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Mothers Dreaming Daughters and a Future

Dear friends,
 
It’s complicated here in this Bardo, this world between worlds that we call 2021. Like any animal emerging from a cocoon or hibernation, many of us are tender and tentative. As we take each step toward “normal,” we ask ourselves, Now where was I?  (in the Before World). But in all the excitement, we can easily forget to ask Who am I Now? No longer in the old safe world of traditional etiquette, we’re on our own to find some graciousness as the world keeps changing. Daily. Mask on or off? How to come up with safety agreements with people we love who nonetheless disagree with us on the red-hot subject of vaccinations?
 
Decision fatigue alone is enough to make you want to crawl back into lockdown. There’s no One Size Fits All, and we’re on our own to fashion something that works each time we engage with our families and friends. Even if we figure something out, there’s no guarantee that things won’t all change again. Quite the opposite. This requires a flexibility and equanimity I’m only beginning to feel in this life. If we were butterflies emerging from the cocoon, we’d flap our new wings before flying into this new world. The human equivalent is to take that second question about who I am now more seriously. To take time to adjust to this new reality before taking a giant leap back OR forward in this Simon Says world of the pandemic.
 
Sometimes when I need perspective I look to my ancestors for inspiration. I found some by going all the way back to the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1870. My great great grandmother Maria Raum, a new immigrant, lost her husband and an unborn baby to the Yellow Fever plague in Memphis after his beer wagon was commandeered to remove bodies. Maria was left penniless and unable to feed herself and her 3 and 5 year old daughters. Unable to go back home to Germany, unable to speak the language of the new world, she did what she had to do so that they would survive. She sent them off to a Lutheran orphanage while she worked as domestic help and saved enough money to be able to support them. After three years she emerged from the world of pandemic domestic service to find they had been packed up and loaded onto an Orphan Train headed west. Hundreds of miles and inquiries later she found them living with their new farm families.
 
What she did next is my favorite page of family history. Instead of fighting to reclaim her girls, she and her new husband built a house down the road to watch them grow and have children of their own. She’s buried in a small German cemetery near her daughters and their adoptive families. Now that’s a radical form of resilience, an example of true Motherlove. 
 
I call on this grace and resilience as I dream of what this next world might become. I’m beginning right here, where I am today, dreaming this new future, knowing even if it all changes love will find a way. Always does in the end.
 
 
Poetry reading posterPS. I’ve been writing more poetry during our current pandemic. I’ll be reading this new poem about my mother’s mother’s mother, this week, along with my Open Handed Writers’ group and friends. It’s a free Zoom call (with the support of our local bookstore)
 
If you’re reading this May 5th, come listen tonight at 7 PT and join us as we celebrate Mothering as a Verb. Just visit this page for the link.
 
 
 
Dreaming Daughters
 
The women in my family dream their daughters,
And so I dreamed you up, a strong Baby Woman. 
Just as my mother dreamed herself a sister instead of a baby
And her mother dreamed a prodigy, Shirley Temple of Saline County.
And her mother before her dreamed up a milliner.
But the mother before that, a new immigrant turned into a widow by Yellow Fever,
That mother just dreamed of getting her daughters’ bellies fed
 
And so she let them go by boat to an orphanage, 
signs hanging from necks in the only language she knew,
saying keep them safe and I will come.
And when she didn’t, couldn’t, an orphan train took them 
To new farm families with mothers who at least spoke the old tongue,
who adopted them and who fed them
and put them to work cooking for farm hands until
they began to have dreams in this strange, new language
and when their German mother traveled hundreds of miles to find them happy, 
she built a little house the size of her new dream 
down the road from their full-bellied lives. 
But she just kept on dreaming and watching in that new place
because that’s what mothers do sometimes.

Hope is a Thing with Feathers

Aloha, Dear Friends!
 
Looking out the window at the flowering cherry outside this morning, my mind goes back to this exact scene a year ago. The view is the same, but the feeling is so different. Today spring’s birdsong reminds me of a memory tucked away in the folds of this old but durable brain. I hear the words of Marcus Borg, a mentor and religious scholar who helped me to rediscover my Christian roots. One Sunday he was speaking of the Holy Spirit, which I’d never had much use for before, although I often thought of myself as a Spiritual Person. 
 
His words resonate even more today: As you watch for the face of the Holy Spirit, be quiet. Patient. Like a bird watcher longing to see a rare and shy bird. I was immediately taken with the image, and it has visited me often since then. I’ve found it immensely comforting to allow that bird into my heart when I’ve felt overwhelmed by my own dark nights or by the newest examples of human ignorance or evil. (It probably goes without saying that this past year it’s become an almost constant companion.)
 
But I’ve learned again and again that the shy bird of soulful comfort will not show up at my command. This is one of the biggest takeaways from my year: love, faith, and hope cannot be stalked. They reveal themselves in their own ways, peeking out of the brush of everyday life, usually accompanied by acts of mercy or kindness. I’ve learned to be a little more still and to patiently watch, with an eye out for tenderness. 
 
Hope is a Thing with Feathers. Emily Dickinson’s poem has been with me this spring. And her words keep coming back to warm me in this chilliest of lands. And today while hiking, what showed up? A Thing with Feathers. A beautiful soft bird’s nest woven of grass and softened with white and speckled feathers. Enough already, I thought. And so I share this photo and Dickinson’s poem with you today, in recognition of the beauty of synchronicity, my favorite poet, and National Poetry Month.
 
May that bird with feathers perch more and more often just outside your window. May your heart be filled with the power of hope. May you be blessed and healed as we find our ways back to each other…one bird at time.
 
With love,
Susan Grace Beekman
 
 
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
 
And sweetest in the gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
 
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
 
~Emily Dickinson

The Grandmother Stands

For the last couple of decades my family has owned a cabin in the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwest, less than two hours from our home. Whenever the speed of life was too much it was always there for us. Our refuge. When the weather was right, in the early mornings, I’d wrap up, sit outside the many-paned windows, and take in the forest. In the center rose an ancient red cedar snag, undisturbed by the hemlock, cedar and fir upstarts, all less than a hundred years old, who all seemed to gather around her. I named her Grandmother Snag. Every time I sat, there she was. I began to think of her as my own private Natural Wonder. And then, a few months ago, our cabin and the surrounding forest were wiped out by a fire that sped through the valley at speeds over 60 miles per hour. 

As the news rolled in, confirmed by drone reports, we knew that all the family mementos and irreplaceable instruments had succumbed to flames. Somehow this mattered less when I imagined the Grandmother Snag there, holding fast to the hillside, surviving even this devastation. I wrote a poem about her. I poured over the drone footage and asked witnesses if they’d seen her, joking but slightly hopeful still. As the small community tallied and mourned our losses, the reality of destruction was too enormous for me to bring up my fanciful image of one snag.  

Then last week, five months after the fire, my husband Geo was finally able to enter the hazardous area to see what remained. We were told to expect little, which turned out to be a falsely optimistic prediction. The entire old forest was gone, along with more than 70 cabins in the valley. Damaged and dangerous trees had been felled and stacked and now lined the rutted and muddy road, sometimes twenty feet high. Only ribbons of twisted metal and a lone fireplace remained, along with two stove boxes.  Two perfect bicycles were melted to sprockets. A fire-blistered propane tank somehow hadn’t exploded, and a once-green metal outdoor table with four chairs sat rusting, waiting for some human company.

George brought home one box of melted remains: a Kokopele metal plaque, a dragonfly door knocker, the remainders of vintage Mary Poppins lunchbox, melted like a Dali clock. Then a couple of weeks ago he surprised me with a Valentine’s gift: a family photo of sorts, one he had taken at my meditation site. In the middle of the blackened forest hillside only one landmark remained. And there she was. Tilted to a 45 degree angle, but firmly and deeply rooted in the forest floor. Charred and bent but not broken. Grandmother Snag. 

Grandmother Snag 2021

 

 

 

 

Up in Smoke: An Inventory

1 outdoor pit toilet with peeling door
1 sixty-year old gingerbread cabin 
2 decks, shaky floors, 
5 beds, and games and drums for a crew
1 hand-hewn ladder to a skylit loft,
1 retirement clock
1 white and robin-blue wedding quilt 
signed by your grandmother.
1 bluejeans and corduroy quilt 
hand tied by your mother, 
that one that covered us that first time we slept together.
All remnants of all fifty years gone with the spiraling and swooping
cleansing fire of our last anniversary,

 And also: 2 bay windows opening to 
18 species of tree,
Uncountable rampant lichen and fern. 
An entire ground floor of deep moss
Greenest quiet of ancient forest mornings 
The pale sun lighting Grandmother Snag,
Red orange indigo scrubbing the emerald floor. 
Long walks on rivers in the fullness of forest
Infinitely star rich nights with music and friends, 
Beyond fire and smoke.
Beyond time.

The Other Side of Through

The tight pink buds on the tree outside my window and the daffodils everywhere are broadcast spring here in the early warning channel that is the Northwest. Diminishing Covid numbers bring hope, and it feels like an enormous cloud is about to lift. It’s not lifted yet, but patches of blue are now visible. In related news, on Friday I’ll get my vaccine booster shot. 

Words from my gospel choir days come to mind: There’s another side of through/ the whole world waits for you. You got to hold on, hold, on, till you’re on the Other Side of Through.

I loved swaying back and forth, belting out these lines when I was in the midst of wave after wave of turmoil in my life.  There was a long time there when I just needed the reminder that there WAS another side.  I clung to the thin refrain and did just what it said.  I kept on.

Then one day, one week, one season, I began to notice it was true.  I was no longer in the eye of the storm.  I was on the other side.  I was through.

Next another image comes to mind from up the hill in the ancient forest where my family had a cabin for years. There’s a trail sign that reads Here 2, marking a trailone that ends at a There sign at the bottom of the hill. Funky hand-lettered signs marked the start and the end. All of this went up in smoke last September, including the forest and all human habitats. What was left behind is scorched earth, memories, and at least one good insight: It was not possible to be either “here” or “there” at once. And there was a whole wooded hillside to navigate between those two points. 

That’s how it feels this early spring. Not yet There, to the end of this pandemic and all the cautions it entails, but not Here 2 either, focused every day about each detail of quarantined life. We’re somewhere on the trail to There, and we are still moving to the Other Side of Through.

I’m keeping in mind another memory: The trail of soft forest duff wound gently down a hill, one careful step at a time. 

Be well. 

 

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.

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

Evacuation & Return

Six weeks ago I spent a quiet weekend at our Cascade cabin, and the first smoke of the overwhelming fire season to come caught my attention. Like the animal that I am, I began to scan my surroundings with the focus that a whiff of danger brings. Instantly I was aware of what was at stake, something I’ve taken for granted for the thirty five years that I’ve visited this old growth forest. I looked up, as if for the first time, and I silently jotted a few words in my journal.

Who are these enormous beings I’ve categorically referred to as trees? I look up. Up. Up. 12 stories up are their heads. Western red cedar, grand fir, yew, mtn. hemlock, chinquapin, from babies to snag-headed old ones. They haven’t moved anywhere all this time, steady. Where have I been until this moment to have missed them?

I went home to the suburban oak savannah where I usually live. The smoke followed. I thought often of the trees in the forest around the cabin and sent a prayer. Then I came across this poem:

 Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

— David Wagoner (1999)

The next month took a certain rhythm. Fire reports every morning. Stair-stepping through the levels of evacuation as the fire approached, less than a mile away. After a while, the cabin didn’t matter any more. I just missed the trees. I imagined them turned to charcoal.

At the end, in a neck-and-neck race between the fires and the rains, the rains came, for five straight days. Just a couple of days ago we got word we can go back. My own particular trees survived. And now, as I prepare to return, it’s to a new landscape. Even though the surrounding forest hasn’t physically changed, I have.

I re-read the poem I stand still, at home with the oak trees, seeing this grove for the first time, each individual tree. Here. They were surrounding me all along, making a place while I worried about the forest in the mountains. And when I do return to the ancient forest, I will pay attention to the breath of the forest, to the answering that says “Here.” And I will listen.