tastiness of Reality

I’ve been carried into the new decade on the tail end of a flu comet, one that wiped out the last couple weeks of the old year. Just before that, Ram Dass, a spiritual guide to me and thousands of others, took flight. As I begin 2020 and think about his brilliance at summing up the life of the soul, I’m remembering his reminder to me, words I have carried for years: You aren’t a pumpkin. You aren’t a mother. You are a soul.

As I resurfaced from Influenzaland, in time for the New Years, I was reminded of other wise words of Ram Dass: Our plans never turn out as tasty as reality. I’ve been sitting with that as I think about what my Planning Self might list as goals (or even intentions) for the coming year. But this Planning Self still had the brain fog of flu.

Luckily for me, years ago I realized New Year’s Resolutions haven’t worked out because in truth most anything good in my life has come from inside out. And so I set aside Epiphany, on Jan. 6th for reflection, celebrating my own personal holiday. And so this year, once again I remembered what I’ve always known. Change comes for me at its own speed. From a slight pause and a step to the side. Often the new way comes as natural as breathing, from inspiration to exhalation, a bridge between the old world and the new. Now that I can breathe, now that the flu is gone, I can trust all of it and measure my intentions, mixed with reality. May you find your own breath, your own voice, your own way, remembering the tastiness of reality, even sweeter than your planning self might believe.

Savoring Sweet Speed Bumps

Signs reading Tope seem to sprout every few blocks throughout Mexico. You don’t even need to know Spanish to figure this out. The body is a pretty good translator after a couple of times: Tope means Speed Bump, it tells me. This is a lesson quickly learned and frequently repeated, especially in rural areas of the country.

I returned a couple of weeks ago from an amazing Muertos (as in the film Coco) fall trip. The two weeks since then I’ve been unpacking, physically and spiritually.  In normal times this would be enough of a Time Out before the coming of holiday festivities. Instead, as one friend described, I’ve been more or less waterboarded by facts, images and cries for attention from every quadrant of life, from physical and financial details to media to consumerism.

Overwhelmed by this hyperstimulation, I’ve completely reassessed holiday activities and plans. In the past I’ve managed holidays every which way: doing it all, going away, giving up Hanukkah for Christmas and Christmas for Hanukkah and everything else for Lent. Every year I pare down my list of celebrations and gifts and social commitments, with varying degrees of success. But I still tend to approach the season as something I need to get through, with creativity and panache and a prayer, until I can get to my favorite holiday of Epiphany in early January, once all the stress and arrangements and celebrations are all over. Not a great way to treat the whole month of December, which I could be savoring if it just didn’t all feel like too much.

What I need right about now is a good Tope, I realized this morning. No, I thought, I need several, sprinkled through the next month. A little space, a pause, a backbeat syncopation, a quick-pulsed silence. This thought allowed for another, less habituated voice. Call it the Inner Witness. Loving Awareness. Call it Restraint. Call it taking a moment to just to breathe, in the words of a song written by my favorite daughter, performed here by the Singing Out choir in Toronto.

Now that my family commitments are fewer, now that I’m more careful about staying out of overwhelm, I’m so aware of the cost of always being on, of joining with the cultural consensus on overdoing that seems to define the season.  I chose to take a break today from anything that is absolutely non-essential to ask myself how I can be most useful.

Then it came to me. I can be a Tope! I thought. I can move just a little slower, perhaps. Or take several mini-pauses throughout the day. I can aspire to be a person who might be actually able to compensate for some of the holiday crazies, having suffered through it myself and lived to tell about it. As a client who I just finished talking to articulated, I can Chill the F~ Out.

Yes, I thought, this is about chilling out as I engage with the bells and the lights of the season (on cruise control, if possible). And it’s about warmth too, as I slow down with a hot cup of cider for a good conversation now and then. But most of all it’s about speed bumps. Lots of sweet little speed bumps.  

Photo by Mariana123castro [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Open my Eyes

Open my eyes that I may see / Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.

Place in my hands the wonderful key / that will unclasp and set me free.

Open my eyes. Illumine me. Spirit Divine!

These words, along with the very old tune, haunt me once again, refusing to let go until I listen. It’s a familiar evocation that has become a sound track of my life’s changes. There’s the quiet comfort of a childhood hymn, embedded even before thought or awareness. I sit in humbled silence, grateful that, on this somewhat rare occasion, most of the words and messages of my Southern Baptist past aren’t requiring a lot of translation to speak to my soul as it is now.

It’s a birthday and a passage for me as I begin my (yikes!) eighth decade of life.  I’m spending a couple of days in solitude, on a seaside personal retreat. And then there’s the tune, paired with a certain deep plea of the heart. I feel humbled by the resonance of it. And then so many memories kick in, cataloguing the incidents of the past when the song came to me as a prayer at different stages and ages of life.. I’m momentarily grateful that I still have a memory for this reason alone. And when I don’t, I’m grateful for my sidekick Google, who’s always waiting nearby for a new case to solve. I’m amazed to discover the hymn, over 130 years old, was written by Clara H. Scott, the first woman to publish a hymnal.

My mother would be so proud, I think. She died last year, but for years she was way ahead of me when it came to feminism and hymns (or religion, for that matter).  When she got involved in the “inclusive lyrics” movement for church songs, I had left all of it far behind, all of the crap from my childhood religion. Or so I thought. Years later, sitting by the ocean with the refrain wafting through the sounds of the waves, without my mother’s living presence in my life, I’m not so sure.

There’s a glimpse of the truth of the first stanza.  I think about how meditation and inquiry have unclasped and set me free during the last decade. I think of all the ways I have come to understand at the deepest levels the true inner workings of the stories and scriptures and prayers of my childhood. As I sit in contemplative silence on this momentous birthday, I notice the unique (and yet universal) presence of Spirit, at all ages and stages. Always there, when I notice it.

And then the very last stanza pops into my mind.  I realize I don’t even need to know what to call it or where it comes from, that voice of truth, but I celebrate it by singing aloud a song from my soul to the sea in front of me:

Silently now I wait for thee,
ready my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes…ears… heart,
illumine me, Spirit divine!

An invocation. An intention. A celebration.

A prayer for a decade.

Respect Existence. Expect Resistance.

My eyes seem to be trained to focus on text in all forms. So I can’t seem to keep myself from reading any big print I come across, like bumper stickers. I realize this might not be true for everyone, but some of us can’t help ourselves. One of my friends referred to the habit of reading whatever comes into view as “life according to text.” A whole lot of text pollution comes through my brain without my noticing, even when I shut off my phone with the express intention of slowing down my brain.

A couple of weeks ago I flew to a silent retreat in the high Sierra mountains to clear some clutter out of my brain. On the road and in the airport, my eyes just kept on reading, as they do, collecting aphorisms and occasional cleverness along the way. I arrived at the destination still in compulsive reading mode. Retreat Center. Check. Pristine mountain lake. Check. Bumper sticker. Must read. Respect Existence. Expect Resistance. Double take. Whoa! Deep, I thought for a second.

Then my brain skidded to a sudden stop. These four words seemed to just sum it all up. Life. The Universe. Everything. Inside out. Outside in. The word “Resistance” has come to mean something very specific of late. From the outside, it would seem that respecting existence (healthy planet, bodies, animals, lakes, oceans…on and on) does in fact bring up resistance from those who see their interests threatened. But this is the kind of over-thinking I was trying to forget for the week, away from the daily bombardment of polemics.

The focus on this week was internal. So I brought myself back, asking myself a question: where do I experience resistance when I respect my own existence?

Only almost always, came the answer. And I’ve noticed it’s not just me. For just about everyone I know, respecting “existence,” the life we’re calling our own, involves making one change or another. Cutting down on carbs. Going vegan. Taking up hiking, yoga, writing, or anything that calls us. And especially the Big One: becoming more mindful in how we live our lives. Any little thing can bring up some other opposing force. Something we casually refer to as “resistance.”

The odd thing is that the closer the change is to our essential self or our life calling, the greater the resistance. This is the good news and the bad news. I’ve been examining this for a while now, but during this retreat I sat with the puzzle of it. Day in and Day out. Living in inquiry, I watched myself move in and out of the life force. Feeling the flow, joining it. Noticing the ways my critical mind or old habits show up. Then, understanding that resistance isn’t futile, I returned to the flow of existence once again. Which is where I find myself today, in my “regular life.” Expecting (and understanding and respecting) the way of it. All of it.

In the meantime, when I get lost in the trance-like feeling of resistance, my favorite William Stafford poem brings me right back to the sweet summer, to this time of life, to what is truly important. To existence.

Why I Am Happy

Now has come an easy time. I let it roll.
There is a lake somewhere 
so blue and far nobody owns it. 
A wind comes by and a willow listens 
gracefully. 
I hear all this, every summer.
I laugh 
and cry for every turn of the world,
its terribly cold, innocent spin.
That lake stays blue and free; it goes 
on and on.
And I know where it is.

– William Stafford

What my Kewpie Sisters Taught Me About The Mojo of Jomo

I just spent the weekend in the Kansas City celebrating a landmark birthday (one with a zero in it), along with a dozen other women who are exactly my age. Hint: we’re all from the first wave of Baby Boomers. Okay. Seventy. We call ourselves the Kewpie Sisters. Because that is what we are, alumnae of Hickman High School, home of the Fighting Kewpies. For real. Would I make this up?

We gathered smack dab in the middle of the flyover zone. The group of women who came together was as diverse as this country, held by a common bond of caring that is far stronger than “the great divide” we keep hearing about. But we didn’t have time to talk about that. We had better things to talk about.

Mostly we laughed and shared our common memory banks to reconstitute teenage versions of ourselves. Then we reflected back, mining the experience and offering up the perspective that we have collected in the last 50-plus years. What showed up was something I believe is called Wisdom in some people’s minds, including my own. At this time of life, it’s indescribably satisfying to be able to share the take-aways from life’s apparent setbacks and challenges. And I always love honoring my curiosity about what I don’t know (which, when it includes the mystery of life, is a whole lot).

Gone were the social roles, the need for acceptance that seems to come with the teen years. My own strategy way back when was to join every activity and choir and group available except women’s sports, and I’m not even sure we had those teams in the Stone Age.  But my major motivation was this: I just didn’t want to miss out on anything.

This habit hasn’t changed all that much since my adolescence. Twenty years ago a friend diagnosed me with FOMS, the “fear of missing something.” In recent years the acronym has morphed into the pop psych meme FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. So my ears perked up when my friend Vicki talked about being in a state of contentment, being satisfied with her “ordinary” life. This is a woman who has raised four children who are global citizens, who has traveled extensively to keep in touch with them for many years. So when she mused that she was done with travel it got my attention.

I still have a few airline miles to cash in and a few travel goals that will keep me busy as long as I’m fit enough to pursue them. BUT, I completely resonated with her description of a satisfied life. More and more, I’m opting out of things. It’s been a gradual process, hardly noticeable except inside myself. I started to see that often when I choose to not slip into the loop of doing or the belief that I should do more, have more, be more…my mind settles down. I breathe. I watch the birds. Or the trees. I move slowly, like the “old person” I never wanted to become. And it’s blissful. How could I have ever known, with all my joining and searching and moving around, about the surprising quiet joy of this time of life? Ironically, in my determination to not miss out, I’ve been missing something far more subtle and sweet.

Mojo of JOMO. The Joy of Missing Out. The name came to me at the reunion. And then, returning home, Vicki sent me a link to a blogpost referring to another forty-something’s post on this same topic from a couple of years ago. So I guess Baby Boomers don’t always get to be first. As a matter of fact, perhaps this is the great learning of what I’m claiming as the True JOMO Years. Finally, at long last, we get to miss out on being first, the leaders, the trendsetters and rule breakers. It’s about time. JOMO to me includes the relief of giving up all old identities, including that one.

Several questions and wonderings arise. What did I actually miss when I was so busy strategizing how to not miss out?

A life lived with openings for whatever shows up, comes the answer.

There’s so much to be gained when I’m not busy chasing what I might be missing. What new openings are created when I don’t do, when I don’t fill my time with all the tantalizing offerings before me? I get curious.

Today a friend posted these words by the 87 year-old sage Ram Dass, one of the respected mentors of my generation: “Aging has its own beauty. It is a beautiful stage for doing inner work. You have a chance to not be so dependent on social approval. You can be a little more eccentric. You can be more alone. And you can examine loneliness and boredom instead of being afraid of them. There is such an art and a possibility in aging…”

Once again, he nailed it.

 

Image by Scottdoesntknow [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Singing For Life

This spring I returned to sing in a choir of my Homies called Jubilate!

It’s a different experience than chanting as a yogic practice. But it’s a practice still, singing harmonies with these women of all ages and stripes, songs about heart, about spring, and about what it means to stand up for what matters. This practice reminds me of what’s important, especially right now, when times can be pretty dark.

Last month we serenaded the local Marchers for Life, where about a tenth of the population of my town showed up. When we started I barely managed to squeak, flooded as I was by the tears and the beauty of all the layers of past and future that came together in the faces I saw. When I got home, it turned into a poem of impressions, a poem that could remind and inspire me. For Life. For Love. For these times.

 

One Foot In Front of the Other, and Lead with Love!

A choir of 30 women, named for jubilation,

We sing, sway, clap, and dance to the river of determined

Marchers for our Lives.

 

Arms linked, signs as varied

As their new bodies, their life-worn bodies, and in-between.

Pink flowers with the names of the fallen.

A skinny tween-aged girl carrying her advice:

Use Ur Indoor Voice. Don’t Yell at Us.

 

The songs, the river, the people keep flowing,

Never Turning Back.

We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting for, we sing.

Won’t Let Nobody Turn us Around,

 

Mind holds a prayer:

May I remember this.

The constant constant constant beat

The never-ending flow of

The pulse that holds it all. The refrain:

It is time now, and what a time to be alive

In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love

Following the Glimmer, Not the Glitter

Midwinter at my home means a fire in the wood stove, a stew or soup bubbling on top, and a hover of crows cawing and landing in the meadow behind my house. Fitting subjects for contemplation. Like a crow, I’ve spent a fair amount of my life grabbing the next shiny object. I’ve collected experiences, workshops, credentials, books, and teachings like any good spiritual materialist. No regrets. Sometimes there’s been a huge pay-off for my curiosity, and sometimes I’ve gotten myself in some pretty tight situations. All of the resulting course corrections have taken the form of a learning curve. But at this stage of life, something a bit more subtle is operating.

Instead of grabbing onto the glitter, I’ve been leaning with curiosity into the glimmer and also suggesting my clients learn the difference.

When I get a little quiet with myself, my mind begins to imagine all the exciting and glittering futures it could create. This is when catchy YouTubes and online classes take me right into the sink hole. Next I wonder where the time has gone and how I’ll ever find the time to read the next self-help or spiritual book. And whatever time I’ve scheduled for writing or self-reflection is over. Carpool time, dinner time. Once again the taste for glitter has taken over.

But…when I remember that I’m not a crow, that I have a choice of where to put my attention, I’m more likely to spot a time-sink wormhole and bring myself back to what truly soothes and uplifts me. I’m more able to listen for something else, for a slight uplift in my body. If I slow down and look, there’s sometimes a cinder left from the past, some longing or inner curiosity. I can ask my heart to find it. Remembering the fire I built to keep away the chill, I can blow on the glimmering coal.

Staying curious, I watch for the glimmer to grow. Sometimes a slow, steady flame is ignited, and sometimes it’s an ember that dims and becomes an ash. I notice where it sparks, find some appropriate kindling by taking the next step. Only that one. After that I watch with curiosity, see what happens next, what resonates in the heart and the gut as true. After that, I keep it simple. I take the next small step that occurs to me.

I continue to watch, find a little piece of kindling, gently blow. On and on. Keeping it simple, I watch for life to show me the way. Then perhaps I sign up to sponsor that child in Nepal; perhaps I make some calls to a policy-maker, perhaps I take up tango or salsa.

It’s a subtle art, much less dramatic and stimulating than the shiny object approach, but instead of being stuck in tight places of my own creation, instead of being over-committed to everyone else or to the wormholes competing for my attention, over time I have a glowing life that sends new sparks and glimmers and offers new possibilities. But, best of all, I have a place to warm my hands.

The Lingering Gift of the Flu

I’m just emerging from the profound depths of this 2018 flu. I’ve developed a battalion of illness-fighting forces over the years, and it’s been decades since I actually experienced the full ride. But this month the little virus buggers wanted to set up shop, and they had their way with me.

While I was fighting them back there was struggle and stress. But then I remembered to ask one of my favorite questions of myself: How might this be a good thing? “It’s over. Give up the fight,” came an answer. After that, such a deep surrender. An opening. Peace. The mind stopped its incessant solving and strategizing. I simply couldn’t think that anything needed (or even could) be done. There were no appointments to be keep. No calls that needed to be made. No battles to be fought (or thought).

And what was left was breath, silence and spaciousness. The body had aches, fevers, coughs. Yes. And I can’t say that it was pleasant, but some other part of me could see that this existed inside something else, something vastly deep and powerful. Something that I could trust to either kill me or heal me. Suddenly nothing about it was personal.

I was already aware that sometimes these viruses take no prisoners and make no sense. So the breakthrough surrender wasn’t like a magical New Age carpet ride of positive thinking. I’m old enough to find evidence of my own ultimate fate all around me. A woman I know died of the flu three or four years ago. She was in her late fifties, fit and full of life force, on her way to Hawaii with her first grandchild and her children. There was no sense to it.

During the worst part of the flu, I remembered her. And instead of fear I experienced a deep understanding of my own powerlessness in the face of the most mysterious of forces. Without the words to frame it, there I was (or wasn’t) again. Simply a deep and powerful state of surrender and vast space.

It’s been a couple of weeks since this realization, and now I feel a lot like I did during my pregnancies. Once the morning zest (aka coffee) wears off, the tiredness comes…and goes…and moves around. I’m focused on catching the old habit of “pushing to overcome,” because I have somehow believed that this is the same as thriving. I don’t want to lose this new perspective.

There’s a different sense of things now, just at the edge of the fatigue. Something big, ineffable, irrefutable. A softness. A deep willingness to trust in the way of things.

It’s not altogether unfamiliar; it’s a way of being and living that I have sensed around the edges before. I’ve used words in an attempt to describe it. And I’m using words now. But ultimately words are no match for the peace. It’s an experience. And that has no words.

What’s left of the flu is a felt sense that I used to call fatigue. But now it feels more like gratitude.

Epiphany for Us All

It’s Epiphany today. For thirty years I’ve taken this holy day from the liturgical calendar as my own private day for solitude and reflection.

Will you join me?

This year I’m reflecting on this poem written by Pulitzer-prize winning Buddhist poet Gary Snyder during another dark time in history. I had two calligraphy versions scribed many years ago, and I framed and posted them near the door of my home and (later) in my mountain cabin. It continues to give me direction, comfort and support during these challenging times. May it inspire your days now.

 

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes

of statistics

lie before us,

the steep climb

of everything, going up,

up, as we all

go down.

In the next century

or the one beyond that,

they say,

are valleys, pastures,

we can meet there in peace

if we make it.

To climb these coming crests

one word to you, to

you and your children:

Stay together

Learn the flowers

Go light.

-Gary Snyder, 1974

Barely Grateful

The branches of the oak trees surrounding this Oasis are nearly bare now.

And so am I. Stripped of assumptions and suppositions about how the world works. The gratitude notebook I launched with such fervor last year has become largely forgotten. It’s been that kind of year. For for many of us.

But there’s good news on the horizon (At last!)
We actually have a holiday dedicated to celebrating gratitude! (Hooray!)
At a table loaded with rich foods! (Oh boy!)
With people who sometimes have different ideas than ours! (Groan!)
For all these things I’m barely grateful.

There’s a probability that Thanksgiving didn’t go so well for you last year, at least in the Family Peace and Politics Department. In addition, this year many of us have been closely touched by things that seem to be happening way too fast: Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Wildfire. Shootings. So unless we’re very careful or prayerful (or both), we’ll be bringing some stress to the table.

The magic of any yearly ritual, like Thanksgiving, is in the way it just keeps regularly rotating in, year after year. When we stop and gather, often with people unlike ourselves, there is a comfort and a perspective to this yearly rhythm. Despite everything, the seasons keep turning.

A year ago I committed myself to “grateful seeing,” as a spiritual practice. This means that, as I remember, I shift my lens and find gratitude in the current moment. This re-focusing accompanied me through the decline and death of my mother, the shootings in Las Vegas, and a wildfire evacuation. The practice of writing has anchored it all.

My blogposts of the last months are reflections on miracles and disasters and the life that holds it all. They are a gift of gratitude.

I gratefully raise a glass to Life…and to each of you.

To Life As It is!

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.

Holy Drifting

For me autumn is the holiest of seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are shorter and the slanted light captures the vibrant riot of colors as the leaves drift downward. I like to drift, too, during this time-out-of-time, as the dark gradually takes over and allows more room for silence, for the coziness and candles and comfort from the growing chill. I celebrate these holy days quietly, allowing time to expand, to create enough space to observe the subtle and slower inner movements that draw me into the coming mystery of the dark time of year.

I store it all up as an antidote for the coming racket and good cheer of conventional holidays. Once the calendar moves through the passage we call Halloween, all that inner focus becomes more difficult. It can take considerable focus to keep the “holy” in the busy-ness of the Holiday Season as it expands to fullness and finally spends itself on New Year’s Eve, two months later.

I spent the last couple days in the old growth forest of the Oregon Cascades. Thankful for the opportunity to hang out with the “elders”, I drifted here and there, taking in the brilliant gold of maple leaves that slanted sun rays had lit up on the forest floor. The creek tumbled, and the cedars broadcast their perfume. I let myself be astounded by the vermillion vine maple in front of me, the cedar and pine giants around me, wondering about their long view of the short-living species of humans. Now that the fire danger of the last season had passed, my usual problem-centered brain was taken over by the rhythm of the hike, the gentle musing mode of the unfettered mind.

For a couple of days, I gave up the problem solving mindset, making room for a satisfying substitute, long rambling walks. I immersed myself in The Hidden Life of Trees, a book with enough scientific information to open me wide to the magical ways of the forest and to the perspective of time that two- and three-hundred-year-old trees might offer, as I slowed down and listened. The forest became a wonderland of subterranean mycelium with their slowed-down synapses and immense towering giants, holding court as they absorb the sun’s rays.

When I returned to the cabin from one of my rambles, I sat down to tea by the fire and opened a new book called Devotions, a sweet collection of Mary Oliver’s poems, selected by the author. Immediately, the poem “Drifting” jumped off the page. It’s wonderful to walk along like that, not the usual intention to reach an answer but merely drifting. Once again, one of my favorite poets has captured a moment, a day, a life in just a few words.

Drifting, by Mary Oliver

I was enjoying everything: the rain, the path
wherever it was taking me, the earth roots
beginning to stir.
I didn’t intend to start thinking about God,
it just happened.
How God, or the gods, are invisible,
quite understandable
But holiness is visible, entirely.
It’s wonderful to walk along like that,
thought not the usual intention to reach an
answer
but merely drifting.
Like clouds that only seem weightless.
but of course are not.
Are really important.
I mean, terribly important.
Not decoration by any means.
By next week the violets will be blooming.

Anyway, this was my delicious walk in the rain.
What was it actually about?

Think about what it is that music is trying to say.
It was something like that.

Today I share this with you, as I return to a world which screams of “problems to be solved,” both personal and political. I can no more block these out than the cries of my children as babies. But whatever actions I take will be informed not just from the problem-solving mind, but from the answers that have come from the holy state of drifting and listening to the elders.