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.

Where is my mother?

There are several children’s books by this title. Various cartoon animal-children, in search of their animal-mommies, inquire of other cartoon animals, “Have you seen my mommy?” I saw a book like this at the library and it raised the question for me about my own mother, now several months after her death.

My mother’s ashes were divided into four equal parts and given to each of her children. Together we threw some ceremoniously off the ferry into the waters of Georgia Strait on our way back from her memorial service. I put some into a small pouch that I wore next to my heart in the Seattle Women’s March on January 21st. That pouch now resides next to a photo of us, a little shrine near my writing desk. And I recently ordered a dozen “memory stones.” These are beautiful little disks (future talking pieces?) of  blown glass, with ashes that turn to bright, white sparkles. My

Her two favorite colors, and “her” in the center.

mother becomes a tiny galaxy to be distributed to grandchildren and friends.

These gestures give me peace of heart—but what I am enjoying most are all the other ways and places “she” shows up. Like the small wooden bench that sat for years by the entrance to her patio home, and then on her apartment balcony. Now it graces our remodeled bathroom and we use it every day, admiring its sturdiness and how well it held up from years outdoors before its pampered life indoors.

I am enjoying the fancy dishes, flowery Royal Doulton patterns bought right at the factory in England. When she offered them, I accepted with delight—under three conditions: “1. I’m going to use them every day; they are not going into a china cabinet (no I don’t want your cabinet). 2. I will put them in the dishwasher (though not the microwave), even the ones with gold trim. 3. Before they go into

Four-legged water saving device, prewash service.

the dishwasher, I’m going to let the dog lick them.” She winced, but handed them over. Genius on her part: I think of her every time I reach for them, which is several times a day.

 

Also in the kitchen, a metal garlic press from my childhood that still works better than any “new and improved” press I’ve bought over the years, and I’ve bought a number of them. This family heirloom will go to the niece or nephew who can make the best garlic-laced lasagna. There will be a cook-off before I pop off.

The list grows and shifts as I notice things, so only one more confession: some days I’m wearing her underpants. Silky, with lace trimmings, they are brand new, as she spent the last year of her life in adult diapers. The only drawback: they have a taped nametag on them from the care centre. If I’m ever in that proverbial car accident, it’s going to confuse the paramedics when my driver’s license says Christina Baldwin and my underwear says Connie McGregor.

I’ve been listening to more classical music this winter, wearing her sweaters and scarves and appreciating everything she did to urge along a sense of culture, style, and flair in her tomboy daughter.

About 20 years ago, I invited my mother to join a journal writing retreat I was leading at Hollyhock Farm in coastal British Columbia. She already lived in BC, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Ann Linnea and I were just settling on Whidbey.

I felt ready to call a circle in which my mother could sit among a sisterhood of writers and I could be the teacher and guide, my book Life’s Companion, would be the text. She was then just a few years older than I am now, newly widowed from her Canadian husband, and her mother had recently died at 106.

So we arrive at Hollyhock. I don’t remember our conversation, but were walking the wooded trails overlooking Desolation Sound. A day of blue sky and matching blue waters, islands dotting the sea, mountains in the distance. I began touching a trailing branch of cedar, “Mother,” I said softly. Then more conversation before touching a moss covered boulder, “Mother.” We walked on. Gesturing into the view I whispered, “Mother.”

I was trying to signal her, before she joined the class, that I had transferred the mother archeypte from her/personal to Gaia/transpersonal. After a while, she began to touch the greenery around us, and whisper with me, “Mother…” Mother Cedar. Mother Boulder. Mother Ocean. Mother Mountain.

Connie in a tree–about this time period.

I do not feel orphaned by her departure. My Mother is the Earth. I miss Connie/mom, think of her daily, and wonder how she is enjoying the whatever-comes-next that so fascinated her. My grief is primarily a peaceful ride. When I can calm my awareness, I look for signals coming through—something I thoroughly expect from her after all those years standing in my shoes trying to receive through the veil from her dearly departeds.

I was her firstborn, her “practice baby,” she said, the one she didn’t quite know what to do with. Our relationship was a long road, and it finished in beauty, peace, and open heartedness. That is sufficient. When I need to have a wee cry, I go down to the beach and nestle in amongst the drift logs and sand and am held. Mother Sea. Mother Sky. Mother Mountain. Mother Trees. Mother in my own heart.

The Search for the Lost Chord

This is my remembrance piece for my mother, Connie McGregor, spoken at her Memorial Service 7 January 2017, at the United Church of Canada in Chemainus, BC, her home community.

Connie, summer of 2016

Connie, summer of 2016.

 

All her life, my mother was looking for “the Lost Chord”—that mystical longing for ultimate harmony.

The story of the lost chord comes from a famous Victorian parlor song about an organist playing idly at the keyboard who suddenly comes upon this chord. He is enthralled with its beauty, but can never find it again, finally deciding he will only hear it in heaven.

Longing for music awakened Connie’s heart. Musical chords were the DNA of her soul. What she couldn’t communicate any other way she poured into music. As a teenager in the Great Depression, in Rapid City, SD, she had a 15-minute weekly recital she played on the radio.

Our earliest memories of her are musical. There are photos of her teaching Sunday school with a passel of 3 & 4 years, our tiny hands full of rhythm instruments while she sits at the piano, toddler Carl in one arm, playing “Jesus loves the little children,” right-hand only, trying to attach our fledgling souls to the power of music.

Uncountable nights of our childhoods, finally getting all four of us to bed, she would ignore her 1950s “housewife” chores, sit down at the piano and pour out Debussy, Chopin, Ravel, Vaughn Williams, Rogers & Hammerstein, and favorites from the Methodist Hymnal.

1952--such a period piece photo

1952–such a period piece photo

Connie also longed for social justice. In 1940, while studying at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, she was profoundly influenced by the university president, Carl S. Knopf (after whom our brother is named). Knopf was a theological pacifist and urged the world to consider alternatives to war and violence. Shared pacifism was an early bond between our parents.

Our father, Leo, became a conscientious objector and after their marriage in 1942, Connie and Leo served together in the Civilian Public Service Corps throughout WWII. In recent years, when the contributions of pacifists are finally being recognized, Leo is quick to point out, “The women served too and deserve equal credit.” During this time, Connie played in the camp orchestra, worked as a secretary in federal prison, and started early pre-school programs for the children of women employed in the war effort.

My parents during the war years while in CPS in the Northwest.

My parents during the war years while in CPS in the Northwest.

After the War, while Leo went to graduate school, 1946-48, Carl and I were born less than two years apart. In Indiana, a few years later, when Becky was a baby, they sponsored refugee families from Germany and Poland. In the early 1960’s, now with Ricky completing the family, and our relocation to suburban Minneapolis, Mom took us downtown to African Methodist churches, to interracial youth groups and play dates. When the Vietnam War broke out, she fiercely supported both my brother in the Army in DaNang, and me in the peace movement in San Francisco.

In 1990, with her Canadian husband, Don McGregor, she moved to Vancouver Island and after his death in 1995, began what was probably the most satisfying period of her life. Here in Chemainus, she read peace poetry on Remembrance Day, at Waterwheel Park, setting up a lectern and standing by her convictions. In Ladysmith, in her Strata, she stood up against a financial injustice occurring there and would not be intimated or ostracized into changing her vote. She called her neighbors to accountability.

She donated to many causes, especially Amnesty International, and filled envelopes with $20/bills that she slipped anonymously to folks in need at Christmas time.

Longing for spirit, Connie lived faithfully within Christian tradition, but kept the church door of her heart open to many sources of insight. She attended whatever church best met her needs for community and open-mindedness: Lutheran, Methodist, Unitarian, Congregationalist, Spiritualist, UCC. She demanded that people think through their theology, not just sit in the pew and accept doctrine. She led book discussions, prayer and Bible studies, and she read Martin Buber, Carl Jung, CS Lewis, Simone de Beauvoir, Joseph Campbell, Marcus Borg, and John Spong. Many people have been influenced by her ever seeking mind… we, her children, certainly have.

C'sbks copy

Her bookshelf in her apartment.

It was not always easy being around this insatiable curiosity, but it was always interesting. To be Connie’s family or friend, you had to learn to define (and defend) yourself, to chart your own path, to articulate and stand by your beliefs. She didn’t want agreement—she wanted mutually rigorous engagement. Her search for belonging, on one level a huge desire to find “like kind,” was also a huge desire to be met, intellect-to-intellect.

Still curious and in awe of the world in 2014

Still curious and in awe of the world in 2014

The last few years were hard on her—and on all of us who loved her. Her short-term memory left great gaps—not dementia of the usual sort. Until just a few months ago, she could still be roused to talk about theology or conscious dying; she could play piano; her humor would come forth like the Dormouse waking out of the teapot. She just couldn’t remember that we’d come to visit or what she’d had for lunch. When she entered the Chemainus HC Centre, she told the director, “I am still a woman of intellect and I expect to have a voice in my care.”

Last January, on the last night in her Nanaimo apartment, my sister Becky and I had a kind of mother/daughter sleepover with her. We sisters were having a glass of wine when Connie, who barely sipped alcohol, asked for some. “Do you want wine?” I asked her, “or do you want communion?”

“Communion,” she said. So we entered sacramental space. We offered one another the cup of life. We broke out crackers and fed each other holy bread. We took her favorite perfume; a fragrance called “Happy,” and anointed one another. “Is something big about to happen to me?” she inquired.

“Yes. You are moving into care, mom. This is your last night among the beauty of your things. You need nurses and aides who can help you and keep you safe. You are going back to Chemainus. You are trading things for community. Can you do that?”

She nodded. “What will be my job there?”

“Your job will be to let love all the way in, and to send love all the way out.”

As I think about the blessings embedded in this year of deterioration—I am so grateful that she took on this final job. She got there. She died whispering “I love you…” she died listening to us whisper “I love you, too.”

Her search was over.

She became the lost chord.

 

 

2016 Nov 5 Connie last piano copy

Playing piano on her 96th birthday, 20 days before she died.

 

The Elephant & the Safety Pin

The end of November, we went to Phoenix, Arizona for American Thanksgiving; into a part of the family where we’re pretty sure Clinton voters were a minority. Our hint—well this guy showed up in the backyard!

This elephant was too big to fit in the room--it took up half the back yard!

This elephant was too big to fit in the room–it took up half the back yard!

So who are we? Sincere, loving family members, most of us white, with an adopted Asian daughter, two sons-in-law who are Hispanic and African-American, five interracial children racing among the blue-eyed blonds. All of us were coming together to celebrate Ann’s mother and honor long-held family traditions. Thirty-one folks, ages nine months to 90 years, three turkeys, and way too much food.

Full of bouncing children--and a few daring parents.

Full of bouncing children–and a few daring parents.

We did not speak directly about politics or voting, but Ann and I were wearing safety pins that provided entrance to story. “What does that mean, that pin?”

“It’s a symbol that we’re part of a social safety net—that we will not tolerate hate talk, racial slurs, or bully behavior in our presence, that we will take action to maintain community and caring around us.” We told a few stories we’d read on Face Book: the Muslim woman asking an Anglo woman how to make stuffing; or several women on a subway car who befriended and escorted a woman wearing a hijab who was getting harassed. We talked about acts of kindness and reaching out. “It’s not a sign of who we voted for, it’s a signal of who we are. It’s a statement that we are going to continue to take care of one another.”

There have been some challenges to this safety pin idea, educating people to not be naïve in violent situations, and criticizing the lack of a bolder commitment, that it allows white people to stay in their comfort zone. Yes—and—it’s a beginning that fosters waking up and questioning how the world has changed. Mostly, wearing a pin is about looking up from the phone screen and into the eyes of people around us, noticing that this moment contains the possibility for outreach and mending the tears in our social fabric. Like in the family, standing in the back yard, looking for stories that help us stay connected.

The next day there was a special luncheon for our gentle, shy matriarch. Each grandchild present (adults in their 30s) took a moment to speak to her. Every one of them delivered a message of gratitude for the sustaining values she and Ann’s dad passed down the generations. Loyalty to family and friends, respect for nature, respect for God, civility, social consciousness, community, protecting children—not the political slogan version of these ideals, but living them in the realities of their young lives. Living them while coping with the larger world around them, the things they cannot figure out how to make better.

So they voted. They took the rhetoric, the pornography, the false and true scandals, the rumors, the historic moment, fed it through the mesh of these values and went into the little booth. And they voted Republican, Libertarian, Democrat.

Watching them talk to their grandmother, hanging out with them in the backyard, I don’t understand how the same values source could lead to three different voting choices, but this I trust: most Americans are like this family.

img_7241

Most Americans are values-based human beings who want to lead lives they are proud of, and want to imagine their children having opportunities to live decent and productive lives. They do not overreact, pull out guns, threaten strangers on the street, “unfriend” cousins on Face Book: they hang in there with one another. They may not wear safety pins, but they are safety pins.

My role here, as the stepmom, grandmother, aunt, and great aunt, is to hold a circle around us all, to create space for story, to love one another and listen, and call forth what is good, true, and beautiful in each of us. This I do with fierce hopefulness that we the family, and that we the people, will hold together through these times.

What is dying, Nina?

Cool sunrise over a fake lagoon in Chandler, AZ, oasis in the desert. A November day here will turn hot and we will go jump in the community pool. I have brought my teacup and journal to a little veranda to write and think about my mother who lies dying in the nursing home that has tended her this past year. I am in Arizona. She is in British Columbia.

My reverie is sweetly shifted by the arrival of my six-year old granddaughter. She is watching me closely this week as I am tracking with my sister & brother who sit at our mother’s side. In the vacation rental house where we are all staying during a reunion and family Thanksgiving, there is a flickering candle altar with photos that honor my mother and also her Uncle Brian who died three years ago. In this same three-year period she has also lost her great-grandfather and her other grandmother, her father’s mom.

altar2

She is twirling my hair, sitting on my lap. “What is dying, Nina?” she asks. “People get dead and then they’re gone.” I take a breath, she’s trusting me to give her something she can understand.ns

“People have two parts that make us who we are: the soul, and the body. I recognize you because I know how you look, and sound, and feel. And I recognize you because who you are shines out from inside you. When you are in your mommy’s womb, the body and the soul come together and you are born in one piece that is both physical and spiritual.

“Then you live your life—one beautiful piece of body and soul. Dying is when those two parts separate again. The body goes back to the earth, and the soul goes back to spirit.”

“Is that heaven?”

“Yes, heaven is one name for where the spirit goes.”

“Why is your mama dying? Is she hurt? sick?”

“She’s dying because she’s so old her body is tired and her soul needs to be free again. I am happy that she is going to be free, and I cry when I remember all the things we’ve shared and learned from each other.”

We look across the lagoon, and there is the metaphor made visible. “Look at the palm trees, Sasha… see how they are reflected in the water?” She nods. There is the tree that we see growing on the ground, and there is the tree that is reflected upside down in the water. The standing tree is like the body, the reflected tree is like the soul.”

Body & soul.

Body & soul.

“Oh… okay. Can I draw the picture in your journal?”

She takes a pen and begins to draw palm trees and us on the veranda. The day moves on. My mother still breathes. We wait in vigil, both near and far.

PS: The afternoon of this posting, November 27, 2016, my mother Connie died peacefully with my brother and sister present. Now she knows the “big secret”of what is dying. Hallelujah.

Seventy-the bridge to somewhere

sunset

sunset

It’s heartwarming to be welcomed home; to have people notice that Ann and I are more in residence in our community than we were a year ago. However, when well-meaning people inquire, “does this mean you’re retired?” something weird happens inside me that I have been sorting for months.

It may be my own outdated stereotypes of the word that are getting stirred up, but my unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language informs me of the following definitions: “retire; 1. To withdraw, to go away or apart from; to remove from active life,” or “retired; no longer occupied with one’s business or profession;” or “retirement, …2. Removal or withdrawal from service.”

This sure doesn’t fit what goes on around here where the work of sustaining island life is hugely augmented by volunteering and vibrant 60-70-80-year-olds—and my still volunteering and vibrant 96-year-old father!

Okay, I am 70 years old. We have publically and proudly announced passing our circle facilitation trainings to TheCircleWay.net. BUT— I am still teaching my memoir class, The Self as the Source of the Story, two times a year, along with selective mentoring with other writers. Ann Linnea, Deb Greene-Jacobi, and I are still leading our annual Cascadia wilderness quest. PeerSpirit, Inc. is still a half-time job.

writing w/ tea

writing w/ tea

Alongside remaining work commitments are family commitments, community service, gardening—writing—singing in the community choir, helping friends and neighbors in even bigger transitions than we are, and occasionally even relaxing over coffee/tea or dinner with folks we haven’t seen in way too long a time! The days do not feel “retired”—unless all this busyness IS retirement. If so, we need another word.

Boomers are trying to make a new word. “Refirement,” “rebooting,” “ruppies” (retired urban professionals)—cute, but not satisfying. I saw a man in the grocery store wearing a tee-shirt that proclaimed, “I’m retired, but I still work part-time as a pain-in-the-ass”— sort of funny, but also not the definition I’m seeking.

I feel myself on a bridge crossing from one stage of life to the next. It feels important. Not only to me, but to others in the generation of Boomers. We have been both championed and chastised for changing expectations about our lives at every stage of aging, from puberty on. The 70s decade is our last big chance to discern what remains for us to do.

img_6893

In my unwillingness to “withdraw from active life…to remove myself from service,” I am not yet certain what I expect of myself, or what the world hopes I will step into for another ten years.

When I was 21 and a junior in college, the head of the English department plucked me out of his advanced Shakespeare course and told me he thought I’d make a good English professor. I was flattered, but stunned—academia had never occurred to me. I blurted out at him (this was 1967), “I can’t do that, there’s a war on! I am more likely to be in prison by age 25 than in graduate school.”

It was a defining moment in my life: I chose the path of the outsider rather than the insider. I did not go to prison, though some of the men in my class went for draft resistance while others went into the draft. Before I was 25, I moved to California and worked for the American Friends Service Committee. I went to Europe and worked for the British Friends Service Council. I went to Gaza and Israel and worked with Quaker-based child and youth programs. I came back to the US and began figuring out how to be an activist writer. My mantra for all my work has been, “Inform-Inspire-Activate.”

I am still asking, what is my remaining life mission? I see the vibrant years of elderhood, (however long we have the health and energy to remain engaged) as an invitation to radical attention and thoughtful action.

Now, instead of getting ready to leave college for my work years as I was in 1967, it is suddenly 2016, and I am leaving my work years for my “X” years—a redefined involvement that goes deep, perhaps goes smaller in scale, and hopefully harvests my years of experience.

On this bridge to somewhere the world’s needs press around me as I contemplate my choices and I bow to the incredible privilege to have a life that supports choice. I want to stay more local, to support the next generation, to tend to the final years of our beloved parents, and the childhood years of our beloved grandchildren. I also do not feel done making contributions to the world outside my friends/family.

I am looking for what gestures I can make into the world’s need that will be most effective and impactful. I watch the events at Standing Rock, see things go by in social media, and I want to serve as a catalyst and supporter of catalysts as we go through this agonizing process of “changing our minds” about what we will tolerate and what we will save.

I vow to stay awake. I vow to listen to the pleas for justice. I will place my actions where I dare. I will use my elderhood as an opportunity for taking risk.

Join me?

Anyway you want.

Let me know your thoughts.

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Shredding & Honoring

This blog entry is dedicated to our magnificent office manager and colleague, Debbie Dix, who has been the third peer spirit in our office for 16 years, fully occupying her leadership chair.IMG_4406

 Ann Linnea and I arrived on Whidbey Island in March 1994, with two book manuscripts in progress, her two children, my first corgi, a small amount of savings and child support, and the idea that this circle process we were experimenting with was a gift we wanted to refine and offer the world. A mission actually, a sense that we had come together to deliver this gift, to make space in the world for circle. Ann rented a house for herself and her children, I house-sat up the road. I wrote the first version of Calling the Circle and tried to find a publisher interested in buying it.

A few months later, Ann’s book, Deep Water Passage, sold and the money helped us stabilize a way forward. That fall she bought a house with a little shed in back and rehabbed it into office space: 10 x 20 feet, two rooms: a back room for book storage and a mailing station, papers, files, and the growing accumulation of equipment for this work—from markers and flipchart paper to camping gear for wilderness experiences, boxes of collage materials, and three computers for our technological interface with the world.

In March 2000, Debbie Dix showed up seeking flexible work while raising her (then) toddler son and supporting her (then) high school math teacher husband. We hired her in 20 minutes and have thanked our lucky stars over and over and over. We could truthfully say, “We are a small, local educational company with global outreach.” There is a more detailed version of this progression in the preface to the book.

Twenty-two years have gone whizzing by. And now, having spent the past three years transitioning our circle training and consulting into the capable hands of dozens of colleagues and onto the new website www.thecircleway.net, we are taking the PeerSpirit office apart. (We will continue teaching writing and leading quests.)

Two four-drawer filing cabinets, six plastic storage bins of archived files, teaching scripts, remaining booklets inventory (as they are now transferred to e-booklets available on The Circle Way site and Amazon), and 20 hula-hoops used to demonstrate personal space at the rim of the circle. We are recycling all the office supplies we can. We are giving away the circle accessories we’ve accumulated on the journey. We are shredding the file contents that need to be safely discarded.

Sorting and shredding is actually quite an emotional process.

Shredding raises questions about what it means to carry a body of work that is basically invisible (the synergy of the space between people), and to let go of the documentation of that journey. There is no university archive waiting for “the circle papers.” We have little empirical evidence, just change of heart evidence.

Shredding requires that Ann, Debbie, and I handle every file, and in the midst of sentimental recollections, let it go. “Oh look, here is where we met Sarah, David, Holger, Linette…” or “Remember St. Pat’s church, 2003? The speech we gave at Brescia University?” Hundreds of consulting jobs, Circle Practica, phone notes from negotiations that seemed promising and stalled out, surprise connections: a life-time of work.

We three carry the experience and story of what it took to bring the circle into the world as we did. And as the boxes pile up, we witness that story, recite bits of it to one another, and let it go. Nobody wants all these details. Nobody but us could decode them into sense-making.

There is a moment when I wonder if we should be making a list of this history—but for whom? And why? Everyone engaged in teaching and practicing The Circle Way is accumulating their own experience and story. Circle is about interaction, not archiving.

The impact of circle will speak for itself in how lives shift. This is the great magic. We are sitting in the round. The circle pattern is called into place. A talking piece starts hand-to-hand. People speak heartfully. There is an energetic opening, often felt as a tiny “ping” in someone’s awareness. A bell rings. The group breathes, moves on. But that ping is morphing inside someone’s mind and heart. Checking out, s/he says, “I don’t know what it is about this circle stuff, but I’m going back to my office to interact differently to my staff. I going home to ask my family a meaningful question and see what happens at the dinner table.”

That’s the circle’s archive. That’s the proof.

A few weeks ago Ann took 10+ boxes to Island Recycle and put the contents through an industrial chomping machine.

 

 

 

Half-mast in sunlight

Friday afternoon in my little village by the sea. Second Street is closed for a summer market: flowers, vegetables, crafts, bread, the stalls are lined up and people stroll through. Dogs on leash are everywhere. Two friends have a new puppy they are carrying in arms. Sunshine and a refreshing breeze off the water.

My father and I are sitting at a patio table in front of the Commons coffee shop chatting about his upcoming 96th birthday. He wants a pizza party on our patio with his four children, three in-laws, a friend or two. He wants this—all this: a village around him, a street full of familiar faces, people waving to us, some stopping to say hi, to bring their own story into the ones we are telling each other. He wants this—his daughter, his daughter-in-law at the next table talking with friends from our decades of work and travel. We all want this—peace amongst acquaintances, friends, strangers, the earth’s abundance spilling over our shoulders. Ice cream cones and coffee. Our corgi, Gracie, wanders back and forth under the two tables seeing who might be eating something, who might have a dog biscuit to share or a cookie crumb. Safety. Peace. A couple of young musicians playing acoustic guitar and familiar songs about love.

It is a moment of complete refuge and beauty.

On the other side of us a group of several women and a man are finishing ice cream cones. One gives her waffle-tip to Gracie to finish. The man asks, “May I pet your dog?” Gracie snugs her back up to his legs and he begins massaging her: both of them blissed, his fingers in her luxuriant fur. A few minutes later when they are ready to stroll, he speaks to me again, “Thanks for letting me pet her.”

We really look at one another. I reach for his hand, strong brown fingers, in this moment his eyes bright with ease in a dark face. I am a seventy-year-old Caucasian woman: he is a middle-aged African-American man. We are in the village together. There is sunshine. Refuge. Beauty. I say back to him, “She loved it. You take care, now. Have a good day.” We smile. He’s gone.

My father and I look at each other. Tears rise in our eyes. What is happening in our country? In the world? In the unspoken chamber of my heart, I want to shelter this friendly stranger, be ready to push him under the table, wrap him in my white skin. “Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t drive too fast or too slow or with a tail-light out. Don’t get shot.” In various ways, my father has worked for social justice all his life. My first memories are of living in downtown Indianapolis where he was a social worker in what was then called a “neighborhood house.” It was the early 1950s, Negroes were streaming North from the rural South looking for work and needing to learn the ways of the city. My brother and I, at four and two, unaware of race or skin tone or poverty, were just kids on the block, racing around in summer heat, days like this. Eating ice cream cones, our mother would strip us down to our white carter spanky pants so that she could just hose us off afterwards, not have to do a load of clothes. Little half naked kids, vanilla and chocolate, all sticky chested.

The seed of my gesture, white hand and brown hand, resides in those days. So do the seeds of our current violence. We talk about then, and now. I am facing the end of my work life. He is facing the end of his life-time. We have done and are doing all we can.

IMG_6408We walk slowly through the middle of the market toward the post office. The flag is at half-mast. Orlando?—where 49 died and 53 were injured dancing at the Pulse? Istanbul?—40 dead and 230 injured? Baghdad market?—where nearly 300 die from a truck bomb? This week’s police murders of black men: Baton Rouge? Suburban St. Paul? The sniper murder of five police in Dallas? The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken for the world.

Social trauma at this scale is incredibly hard to hold. We are surrounded by problems for which there are no resolutions. How do we help one another not go mad? Not get utterly lost in despair? Find moments of sweetness such as this summer afternoon?

These moments exist in every life: when we trust the friendliness of public spaces, when we pet one another’s dogs, smile at one another’s children, hold one another’s gazes, smiles, and hands. This is what I call a stackable moment: a choice to remember something, to stack it into our memories. We can stack trauma: we can stack healing. We can stack violence: we can stack love.

I choose to stack this moment, to savor it, roll it around and around in my mind until I can call it back to sustain me. There was sunshine. There was my father alive in his stories. My beloved was next to me. There were friends. Dogs. Fruits and flowers. There was a kind man who trusted to put his brown hand in my white hand. We were in the weave together and the world was whole and holy.

The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken—and open. This is how I stack the day.