Shreveport’s Vigil for Charlottesville

I hesitated to add to so much of the noise out there right now – especially when so many experienced the terror in Charlottesville firsthand – but because it was both so healing and so humbling to be able to speak at our Shreveport rally for Charlottesville last Sunday, my second home and a place I dearly love, and because my heart has been so heavy and always feels lightened a little when I find connections with other hearts — I’m posting my remarks below. If you have time for more, listen to the incredibly talented AJ Haynes of the Seratones make you weep with her poem and singing of Strange Fruit under a tree once used for lynching at the Caddo Parish Courthouse.

I went to the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s as a Jefferson Scholar, a scholarship that brought with it expectations of not just academic excellence, but citizenship and a real contribution to the inclusiveness, equality among student life. I soon learned that this was a campus-wide religion at UVA – this religion to Jefferson and his democratized ideals of self-determination, honor and equality. I took the history of civil rights under Julian Bond and poetry with our first black female poet laureate Rita Dove. I say this to tell you what a horror and shock it was to see hundreds of torch-bearing neo Nazis walking the central lawn of this campus, my campus, on Friday night. Don’t get me wrong – Charlottesville, then and now, struggles with a racist and misogynist past with lingering aftershocks in the present– a state school that didn’t allow women in until 1970, a university built with slave labor under the design of a founding father whose repeated rape of his slave mistress has become perversely romanticized. Charlottesville is far from perfect. But Charlottesville did not bring this on itself.

I believe that Charlottesville was expressly targeted as a strategic battle site by Richard Spencer and his NeoNazi, racist colleagues BOTH because it is now a progressive city built by the leading architect of America AND because it could actually be anywhere. For outside hate groups to invade and unilaterally terrorize a city that voted over 80% blue in the last election, a college town, and UNESCO world heritage site – (a city also, by the way, surrounded by a sea of red) – is a pointed, clear message that reads: We can take Berkeley with torches and hate just as easily as we can take Shreveport.

This matters to us not just because we feel for people in Charlottesville but because the violence could happen here — and the oppression and marginalization of already vulnerable people is in fact happening daily at the policy level.

My friend Kristin Adolfson was in the crowd hit by the car Saturday that barreled into her and dozens of other peaceful protesters that were holding signs that said, “Solidarity. Unity.” Kristen had written Love Not Hate on her shoulders and carried snacks and water in her backpack. She was marching by a low-income housing complex that white supremacists had been tormenting with racial epithets and chants of “Heil, Trump”. Miraculously, Kristin was unharmed, but a woman near her, Heather Heyer, died. Kristin told the New Yorker in an interview Sunday: “This was a terrorist act. Something that happens in so many places around the world, and it happened here in our little town. And I still can’t process the hate—that someone could actively take people’s lives, that’s what their goal was.”

She wrote to us on Facebook:

“What I can’t forget: The joy we had as we were marching down Water Street. Clapping and chanting and the solidarity and the community.

Then: such a strong feeling of ***NO!!!!!*** when I realized what was happening, realizing there was a car at full speed plowing through us. If my NO could have stopped time. It felt like it should have, it was that big.
How I knew what was happening and I couldn’t stop it. The sound of the car hitting human flesh and bone, ripping into us like dominoes, a quick staccato. Bodies thrown into the air. The anger that someone would do this. So angry, so angry. NO.
NO to the car and to the driver and to why it happened.
The fear for how bad it was, how many dead? How many dead.
A woman supported by three friends screaming heart wrenching. Her scream contained all our screams.
The tear streaked face of the young man wearing gray and a black medical mask around his neck, telling me someone is dead.
His face. Grief, incomprehension, pain, tears and pain, collapsing not able to stand.
His face.”

Over the past several years, since Sandy Hook, I’ve wondered – how long until I know someone who’s killed by gun violence and unchecked hate and intolerance? Or since Lafayette – when will I need to map out the exit the next time I take my kids to see a movie? How long until it comes for me or someone central to my life? I didn’t have the opportunity and the misfortune to test my courage as Kristin did (and I know that for many the awfulness of racially motivated violence has long been in their streets.) Charlottesville is as close as it’s come for me. I won’t let my fingers write “so far” – but that of course is my fear, your fear, all our fears, right?

Here’s what I know:

  • This is not “alt-right” or far-right, this is non directional, non partisan. Non American. The actual right should be loudest group saying this.
  • This is not about First Amendment rights. Not when assembling and speaking also means toting torches and assault rifles and other actual tools of terror. Friends who teach constitutional law at UVA have been telling me and others earnestly that when both the first amendment and the second amendment are abused together – violence, terrorism, homicide are not far behind.
  • Ignoring the fact that there is a short, direct and causal line from the President’s rhetoric and permissiveness for hate to the recent shocking surge of violence and hate crimes in American towns is dangerous. Strong leaders on both sides of the aisle, CEOs and other influencers are now seeing this writing on the wall and finally being vocal. Meanwhile – David Duke, our embarrassing fellow Louisianian, himself declared that the alt-right unity fiasco “fulfills the promises of Donald Trump.”
  • Doing nothing regarding Shreveport’s own Confederate statues and totems of racism in the hopes that Charlottesville’s violence won’t come here is ostriching and wrongheaded and in fact, the surest way to greater oppression and racial violence and domestic terrorism.
  • Equivocating with so-called compromises on false equivalencies – as if monuments enshrining civil rights and slavery bear equal moral weight and significance as worthy symbols in front of a courthouse is another fast track to Charlottesville – or worse.
  • I love Charlottesville so much I named my daughter after it — and I also gave her the middle name Strong. I actually believe Charlottesville is going to be okay, largely because there is a strong and motivated population and institutions that immediately began calling the evil out by name, AirBNB owners who canceled Alt-right reservations, locals who moved their cars to make it harder for hate groups to park and have to walk miles and miles in their sad little fake military costumes, teachers and students who stood in front of their university buildings as they sought to reclaim it for tolerance and were viciously assaulted, and now residents crowd-funding for all kinds of social justice groups to strengthen their community.
  • I love Shreveport too. Can we organize like that together?
  • When and if the Nazis come to our town, or reveal themselves in our town, terrorize and threaten people, maybe even brutally mow down some young brave person, how will we respond to their chant “you can not replace us.” I think we start in the same way we have gathered here at this vigil: by standing up to say, “we are not replacing you – because you were never entitled to anything you are demanding in the first place.”

I need to say how much of an imposter I feel as a well-meaning, slightly crunchy aging liberal white woman talking about bigotry and racism. I am acutely aware of the fact that what I am speaking of is no news at all to my neighbors of color in Shreveport. In fact, I told Tamica there were people far better positioned than me to speak today. But then, I remembered what I read this Sunday morning in the New York Times:

“Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigot-ocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.”

My Grief, Observed

There’s a part of my heart so hermitically sealed that I only know it by its outline, the shape of the welded door, the density of its contents.  I can operate full time on a plane where I bring my mother into conversation, tell her funniest stories, hear from the people she touched, see her furniture in my home and still stay well within the anteroom, outside the sealed place.  I can know it’s there without ever going inside.

And because the grief’s anteroom seemed plenty real, it was quite something to realize recently that for all my personal development work, the therapy, the journaling, the reading and rereading C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed — that I really hadn’t crossed the threshold that mattered.  I hadn’t really, fully flung open the door of my grief over losing my mother – at least not as an adult.  Just hazarding a glance at the doorframe, taking stock of its weight and worth felt like quite enough, thank you.

I come close to it, then back away.  I think I’m diving in, I think I’ve felt what’s there  to be felt – the longing, the missing, the sadness.  But I am only talking about feeling it, intellectualizing it.   Recently, with some help, I began watching myself more closely, and what I saw was that I come up to the door, I feel around for the handle, I touch it – and then I back away. I clap my hands together with efficiency – that’s that, then! – and it can look healthy; it can look a lot like progress.  I touched the door!  I know all the right things to say! I can take care of my listener! But I’m only doing this little yo-yoing grapevine shufflestep, a little dance forth then a retreat.  It’s a pattern I’ve been doing so long, I’m hardly even aware of it. I’m hardly even aware of what drives that soft shoe retreat –  that little dark worm of fear that wonders what happens if I open the door and don’t come back out.

Do you know what’s inside the door? Grief’s real interior space? You do if you’ve lost someone — and of course you have; we all have. We sit on the couch in the grief’s anteroom and hold the loss of someone, their absence.   But inside the heart of grief is imagining your life if they were still here.

I remember one conversation I had with Mom, I was twelve in a ribbed yellow tank top with matching striped shorts and she in her customary “yardwork” terrycloth jumper, both of us leaning against the laminate counters in our kitchen as the sky pinked into purple after dinner one summer night. We were talking about the afterlife.  “I don’t know what it’s like,” she said, “I imagine there is so much love, it’s almost hard to bear. I know we get to review our lives, the kinds of people we were – maybe we’ll even see the conversation we are having now, we’ll see us standing here, talking about it. I don’t know, but I do know I am going to have a LOT of questions when I get there.” I guess because she said, “maybe because we’ll see THIS conversation”, I have lodged it in my memory as one of those crystallized moments. It’s one of the few I allow myself to touch, and I am newly aware that there are so many I withhold access to.

Where it feels the most raw is not necessarily the memories of the past, it’s imagining her here in the present tense of my life, right now. I don’t know how much I am ignoring what I am missing until I imagine the commonplace – the miracle – of being able to contact her, to hug her, to argue with her.  When I picture walking beside her, how her height and gait would precisely measure up against mine (it’s funny how the body remembers), how she’d look at me, look into me, and smile – that’s where it’s too big to hold. When I imagine being able to pick up the phone to call her, to tell her of some mundane detail of my day or bring an issue or problem to her that I alone am holding, or – the ultimate kick in the gut – imagining her with my children, that’s what feels so nearly unbearable that I’ve taken up an almost-comfortable residence in the anteroom to my real grief.

A friend recently posted on Facebook her truth about what it’s like to walk through Mother’s Day – all the marketing, all the ads and brunch specials and obligations. Of course it’s incredible to be a mother, she said, but she’s consumed with wanting to shout at every 70-year-old woman she sees, “Why do you get to be here?” (when her mother is not). It can be an exhausting holiday to push yourself through because it forces you to imagine your mother alive – and then realize over and over she’s not.

I once asked my mother in law whether the deep hole she felt for her mother got partially filled when she had children. She said it did, and later I experienced that for myself too.  But it was less of a sense of filling up for me, and more of a mooring, an anchoring again that I had come loose from.  Cheryl Strayed is right too when she says that this brand of grief is a constantly empty bowl we fill and fill and fill again.

Another friend wrote me recently about what it had felt like for her to turn the doorknob on that hermetically sealed room, allowing herself for just a minute to play the What-If game. What if her dad had met her daughter, what if the two most important humans in her life might have directly known and loved each other.  She said it felt like a sucker punch, the wind knocked out of her.   She attached Lucille Clifton’s incredible poem, “My Mama moved among the days.”

My Mama moved among the days
like a dreamwalker in a field;
seemed like what she touched was hers
seemed like what touched her couldn’t hold,
she got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in

There is a fear in speaking so candidly about the simultaneous constancy and impossibility of grief that we sound too messy, too narcissistic, too mired in our own attachment to pain. I am trying to override that fear and recognize that the ears that would hear it that way are the inner critic’s or those whose opinion I don’t value, who’d have me believe that I’m always taking up too much space.

The anteroom is my living room. It’s a part of me, like my height and laugh and propensity to overstuff the recycling can.  It’s home.  But my story of loss is limited if I freeze it all, arrest it only in her absence, and not – as painful as it might be – reach towards her, bring her through my days with me, imagining her here.

I have to create the space and don the bravery to enter the hermetically sealed door from time to time.  To hold the full weight of the loss of her, and know I can stand it – that it’s not in fact totally unbearable. And in bearing it, I am bearing the weight and beauty and pain of my own life.  What’s inside that heavy vaulted door is actually my mother.

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Python-on-the-loose

It would be so easy to make this a metaphor: A 3 and 1/2 foot python with a teenage temperament was on the loose, lurking and evil, (hush, herpetologists) in my house waiting for nightfall.

In fact, the metaphorical python on the loose is much of the reason why I’ve not written in so long. Who has time or inclination to write about navel gazing issues like parenting or relationships or joy or self doubt or grief when YOUNEEDTORUN’CAUSETHERE’SASNAKEINTHEHOUSE! That’s what the world has felt like – threats and outright harm to the rights of women, minorities, immigrants; slithering attempts to transfer wealth from the poor to the wealthy, to disempower and undermine freedom of speech, rule of law, legitimacy of governing, and basic transparency that even W. upheld; bombing other countries without due process or consulting Congress; toothy strikes at undermining our major regulatory agencies, research and science and technology agencies, our complex interconnected engine of foreign affairs and diplomacy – Christ, even Big Bird and Elmo.

Who wants to read about my tales of parenting or juggling work with life or healing old hurts in such a country?

Who would care to even write about those things in such a country?

But y’all, a g—d ball python really did get loose in my house on a recent Sunday afternoon. And ironically, it’s the tale of the real python at large that’s been a catalyst for me get over the chilling effect of the metaphorical python and write again.

I need to preface everything by saying – we have a pet ball python. We have a snake on purpose. That we have a snake on purpose is a hard thing for me to make peace with, much less explain to anyone with any real coherence. But I can tell you that my son, who I secretly think likes only the idea of owning a snake, had begged and begged for years. After an attempt at parenting a bearded dragon went tragically south, and after tears and more lobbying, I said yes in a weak spot on a Saturday afternoon, an hour before Pet Smart closed.

Life with Luna the snake had been pretty uneventful during her first year, largely because she never came out of the faux cave in her aquarium during waking hours and because I pretended to know nothing and see nothing regarding her rodent feedings. (thanks, Steven).

Until.

Until a few weeks ago when my daughter casually asked, “Why is Luna’s aquarium door open?”

Here’s another important background detail: I am not a together enough grown up to not totally lose my sh*t, when warranted, around my children. I did, however, have a pause of guilt after shouting OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD while climbing on top of a nearby table, that my first instinct was not to save my kids. Fortunately, they are just as high strung as I am, so were almost immediately right there beside me on the table chanting OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD. All except Henry, who thought this was all pretty funny. “Huh!” He mused, a hand on his hip, “I didn’t know she could do that.”

Steven found me with a glass of wine and all 3 kids on the front porch when he pulled up a few minutes later.

As he flew into the house, assuring me I must have just not seen her curled up in the corner of the aquarium, I felt that old familiar feeling of automatic pilot turn on. Do you know this calm, numb feeling of active crisis mobilization? Time slows down. Your brain begins speaking to you like you are a small, tantrumming child, who cannot process more than 3 or 4 words at a time. My brain said to me: Don’t panic. Yet.   Give it a bit. Then PACK A BAG.

I told Steven he had 60 minutes to find the snake and then the kids and I were going to a hotel. Moving robotically across the kitchen like a Stepford wife, I began to impersonate a calm person while continuing to listen to the Manual Override voice in my head. Now it was saying things like:

“For the next 56 minutes, pretend like everything is fine.

Boil water for pasta.

Slice a bell pepper.

Wait – go put on your tallest boots – then slice a bell pepper.

Slice it lengthwise.”

Occasionally, Steven would walk by, sweaty, holding the broom he was using to slide under the couches, and say something I’m sure he must have thought was helpful.  (He must have. Otherwise, why would he have said these things?) Things like: “these are docile snakes, you’re overreacting.” Or this gem: “Hey! I just found several websites that say the best way to find an escaped python in the house is to wait until night fall, cover the floor with plastic bags and turn out the lights, then wait for them to come out and make a noise.”

What kind of degenerate, post-apocalyptic world do we live in that there are entire websites telling terrified people to find snakes by putting Target bags on the floor and waiting for the dark?

With each of his helpful comments, I turned mechanically from the cutting board, large knife in hand, and with forced Stepford calm countered that the character qualities of the snake really didn’t matter. And he had 44 more minutes. Or that I would not be here for the plastic bag / darkness experiment, but would keep him updated on our kids and remember to send school pictures. 31 minutes.

Once, I allowed a break in character, and texted my best friend.

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Charlotte, meanwhile, had put Felix the dog on a leash and taken her baby brother to find high ground on the upper bunk bed.   I could tell she was riding an excited, nervous high – like when a tornado is coming through and you don’t want anything really bad to happen, but it would be kind of fun to hide in the laundry room with flashlights and maybe miss a day of school. She kept calling out from her bunker: “How many days should we pack for? Should we bring food and water? What if she’s never found, will we still live here?”

But I knew to actually answer her questions would mean to ramp up my crisis mobilization, to panic, to climb back on the table shouting OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD! So instead, I added the smoked salmon to the peppers, poured the noodles into the boiling water and replied evenly, “Daddy has 24 more minutes, sweetheart. Then we’ll decide where to live.”

At minute 55, with all major appliances pulled away from the wall and disassembled, and just 5 more minutes left on my internal freak-out clock, Henry – who had been happily bopping around beside his dad, offering his little bemused commentary, “She sure is a good hider!” hollered out that he’d found her. He’d found her by noticing the pattern of her skin in the 2 inches of space between the wall and our craft cabinet, where she’d wedged herself by curling into a ball 3 feet off the ground.

snake

Praise Be! There would be no chemical burn of the house and property that night. No divorce. No hasty fleeing to the nearest Marriott.   It was possible that life as we knew it might resume. And the pasta was only a little overcooked.

During all this, there wasn’t enough therapeutic distraction in vigorously chopping vegetables, so I’d taken to posting updates of the drama to Facebook.

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What I didn’t expect, and what was so interesting, was the reaction – the ENORMOUS, VISCERAL REACTION and DEFINITIVE OPINIONS that people have about snakes.

To be expected, there were snake-a-phobes like me, many who write and communicate for a living, but who were responding from a deep and primitive place of recoil and fear where “no” occupied most of the vocabulary:

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In fact, there were many, many snake-a-phobes — or as I like to call them, normal sensible people who we can credit for our survival and evolution as a species.

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There were some who understandably drew up new, tighter boundaries and taller border walls on our friendship as a result of this unholy breach.

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Finally there were the snake lovers, the bleeding heart herpetologists, who tried to reason with the rest of us. Some approached it with a good-natured logic and perspective that was simply not-hear-able when a python’s whereabouts were unknown mere moments ago.

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In these cases, I didn’t always handle it well.

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A subset of this group tried to offer perspective more subtly by inquiring after the snake’s well being (and thereby implying I might try to worry about something worth worrying about).

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This resulted in what I feared would become an us v. them battle, yet another polarization in our country, when the anti-snakers fired back with:

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And

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Fortunately and no doubt in part to the ADHD of social media, the online dialogue didn’t escalate. But what emerged as clear from the nearly 100 comments (and the occasional queries I still sometimes receive now, a few weeks later) is the deep and primitive nerve a python-on-the-loose touches in us all.  And why wouldn’t it?

That night I insisted we wrap tape around the aquarium. When Steven started to protest that this was unnecessary, that she had gotten out because he’d left the door slightly ajar after the last feeding, that she would never really try to escape on her own. I turned just a quarter turn, Stepford-wife style, and blinked.       Meaningfully.        He quietly wound the tape around the aquarium a second time.

If only the metaphorical python-on-the-loose were as manageable.

 

Theft

When I was 19 my grandmother began showing signs of Alzheimer’s, or dementia – I’m not sure we ever got a diagnosis. When I was 21 her sister, my great aunt, called me up and said – no joke – “You’re going to want to fix yourself a Harvey Wallbanger before I tell you this, honey.”

My mother’s sister and her husband, who had lived with my grandmother ever since their Arabian pony and lama farm venture went predictably belly up, had begun to take advantage of her. My great aunts had noticed that as their sister’s mind slipped, Anne and Lance grew more controlling.  My grandmother was coerced to write a new will in a narcotic haze that effectively shut my brother and I out of our deceased mother’s half of her estate, and took away most of my mother’s life insurance that my grandmother had set aside for us. All a reversal of her express wishes before the fog set in.

I could tell you about the months and years that followed – how members of my family urged me to speak up for her and take action, but each was too afraid of litigious action to join me (this uncle had a habit of tripping in yards and calling a lawyer). I could tell you about how I noticed my aunt and uncle seemed to be medically abusing her, sedating her during the day while they slept in or ran errands, how they didn’t take her to see her sisters and friends or to visit her church.  How they didn’t notice or clean up the plates of food she would hide in her closet. Or how it felt to find the letters I’d written her in her nightstand, with her answers heartbreakingly scrawled in the margins, “yes,” “good,” “I love you too.”

I could tell you plenty about the threats that started when I began to ask my grandmother if she really wanted them to live there, when I involved Elderly Protective Services, when I consulted a lawyer.  How my aunt accused me of stealing things every time I came to the house, blowing up my phone for days afterwards with accusations, how my uncle physically threatened me, his body hulking menacingly over mine, the edge of the kitchen counter pressing hard into my back.  I could tell you how the last few times I saw her I called the small town sheriff on the drive down to let him know where I was.  My grandmother and I were sewing a quilt together then, words having long since failed her, and I would come in the early morning hours, tiptoeing in while my aunt and uncle were still asleep, Nanny and I speaking our own language by making patterns out of brightly colored fabric squares, pins pressed between our lips.

But none of that is what I really want to tell you.  The piece that feels important to share is the revelation I had after her death that kept my heart from twisting. My mother’s sister and her husband stole a great deal from my brother and I at the end of our childhood and even more from our grandmother at the end of her life.  And I realized I had to decide to not feel resentful or bitter – not because I’m such a big person (I’m not) – but because those are precisely the emotions that probably led them to feel wronged and entitled enough to thieve in the first place.  It was a revelation to see that they must have felt stolen from to steal so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I have seethed.  I have ranted. I have obsessed. I have imagined awful and satisfying revenge.  For years I vacillated between feeling terrified and enraged (which some might argue are the same thing), watching a kind of twisted abuse pervert the notion of family, and aware there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The most painful was watching them steal from my grandmother a more loving quality of life at the end, and from me the unfettered last few years with a person I loved dearly. I was still a kid, and am ashamed to say, my fear of my aunt and uncle sometimes kept me from making that long, winding drive behind the logging trucks on Highway 84 to see her.  In these past 15 years since her death when I feel that magnetic bitter shrinking of the heart, it has been some heavy lifting internal work to reject the equating of injustice with the feeling of being owed.  Injustice can be resisted and righted, but “being owed” perpetuates a cycle I want no part of.

 The news of our nation this past week has been so bad, so hateful, so lacking in human decency that I had to embark on some serious self-care triage recently. Every hour, I stopped work when the alarm on my phone sounded, and I meditated or did a bit of yoga.  Somewhere during these little intervals, the theft of my grandmother’s last years came flooding back, and with it, its relevance today. I feel just as helpless, just as outraged, just as furious and just as scared as I did then.  There’s an added layer now, of course, with so many lives at stake.

But, for me, the same revelation applies.  I must WORK to not become embittered and resentful against a hatred that builds a wall to shut out Mexicans and shuts the door on Middle Eastern and African Muslims; that calls eight cells a life worth valuing, but not a breathing, bleeding refugee child; that seeks to undermine democratic institutions like free speech, transparent elections and the intelligence community.  We are all so overwhelmed and stymied now.  We are trying to figure out in which direction to shunt our energy. Every time I open my laptop or turn on the news, I can feel my blood pressure rising as more of who we are as Americans is undermined, more lives are excluded, more is taken away. It would be so easy to allow the feeling of being cheated boil over, in that momentary and deliciously satisfying way of throwing something heavy and precious across the room in an argument – the moment just before it breaks.

I go back to when I was 21. I go back to standing alone and afraid in the face of a destructive force, and the realization that I had in me the same destructive potential if I allowed the obsessive vengeful feelings to metastasize.  I think of where I stood then, seeing now that had I made a different decision, my heart might have hardened around the fixation I was robbed, coloring my memories of my grandmother and maybe even paying forward the pain.

I’ve been spending a little time these past couple of days mothering that girl, that 21-year-old who wanted a real grown up to step in and help, who was so ashamed that she was sometimes cowed into staying away, who felt helpless and feared she had failed her grandmother. I’ve told her it’s all right, she needed more help, and that she did so much by calling and writing and visiting.  I think it’s been helping my heart now, in a way telling myself it’s all right to feel this crazy mixed bag, it’s all right to get less done and take it slower, and it’s actually important to be BOTH strategic and focused when it comes to the world AND excessively kind when it comes to myself.

I know, for me, I can more effectively resist bigotry and unconstitutionality and chaos and global bullying if I can keep my heart intact, willfully propped open in efforts to be brave without keeping score.  Whatever we’ve been denied in our lives: time with someone we love, a manufacturing job, entry into this country, respect for race or religion or gender, our very humanity depends on being able to stand up for what we need to survive and thrive – without turning around and denying the person behind us of the same thing.

I’m thankful to that much younger me with her early 90’s Jennifer Anniston haircut, and I am trying now in these difficult and dark days to keep much of what she learned during that time in front of me.  I don’t quite have this yet, friends. But it feels like there is something here.

And I know this: My grandmother’s name was Hazel Elizabeth Strong Cooper, and the memory of her that lives in me when I blacken my fingernails with garden dirt or read with my children nested in my lap is not marred by theft – it is lit up by love.

Gentling the Spirit, Aggressive Kindness and Kitestrings

Last weekend, I packed up my ragtag crew, sippy cups and craft paper and Batman t-shirts – and some stuff for the kids too – and shoved it all in the miniature van and headed down to New Orleans to meet some dear friends converging there for the weekend.

We four were close in college, closer still in the years just following, hopping on planes and trains to go wherever another of us happened to have landed for whatever 12-18 month job made us pause – Los Angeles, Boston, Memphis, San Francisco, Houston. We cooked in galley kitchens and squeezed into Airstreams and sang at each other’s weddings with dresses crammed in duffel bags (except for when I was on bedrest with twins and the other two put a cell phone on T’s altar so I could listen in). Then the babies began to enter, stage left, and we got a bit quiet and distracted. My friend J, with the oldest child, whipped us back into connection a few years ago with a daily text thread. (This is my friend about whom when we heard of her baby’s arrival, our first among us, I remember shouting into the 3-way phone call “We’re Pregnant!”) We share the minor commentary (what we ate for lunch, whether to do highlights or a glaze or go for a semi-permanent color) and the major issues (celebrating finishing a dissertation, challenges with a child, depression rearing its foreboding head). And now, as we’ve grown from 4 to 16 people, the gatherings are every two years, if we are lucky.

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And we are – lucky, that is. It’s a lot just to be in the presence of dear friends, especially right now. Especially when the heart is banged about with the soul-crushing disappointment that maybe some of our neighbors and families might not believe in equality and justice and inclusion as much as we had thought. I showed up to our reunion with my family of five, a rattling claptrap of Transformers and stuffed beagles and stale Christmas cookies, and myself in a state I’ve self-diagnosed as “Aggressive Kindness.”

As you might imagine, it’s neither overtly aggressive, nor is it particularly kind. Presenting symptoms are:

  • Intensity
  • Trouble moderating
  • Worry lines
  • Predilection for stress eating
  • Tight pants

And of course the trouble is, when my pants are tight, I feel even angrier, which begets more stress eating. And so it goes.

The short, sharp teeth associated with this state can manifest when I: read the news, walk around in the world, talk/not talk with friends and family, am conscious. Sometimes when I am asleep. The “aggressive kindness” itself is a bit more subtle – no doubt because I am engineering it, white-knuckling it with my hot little grip as I try to be a bigger person than I am ready for (or should be, perhaps, in some cases).   To wit: After the woman behind me at Michael’s became annoyed that I was on the phone and taking too long to get a buggy, I searched for her, aisle after aisle, so I could say: “Hi, I’m glad I found you. I’m sorry. I want to offer my apologies.” Then as she edged nervously away, I quickly followed behind her with, “You see, two of the buggies had trash in them, so it took awhile to find one. That’s why I took so long. You see? …DO YOU see, actually? I hope your holidays were super nice…” She finally sent a tight two-inch smile over her shoulder and scurried away. I’m not proud in admitting that I almost took small pleasure in chasing her, thinking if she can forgive me and see me, then somehow it helps that a swastika was spray painted on the Reform Rabbinical School’s sign in Cincinnati this week. I wanted to shout after her, HEY WE ARE OKAY, RIGHT?! I INSIST THAT WE ARE OKAY AS PROXY FOR THE WORLD’S OKAYNESS. Aggressive kindness is a little bit intense.

Aggressive kindness also misses the forest for the trees. Like attending the service at the local mosque a few Fridays back to show support, tugging down my headscarf repeatedly, and also repeatedly asking the young Muslim woman who kindly guided us through, “What do you need me to do? Do you need someone to hold a sign up outside? Do you need a show of public support? Where have you heard bigoted hate speech? How can I help?” She calmly and wisely lay a hand on my arm and suggested we meet for lunch and get to know each other better.

Sigh. Obviously, the learning here is that I’ve got to gentle my spirit back within itself, to reel it back in like a gently looping kitestring, softly riding the currents overhead – not severing the jugulars of bystanders.

So in New Orleans, when I propped up against my friend T’s island and leaned in to discuss the state of the world, how to take action, how to parent for the Resistance, to unravel the intricacies of tough stuff we’d been dealing with – career self doubt, marital stagnation, general atomization from friends – with my furrowed brow of intensity, there would then appear one of our 9 children or 3 partners with a need, a question, a pot boiling over, a Lego helicopter that needed a pilot, a dispute to settle, a lime to squeeze. I watched myself feel at first some consternation around this – wasn’t this the purpose of the getting together? When could we really talk, the way we did when we were 28, amidst hours of parlor games and long hikes? When could we figure stuff out and make mutually reinforcing New Year’s resolutions and do some vision-boarding so that my soul might be soothed, restored?

…It is harder to learn to self-soothe with outside reinforcement limited to – at most – an elbow squeeze and a knowing smile from someone who’s known and loved you half your life. Far harder than the big elaborately wrought expanses of time and space we have come to think are so essential. I blame myself first for this misplaced expectation, with the whole current notion of “self care” coming in a close second. This notion is promulgated by yoga magazines and blogs and spas that say only the highest forms of self care, like sensory deprivation chambers and far flung yoga retreats, will see us through. Not many are saying: stay where you are, with all the little annoyances and gnats, and try to breathe there. For me, it took a bit to sit with my agitation at not getting the wide, open space and time for deep conversation. But then I began to ease into a slow and peaceful dawning that just being there with each other was enough. And with the issues as big and frightening and destabilizing as they are – even if we had had four lounge chairs lined up on a deserted beach – being together in loving silence might have been all we could do. I realized that the heart of it, the heart of me, needed most just the proximity of these other hearts I hold dear. And quite possibly, sitting in loving company with my minimal, distracted, flawed, agitated best is not just “enough” – but perhaps exactly what I’d been craving all along.

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I’ve never had to do this – be simultaneously Woke to socio-political current events while in deep connection with my own self.   And I am not very good at it yet. I am easily agitated, I chase people in stores to scream SORRY!!! at them, I find it far harder to sip chamomile than make NOW posters.   But thank god for friends, amirite? Thank God and Yahweh and Buddha and Allah for the ones who remind us with their presence that this is a time of holding and of sheltering just as much as it of lacing up tennis shoes and marching.

Downshifting into a place of quiet amidst the domestic chaos and coordinated movements of multiple families’ schedules helped me to gentle my spirit back. It was enough to be circling close around each other, passing avocados and corkscrews, the kitchen lights like an enveloping bowl, the sentences we couldn’t finish like touchstones, shorthand of where we’d already been or what we’d eventually come back to.   All the furnishings of comfortable old friendships.

What I am trying to say is that it is not just “okay” to accept this, it might be in fact the very stuff of healing.

Rebecca Solnit wrote, “this is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.” What I lose sight of is the emotional cost to a dual-burner engagement and perception this time requires. And how that cost might circumscribe what I think should (or can) be accomplished. In the weeks after I broke my leg two years ago, I became so frustrated with myself for being tired all the time, for not getting much done, even accounting for a hobbled pace. It took a good friend to remind me that my body was a healing factory on overdrive and overtime at the time — how could I expect my same output?

When I look at what’s making my teeth so short and sharp, what I am needing is not more from the world, but more from me. And annoyingly, it’s usually in the form of quiet and meditative attention, if not downright idleness. Preferably, idleness in connection.

Gentling the spirit back within is not weakening it or diminishing it – it’s keeping the powder dry for when you need it most.

Come and sit, my best friends say. We won’t be able to talk or plan, but what could be said or anticipated that hasn’t yet already? Sit and we’ll peel garlic and start sentences and answer the children and wink at each other over the hubbub. The maddening normalcy of it all will remind us the great underground river of love hasn’t altered course or dried up.  This too is productive. It is, in fact, communion.

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.

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.

The Art of the Enlightened Face Plant in 5 Simple Steps

When are the moments you really remember? Clearly remember, that is, with cellophane clarity and sharp-edged brilliance? For me – it’s either been when something was extraordinarily good, when something was extraordinarily bad, or when I was jolted hyper-awake, shaken into the present.

The first two cannot be engineered. We have to stand thigh-high in the rushing river and wait for whatever life floats past us. But the 3rd — awareness — can be cultivated. There’s a lot of advice on how to do this through mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques or pranayama, which is all well and good, but suuuuuuper time-consuming (and potentially tedious). The short cut method to waking up to the present moment is to goad the universe into slapping you upside the head.

Now I try not to think of the universe as this frenemy that exists nearly exclusively to guide self-important white women aged 22-48 with subtle hints on whether to take calcium supplements or cancel cable. For example, it’s tempting to read two recent inquiries into my age as a sign from the universe to get serious about moisturizing. But like Jesus’ face on the toast, many interpretations are possible. And the universe is a busy lady. It also is true, however, that when I lose touch with myself, when the wheels come spinning off in my go-go-go modus operandi, the universe does have a funny way of presenting a well-timed face plant, designed to make me go from 90 miles per hour to a dead stop.

This happens bimonthly, sometimes weekly, in frequent little trips that catch me up short and make me laugh at how off center I have become. In short, they wake me up. Maybe the most illustrative example happened my senior year of college, running back to my room from the computer lab (when computer labs existed!) in the middle of the night. At the time, I was earnestly endeavoring to run off several wheels at once, finishing a second major I had added at the last minute, writing my thesis, working at a coffee shop and spending time with friends, all too aware of my fleeting remaining time on campus. And not surprisingly, there was some serious lack of self-care along the basic lines of eating and sleeping in the process. That year I lived on the “Lawn” at the University of Virginia, a rectangular quad that Thomas Jefferson had gently tiered from end to end to give the optical illusion of a flat horizon line. Running from the computer lab to my Lawn room meant cutting a diagonal across the Lawn – and in my haste, and the 2 a.m. total darkness, I had forgotten that about every 40 feet, the ground abruptly rose straight upward by three and a half feet.

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In this view of the Lawn at UVA, you can see the gentle yet abrupt terraces.

I’m not sure it’s possible to impart just how surprising it is to be upright, vertical and running in the dark, then immediately come to a full stop, still standing, with a mouthful of dirt – without any visual heads up.

It’s very surprising.

I stood there (lay there?) leaning against the swell of the lower tier, still clutching my thesis manuscript to my wildly beating heart, eyeball to eyeball with the Rotunda at the far head of the Lawn and a wink of a crescent moon beyond. Everything was still. I rolled onto my back, spit out the grass and said, aloud, “Okay. I’m listening. What??”

Every face-to-ground episode since has been just an echo of this one. And each has been equally useful in helping me to slow down, wake up to the present moment, be aware of the life I am living.

I suppose it’s technically possible to gain that sense of clarity and aliveness by working to cultivate awareness within your self, logging in hour after tedious hour of meditation or silence or contemplative prayer. But why waste your own time, like a sucker, when you could prod the universe into delivering awareness with Task-Rabbit efficiency to your doorstep?   The abrupt stop with a mouthful of Bermuda grass is fast, efficient and effective as an on-the-go awareness delivery mechanism. It really can be that easy. So how do you achieve it without having to read any more Pema Chodron or Thich Nhat Hahn or listen to any more Super Soul Sundays on Sirius XM?

Friend, I’m glad you asked. In 40 years of intensive field research and empirical study, I have distilled below the five best practices to achieving your own vertical face plant – and accompanying turf-eating enlightenment.   I’ve tried them all exhaustively and I can attest — whether you adopt these methods individually or collectively, sequentially or by your own design — you’re sure to have the universe banging down your door, begging you wake the fuck up.

You’re welcome.

  1. Move rapidly, quickly everywhere. Do not do this for cardio or pleasure. Rush to hurry up and get somewhere quicker or get something over with faster. If the left lane is slower than the right, shift to the right lane. Scold the person in the passenger seat who reminds you you are about to turn left! Run from your car to the entrance of the grocery store. If someone speaks to you at the store, make your eyes darty and your face twitchy, assessing your exits. Respond to a backlog of texts while in the loo, or while a loved one is talking. Finish people’s sentences for them; they will appreciate you as a helpful human thesaurus and you will gain at least 4 seconds back. Hurry!
  2. Create, feed and maintain an outsized sense of yourself and your own capabilities. Plan a to-do list with this version of yourself in mind, taking care to add in line items like “incentivize kids to excel at math” and “better pursue passions.” Make sure you also build in expectations to make a difference in community activism, make more money, cook more organic food because it appears your daughter is starting to go through puberty at age 9, and deal with your own increasingly problematic muffin top. On each daily To-Do list, it helps to also draw a small box at the end of each line item that could be crossed off – or not – if accomplished. A sense of personal failure can greatly expedite the universe’s bitch slap.
  3. Win as many arguments in your head as possible. Think of it as a whetstone, or weightlifting bench, for your minimal free time, sharpening and strengthening your ability to enact step #2. Suggested mental adversaries include: your neighbors with leaf blowers, fellow classroom parents who bring elaborately crafted treats to school, and Fox News anchors.   Make sure to remind all fictional opponents of your importance and limited time. Find a way to bring up politics. Take things personally. Spend inordinate amounts of time imagining yourself more Tina Fey than Liz Lemon, mouthing your favorite lines in the car or walking to work. Using a bathroom mirror, develop a look that suggests a rich inner life and knowing wisdom, without smirking. Use all you learned about asking questions and leaning in with curiosity to manipulate your debater into thinking you are more grown up … then spike the ball like Kerry Walsh Jennings. Practice whirling on one heel. Realize a two-inch square heeled pump has the best visual impact with least risk.
  4. Insist on volume in your life. Do not let silence in, even for a minute, even at a red light. If you do, make sure it’s the sulky kind (see step #3), the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination. Make sure that any quiet moment finds an interior monologue to continue the adage “sound imposes a narrative on you, and it’s always someone else’s narrative.” Remember Louis CK’s bit on Conan about our urgent itch to distract ourselves from feelings of sadness and isolation. Then promptly forget it. At all costs, resist the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, calling up the difficult views of ourselves, watering new thoughts. This is not a bad thing – it’s just a different method, and one that will likely leave you confused and distracted at best, lost at worst. Dropping into a deep and reflective, observant silence is like a bucket down the well – dipping down within us to the place that is unbroken, unrushed, unseparated from the Divine. The trouble is – you do not know, you cannot know, how deep that well is, and what obstructions lie within. Why risk plumbing something that might be labrithine when there is another way? Turn up the dial, text a friend during a nature walk in autumn, keep talking – and let the universe put the brakes on for you.
  5. Open as many browser windows as possible at once – literally and figuratively. Multi-tasking is for effective winners, single-tasking is for purist losers.   The more you open, the more you toggle between, the quicker your toggling frequency – the greater your impressiveness, the quicker the earth rises up to backhand you into muted wonder and alertness. As a bonus, along the way, you will be externally valued/hated by your peers, bosses, fellow parents and Pinterest followers for your seeming ability to juggle everything – few of whom will see you crying in your car. Mention that you want to write the antithetical book to Lean In and call it Recline – then laugh quickly and say “Just Kidding!” Take the multiple-open-windows idea into the external world, and try to know approximately 3% about everything and then expound on any subject to anyone who will listen, a condition I’ve self-diagnosed as “post-modern asshole.” Run a mental or verbal commentary on restaurant waiters, local water policies, gendered toys, etc. as though you were the editorial board of The New York Times.   Keep toggling.

 

This is foolproof, folks. No gimmicks. And I can promise you, your own three-and-a-half feet of momentum-stopping, awareness-provoking and memorable wall of sod awaits.   Enjoy!

Come to find out…

It strikes me lately that there might be a fine line where grief and longing move from an accurate representation of loss to a habituated thousand-yard stare.

As much as I think I’ve been defined by some loss, I have to also recognize that a sentimentality for the past has long been hardwired in.  I have always been wistful for anyone’s past. (I desperately wanted to be Mennonite for an entire confusing year in suburban Wichita, Kansas during the mid-80’s, eclipsing in its intensity my 3-year run as a Old West cowgirl.)

Longing for something, especially while you are still in the thick of it, has got to be one of those human emotions so far above the top rung of Maslow’s ladder of needs as to seem willfully tedious and precious to many people.  And yet, longing and sentimentality can also be so incredibly universal and normal, even where the most basic needs are missing.  We no more base our needs on a clear, ascendant ladder of parallel rungs than we make rational, non-emotional buying decisions (sorry, economic theory 101).

Because people are complicated.  A friend who is a refugee trauma psychologist once told me, at a barbeque in my backyard just after she was back from Pakistan, that she had waited for the Iraqi refugees to cross the border into the UN safe camp in 2009, preparing to help them hold and process stories of unspeakable horror and trauma. And she did. “But the funny thing was,” she said, “so often the first thing that people wanted to talk about was how they wanted to get back together with an ex-, but now the ex- was with someone else; or that their new brother-in-law had really changed family dynamics they resented their sister for it.” Alongside the tragedy, life is also teeming with all the normal hair-splitting stuff, longing high among them.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman.

Charlotte, my 8.9999-year-old daughter, has fallen off the top rung of Maslow’s ladder recently by pining that her childhood is speeding by.  She usually tells me this with toothpaste smeared across her cheek and missing an essential article of clothing, which makes her existential anxiety all the more poignant.  “There’s all this change and expectations and hardly any recess anymore and I’m growing up too fast and just want to be a kindergartener again,” she wailed breathlessly the other night, trying to get her pointy elbows and knees to tuck into my lap.  I get it.  Having similar antennae to the world, I remember missing my childhood while it was still happening.  Nowadays, I rush to my laptop to work with great gratitude and in the very next breath immediately imagine myself when the kids are gone missing this part of mothering … missing what I am experiencing in real time.  Oy.  Longing for something, especially something or someone not yet gone, can heighten our sensitivity and gratitude, can attune us to greater beauty in that eye-brimming way, can fuel our sense of pathos – it’s a painful sort of visceral poetry.  But maybe it can also be addictive.

My longing for my mother, gone 26 years now, has become such a present and familiar emotion for me, like a sweater never taken off, that I think it is projected through an unease and a wanting in many other forms. Like needing to emotionally pat down friends and beloveds after seeing them for reassurance. Like wanting more of other people, too much of other people, when really I want more of her. When really I need more of me. It’s like writer Cheryl Strayed said on the absence of her own mother, “it’s a constantly empty bowl, that I must repeatedly refill and refill.”  To me, it feels a bit like an amputation, physically altering and life changing, no moment that I am not aware of it, frequently with those little stabbing phantom reminders.  But Cheryl and I (she lets me call her Cheryl) have the same idea – it’s omnipresent and seems to always be sending up a signal.

So, I am trying to sort out where grief and sadness bleed into longing and pining.  And the task I’ve been mulling on recently is how to give kindness and validation to the grief, but examine (and hopefully quit) where I stoke the longing.

The grief is valid and real.  I once told a friend that I felt so guilty for lugging around this sack of sadness with my children.  I’ll never forget the relief when she said, “Maybe they will love your sorrow as a part of you. To them it will be another beloved trait of yours: blue eyes, furrowed brow, disproportional dislike of pretzels, humor, sorrow.”  She gave me room to accept – and go ahead and feel – this part of me.

But the longing is a hungry wolverine, with dirt under its long sharp fingernails, irritated and peeved as it noses around insatiably.  Longing does not have the depth and stillness of sorrow – in some ways, it is a diversion to not feel the sorrow. It is restless and wanting. It’s a bowl that can’t be filled.

Kurt Vonnegut, God bless and rest that dear man, reminds us how normal this is, this longing for more, and also how insidious. “When a couple has an argument nowadays they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!'”

This is funny and true and confusing and uncomfortable, all at once. I know that what drives me to reach out and connect is healthy and useful, not just for me but for other people too. We lean forward to connect with other people, who are then emboldened by love to reach out to more people. Our insistence and persistence with each other and our connections helps hold up the whole leaky, rag-tag, beautiful raft of humanity.  I believe in love by doing, in checking in, in being active in each other’s worlds.  We need each other and fulfill each other.  But we cannot fulfill ourselves solely in this way. So the anecdote is to fill up oneself – but not to back away from needing and being needed by others, not to lose connection.

I remember an encounter at the Wag-a-Bag™ in Texarkana, Texas, coming back from a couples’ weekend away in the mountains of north Arkansas with Steven circa 2010.  While he breezed in and out of the men’s room, I slowly aged in the long women’s line behind a woman determined to engage me in conversation.  Finally, I gave in and asked her where she was going.  A family reunion, she replied, but it was going to be a surprise to see her 85-year-old dad and stepmother, who she hadn’t spoken to in 11 years.  “Wow,” I offered – and meant it.

“Yeah, you know, I tried calling several times but never could get them and they didn’t call so we just didn’t speak.  WELL –”  She paused dramatically.  “Come to find out the area code had changed and I had the wrong number.  So, we just hopped in the car and came on!”

There are so SO many things that I don’t want to “come to find out”, but for sure one is that I don’t ever want to come to find out an 11-year gap occurred because an area code changed.  I am glad for the part of me that is hungry and seeking, curious and excited to connect.  I am working to accept the part of myself who misses my mother on a level that’s almost too much to bear. And I am also increasingly aware of the fact that there are some times when the hunger becomes insatiable, when my longing has me wanting everyone to be “more people,” instead of quietly heading home to do the lonely and difficult – but more sustainably satisfying – work of refilling that constantly empty bowl myself. Then refilling again.   And again.

Earlier today I asked Steven to read a draft of this and he said – “it’s like you are saying grief and longing are separate and it’s the longing that must be released, but you yourself don’t quite believe it.” At first I felt so dejected in that way you do when someone calls you out on a truth you yourself hadn’t quite illuminated.  He’s right. I’m not buying this quite yet because it’s hard, because there is a lot of tangled gray here, and because I still sorta love my addiction.  But there is something here – a trail of breadcrumbs I am following, and I know it’s going somewhere I need to go.  And I am also aware I don’t have to have it all sorted out on this blog.

And maybe all the better if I don’t.