How We Behave Matters

Bullying is aggressive behavior with intent to hurt, threaten, frighten a person, group, or even a country. Playing out on the world stage right now are lessons in what happens when bullying escalates to warfare and war mongering. We are seeing the consequences of avoidant and disengaged foreign policies; countries that have colluded and deluded each other that they (we) could go on about our national interests and not deal with Russia… or North Korea… or any other autocrat bent on terrorizing the international scene.

Bullying succeeds until stopped. And if not stopped until it is very big and dangerous and armed to the teeth you get what’s happening right now with Putin using his power to invade Ukraine and bully it into submission. You get what’s happening in the United States, with the entitlement of white supremacy attempting to put voting rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights, BIPOC rights, and public education back into a very prescribed reality. Bullying does not voluntarily go away.

When I was in fourth grade, I had to pass my arithmetic papers to Bobby Cox, the boy in the next desk, for “grading.” I guess the teacher thought this system removed the temptation to “correct” our answers as we went through the problems. But the problem for me was that Bobby liked to change my answers to be wrong. He would turn a 3 into an 8 or a 1 into a 4, and then he’d make fun of me, calling out that I was stupid, and writing a big red F on the page. I earnestly showed the teacher how the numbers had been rewritten and she believed me enough to give me a B, but she didn’t discipline Bobby. She passed this volatile boy into fifth grade where he took to drawing buttocks on the top of my papers and coloring globs of brown poop down my homework so I had to recopy assignments.

My mother counseled compassion. “Maybe nobody loves him,” she said. “Maybe his father is mean to him. A child mimics the behavior he sees. He wants you to be mad at him, so be nice instead. Here, make him a valentine. You don’t have to sign it, but there will be at least one in his shoebox.” Mom was probably right about the lacks in his home—but no one in authority intervened on Bobby’s behalf. He drew his signature buttocks and poop on the only valentine in his box and taped it to the blackboard, laughing and lonely. In junior high he picked fights in the back of the school bus, put spitballs and chewing gum in kids’ hair. In high school he was repeatedly suspended for aggressive behavior. Instead of graduating, he was in juvenile hall for stabbing another boy in a street fight. I have no idea what happened to him.

Such a child is a tragic tale. Bobby’s access to his own moral compass had been destroyed and while he sat in the middle row, he was separated from the schoolroom society around him, unable to adhere to common codes of behavior. In the 1986 classic, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum asserted that most human beings have (by age five) an understanding of what constitutes moral/civil behavior and he suggested adults remember these basics. His list had such universal appeal the book sold 17-million copies and was translated in twenty-seven languages. It included: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.  Take a nap . Watch for traffic. Hold hands and stick together. Be aware of wonder.

It is heartbreaking and havoc-creating when the umbilical cord to our moral/civil code is severed. As such children grow, bullying often becomes their primary way of relating in the world. Unconfronted bullying escalates in thoughts, words, deeds. And right now, bullying is a global pandemic. Here in the US, fringe political groups carry assault rifles into school board meetings, people have weaponized the flag, the pledge of allegiance, social media, and civic spaces. Where is the Commons, the town square, where we might meet and remember the things we learned in kindergarten?

I believe it is up to us to become the “Commons,” to speak and behave with decency and to intercept the rise in bullying in whatever ways we find ourselves capable. In our years teaching circle practice, people often asked for help to confront bullying.

Here is what we learned:

  1. Self-care is primary. We cannot succumb to victimization. (Think of all those Ukrainians rising up to meet their bully!) We can talk with friends, get reality checks, run through scenarios, process our emotions so that we remain calm in the work of the moment. If we are the target, acknowledge how draining this is. Rest in whatever ways are most nourishing.
  2. Set clear parameters. We can define what behavior/language is most important to us to intercept and why. Knowing our own motivation helps keep us out of ego conflict and supports neutral language. Who or what are we defending? We can be compassionate and fierce; confront behavior while honoring the humanity of a person.
  3. Refuse to meet escalation with escalation. We can walk away, hang up, delete social media attacks. As appropriate, we can confront behavior in witness with others. If someone else is being bullied, or confronting bullying, we can be an ally, an active bystander, a recorder of the moment. (Think of the teenager who videoed George Floyd’s murder and changed the world.)
  4. Define meaningful outcome and hold to it. Bullies may or may not transform into citizens, colleagues, or friends, but their behavior can be corralled, and their influence diminished when we insist that rules of decency, civility, and truthfulness prevail. Entrenched behavior takes strategy, effort, and time to untrench. People need to be creative, supportive, active, persistent and collaborative.

Bullying is misuse of power, and in the world of now, we best do everything we can to confront bullying while it is still manageable in our lives. The list of crises we face is longer than Fulghum’s list of how we face them. Standing up to bullying is not comfortable work, but it keeps the Commons alive. It provides social spaces where children can learn how to be good humans and we can hold hands in uncertainty. In the 21st century, this is a skill we best cultivate and support each other to practice.

Covid 19—the Never-ending Story

“When you go out and see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms,

don’t say to yourself, ‘It looks like the end of the world.’ What you’re seeing is love in action.

What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other…

Let it fill you and sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world.

It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”

from the Belfast Corona Virus network, Feb. 2020

People like events. Events occur with a beginning/middle/end. We like a good story, or a sporting contest (who won—and we know the score), or a family reunion when all our relatives leave on Tuesday and we can “put things back to rights,” as my mother used to say.

When the Covid-19 Pandemic started, it was articulated as an event, a huge global occurrence playing out on the world stage. It felt like we were all living in a disaster movie, complete with spooky music and escalated voices on the news. The virus was a sneaky monster, microscopically unreal, but lurking everywhere. We watched in astonishment as the modern world came to a sudden halt. Lots of real-life drama was generated in Act One watching healthcare systems near to collapsing under the load of need, and heartfelt relief was provided by stories and gestures of kindness and support.

But now, in its second year of ongoing disruption, the pandemic is not behaving properly. The plot is very unclear, unmanageable subplots are bobbing like container ships at the edges of ports. The story needs serious editing. It seems stuck in what my editor refers to as “the muddle of the middle.” Well, if we are even in the middle. And in the early summer of 2021, just when the vaccinated were dashing toward the exits and a promised return to normalcy, Delta variant cancelled Intermission. Anti-vaxxers cancelled civility. Misinformation cancelled confidence. We don’t know where we are or how to live our ways forward. And now, Omicron (OMG) brings on another winter of uncertainty. The muddle indeed!

Attending our nephews’ wedding–August 2021–the masked aunties. We tested before and after–no one got sick. Whew.

Oh, a new reality is dawning. The pandemic is not an event: the pandemic is a shift.

A shift is a much harder experience. We don’t know how long it is, how big it is, or what consequences it enforces. We don’t know if it actually ever comes to resolution in which the protagonists have triumphed, good has won the day, the dust-up of drama has settled, and we can finish our popcorn and eye the satisfying announcement, THE END… In a shift, is the end just THE BEGINNING? And beginning of what? And what just ended? And who am I in the muddle of this? How can I make story and meaning when everything keeps changing? And what happened to the camaraderie when we were cheering for team humanity?

I want opera on the balconies again and clanging pans for nurses, and poetry about togetherness, and thoughtful pieces about how this might change our lives for the better. I want to believe that beautiful declaration of the Belfast Corona Virus Network, “It isn’t the end of the world. It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness.”

Yes, and it is the end of the world: the world of putting off facing our accumulating crises, of luxuriating in our fantasies that some other generation and some other time will require sacrifices but we can keep driving our cars, shopping at Costco, and sustaining economies reliant on citizen over-consumption.

Shift is admitting we are standing at the edge of forces in Nature and human nature we have never lived through before.  The pandemic is the messenger–along with social erosion and violence, floods and firestorms, tornadoes for Christmas, and governments that barely function on the standard of “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We are living inside a contagion of social variants and the longer we fling our attention from one false flag to another, the more these variants multiply and the more serious the threats become.

Shift asks us to live by our moral compass and help one another remember our best selves. In spite of the the news and dire predictions, I believe most people can access shared human values of preservation and altruism, love for children, empathy for each other’s challenges, compassion for suffering, desire for balance. All of us wake in the morning trying to orient ourselves and figure out how we’re going to get through the day in a world that won’t stop wobbling. Take a breath. Stretch. Ask for guidance: listen. Write it down. Make a bit of  story to step into the day. Tell someone how you are; listen to how they are.

There is no predictable path: we are making the path we predict.

The outcome is not decided.

We are deciding.

Together.

 

The first part of this blog is an edited version from the foreword I wrote for The Story Circle Network’s 2021 anthology series, Real Women Write. This volume is titled: Beyond Covid: Leaning into Tomorrow, edited by Susan Schoch, the book contains prose and poetry by over 50 women reflecting on their personal journeys through Covid times. It was an honor to provide the foreword, and with Susan’s permission to include some of it here and spread word of the book.

Timeless Texts from Buddha

This is not the first time that people have individually and collectively been asked to inhibit their usual behaviors, sacrifice for one another, or find creative ways to reach out when reaching out itself is banned for our protection.

Isolation is strenuous daily practice. The old are lonely, the mid-lifers are stretched and stressed, the young are idled and eager to launch a new world, the children are typing and swiping through school. This is not the first time, nor the worst time. But it’s our time, and it’s hard, and we don’t know if seeing the local to global impact helps or overwhelms.

The lonely beach by our house: looking south to Mt. Rainer

And then I found this poem called Buddha’s Five Remembrances, spoken of by Thich Nhat Hanh. The stark truth of the words is sobering and yet their timelessness helps me in this somber season. So here it is, first in entirety and then with some of my thoughts after each stanza. Recite it as a litany of acknowledgement and exploration, for that is how Buddha’s teachings are offered.

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way I can escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.

There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.

There is no way I can escape death.

All that is dear to me, and everyone that I love, is of the nature to change.

There is no way I can escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.

There is no way to escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

feather in sand

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way I can escape growing old.

What’s clear to me in this COVID time is that growing old, or at least older, is the goal. I’m alive. I have the moment. Like Scrooge throwing back the curtains on Christmas morning, I can shout out my presence and set about doing some act of reparation. And my personal lifetime is finite, there is a “deadline” and I don’t know when it is coming.

I am of the nature to have ill health.

There is no way to escape ill health.

This is the truism we have had to face in pandemic: we are contagious to one another. We are coping with our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others— both people we love and complete strangers. We are dealing with our own denial and the denial of others— both people we love and complete strangers. Maybe my isolation, cleanliness protocols, adherence to mask-wearing, and overall health will get me through without catching Covid-19, but the lesson is—vulnerability is a universal experience and impacts everyone.

I am of the nature to die.

There is no way I can escape death.

We die because that is our nature. We live, then we die. Life/death is a cycle we have been learning our whole lives. The upturned goldfish, the family dog we take to the vet for assisted death, or a grandparent with cancer remind us that death is around us and in us throughout life. I don’t know what will be required of me between now and when this is over. The pandemic does terrify me in this regard. I know I could die of this. My death walks toward me and I toward it. That is what is.

All that is dear to me, and everyone that I love, is of the nature to change.

There is no way I can escape being separated from them.

My attention is heightened. I give thanks for every ordinary bit of comfort, privilege and stability. It will all change. I do not know how it will change, or when, only that it will.

(Oh, Buddha you are a hard teacher! In the midst of all this urging for me to accept impermanence, is there nothing that I can claim? Ah, when I read this closing stanza the whole poem lit up for me.)

My actions are my only true belongings.

There is no way to escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

I am flooded with excitement. I am empowered. My actions belong to me. My actions, imperfect as they may be, are the ground I stand on. I work to make amends, to grow, and to understand. Actions define my life and identity.

 

In the ongoing travails after the US election, I understand and count on the importance of our individual actions. It empowers me to look ahead to the January 20, 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

  • People have voted. Those votes have been counted and, in some cases, are being carefully recounted by committed election officials.
  • Votes represents courage. In many cases they required dedication to get out and stand in long lines, risking exposure to the pandemic. In some cases, revealing our votes has risked rupture in the family. In others our votes represent a shift in our communities of belonging.
  • We, the public, are standing now on our actions. We, the public, are sorting out truth and lies. The new government is forming and restoring norms, policies, and leadership in a thousand offices and cubicles. And we, the public, are awake and need to stay awake, to engage with our governments—from the neighborhood associations to the cities, counties, states, where we live. We, the public, and our governments, are in a conversation of profound importance in the midst of swirling hysteria. That hysteria is designed to create ineffectiveness, but we can focus through the noise.

And while I am focusing on the tangible empowerment of action, I remember:

  • I am going to die—but not just yet.
  • I am going to be ill—but today I am healthy.

    Meanwhile–tea.

  • I am going to face loss and change—and I will do my best to grieve and accept.
  • I am going to keep acting with the accrued skills of a lifetime.
  • And under these circumstances, we, the public, the collective, will prevail.

 

The Fifth Grade American Songbook

It is 1956-57, and I am in fifth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary, a blond brick school building poised over highway 55 at the edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The playground runs alongside and out back. We have already learned that in case the Russians drop an atomic bomb we are not to look down this highway toward the Foshay Tower, which at 32 floors is the tallest building between Chicago and Seattle. We are so proud. Little kids, all of us a cohort born in the first year of the postwar baby boom. Little white kids, unconscious of our whiteness, our privilege, or of the embedded injustices of our country. We won the War. Everything is okay now. We are so proud.

Mrs. Thompson’s 5th grade class. I can still name most of these children. I was engaged at the time to both the Elliot twins.

The bell rings, we stand by our desks. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

At age ten, I do not know how demanding these words actually are, or what a commitment they need to require of me my whole life. I am still learning.

Fifth grade is the year I learned to sing. The district hired a music teacher and as soon as Miss Purdy arrived at our door we put aside other work and whipped out our song books. When I Google this to jog my memory, there it is: The American Singer, a hard-cover red book compiled in 1944. I can feel the heft of it in my now aged hands. Songs to stir hearts and minds of little children, songs that roam my mind still today: an entire repertoire of folksy. innocuous, patriotic, supremacist, Judeo-Christian tunes, designed to create a country of white children who share common harmonies.

Illustration inside the front flap.

This presumption was everywhere around me and I want to examine its influence–then and now. I have ordered a copy so that beyond the few pages I could capture with screenshots, I can explore what was planted into my mind about whiteness, American-ness, and the races and ethnicities that created “one nation, under God, indivisible” so that I can continue to work toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Page introducing Indian songs. Underlined words were on the spelling test.

I believe this is a journey of un-enculturation that white Americans need to undertake. It is shocking, in terms of today’s sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, to see the happy illustrations of all white children. Everyone looks like “me” and the portrayal of “them” is distant and faraway. (Indians, for example, are spoken of in the past tense and Mrs. Thompson never informs us we live on traditional Ojibwe territory, or that there are 11 tribal nations in the state.)

Democracy is a process of continual updating. When this country was founded, it appropriated democratic ideas from the Iroquois Nation, held slave-holding signers to the Declaration of Independence and early Presidents in high regard, forbid women and minorities from voting. We have been updating our understanding of America from 1776 to now—and we need to continue. Updating democracy is necessary to civility and civilization. We cannot réestablish outmoded models of whiteness and should not try to preserve supremacist privilege, but find the courage to open our hearts to the transformation that is now upon us and take up this essential task of revisioning America.

Kate Smith and movie orchestra

Beyoncé and friends and estimated 1.2 million citizens, the largest public event ever held in DC.

I offer renditions of two of our most revered ballads. The first is Kate Smith in 1943 singing the new song “God Bless America,” written and released in World War II, and the second is Beyoncé singing “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. One represents America then, and the other America now. Kate Smith’s America wasn’t horrible, it was just totally white. Not everyone was white then: and certainly not now. I pray we can claim the beauty of who we are as a nation of myriad people.

We are all choosing right now: choose carefully. Democracy is trying to update itself. There is fear and backlash, as there has always been. Our essential task is to go forward anyway until we discover an inclusive harmony that makes America beautiful for everyone.

Let’s lift every voice and sing! VOTE!

Using our Superpowers

My grandchildren love to watch the current string of Marvel movies—there are 23 of them so far, and I have completely lost track of the characters and plots, despite several entertaining hours on a road trip last summer when the two kids tried to summarize the whole universe for me while cracking each other up, making mistakes, and confusing the movies and plots and universes. Both peals of laughter and serious debate were emanating from the backseat as we sped over the mountains heading west. How was I supposed to keep track?

Somewhere out west… July 2019

This led to a conversation about where superpowers come from, categorizing who has what power and whether they use it for good or evil. After a while this turned into the question: What superpower would you most like to have?; which turned into the question: What do you think your superpower already is?

This summer, no road trip. Instead I live alongside the uprising of Black Lives Matter and within the isolation of the pandemic observing all that has been unleashed in this country. And I have been thinking about power, super-power, power-over and power-with. We are in a cultural shift of huge proportions, in a battle between good and evil (defined differently by differing world views, of course), and navigating a time when the systems that have held us in domination and oppression of one another need to be torn asunder and reassembled. Our lives depend on our actions now: actions played out inside a society crumbling under the weight of its own injustices on a planet crumbling under the weight of us.

The “grandmother moment” in the car was the conversation about how we each have super powers we can use if we turn them up, turn them on, learn to live with the responsibility, and trust that what we do in our own lives contributes to the big causes of the world. Only for us ordinary marvels there are no special effects: we have to believe in our superpowers when we can’t see or hear the shazam or watch how the strength of our courage can knock over giants.

2nd Street: saying their names in Langley, WA

The “elder activist moment” is to believe what I told the kids and to expend all the shazam I’ve got left to influence what comes next. Personally, I’m committed to “liberty and justice for all…” I don’t have a cape and haven’t had a haircut since February. I’m committed  to love my neighbor and love the earth. I haven’t hugged anyone outside my bubble of 2 + dog since March, and I’ve eaten all the kale and peas. I’m committed to Black Lives Matter. I get it that white skin, wrinkled female that I am, is still the safety default and it should NOT be this way!

No special effects means I have to trust every emotion as sourcing empowerment, and every gesture as changing the world around me for the better—even when I can’t perceive the shazam.

  • So in the pandemic I am asking: how is isolation a superpower?
  • In the uprising for racial justice, how is anti-racism a superpower?
  • In  the economic instability, how is living simply a superpower?
  • In the climate crisis, how is lowering my carbon footprint a superpower?
  • In my citizenship, how is voting a superpower?
  • In my community, how is civility a superpower?
  • In my family and friends, how is love a superpower?
  • In my heart, how is trust a superpower?

July 4th, supporting local candidate–wearing the shirt.

So I went into the grocery store wearing a black tee-shirt that said: Listening. Learning. Let’s Talk. (on the front) and said BLM ALLY (on the back). At the entrance, a row of shopping carts was stuck together and an older man (meaning older than me!), sweet-faced (as much as we could see each other’s faces over the masks) asked, “Want to help me untangle these?” Of course I did; so for the next few minutes we pulled carts—him at one end, me at the other—handing them to folks coming in the store. We’d already established camaraderie when I noticed he was wearing a tee-shirt with a skull painted like the American flag, crossed with assault rifles and the slogan: One Nation Under God. No wonder people were looking at us quizzically as they hurried toward the hand sanitizer.

A hidden smile made my eyes twinkle at him. We were not afraid. Shazam!

I say: let’s all not be afraid to live this change. Day by day let’s find the moments when we can exercise our superpowers. And a great link to KarmaTube for a song about superheroes.

My super vision–to see the light in dark times

 

 

 

 

Maintain the Web

Please look closely. This is a close-up shot of a spiderweb after rain. The photographer, Patrick Fair, a writing brother living in British Columbia, stands in the boggy woods, the sky is slowly turning blue. He leans in and his lens captures the true nature of the world: every droplet reflects the whole. You can see this reflection in the slightly larger spheres, and it is also true in the tiniest bead strung along these slender filaments. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

The camera has caught reality: everything is connected. Everything is whole–the light and dark of life. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.When the web holds: everyone has a place to hang on. When the web breaks: all the droplets fall, no matter how big or small, no matter how rich or powerful, or self-important, or lowly and humbled, no matter how desperate for help or demanding that ‘normalcy’ return.

This is a spiderweb that has weathered storm: this is where we are now.

To safely navigate this time of pandemic we must comprehend that our every action in the every day reflects on the whole and is the whole. We can language this a thousand different ways, but societal survival depends on people practicing this understanding. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

We have been forcibly slowed down and asked to examine this truth. We have been given the opportunity to reconsider everything about how we were living and how we want to live. We are seeing and experiencing what has been hidden, ignored, suppressed, or tolerated in order to preserve the old order of things. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

The Coronavirus is also a web. The virus hides in droplets propelled by a cough or sneeze. The virus lives on our hands to be deposited on a doorknob, ingested off a fingertip, inhaled in a closed room. This could be a photograph of the invisible replication of viral particles stringing through our bodies. We are irrevocably connected. Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

We are now, or soon will be, asked to re-enter common spaces and trust each other to tend the web. Not everyone is capable of this attitude. Some people behave like angry spiders. They have been lied to and agitated. Empathy and common good has turned to venomous disregard. They are armed with a false sense of autonomy. So those of us who can maintain the web are now charged to do so with increased awareness, fierceness, and compassion.

As I step out I am preparing to take care of myself and those around me. I will wear a mask as a signal of collective concern. I will wash my hands and wear gloves to protect our common environment. And I will replace the ease of facial gestures with words of encouragement, gratitude, and when necessary, do what I can to calm the social field. It’s not okay to shout at store clerks, to invade people’s healthy spaces, to politicize and criticize acts of commonsense. It’s not okay to spit judgment into one another’s faces. I step into common space to be an ally, a guardian, and supporter of everyday kindness.

Making a new world together out of this time apart is going to be hard work, good work, and long work. We will all have full employment in this endeavor. We are weavers: there is weaving to be done. Constant repair is required to withstand the winds of change. More storms will shake us.

Somewhere, you and I are on this web.

We can’t see it: we can be it.

 

The Great Divorce

My great divorce is nearly impossible, but I am proceeding as steadfastly as possible to separate myself, my finances, my lifestyle and my future from PLASTIC. Though I don’t know how I’ll get from here to there, I am aiming toward zero-waste.

Plastic is one of the prime pollutants on the planet. It is breaking down into microfibers and nano-dots that float in our bloodstream, infiltrate the cells of our bodies, and cause documented health issues, disease, and death. Plastic is killing sea creatures and other animals who ingest it. The swirling gyres are now as big as some American states and current predictions state there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Great. Does that mean instead of ancestors crossing the land-bridge from Siberia to North America, our descendants can walk back to Siberia on plastic? Go online and search a bit—the photos, documentation, and suggestions for activism are everywhere.

My divorce begins locally at the grocery store:

No more plastic water bottles: I drink out of stainless steel or glass; bring my own mug to a coffee shop. (I have a rule—if I haven’t come prepared, I don’t get coffee…I wait until next time.)

Refuse plastic bags: I bring cloth bags, mesh bags for veggies and mushrooms, buy meat at the butcher counter instead of pre-wrapped and ask for butcher paper. Same with bakery items.

On a recent visit to our local grocery store I went to see the store manager whose office is above the backroom warehouse with a big plate glass window where he can oversee the aisles and aisles of goods he is responsible for. “I’m here to talk with you about plastic,” I said. We peered together over his domain. “There are aisles I don’t even go down. There are products I’m not buying anymore. I will not purchase from your bakery section, from the deli section, unless there is a paper alternative to plastic bags and clamshell containers. I take photos of products I have previously enjoyed and have now stopped purchasing and when I get home I write these companies and tell them good-bye until they change their packaging.”

“Great,” he said. “I know the destruction we’re causing. I see the photos of the ocean gyres. As we remodel and put in more bulk items we’re changing the bags to bioplastic… I need consumer help to pressure our suppliers and companies, so go for it.”

“Bioplastic helps,” I said, “and so does paper… and even more so to give people credit for bringing in their own recyclable containers and figuring out how to let people be more responsible when I know you’ve got all these health department restrictions.”

“I agree,” he said.

“We’ve got to get the story out,” (of course that’s what I said!), “wake people out of the trance of quick convenience that shopping often entails.”

In America, the average citizen uses 12 plastic bags/packaging a day. In Denmark the average citizen uses 4 plastic bags a year. This is because of how products are packaged and served. In the years Ann and I traveled for European work we saw alternative models working beautifully. For example, in the Copenhagen airport, when you order a meal (having staggered off that over-the-ocean flight looking down on the melting edge of Greenland) you are served on chinaware with metal cutlery. Tables to sit or stand at are placed all around the food court area. You eat, you leave your tray. A service worker comes by with a cart, takes food to be composted and service to be washed and reused—unlike the roaming garbage carts of American airports and malls.

I tell this story over and over again, especially while talking with strangers at the grocery store, engaging in friendly peer education. I have purchased my own supply of 100 small brown paper bags and 100 waxed paper sandwich baggies, so I have enough to use in the bulk aisles and enough to share with the next interested person. Spreading the word and the alternative.

My next step is to start placing post-it notes around places where I shop.

It cost me $13.83 for 100 of these. I can afford that. And doing something directly feels more empowered than signing Internet petitions. The little notes don’t hurt anything. I expect them to disappear. I hope my community will get into the spirit of many tiny actions equaling some kind of impact. And I appreciate that my local store manager is thinking about similar things, that we can be in dialogue and take action together.

Angeles Arrien said, “to heal a situation we must be able to speak about it.” I’m talking about plastic. I’m talking about the dilemma we find ourselves in. I’m refusing to buy plastic toys or gifts these coming holidays. I’m encouraging folks around me to take the issue seriously and practice it lightly–waking each other up. And I’m adding, “to change a situation we must be able to imagine the alternative.”

I’m imagining… What are you imagining? We can do this.

 

 

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.