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.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Thread You Follow

I recently attended the 3rd National Journal Writing Conference— representing a 25-year cycle in my life. Kay Adams, a dynastic/prolific author of journal writing books, founder of Therapeutic Writing Institute, Center for Journal Therapy, and several other entities devoted to writing practice, has three times called together a tribe of journal writers. In 1991, she and I, Kay Leigh Hagan, and Dan Wakefield were faculty at the first conference just as Life’s Companion was coming out, and just as that book and the power of circle were about to shift my whole life into a deeper path.

In 2008, just as Storycatcher was catching fire, I showed up again as the opening keynoter, and along with Tristine Rainier, it was the closest I ever expect to come to a “rock star” moment.

Now, Kay convened us again—a dynamic event at Kanuga Conference Center in the green and blooming hills of western North Carolina. Ann Linnea and I offered three pre-conference events: Ann did a lovely morning on “Writing Nature’s Wisdom” which included rocking chairs and lap blankets on the dock at lake’s edge; I did a circle on how coherent story-line/life-line emerges from the original chaos of journal pages; and both of us taught circle process for writing groups in the afternoon.

Western Carolina vista

Western Carolina vista

By observation, the group was 95% women, 98% white, 90% midlife and older. Some exciting research was presented on neuroplasticity, on reframing trauma, on advances in recognizing writing as a therapeutic modality. It was a sweet, deep dip into my own story, carrying around journal and pens, doing an afternoon of collage. My cell phone didn’t work. The rains held us to the page. The conversations were meaningful, earnest, held with respect. I saw former students and long-time acquaintances and friends in the field.

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Myself, with Sandra Marinella, teacher and author from Phoenix, AZ.

I wish there were more men. I wish there were more young people. I wish there was more diversity of all kinds. And it is what it is: this is a cadre striving to maintain a way of life where pen and paper are the primary tools of spiritual practice, where reflection is built into the heart of the day, where life questions are tracked with determination until their insights are revealed.

What I want to declare, to these mostly graying, mostly women, journal writers and journal facilitators, is to keep on trusting the value of the journal writing practice.

Keep holding the thread of meaning-making that emerges from time spent articulating your most personal experiences and the tumble of thoughts and feelings that follow. You are organizing reality: not controlling it, but practicing a resilience that comes from standing inside your story. The world needs people who can stand in the story of the times and help others around them make meaning and come to coherent action.

Be bold.

Be invitational. Share the strength of your voice and insight. Write in public: in cafes and libraries, in airports, in any setting where you have a few minutes to say hello to yourself.

Imagine taking the long flight home: the person next to you glancing at this odd behavior of spreading a notebook over the tray table, coping with the leaky fountain pen that doesn’t like the air pressure at 32,000 feet. Their eyes keep wandering toward your handwriting. You turn, and invite, “I’m writing in my journal. I do this several times a week to keep track of my life. Want to hear a few paragraphs?” They will be so surprised. They will most likely be receptive.

Read.

I heard you at the conference. I was in awe at the beauty of your personal voice, your courageous comprehension, your compassion for human frailty, the forgiveness of yourself and others. Deposit some chosen bit of that. They will hear you. They will catch the story. And perhaps their longing to know this much about themselves will awaken. Have an extra notebook and pen ready to give away. Have a question on a post-it note. Teach them five minutes of flow-writing. To put a few paragraphs of self-check-in on the page or screen could change their lives in ways you will never track. Someone did that for you…

Remember: William Stafford’s poem, “The Way it Is”–

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
….
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

(William Stafford © 1998)

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Pink Ladyslippers

 

 

 

A Summer Day

CBwrites

CB writes

whitebuck

White buck–local guy.

What a sweet local life I have. Waking with early light, I raise the shades to look at Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains. I make tea. I take time to write a bit in my journal. Sitting on what we call the facing bench, my partner and I watch Nature waking up around us. We talk about who is doing what on the list that accompanies our days. We talk about what is next, what we want to contribute in our island and global communities. Deer parade by.

The garden is erupting with greens, veggies, and fruits—salad for dinner every night. I’m home after leading a vision quest and two consulting jobs with long plane rides in June. Now, it’s summer and I want the world to stop being in trouble so I can relax. I want a compassion vacation, an engagement reprieve, and an awareness respite.

The mind that won’t leave me alone is my own! I am keenly aware of the delicate privilege of my life. Every day around the world, people wake to moments like mine: a sweet hello in morning light—and then life changes. Out of work. Out of money. Family crisis. Diagnosis. Death. Fire. Flood. Volcano. Earthquake. Violence. War.

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Wenatchee, WA on fire.

pintarist

Texas flooding

The world’s woes are stubborn and persistent.

“News” finds me—and it should. I want to know. I feel a responsibility to know. Events become part of our shared cultural experience, marker moments referenced in short-hand: “911,” “the Tsunami,” and now, “Charleston.” Most of these stories are depressing, but embedded even in horrific events is the uprising of human spirit. An extremist walks into a church, prays with a group of African-Americans… almost changes his mind, but ends up shooting 9 of them. This activates the racist polarities of our nation and words like white supremacy, Confederacy and its flag flood the Internet. And this outrage activates people’s determination to not be torn asunder, to cross the bridge together toward authentic racial understanding, to worship together, to walk side by side.

Whenever an act of hatred erupts, it is counter-balanced by acts of love, courage, and faithfulness. And in these past months with so much brutality, particularly the murders of African American men, making the news and the skin being torn off our white privilege, we have needed that counterbalance! Acts of kindness always happen: they are the uncounted on by-product of violence, the unintended consequence—waking up more and more of us, over and over. Do a Google search on “random acts of kindness following Charleston” and you will be reassured that this supposition is correct: good arrives to balance bad: love balances hate.

Obama

How sweet the sound

In this confidence, we may stand at the end of the eulogy, at the end of the service for nine faithful people shot while they prayed; we may stand with family and friends able to find forgiveness in their hearts before their beloveds are even buried, we may join the President of the United States in singing, “Amazing Grace…” and trust that, yes, despite anything—grace abides.

Dirty Fingernails

Half an hour in the morning.

Ann swimming at the club, I’m dressed for yoga when she returns with the vehicle. Dog still in bed. I put down her breakfast to entice her out. I have scrolled through emails, thank goodness stayed off Face Book. My mind is racing with ideas… shall I communicate with myself in the quiet of the journal, or communicate with “you”—whomever reads this blog: today, tomorrow, or in the mysterious digital timeframe that streams on and on… (Robots are still reading older entries here: if I get a comment on a certain outdated post—it’s not from a human… the rest of you, I love hearing from!)

Half an hour in the morning. Unload dishwasher? Start laundry? Turn on the office computer? Clean my desk? For a few minutes I stand whirling in the midst of tasks and choices. Then breathe. What do I want? What would give this moment meaning?

I want to communicate something quieter than my mind, something small and green, a thought with bud and possibility. My primary reader is myself—I need to know I am capable of settling into the level of quite notice that writing is capable of instilling. If you want to come along, welcome…

Raven sculpture in the garden

Raven sculpture in the garden

It is rainy/cloudy/sunny today. Wherever you are, suck in this soft sweet air of gift. Rain. Cloud. Water above and below. A patch of blue is drifting down from the north. Puget Sound is an undulating grey blanket, the foothills are completely shrouded. Sometimes the clouds are so low it doesn’t seem that rain is falling, but rather emerging out of the grey and green of things.
This world offers so much beauty. The neighbor’s lilac bush is weighed down with purple blossom clusters as big as grocery grapes. We have nearly 40 peony buds shooting up in the garden. The spinach is ready to start munching, and we laid out a line of chicken wire fencing for the peas to climb. We weeded the beds, beheaded the tulips, and mowed the lawn before the rains came in.

World's biggest lilacs

World’s biggest lilacs

I need to keep doing this—bringing dirty fingernails to the keyboard. I need to touch the green, find the beauty, tend to nature—especially in places not so easy to find it. I have stood in a parking lot on a cell-phone call, knelt down and weeded the beds of struggling landscape plants. It literally grounds me in the conversation and in my place on the earth. I am tending. Tend, tendance, attention all stem from that same source.

Tend, v.t. means 1) to care or minister to, 2) to look after, watch over. Tendance means ministration, as to the sick. Tending is an antidote to all the pulls of attention that stream in from the machine world… Tending is a ministry—to my yard, to my hearth-friends, to what is not connected to the Internet and is connected to the web of life.

Half an hour… paying attention. I know I will put some green-time into my day.

 

Entranceway

Entranceway

 

 

Fist to the heart–Five Months Later

It has been five months since a midnight phone call pulled us into the emergency of our 33-year-old son’s dying. We were on our way to the airport by 3:00 AM, and by 6:00 AM I had sent an email to extended family and friends asking for prayers and articulating what was happening as it unfolded. We flew to Denver. His sister arrived. His father arrived. Friends surrounded him. He hung onto the thread of life with a ventilator, and after this day of being loved by many who knew him, his heart stopped at 8:07 PM, all his organs in failure due to prescription drug interactions and post-surgical complications.

For the next two weeks I continued to send emails that communicated the complex information and heartfulness of these first days. Exactly a week after his death I had four hours alone on a plane and I wrote in my journal, “The story shatters…” I then documented moment by moment that 24-hour passage from the phone call to the strange, exhausted slumber in a Denver motel. I have hardly written since.

The story really did shatter—and the hardest question of the whole winter has been people’s inquiry, “How are you doing?”

How should we know how we’re doing? By what measurement does one respond?

In my book, Storycatcher, I say, “Words are how we think, story is how we link.” Life story is developed by attaching a new experience to an old one, like putting two children in line together and saying, “Hold hands. Don’t let go. Help each other cross the street.” A previous experience, which we have already transformed through the narrative function of the mind into meaning , serves as a tutor to help us absorb a new experience and begin to integrate it.

But when the new experience is extreme in some way—we can’t link it. This is called shock. The world right now is full of shocks. And what observers call “news”—a missing jetliner, a deadly mudslide, a sinking ferry with hundreds of teenagers on-board, Sherpas carrying their dead off Everest, etc. etc.—is individual, familial, and community survivors experiencing breakdowns in their capacity to integrate what just happened into what has happened before: shock on a massive scale.

Narrative is our life-line. The psyche goes into free-fall when our attachment to meaning is broken. I had my hand on Brian’s chest when I saw the heart monitor go flat. For most of the past five months, when people ask, “How are you?” I have internally re-experienced that moment, and realized that in many ways “I” am still in that room where we took an emotional fist to the heart that will influence our lives forever.

I have started to blog a dozen times these months, and not had the energy to complete my thought process. This entry signals me that linkage is starting: I am beginning to hold hands with Brian’s death in words as well as in raw experience. Because restoring narrative is essential for wholeness and well-being, I will write more about this as I learn my way into language.

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Meanwhile, I pray for all those I see grieving on the news, and for patience from the rest of us who do not understand why they are so fixated on the downed plane, the mudslide, the tipped ferry, and millions more private traumas. How are they? They don’t know. Just don’t abandon us—however you come across people in the aftermath of sorrow, trauma, and travail—hold our hands until we can hold the hand of story.