Feeding the Light Within

Like many of us, the past few weeks have been difficult in a way that I have never experienced before – a post-political state of broken-heartedness.   There is enough noise out there, enough being written and said that I can’t imagine adding to it right now in a meaningful way. Also, I feel weary. Actually, no – it’s not weariness so much as the clarion call to turn my attention inward and attend what my friend, retreat leader and spiritual guide calls the force of light within.  Like a candle trying to catch against the winds, I’m paused on the path and cupping my hands around a flame, the Spirit within, until the light is strong enough to bear it forward.

I acknowledge that the many of us who are feeling any emotional manifestation of fear or heartbreak on either “side” – whether it looks like anger, rage, withdrawal, denial, depression, or forced cheeriness – are feeling it from a personal place that speaks of our own basic goodness, individual story of loss and pain, and great capacity for love.

And all of that has really nothing to do with your politics. (Though it might have something to do with who you stand up for and extend kindness to now).

I have nothing to add to that – I just want to validate it. To validate you. I want to say that I see you, or am trying to, as best I can with my limited squinty vision and my teeny tiny issues. I see how you are trying too. You are buying Christmas gifts for people who you’ve just realized hold a different view of humanity than you (or maybe for people who you think are overreacting about views of humanity or are judging you); you are showing up at work or school where you feel alone and afraid (or maybe where you feel there is too much being made of feeling alone and afraid and you feel you are unfairly being labeled a bigot); maybe you are toggling the same emotions as me: taking sanctuary where my pummeled heart needs it, trying to stand with those who have been overtly threatened, and reading and listening outside my own worldview as much as I can, and eating EXCESSIVE amounts of dark chocolate and – in my darkest moments – crappy leftover Halloween candy. Maybe high fructose corn syrup consumption is where we find common ground and come together. Can we agree that Mike & Ike is for shit – even when you are desperate? Can we join together around the fact that this Halloween, of ALL freaking years, only Reese’s peanut butter cups should have been given out as a community service?

On top of my own heartbreak these past couple of weeks, there was added weirdness and a heightened sense of vulnerability when my last blog post went viral-ish. I hadn’t expected or intended that and, while I am happy that a message of empathy for those speaking out and protesting resonated, with the tens of thousands of views came some hate mail, negative comments, personal bashing to my credibility, intent and voice. All super normal for people who are public, but as a not-yet-before public person, barely limping along in my private life, not really believing what We The People were capable of… it felt destabilizing.

I’m better now – my shoulders are squared and I’m focused on the positive rather than the haters, which were so few to begin with, anyway. And I’m thinking about where we find common ground – spiritually, emotionally (and non-glucose related, ideally).   So my dear friends, those of you that participated in my call for the Child’s Pose of Power, Wisdom and Self-Actualization so many months back, and those of you who didn’t – I’m here with another interactive request:  tell me where you are finding solace and strength. One ground rule: Solace and strength of the heart and soul – not of the brain. Let’s challenge ourselves to focus, just for now, on where our hearts have felt restored and fortified.

I’ll go first:

  • Pantsuit Nation. I can’t link it here because many people need the privacy and safety it provides to share their beautiful AMERICAN stories of diversity and hope. If you would like to witness and share in this hope, PM me and I will add you. It regularly lifts my soul with how extraordinary ordinary people can be. You cannot read these individual stories, and the life-affirming comments that follow, and not be reminded of the goodness and resiliency within each of us.
  • Anne Lamott: God bless her. And I thank her for helping me find a back door to Christianity, where all are welcome. Beyond that, she keeps it real while offering an elevated perspective through the small things, the things that matter, by way of asking where do we start, then answering herself: “we start here, where our butts are.” Anne Lamott is the steak & lobster special for my heart.  Check out her latest here and here.
  • Maria Popova is the writer and editor of BrainPickings. Weekly, Popova concisely curates some of the best thinkers, writers and artists on what ennobles the human spirit – threading the relationships among hope, despair and the stories we tell ourselves.  Just this week, she profiled the beautiful work of Parker Palmer, helping us to see the redemptive light that comes through fissures of democracy, through Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. No more timely than right now, from someone who walked with John Lewis, who witnessed Selma, who knows.
  • Barbara Kingsolver, who not only gave us the Poisonwood Bible and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, but just recently reminds us that hoping and hunkering alone are NOT enough; that we must better know and connect with our essential selves and beliefs and values, forming a personal agenda and bravely walking it out. How? She’s got some very specific direction on offer in a very recently published piece in The Guardian here and she’s checking me on my own tendency to ebb towards blithe politeness and fuzzy oblique trust in the greater good.
  • Before bed, right now, I’m reading a collection of Mary Oliver‘s essays entitled – appropriately – Upstream. She and I are walking in the pre-dawn light on the dunes outside Provincetown and the forests beyond suburban lights, chasing the copper flash of a fox on the snow and marveling at the spring’s trilliums, bloodroot, ferns curled tightly in on themselves.  She asks me on these walks, “Do you think there is anything not attached by its unbreakable cord to everything else?” and I look up from the page with a start, my heart opening, and opening again.
  • Above all, overall, I’m renewing my vows with books! Books are my greatest Sappho of all. One of my “bonus aunts” (how I love chosen family) sent me this WSJ article today and it’s reminding me that reading isn’t how I escape, it’s how I engage. “Reading books remains one of the best ways to engage with the world, become a better person and understand life’s questions, big and small.” I need to be reminded of that now, more than ever.

Tell me of your own list. What are you reading? Who’s feeding your soul? (Your soul, people – BEYOND the furtively consumed, stress-eaten Butterfingers and Nerds and Starburst). Let’s feed each other with the most nourishing stuff, the sort of dishes you’d want to bring to a diverse and eclectic, loving dinner party, to feed the sorts of people who would always give you your Tupperware back (with the matching lids).

What has expanded your heart and fed you during the past two weeks?

I feel that flickering flame behind my cupped palm, that Force of light, stronger now than when I began this writing — and growing stronger still.

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If the protests have you confused or irritated …

… Then a clarification is needed: People are not protesting a Republican win via the electoral college.  People are afraid and their fear is real and legitimate.  What they are in fact protesting is the hate speech, the bigotry, the racism and the sexism that Trump’s campaign communicated, endorsed and even promised in policy terms.  They are protesting exclusion and acts of discrimination against marginalized and vulnerable groups (read: women, African-Americans, disabled people, LGBT, Mexican-Americans, Muslims, etc).  There are large groups of people, huge groups of Americans, who feel legitimately afraid for the lives, their liberties, their families and their futures.

That’s ridiculous and overreacting. Why would they feel that afraid?

Because the President-elect told them, expressly and explicitly, that those things are all in jeopardy.  It’s been pretty spelled out and continues to be signaled with a white nationalist Anti-Semite named his chief strategist yesterday. And then, when his more vocal supporters at his rallies shouted out even nastier and more hateful vitriol, he didn’t tell them it was inappropriate or not tolerated.  He often laughed and egged them on. Unlike John McCain’s beautiful example here of disavowing hate speech and racism from supporters during his 2008 campaign.

So Trump is President.  26% of America elected him President and that was enough.  The protesters, the people speaking out in pain and fear are not arguing that. We are in a post-election world now.  And it really doesn’t matter who you voted for anymore.

Let me stop here and say clearly:  If you are in my life and voted for Trump, I don’t believe you are a hateful bigot or a racist. I don’t believe that the mocking and demeaning language of his campaign about people of color, women, families with gay parents, a Muslim veteran KIA, and the disabled totally resonated with you and made you want to high five Trump.  Rather, I think you just overlooked xenophobic, homophobic, racist and misogynistic rhetoric because something else must have mattered more to you.

And all that matters right now is that if you believe in the equal value of all humans, in their basic human rights and liberties – then will you make your voice clear and tell them you will stand by those values and uphold respect for other humans?

What does that look like?

  • It could look like finding a way to tell a Muslim citizen who has been told they will have register and carry ID cards because of their faith or a hard-working immigrant who might face deportation, who fear violence or ridicule, (whose children are already facing shameful actions in the past week) that you want them to be safe. Can you agree to stand by their basic human right to feel safe?
  • It might look like telling my brother who’s on disability and Medicaid and might need a heart transplant in a few years – but won’t get it if he loses his health insurance – and millions of other lives that are similarly, truly on the line that you do care about the health of your fellow citizens, even those that can’t secure it from private insurance.
  • It might look like you telling my nephew who is so distraught because he identifies as disabled, and he watched the video clip of Trump crudely mocking disabled people, that you find that horrendous too and that’s not your America.
  • It might look you telling my friend’s neighbor whose crotch was grabbed Thursday by a man while he told her to “get used to it,” that that is unconscionable and wrong and you are so sorry it happened.
  • It might look like you telling my brilliant Indian-American doctor and actress friend, who faces discrimination in the South, and now says that she gets the message that America doesn’t want her – that we do want her and need her. … Or another dear Southeast Asian entrepreneur friend who was told by a yelling passerby on Saturday to “go home to her own country” … that she is home.
  • It might look like you telling my friend who is legitimately afraid her marriage will be legally overturned, her family destroyed, her child confused and brokenhearted that that is not okay and you will speak out when and if the vote comes.
  • It might look you telling my African-American friend’s brother who drives around with his license in the overhead visor so if he’s ever pulled over maybe he won’t be shot for reaching for his wallet – who now sees KKK celebratory rallies planned in North Carolina and racial epithets and swastikas painted all over Philadelphia – that his life matters.

We are not protesting the election.  We are not wearing safety pins because Hillary didn’t win.  We are expressing solidarity and strength and protection for these stories, these many many brothers and sisters. And for ourselves and our own basic humanity.  Do you have friends like these?  I’d wager you do whether you know it or not. Have you heard stories that have unfolded in the past 4 days?  The sharp rise in hate crimes since the election is being reported. Can you close your eyes and remove the colors red and blue from your vision and try on any one of these stories, like pulling on a sweater, to imagine what that kind of fear might actually feel like?  And if you don’t know particular people in your own life facing these issues, then maybe you could just make a blanket statement to say that your America is not one of discrimination, hate and exclusion. That you stand with those who believe in respect and dignity for all.

You could say it as simply as Richard Rohr does: “For the vulnerable who have now been rendered more vulnerable, I lament and pray and promise to stand with you.”

This is beyond politics right now.  If you are reading the protests as being about the election result itself, as sore losers, you are misunderstanding.  We would not be speaking out and on the streets were it a McCain win, a Romney win, hell – even Rubio or Jeb Bush or maybe even Cruz.  This is different than an Obama win in ’08 or ’12, or even W.’s wins in the two terms before. Americans’ basic human rights were not in direct threat in any of those scenarios.

If you want unity, if you want us all to move on, then try to understand what the protests are and are not about. Find in that understanding some empathy for the most vulnerable among us. And maybe find a way to say that demeaning, mocking, advocating for violence or a stripping down of personal rights and civil liberties is not what you endorse, and it’s not the person you are.

You don’t have to denounce your party or your vote.  But if you want credibility in telling us to move forward, you do need to reaffirm that everyone has a seat at the table (especially the many who were told during the campaign that they didn’t) and that you will actively help those who feel fearful and threatened.

Then call for unity. Then call for us to march forward. Unity means everyone.

Time Takes Time, and then some

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”

This is borrowed from the wise writer and podcaster Debbie Millman, and as if to further emphasize the point, this essay has stayed in gestation for a long while. Not that it’s any great strokes, but there is a good bit here I’ve been nibbling on. To be honest, it’s been more of a teeth gnashing that I don’t have veto power over the whole time-takes-time thing.

My impatience probably looks like yours, like many people’s. It’s applied in a non-discriminatory, blanketing fashion over everything from fitness to personal development and career goals to traffic. And like worry, it’s a totally ineffective emotion. I suspect that even when I press both palms flat against the dashboard, lock my elbows, lean forward and push from the passenger seat, it doesn’t make my husband drive any faster.

I yearn and seek and pine and push forward—and find yielding and waiting impossibly hard. Sometimes it’s the pushing forward that is called for, or to borrow from a friend, “Sometimes opportunity looks a lot like work.” My challenge is – I haven’t muscled up on learning when and where to downshift.

And – annoyingly for hoppy eager planner rabbits like me, knowing when to gear-shift and clocking the emergence of something worthwhile can sometimes only be viewed from the rearview mirror. When I moved back to my hometown in Shreveport, La., it was for a 2-3 year “tour of duty” for my husband’s career and to enjoy a slower, cheaper life while our kids were tiny. Coming to terms with grief over my parents, moving closer to a stronger marriage and bringing in a third child quickly moved onto the agenda, although they are line items that don’t show up on my resume and each was brought about by enough precipitating hardship that had I had a crystal ball I would’ve never put a toe across the Louisiana state line again. Just to be safe. Thankfully, the rear view mirror is sometimes the best one.

But it’s not that anything worthwhile takes any random, mindless stretch of time, right?   Like, just wait around and watch your favorite “stories” on TV until something brilliant drops in your lap. That’s the sort of banal thinking that gets cross stitched and hung in our great aunt’s bathroom, God bless her. No, I’ve been thinking about how, for me anyway, some portion of the terrain must be quality time.   That is, in the great arm’s length of a valley that brings about something worthwhile, that births something whole and lovely and new, there must be time and some of that time must be time in real connection with your own self.

I think this time can look like healing, like an endlessly long and desperate night of the soul, like silence, like contemplation, like being sick under your grandmother’s quilt while everyone is out playing in the sunshine, like taking a “forest bath” in nature, like sitting still and trying to listen and open. But essentially, it is time spent enlarging ourselves by going within.

In my life, it is where I stumble onto or create these quality pockets of communion time that I find meaning or move closer to my own truths. And often, inspiration for finding these times can be surprising and emerge from the ordinary. My friend J and I have been having a year-long conversation about how we move closer towards, and then through, grief. Not just the loss of someone, but the loss of part of yourself, a time or an attachment. We recently went to our local Dios De Las Muertos festival, a colorful, bright Day of the Dead festival with sugar skulls and paper roses and shrines that made us stop and gawk. There were shrines for everyone from “mama” to a beloved cat to Prince lining the park. And, unlike the sad-eyed saints with somber thin candles in the shrines of my Roman Catholic youth, these shrines featured funny pictures, magazine cutouts, Mountain Dew, movie tickets, a bag of Zapps potato chips – anything that was the whimsied or serious favorite of the person gone. Although preference seemed to be for the whimsy. They were raucous and joyous and funny! The kind of thing you might create on your best friend’s locker in high school just to embarrass her on her birthday.

I’d had on my mind a post I had seen earlier that day by a dear friend struggling on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death, asking how do we all process grief? The anguish in the simplicity of her question caught my heart. Maybe here is a place to create intentional time, quality time by way of ritual, however borrowed. How might making a shrine for my own mom – as bright and playful as she was, with a Baby Ruth inside and those horrible butterscotch cookies she loved – lighten my own grief and bring her more into my daily life?

I need contemplative time for inspiration and meaning, but the “making” of life is walked out in millimeters every day. Most of the time, it feels and looks to me like nothing is happening or I’m just playing out a long repeated loop of putting away the groceries, responding to emails and calls and filling up the dog’s dishes. But the tedium of the days is the seedbed for creation and transformation.

Parenthood is rich with both the laundry and the heart swells. And it seems I rarely get both in equal share half the time. This is where the long view is important, especially when motherhood feels fundamentally at odds with creativity and sustained thought in real time.

But we take it as it comes, right? Whenever it comes. As Annie Dillard famously said, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

Last weekend, I went out to a friend’s place in the country for a Halloween hayride. The weather was beautiful and I hadn’t seen many friends in a while, but all I could manage to take in was the bonfire reflected my friends’ faces. There were too many kids running around us and needing food and attention (especially the highly verbal 40-pound one on my hip) to do any more than that. No real ability for conversation, to think through a few looming issues or dig into a big how-are-you-really conversation. We put hot dogs on sharpened sticks over the fire while the kids played chase in the pasture, bumping into our legs as base, and did our best to keep the beers and Sprites from knocking over while also not losing the wieners to the fire. All of which was challenge enough without attempting conversation. The older kids swung their legs over the edge of the porch and a few climbed a huge oak tree, creating a gauntlet of long tween legs like fringe along the short path to the table with the ketchup and Fritos. We gave each other little shoulder squeezes and hugs between the fray, placeholders on the heart. With my physical being focused on the kids and the fire, but my mind free, I watched these people I’ve come to love circling the orange glow of the bonfire, with their struggles both so near my own and so uniquely theirs. The stress of small children, the strains of marriage, the job uncertainty, the worries around possible moves. All this bound up along with the light and the October air, and as we all fed whatever children were near, whoever they belonged to, and kept the little ones away from the road, my heart nearly burst with love for these people who I can’t finish a conversation with.

After the hayride through the cemetery, my daughter, hopped off the tractor and said offhand – in efforts to impress her friends with how not scared she had been – “I want my money back!” I took her hand, “It was free. More than free – it was a gift.”

It’s all a gift – all free and unbidden, unsolicited, undeserved. And we take it where we can.

Right now I am picking up the gifts by living in the long arc of a mountain valley – domestically frenetic, intellectually and creatively hamstrung or slowed, pastured, rolling, lovely, tedious, and, for me, personally fraught with much interior work. I don’t know yet what meaningful thing is being born with this effort, but I am trying to keep my rabbit paws off the gear-shift to give it time, I am creating the pockets for silence and shrine making, I am wading through the granular details of the days.

I think in the time-takes-time equation, it’s one part quality, intentional time, one part quotidian daily tedious time, all multiplied by something far longer than I would like…but hopefully yielding something far greater than I can foretell.