Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.

 

How Apology Works

I’m on the beach with my corgi dog. She’s playing in the sand near my feet when she lets out a sudden sharp squeal—“ouch,” in dog talk. She looks at my foot in big boots, and with what I consider an accusing gaze, backs up and sits on her haunches staring at me.

“What?!” I say, “I didn’t move an inch. I’m sure I didn’t step on you.” Without breaking her steadfast gaze, she raises one paw—“hurt” in dog body-language. Whether or not I think I did it, I am 140 pound human looking at a 30 pound dog who trusts me with her life. I know what she wants. I kneel in the sand, hold her face in my hand and sweet-talk her while smoothing sand off her snout. “I’m sorry, Gracie. I didn’t mean to step on you. I’ll be more careful. Are you okay?”

In response, I get a lick on the nose and she resumes playing.

That’s how apology works.

I do not mean to diminish the complexity of human suffering, nor to equate this exchange with the need for accountability and reparations around issues of abuse and violation, but in the absolute purity of this interaction—hurt, apology, forgiveness, healing—in the moment, without festering—I saw stark contrast to the consequences when we follow instead the path of hurt, denial, outrage, trauma.

Apology requires that we have the emotional maturity to say, “I’m sorry,” even when we are not 100% sure we are “100% to blame.” Training in this maturity begins in kindergarten as children are coached through ambiguous social interactions. By the time one child is crying, the sequence of events may no longer be clear. Bless kindergarten teachers who must sort through this justice: she hitted me with her shoe/he took my toy and wouldn’t give it back/he started it/she started it. And then the teacher says: I don’t know who started it, but you need to say you’re sorry.

Right now in America, justice is not child’s play. We are seeing the ugliest parts of ourselves and our histories brought to light; and we are seeing light shine through this anguish as truth-telling keeps geysering to the surface. During the escalated Senate proceedings of in September, Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s outraged lack of accountability and the defensive tirades of Republican senators, was not my hoped for outcome—for his personal soul or his capacity to balance the scales of justice. While the horrors of this time careen on and the media is stressed by the next outrage and the next, I find myself still riveted by this moment and how it impacts all that is happening next and next and next.

At 72, I could be I could have been Brett Kavanaugh’s kindergarten teacher, his auntie, or his law professor. And now that he is Justice Kavanaugh, I want to say to him: inside the complexity is the simplicity. Whether or not you believe you are the boy who covered Christine Blasey’s mouth and forced yourself atop her, you, and you alone, were in the position to heal or harm.

In my mind, the maturity that would lead me to believe that this Supreme Court could actually practice justice, would have required—at least—some statement like this from Brett Kavanaugh: “I am white male who lives inside gender, racial, and class privilege that I seek to comprehend. I was a teen who drank too much. I do not remember the night Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is referencing and therefore I can neither deny nor admit to what she says occurred. However, I acknowledge that the environment of our adolescence and the cultural norms we were swimming in were toxic. Boys objectified girls in ways that horrify me now as a man, a lawyer, a judge, a husband, and father of two girls. I vow to spend the rest of my judicial life working to rectify imbalances in the conditions women face. I am supremely sorry for what happened to you, Dr. Ford. I apologize for my role in that school, in those times, and in your trauma.”

But no.

Again and again we race past opportunities that could help us heal and choose instead to cause more harm. To compound tragedy, it seems quite clear that Justice Kavanaugh has no idea he missed his chance to cross the divide of privilege and pain in this country; that he could have called Senators to their integrity, rallied bipartisan support for his entry onto the Supreme Court, and most importantly, stood as a surrogate in the shattered places in a million women’s hearts by saying, “I’m sorry.” And we, the battered citizens of America, would have been shown a model for opening dialogue toward relationships of amends. He might even have shown the president how to behave.

But no.

He accepted the presidential “apology” and declaration of his innocence, and he has taken his seat on the high court justified—and isn’t that an interesting word—that the ends justifies the means. We the people shall see.

It was the Saturday after these hearings, when the judge was sworn to become a justice, that I was down on the beach. My little dog raised her paw—ouch—and I surrendered to her perception that I was at fault because repairing trust is the most important thing I can do.

That’s how apology works. And if we have any hope of restoring civility to our torn and violent nation, we need to perceive our shared accountability in the wounds that surface.

“I’m sorry.”

 

Rocks of Ages

I’m walking in a narrow riverbed, wearing special river boots and feeling my way carefully over rocks hidden under murky water. I am carrying a hiking stick, probing for balance. Above me, cliffs soar 1500 feet revealing a slit of morning sky. I place my hand along the sandstone walls of the slot canyon, touching what was seabed 61 million years ago. Touching what water can do to rock. Touching a strip of smoothed rock-face about shoulder height, burnished by hundreds of thousands of hands just like mine, pressing skin on stone.

This is a hike called the Zion Narrows, where the Virgin River flows through Zion National Park in southern Utah. It is a spectacular end-of-summer adventure that Ann and I have been training for by walking Whidbey trails for months: increasing distance, hours, weight in our backpacks. We ride the first park shuttle of the day and arrive at the wade-in point, in the middle of the park about 7:30 AM.

People dwarfed by canyon walls. Zion Narrows.

We will stay “in river” for over nine hours, walk over 10 miles, and alternate between moments of utter aloneness with Nature, and navigating around clumps of people in various stages of appreciation and athleticism. People come from all over the world to do this hike and the languages that stream by us babble like the river itself. There are many families, mid-life and younger parents, teens and toddlers, some younger grandparents. I would say I am the elder here—except that is a ridiculous, egocentric, anthropomorphic comment when walking along these cliffs comprised of sedimentary deposits of unimaginable age.

In the National Park Service brochure, it is written: “These rock layers hold stories of ancient environments and inhabitants very different from those found in Zion today. In this distant past, Zion and the Colorado Plateau were near sea level and were even in a different place on the globe—close to the equator. The rock layers found in Zion today were deposited approximately 110-270 million years ago, and only in recent geologic time uplifted to form the scenery of Zion National Park.”

And I am a seventy-two year old human-being walking in the floor of the canyon, pressing my palms onto the skin of the rock, awash in awe and wonder. I am humbled by the beauty, and calmed inside the incomprehensible bigness of this story. Truly, Earth is the planet of the stones.

Moving slowly, deliberately upriver, I am held in a beauty that allows both gratitude and grief to rise. Gratitude that the canyon is still protected; grief for most everything else, especially that other Utah canyon lands are being auctioned off by shortsightedness and greed to the oil and gas industry. The mantra, “forgive me, forgive us,” wrenches through my heart…but just as quickly the thought races back, “What humanity has done to the Earth is not forgivable. It is not even appropriate to ask such a thing of these stones.”

Forgiveness is a human issue. Inadvertently or intentionally we trespass on one another’s trust. As we become aware of our transgressions, most of us try to be accountable for harm done, we practice making amends, learn to ask to be forgiven, and to forgive. We ask this of one another. We ask this of institutions because corporations, churches, governments, and militaries are all run by people. Forgiveness functions at the scale of human flaw, human harm, and human capacity for recovery.

Zion Narrows–high noon

The stone I am touching is outside this drama. I am standing under a cliff that does not register my presence: forgiveness is not the business of these stones. They are invulnerable. They are the body of the Earth. I am the disposable being here. My species is so young we are not even embedded in the geologic layer. And when this era crumbles to dust, what a layer that will be: landfills, atomic waste and nuclear warheads, mountains of plastics, tumbled skyscrapers, rusting vehicles, the bones of billions and the Sixth Great Extinction. But the cliffs will take it all and press it down and make more layers atop us.

Geologists have named and chronicled these layers: the Carmel Formation, the Temple Cap Formation, the Navajo Sandstone, the Kenyeta Foundation—representing several hundred millions of years of compression and upheaval. The waterfalls seeping out of the sandstone have been a thousand years in the making, since an ancient rainy day drove droplets into the top layer and they filtered down and down and down. Purified, they fall on my uplifted face. The earth has cleansed it all—whatever happened then, the stink of dying mastodons, the rotting seaweed of a long gone sea, and whatever happens now and tomorrow—eventually we all become a chapter in the story of the stones.

I stand in a moment of profound recognition: human beings cannot destroy the Earth. I kiss the cliff walls with unbounded joy, with the certainty that this rock will survive.

The land I live on, my island in Puget Sound, is an old river delta made by glacial melting 10,000 years ago. It is young and unstable, the layers loosely packed and crumbling back into the sea. It rests on the edge of deep coastal fault-lines.

This land I visit is old, weathered, wise even. It transmits endurance. Standing in place. Allowing wind and water to shape it. To sustain joy in these times is a matter of what I identify as source, as ground. I pause here: feet in the river, hands on the stone, sun and shadow all around me.

Stilled.

It is still true that beyond the canyon walls humanity is busily destroying the biosphere that makes our version of life-on-Earth possible. It is still true that the foundational question of life on Earth at this time is whether or not we as a species will rally ourselves to correct our relationship with Nature. It is still true that the answer may be no: or that our systemic tampering with biological and geological energies is beyond our capacity to correct to our liking. It is still true that how we have treated one another, and how we have treated the species that companion us, and used the resources offered us, is unforgivable and has grave consequences that are all coming due. But in this moment I am just a tiny desert lizard licking the water of life off the rock walls. I am in sunshine. I am home. I surrender to what is.

Canyon lizard–the weeping rocks, near entrance. All photos by Ann Linnea

 

Managing my outraged heart in a time of horrors

In the back of my journal are pages devoted to news clippings, magazine articles and photos: the Parkland students, injured Syrian children, Rohingya families fleeing into the poorest country on earth for shelter, addicts shooting up on city streets on their way to work, ICE patrols breaking up families of farm workers, earthquakes and storm surges, a starving polar bear leading her emaciated cubs to suicide at sea, the destruction of our protected national wild lands. Now also the photos of children being torn from their parents’ arms and shipped around the country to secret detention centers. Lost.

I paste some variety of these pages into each journal volume. My life ramblings filling pages front to back: these wider horrors and concerns pasted back to front. To endure being informed I have to find a sacred way to hold what’s actually happening, not just toss the daily news into the recycle bin or trash icon. I am a journal writer: the journal is an archive, a document of witness.

LOOK, my journal says, while you are sitting on the deck writing the morning up, or having dinner with family or friends, or working your way through personal challenges—this and this and this is also happening.

I have scrawled in black marker on these pages: I allow myself to believe that I can live with integrity inside the territory of my personal life; but I do not know how to live with integrity in relationship to the shattering of the wider world. My privilege contributes to destruction; the beauty, safety, and love around me I offer as prayer.

Right now, with the separation and incarceration of thousands of children and parents on the Mexican/US border, I can no longer claim to live with integrity in my own personal life: certainly not in my life as an American. I cast about in anguish for something effective to do.

A few days ago I emailed all my representatives. I wrote to a list of names that I’m told are the PR folks at the contractor companies that are putting up the detention centers. I shout at the people in the news stream—the young ICE officers, border patrol guards, attorneys, social workers, food delivery truck drivers, Congress members—“Resist! Resist! Resist! Don’t leave that room without taking the children. Run with them toward the cameras, make us all look, make the media become your protector.” I send small donations. I stand in protest—but I am far away.

I am a 72 year-old, only English speaking, Caucasian woman living just south of the Canadian border. I have few skills to help in this crisis except my own grandmothering arms; how I would make dinner, how I would encircle mother/father/child and refuse to let anyone rip them apart, how I would step between… Would I? How do I?

How do I manage my outraged heart in a time of impossible horrors?

In Bob Stilger’s book, After Now, When we cannot see the future where do we begin? he explores the potent idea that disaster gives us a chance that will never come again: to create the community we want. After the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and the reactor meltdown, Bob says some Japanese were courageous enough to admit, “This disaster has the potential to release us (Japan) from a future we did not actually want and to redefine where we are going.”

The United States is in a huge reset button: the end game of capitalist corporatism is now flashing uncontrolled in front of us. This is where we have long been headed—it’s just all laid bare; this imbalance of power was already available for misuse in the system; this is the greed of the great Monopoly board turning on itself. Our current disasters—both natural and politically generated—have the potential to imprison or empower us. Inside the walls of our nation I want the world to know millions of us are stirring awake and asking, how can we use this disaster to release ourselves from a future we did not actually want—and to step boldly, humbly, courageously into the future we do want, embracing the losses and reaching for the new promises that we ourselves call into being.

I carry my journal and my fountain pen with me everywhere. The pages of my life story and the larger context story are racing toward that point where they will meet in the middle of the notebook.

LOOK, my journal says: Look at everything: do not turn away. Carry it all: release it all. Refrain from violence, especially in your own heart, and understand the nature of fierceness, of holy outrage. Then take what action you can. Now. Today before one more child suffers, before one more piece of our precious earth is destroyed.

Grandmother in the 21st Century

Jaden, age 5, meeting baby Sasha on the day she was born.

Something happened to my heart when Jaden was born. A chamber opened that I didn’t know was there: the grandmother room. He, and now Sasha, reside in this special place. I am honored to be their “Nina” and delighted to be partnering with their “Maga,” to be the nature grannies.

 

We bring them Island Life: unstructured and unsupervised time outside, time on the beach making up games with the corgi dog, constructing driftwood caves. We draw and collage and cook. We watch videos and eat popcorn in the evenings. We give their parents “Spring Break” through the deliciousness of having them with us for spring break.

Sasha and Nina on beach

 

Pretending to be a cave man.

 

 

And last month, we all spent Spring Break on our pilgrimage to South Korea, when Sally returned with her entire family around her to put her feet on the soil of her birth. Ann’s blog chronicles this trip; so what is left for me is a look at grandmothering through the lens of two moments with these beloved kids on their first foray into a world way beyond America.

Sasha at Jogyesa Temple

On our second day in Seoul, we stopped to visit the Jogyesa temple grounds on our way home from the Namdaemon market—two very different scenes! The temple was preparing for Buddha’s Birthday, a major public and religious holiday in South Korea. As we stepped off the street, we were offered green tea to shift from street vibes to spiritual quiet. Noticing our foreignness, they arranged for a woman who spoke English to escort us. Sasha and I went into a little welcome room where we were handed a decorated card and an opportunity to write a prayer to be hung on the side panels of the temple ground gates. Sasha’s private prayer was so thoughtful I knew we were going to have a special time. We hung our cards and stepped under a canopy of colorful hanging lanterns that made the whole place magical.

Sasha at the Dharma Hall

We stood respectfully on the steps of the main Dharma Hall. Inside the glass walls several hundred women were engaged in chanting and prostrations before tall golden statues of the Buddha. Sasha whispered:

“Is that their Jesus?”

After a while we wandered over to the smaller hall dedicated to ancestors. Here all the hanging lanterns were white, the meditation pillows and interior walls were white. We stood in silence at the back of the room while people on cushions sat is silent meditation.

“Is Uncle Brian an ancestor?”

The third room we visited was the hall of the Bodhisattvas. A central figure, with offerings placed at its feet, was the focal point of meditation. We—Ann, Sally, Jaden, Sasha, and I—all took off our shoes and sat. Behind the large statue was a wall of shallow boxes each housing a smaller statue.

“Are those guys like angels?”

A few minutes later we were outside the room putting on our shoes. “So they believe in Buddha, and we believe in God?”

I tied my laces, “Well, all religions believe in God,” I said. “God is the Great Mystery, a Creator who made the whole universe. This idea is so big human beings can’t really understand what God is. So religions show us different ways of practicing respect for this Mystery. In Christianity, Jesus comes as the Son of God to show people one way, and in Buddhism, Buddha comes as another way.”

“So everybody’s okay?”

“What’s important is to be a good person—following the teachings that mean the most to you to your heart. They all lead to God.”

“Like all these lanterns and the tree of lights, it’s kind of like Christmas, even though it’s Buddha’s birthday.” And she was off, skipping across the temple grounds.

 

Jaden in Busan

Taller than his mom, slender, wearing black jeans and black hoodie, phone in hand and playing some kind of game every moment we weren’t “touristing,” Jaden looked the part of an Asian teen. He could fit in, slipping into the street scene at night with his dad the official trip photographer or cruising the market eating fresh doughnuts, shopping for a cool shoulder bag. It was the company he kept, the language he spoke, that made him different and set him to thinking: how would life have been different if I’d been born here?

Dusk on the harbor cruise in Busan.

He spent a reflective evening staring at the light spangled cityscape by Haeundae beach, trying to piece together an image of himself in a completely alternative reality. Well, that’s what he does all the time on the phone—play in other worlds—only this time he was his own avatar.

After listening to him think through his “other life”—the one he’d would have had if his mother had been raised Korean, and he’d been raised Korean, I said to him, “You know, this is your century. You will define it, live your whole life in it, and make the choices that create the world around you. And by your bloodlines you are uniquely positioned to discover a special kind of leadership that is uniquely you.”

“What do you mean—my bloodlines?” He put down the phone.

“You are half Korean and half Hispanic, and especially after being here, it seems clear to me that in the 21st century Asians will rule the world, and Hispanics and other minorities will pretty much rule America. Hispanics are already nearly 20% of the US population, and in some cities are at a 50% mark. You attend one of the most diverse school systems in the country. And here in Korea you get to see the determination of the people to become a nation making a global technological impact.”

He was still listening, so I added—“Who will you be? How will you use the incredible diversity of your upbringing to be a 21st century citizen? What wisdom lives in your bones that can guide you?”

My dear grandson is a sweet-natured young man, thoughtful when probed and prodded, both shy and gregarious, newly elected to his middle school council, a kid who hangs out in his science teacher’s classroom after hours because the teacher is cool and an informal mentor. He’s piecing himself together in a world I barely comprehend. It’s like a video game—fast action, options coming and going, opportunities morphing. My role, my love, is to provide a thread that weaves through all this action, a whisper to the inner boy. I watched my comments sink into his thinking… Where are they now? I don’t know, and probably he does not know. What I do know is that they are working in his giant jig-saw puzzle of putting himself together.

Oh so thirteen.

I am grateful both these children are willing to listen to their sometimes so serious Nina, to allow me these moments.

Acts of Artful “Dumbling”

The new movie Paddington2, is about a bear from “darkest Peru” who eats orange marmalade and has stowed himself away to London where a nice family takes him in and tries to help him adapt to life among humans. The movies are based on the sixty-year writing career of Michael Bond, starting in 1958 with the final volume being published in his honor and memory this coming summer. I remember reading several of the early versions to younger siblings, and then to nieces and nephews, and then to grandchildren. On the page and on the screen Paddington gets in trouble—of course. And yet he always bumbles through his dilemmas and somehow changes the world around him for the better in the process.

Himself–the plush toy version.

Paddington employs a social artform that I call “dumbling along.” Dumbling is not really the same as naïveté; dumbling is the art of proceeding as though you do not know you are interrupting negative social norms, and are trying to elicit a change of heart or response. Dumbling is the art of behaving innocently. Paddington’s foundational worldview is: “If we’d all be polite, the world would be right.” The phrase is his Golden Rule. And as Michael Brown, his human father notes, “He looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it.”

Dumbling is a form of charming, disarming nonviolent activism. Paddington’s skill at it makes me wonder if dumbling might help us bridge some of the social divides and isolationism in the US and world today. DISCLAIMER: Dumbling needs to be practiced in largely safe settings, often this is in public or shared space with some allies around to support and protect the “Paddington,” and with a bit of an exit strategy if needed.

When I think analytically about it, dumbling consists of several elements.

  1. Dumbling is the ability to walk into a situation that is loaded with any number of “-isms”—classism, sexism, racism, etc.—and refuse to acknowledge the power of negative energy by turning whatever happens into a positive.

EX: A person of color sits next to a white person on a plane. The white person asks the attendant to be moved. The attendant dumbles, and moves the person of color to First Class, apologizing for the inconvenience—to the person of color.

  1. Dumbling actively reframes and “misinterprets” judgmental comments as well-intentioned.

EX:            One teenage boy to another. First one, intending to bully, says, “Man your hair looks like a weed whacked bush.”

Second one responds, “Why thank you! I dig your hair too.” It’s a “drive by comment,” he just keeps going, and remains chipper.

  1. Dumbling crosses social congruence, confusing the receiver, and often bringing them into alignment with good intentions—yours, or theirs.

EX:            “There’s a homeless man sleeping in the lobby of the post office. Isn’t that terrible? We can’t allow that kind of thing.”

“You’re absolutely right—we can’t allow the rich to take so much and for the rest of us to have to divide the pittance that is left. Do you think he’s hungry? Maybe we could take him the rest of our pizza.”

  1. Dumbling actually wakes up our creativity, intelligence, and empathy.

EX:            An email blasts the decision made by a project manager—the sender outlining how useless it will be to the company, a misuse of resources, etc. Of course the project manager is initially hurt or angry—but he holds onto his emotions and dumbles: “Dear John, I have been thinking about you lately and all the ways you are loyal to our company. I appreciate that loyalty and wonder how we might put you and your thoughtfulness to better use. Want to talk?”

Dumbling crosses the transaction. To take this into a longer exchange than those listed above:

A young gay/trans/lesbian/bi-racial/multi-ethnic/cross-religious couple goes to visit the conservative mother of one of the partners; the other partner is dumbling—meaning s/he is just going to step into the scene fully expecting acceptance, and acting as though that’s what is happening, no matter what. S/he brings flowers and chocolate. S/he expresses delight at meeting the mother, even if there’s a frown at the doorway. S/he simply takes a place as though the thought of being rejected has never occurred to her/him. Comments and behavior are determinedly perceived as welcoming, and s/he remains gracious and appreciative. What happens next?

Well, either the mother has to go ballistic, which is not very socially acceptable, and not likely to happen (unless this is a movie). The mother really doesn’t want whatever her son or daughter has said about her to be truer than true. Or in some kind of confusion, the mother crumbles, and comes into alignment with the dumbling persistence that all is well. The neurological pull to come into congruence is strong.

This is a message from the movies that we can take into real life. And if we look for the good in one another—well, maybe, like Paddington, we’ll find it. The “other side” will stop being demons in our minds and we will find ways to create a bridge and meet in the middle of it.

Paddington says, “In London, everyone is different, so everyone fits in.” Guess it’s my job to make sure that happens in my neighborhood and community.

 

 

And then…we change the story!

Story is a map; and the story that gets one person through helps to get the next person through. (C. Baldwin in Storycatcher.)

Winter sunset from my desk.

Scattered across my laptop screen are files that contain opening paragraphs of my autumn’s attempts to write a blog entry. The happy reason for blog silence is my commitment to writing a novel in the creative hours I carve out of a week. An unhappier reason is how easily my attention has been engulfed in our great catastrophes. After awhile I’m not sure what more to say.

When a Canadian friend visited recently I cautioned her, “Crossing into the US right now you are entering a trauma-field of constant media overwhelm. Across a broad spectrum of politics, race, gender, religion, we are aware of the distress we’re in, and how little we seem able to manage it. It’s like the whole country is driving on black ice: we feel the vehicle of our civil life veering out of control. We may have our hands on the steering wheel, but we’re not the ones steering. We may want to hit the brakes or accelerate, but we know that any misaction will throw the car (and country) into total skid. Multi-vehicle pile-ups are everywhere. Most people are just trying to get ‘safely home’—whatever that means—but we are driving through our lives in growing panic.”

Our hearth in winter

I have been hyper-aware how almost every conversation diverts into a downward spiral. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair. There is no “happy place” in these conversations, and I fear we are entrenching ourselves in defeatism.

In my 30’s, I was in a group of several women who met monthly to discuss each other’s dreams. This meant unpacking the imagery, often dialoguing between characters (aspects of self), and sometimes finishing an interrupted storyline, or creating a different ending so that we could imagine a way out of a situation.

Around that time I had a recurring dream of a bear chasing me across my yard. I would make it safely to the house and lock the door and then realize it was just a screen door. The bear would arrive, start to claw at the screen, and I’d wake up. So I finished the dream by dialoging with the bear: “Who are you and what are you in my dream to tell me? Why do you want to catch me? What will happen if I let you in?” I created an ending to the dream: I let the bear in. We danced. Years later, when I was writing Life’s Companion and exhausted during the final chapters, I remembered the bear and called it to my back, leaned into its strength, and typed my way to the final page. Susan Seddon Boulet, who illustrated the cover and inner section pages, drew this image for me.

Susan Boulet, Woman in Bear Hug, collection of the author.

This is what we need now! We need to end every dive into the nightmare with a new ending: a story that inspires us forward. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change—and then we talk about the healing capacities of Earth and our love of nature. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption—and then we talk about human strength and the wonders of our bodies. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment—and then we speak of the men of integrity we know. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair—and then we imagine a revitalized democracy emerging.

Story is a map. We are at the end of the known story and it is our work now to map our way forward through imagining the possibilities into being. We can change the ending of this nightmare and dance with the bears, transform the dragons, rest in beauty.

Once upon a time… and then…and then…and then.

Original cover of my book, Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, Bantam, 1991.

 

 

 

 

Under the Weather

I am under the weather.

(For non-native English readers, this phrase is an idiom, meaning “a vague sense of ill health.” I am using it here as a double entendre—two meanings. )

Sunrise in smoke–my neighborhood, 1 Sept.

And so are you.

This is a lesson learned in Houston and along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Harvey set a record breaking 50 inches (127 cm) of rain from one storm. This lesson was followed by Hurricane Irma destroying a string of Caribbean islands and then churning up Florida and Georgia… with more drastic weather on the way.

Image provided by National Weather Service of Irma

Out here, the West is on fire. On the first of September, 80 fires raged in western states, and western Canada is also ablaze. Where I live, it stopped raining mid-June, and barely spit for the next 83 days. Temperatures spiked into the 90sF (30sC) in a region where 70% of the homes and businesses do not have air conditioning—we’ve never needed it.

from http://cliffmass.blogspot.com

Globally, an estimated 41 million people are currently displaced by flooding, mudslides, smoke and fire, earthquake, volcano, drought—extreme weather and climate changes that are raising sea levels, melting glaciers and permafrost, creating conditions long predicted, long denied, and now consuming the life energies of people not in the power to change much, but whose lives have been disrupted along a scale from inconvenience to catastrophe.

The night that Irma was sweeping into Florida I went to my local theatre to see the documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. I was almost afraid to go, feeling so much the tension from storms and fires—but I’m glad I went. Yes the news is bad, and yes we keep losing time and momentum, but the documentary helped me focus on both immediate needs—to help people in trouble today—and long-term needs—to change systems and policies—that give us a future.

A livable climate must be our first global priority. And it is hinged to all our other priorities.

So— I’m IN for the Paris Accord. I’m IN for solving the problem! I’m IN for attention and activism for the rest of my life.

The science is IN, the technology is IN: other countries are already making the shift and their economies are discovering that alternative energy is profitable. Legislation is currently being offered in both houses of Congress. We citizens have to demand the right to another way of life.

It doesn’t matter whether or not a small portion of the people “believe” climate change is a real: the earth is proving the science. My dear colleague, anthropologist Dr. MK Sandford, has taken it on herself to have a similar discussion around creationism and evolution. She says, “People tell me they don’t believe in evolution, and I tell them, it doesn’t matter what you believe, because science is based on facts, not beliefs. Your belief system does not change the science, only research does that.”

Imagine this: you’re standing in the road. A large truck rounds the corner and aims right at you. You are loudly proclaiming, “Trucks are a hoax, a tool of the liberal, humanist, fake news, elite agenda.” And then it runs over you and keeps on going.

Some days I can barely withstand the tension, but I keep asking: What’s my relationship to this right now? Where is my point of empowerment?

For the people caught in these storms, the ones we see on TV and the ones we don’t, their job is personal rehabilitation of their lives and communities. Or their job is to move out of the path of the truck, and our job is to make a place for them to jump for safety.

For me, it’s building resilient, communicative, cooperative community now, that will help us stand strong together when the “truck” veers our way. It will veer our way–wherever we are, because we are all under the weather.

And for me, beyond activism, I also feel compelled to bring these conditions into my spiritual life. I send money: I send love. I dedicate the moments of respite and beauty in my daily life to the folks currently in the middle of the storm.

Putting away my dishes and getting into my own bed, I send out the prayer, “May daily routines, shelter and safety return to you in your life.”

Picking raspberries, I pray, “Today I send this sweetness and abundance into the chaos of your moment, a ripening on your tongue.” 

Taking a breath of fresh air, I pray, “May the rains fall on the fires that ravage our forests and our hearts; may they soften the earth and relieve our smokey misperceptions of one another.”

I don’t know, scientifically, if this helps, but I believe it does… and prayers of blessing are a good way to use a belief system.

We are one.

 

Cookies and Kindness

My dear partner left for Minnesota for five days and the first night alone in the house I went on a media binge. Up late cooking, with cool evening air coming through open windows, I set my laptop next to the mixing bowl and turned on the news feeds. While making summer soup and muffins for my writing group, and a batch of healthy cookies, I “caught up” with the craziness of the US political scene: daily briefings from the New York Times and Guardian, MSNBC, and late night comic-commentary. It relieves me that smart people are keeping tabs on the tweeting chaos and legislative “multiple vehicle accident blocking all lanes of traffic” that is our current government. Pile up! Only the victims of this wreck are not actually in it, but watching helplessly from the sidelines.

After awhile it dawns on me that while I am  so careful regarding ingredients I put in this food: no sugar, all organic, gluten free flour, etc. etc. what I am putting in my mind (even though I’m feeding off the upper end of information) is nevertheless fairly toxic.

How do I nourish myself in the societal situation we are living through?

As an American and a global citizen, I am committed to remaining aware, informed, and interactive with these larger crises. Yet I find this media immersion exhausting and overwhelming. It disturbs me at a neurological level. I have to manage anxiety, sleep disruption, and mood swings. I do manage. Well, I think I’m managing. I think most of us are managing.

And managing in this situation takes an incredible amount of energy. We are, as a people, worn down by the need to stay tuned and watchful. No matter where we sit on the political spectrum, it’s tense. We’re waiting for the next tweet-bomb, the next act of violence, the next media frenzy: and we don’t have to wait long. We are shell-shocked and not as thoughtful as we might usually be. There is no usually anymore.

So this summer, both in my community and in my travels, I have been asking myself: what can I do, right here, right now, to help ease one another’s way? I can smile and look into a stranger’s eyes. I can put an arm out, stabilizing an elder or a toddler as we walk on uneven ground. I can take time to really listen when I ask someone “how are you?” and they begin to really tell me. I can look for beauty and point it out. I can see a act of kindness and acknowledge it. I can text little notes of love and appreciation.

These tiny gestures take on added significance in times when civility seems to be drastically eroded. Every little gesture reassures me, and those around me, that we are still a kind people willing to look up and look out for each other.  These gestures require mutual engagement: with neighbors who vote or worship differently, with friends terrified of losing their health care, with immigrants trying to find a new sense of home, with strangers at the grocery store, with families straining to stay together.

This is the power of the people: to refuse to be separated, to keep finding ways to hang together, to practice the Golden Rule, to recognize commonalities, to notice that we are still largely respectful, curious; eager to share stories, to be heard and seen.  So I renew my pledge to turn away from the addictive lure of the big catastrophe and spend more time focused on us—the ordinary folks.

It is way past midnight when I take the last of the cookies out of the oven. I turn off the news feeds, quit my email program, disengage the wifi connection, and put the laptop on sleep. Tomorrow I begin anew: waking to nature, waking to the people around me, waking to write in ways that I pray help keep us sane. I have plates of cookies to share with people who don’t expect them. What fun that will be.

 

What is a Sabbath?

Memorial Day is an American holiday started in 1865 by freed slaves to honor the military dead of the Civil War. It features parades and military connections, and can be a meaningful moment for touching grief and remembering the costs of our history. And like many secular holidays, the weekend has morphed in meaning. It is now largely considered the “official beginning of summer”—not by the Solstice calendar, but by planting tomatoes, attending weddings and graduations, and hyped up car sales and whatever else might be touted on TV (I’m not inside, not watching.) We’ve had a long, rainy winter in this region (nearly 10 inches above usual rainfall for the year) and three days of sunshine is a miracle long in coming.

The island where I live feels literally weighted down with visitors and traffic—folks determined to get out of the city and into the view and beaches. Mostly very white-legged people are strolling through Langley, the village by the sea, filling up the coffee and ice cream shops, shopping for souvenirs. They are on holiday mode—we are on “Sabbath.”

Having declared this day a Sabbath, we are staying home, away from crowds. We began with breakfast and tea on the patio—still cool enough to require fleece—then into the garden to weed, plant bush beans and squash, admire the strawberries, encourage the peonies. A gorgeous low tide drew us to the beach for a long ramble

Low tide, facing west.

and to support Gracie in gull chasing and swimming. We held a morning council in the sand, backs braced against a drift log: one speaking for 10 minutes, the listener then offering reflection and dialogue, and then the other speaking.

Mid-afternoon we are sitting in shade in the backyard, each working on bits of writing that give us pleasure. Our neighbor’s wind chimes provide musical background, and we are quiet enough to watch the life of our yard’s small birds. The lanky rhododendron bushes that hug the base of our largest Doug fir are drooping and every now and then a blossom drifts lazily down to the duff.

There is much on my heart. I don’t have to list it; you know what I mean. And you have your own list—societal and personal sorrows and outrage. Today, we have declared a Sabbath, and this means a sabbatical from reciting this list, from signing petitions for every worthy cause that clogs my inbox, from being lured onto the Internet to rabbit-hole into obsession with the state of the world. Not today. Today is rest. Today is breathing easy. Today is typing while shadows from the birch leaves play across my screen.

In the race and pace of the modern world, no one gives us a day like this: we have to declare it, design it, decide to “not do” as much as “to do.” We have to maintain the rhythm of it when the mind gets jumpy with undone tasks, or jerks into habituated distraction—Shush, come back to calm, it’s Sabbath. Let go of every litany but gratitude. Type with fingernails dirty from gardening. Comb sand out of the dog’s fur. Notice Nature’s abiding stillness and find an inner stillness to join it. Attach to heart.

Ann just wrote a blog about her “Sit Spot,” I realize I’m writing about my “Sit Day.”  What a relief—to be stilled and grateful for one whole day. Sabbath, indeed, and my offering into the week upcoming.