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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

Writing Time

Tuesday and Thursday mornings—it says in my electronic calendar: Christina writes… an injunction that spins out through the year and into perpetuity—purposely. This is my commitment for the foreseeable future: save time to write, and use it to write!

Yeah. Right. A review of the past weeks:

Tuesday: PeerSpirit Annual Meeting to set our course for the year.

Thursday: yay—WRITING.

Tuesday: Fly to Austin, TX with Ann to present a day of health care consulting.

Thursday: hanging out in Austin after teaching, visiting friends, talking about circle.

Tuesday: Fly home from LA, after adding a visit with the grandchildren to our business trip.

Thursday: taking my dad to the dermatologist—kicking off a lot of medical decisions about skin cancer abrasions.

Tuesday: over at my dad’s apartment, helping him get carpets cleaned and other tasks.

Thursday: yay—WRITING

Tuesday: Self as the Source of the Story Alumni group convenes.

Thursday: Teaching, consulting with students—and WRITING.

Saturday: WRITING all day—silent time at the seminar. Ahhhh.

Tuesday: Day after teaching: barely talking, writing only a few emails. Breathing in the satisfaction of the class. Listening for my own voice to re-emerge.

Thursday March 10: High winds and two inches of rain in an already saturated season. Ann is up at dawn to check the damage. She discovers water running down the neighborhood ditch has backed up flooding across edge properties, slurry over the bluff, very real prospect of losing our community beach stairs and bulkhead. High tide, high winds, destruction and hammering by water and drift logs against this precious access to our greatest spiritual practice—walking the water’s edge with Gracie.

I’m an English major, but I know impending disaster when I see it. The cliff is in danger of “calving” and burying our 77 steps to freedom, and the 70-year-old bulkhead. Ann has meetings over town we try to make a plan—get on the phone to someone who might know what to do.

My only writing of the day is an emergency email to the community warning everyone to stay away from the stairs and the cliff.

I call the project manager who has been helping us prepare a major repair on the aging bulkhead; he calls the county, the county sends two road crew guys and we all agree the overflow pipe right at the edge of the county road and private property is not working, is behaving like an artesian well. Yup. Water is everywhere. It just keeps rolling downhill the way water does. More rain coming. No other help from them.

I call a private drainage company. It is 3:30. Clouding over. It’s my writing time.

It’s my lifetime. A river runs through it…

This is how it goes.

Life is full of itself. Life demands. We make the best choices we can. We hold focus—and we hold relationship, emergency, replenishment, duty, love. There is an edge to things—people have to figure out how to go forward without understanding how it’s going to turn out. We have to make do with what we have, with what resources we can muster, with the folks within reach who can help. Oddly enough, this is exactly the theme in my novel, though set in another time and place.

My fictional story is full of people of the land, ordinary people who make extraordinary choices… and my reality is full of ordinary people making some extraordinary choices, as well. It took a while for the gravity to register. Water running where it should not run… so disorienting… and the idea that it would not stop running or unplug itself and then what to do??? Waiting on the county road crew, I stick my arm into muddy ice water all the way to my pit, feeling into the dark trying to understand the pipe juncture and where the blockage might be.

I call the young men of Apollo Drainage who have been up since 4:00 AM when the first frantic calls from the storm battered island woke them. They pump the water on long hoses over the bluff and down onto the beach so that the drain hole emerges… and eventually they find the problem, and unplug the drain and the river magically disappears back into its plastic tubing and safely over the edge. But damage has been done. There is a deep crack in the earth at the top of the stairs. There is a slumping slurry of mud on the south bluff face—it’s not done falling down, more rain is coming. The high winds, high tides, have ripped at our bulkhead, huge concrete pieces broken, logs ramming the fragile toe of the bluff.

The power of water rules all. I stand there thinking: you should know this, Christina… it was just a year ago you stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Water wins.

I am president of our homeowners association, Ann is secretary. We have a good board of four neighbors who face this crisis and inform 25 homeowners: the stairs are not safe. We put up Caution tape and buy and emergency lock. It is possible this shared asset is gone forever.

We bought this house because of the tree behind it and the beach access in front of it. I am grieving this loss of spirit and routine.

The storm passes. There is a day of sunshine, calm, rainbows. Another storm approaches. More extreme winds are predicted. It is now Sunday morning. It is pouring rain. We check the drain, watch the amount of flow coming off the neighborhood. We pray. We sing to all the trees around us to “stand strong.”

Writing time: my work in the real world is to accept challenge and change with at least as much equanimity and courage as the characters in my story. That’s why I’m writing: to use another time and place to make a story map, a model of pulling together instead of pulling apart.

A lot is pulling apart: I am focusing on pulling together.

I will post this now before the power goes out.

The community beach access--a river instead of a path.

The community beach access–a river instead of a path.

South of stairs, mud slurry and slumping already pulling down that part of bluff.

South of stairs, mud slurry and slumping already pulling down bluff wall.

Two foot crack  at top of stair landing. Predicted to break away that part of bluff.

Two foot crack at top of stair landing. Predicted to break away that part of bluff.

All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.

After water diversion, the old, buried drain emerges

After water diversion, the old, buried drain emerges

Drain unplugged, fixed, and capped.

Drain unplugged, fixed, and capped.

Calm presence looking across the yard.

Calm presence looking across the yard.

Double rainbow over neighbor's roof and Puget Sound.

Double rainbow over neighbor’s roof and Puget Sound.

Welcoming the stranger

In 1952, when I was six years old, my parents scrambled together a down payment on a chicken coop. that’s what we called the strung together shed-like building on half an acre in the flood plain of the Wabash River at the edge of Indianapolis. Linoleum floors, drafty fireplace in a small living room, funky kitchen, big yard, a few climbable trees. My parents put in a garden, bought real chickens for eggs and meat, and we began subsistence farming while my father worked two jobs, and my mother managed the harvest, the chickens, and sewed clothes for three little children aged 6, 4, and 1. We got new underwear for Christmas and one real toy. I thought it was paradise.

In the wider world, I was oblivious then to McCarthyism, Stalinism, nuclear arsenals, the Cold War, the subjugation of women, racism, etc. etc. I was a child in a pocket of relative safety in a difficult age. We all just held on as best we could. And then the Hofmann’s came to live with us.

In that tiny house, we absorbed Doktor and Frau Hofmann, their daughters ages 13 and 17, and their 20-year-old son. I was just learning to read and came home with my picture dictionary, seating myself between these big girls and teaching them basic English vocabulary and pronunciation. They had been living in a displaced persons camp since the end of the War—7 years in a railroad car. Dr. Hofmann had stood up against fascism and spent the war imprisoned and tortured; his son Christofe was so mentally traumatized he required the full-time attention of the Frau. Gisela, the older girl, did housework helping my mother, while Angela occasionally came with me, crammed in a tiny school desk, learning to read. Refugees.

Our family, borderline poor by American standards, was borderline rich by theirs. My parents, stressed and unsure how to make their own way in life, sponsored this family’s immigration and integration into American society. Soon they had an apartment downtown, clothes, second-hand furniture. Eventually the family moved to Iowa where Doktor Hofmann got a job as a medical assistant in a mental hospital, and, hopefully, help for his son. We got Christmas cards over the years, always thanking us for saving their lives.

I don’t know what happened to them (and their names are changed here for privacy). They were part of my childhood. They remain unforgettable teachers who opened my early awareness to the realities of the wider world. And it is through this intimate experience that I watch the current refugee crisis in Europe.

I acknowledge the social, political, economic, and religious complexities regarding what is happening there. I understand this unstoppable influx is overwhelming even the most welcoming countries and raises important questions about what it will mean to be “European,” as the continent becomes more and more multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-worldviewed. The consequences of centuries, are swirling around: shall we increase the razor wire or increase the dialogue?

Our friends in Europe are on the lines in Austria, Slovenia, Germany, handing out food, helping to maintain calm among exhausted, stressed people who can barely speak a few words of common language, who are looking into one another’s eyes to grab a bit of trust and courage to stay on the path.

I have no idea how my country, state, or community, would react to 10,000 people crossing over the nearby Canadian border every 24 hours, walking down the Interstate desperate to get somewhere…anywhere…safe.

Even if there is “no solution,” there is choice in how we respond. We have turned into a new age and I believe we can show up for this!

What I know is that welcoming the stranger into our homes and communities makes them not a stranger. Six years after WWII, a German family needed help: they got it. They were no longer the enemy. Now people who are largely Muslim, largely from Syria and Africa need help: it is up to us, the white, privileged folks, to stop seeing them as the enemy, and to react with so much kindness that our actions breakdown barriers and misunderstanding.

I am well if you are well.

I am safe if you are safe.

I am home if you are home.

Dr. Hofmann, Frau Hofmann, I hope you had good lives. Christofe, may your suffering have been alleviated. Gisela, Angela, somewhere you are women in your 70’s, may you remember the little girl on the couch earnestly teaching you first grade English. I remember you.

 

For more information:

This video helps explain and calm some of these fears about immigration into Europe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvOnXh3NN9w

If you want to HELP– support the World Food Programme of the United Nations: wfp.org. They are desperately in need of money to keep feeding the millions of people displaced in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is not the time for them to go broke.

 

*** BESTPIX *** HORGAS, SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 07:  Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary on September 7, 2015 in Horgas, Serbia. Thousands of migrants crossed into Hungary today from Serbia near Horgas. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called 'Balkans route' has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

*** BESTPIX *** HORGAS, SERBIA – SEPTEMBER 07: Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary on September 7, 2015 in Horgas, Serbia. Thousands of migrants crossed into Hungary today from Serbia near Horgas. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called ‘Balkans route’ has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)