September Skies

21 09 2017

                  The last ray of sunshine illuminates a railroad crossing arm.

 

Last night I went for a walk. There were storm clouds massing overhead, but the sunset was still pushing through every opening in the cloud cover it could find. Consequently, the urban farm down the street was enveloped in shadowed twilight, while the factory across the street was lit dramatically, looking like a shining city of legend.

It has been a dry September, despite the clouds that have regularly gathered. There have been spectacular sunsets due to both the clouds and smoke haze in the atmosphere from the fires out west. One Sunday a few weeks ago, our skies took on a greenish tinge and a strange opacity  despite weather instruments reading “mostly sunny”. I couldn’t help but think how frightening it must be in places closer to the flames.

Last September was the opposite – so wet that this week in 2016 we were on flood watch, followed by the evacuation of parts of town at the end of the month (including my neighborhood). A Herculean effort by residents and city workers prevented a massive disaster, though my apartment has never quite returned to its pre-evacuation state. (Due to my lack of initiative, not to any flooding – the place remained dry throughout!)

I’ve been thinking about the ways this September mirrors so many other Septembers in my life. Always, after the rush of August, I look toward September with a hopefulness that is rarely born out – I think September will usher in a slower pace, an expanse of time to enjoy a brief pause between late summer and the start of fall. But it never works that way. September is always a frantic blur. This year has been no exception.

The one consistency I’ve enjoyed from year to year is the changeable skies September brings. The blue-est blues, the most colorful clouds, the most dramatic sky-scapes. Often, September skies are the only natural phenomenon I get to experience fully in this month of effort and hurry.

Sometimes, that is enough.

Of Being

I know this happiness

is provisional:

the looming presences —

great suffering, great fear

withdraw only

into peripheral vision:

but ineluctible this shimmering

of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness

widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,

this need to kneel:

this mystery:

—Denise Levertov

 

Advertisements




An Awakening

15 09 2017

“An awake heart is like a sky that pours light.”  –Hafiz

 

I have this memory from when I was around six years old. It is early summer, and I have awoken very early in the morning. My siblings and my parents are sleeping but the sun, just up, is shining and its warmth is beginning to lift the dew from the grass, forming a hazy ground fog over the yard. I am still in my bed, but the top half of my body is actually wedged onto the window sill, my face pressed against the screen. The yard, the bluff across from the one we live on, the trees I can see on hills across the Mississippi – all of it – is kissed by the sun and beautiful.

I can smell the fresh morning air, with its commingling of flowers in bloom, the river, grass and a darker scent I always associate with air emanating from the old lead mine tunnels bored through the limestone bedrock of my hometown. I hear a door close, keys in a lock, and whistling. My grandfather comes into view, leaving his basement apartment and walking along the narrow sidewalk through our yard, up the cement stairs and to the car park, on his way to work at the meat packing plant. He disappears from my view as suddenly as he appeared. It feels strange that he has no knowledge of my gaze or the love I feel for him.

I stay like this, laying in the window for several minutes. I am aware of my sleeping family in their own beds in the dark interior of the house not knowing that I am awake and watching the world. I am self-contained yet connected to everyone and everything. This feels illicit, somehow – this awareness of a world that is not aware of me.

This luminous memory has remained fresh for fifty years. I’ve thought about why often over the years. Nothing in particular happened. There have certainly been other mornings when I was awake while others slept; many mornings that I enjoyed quiet before the rest of the world got busy and choked the place up with noise. And while it may have been the only time I was awake early enough to watch my grandpa go to his very early shift at the plant, I doubt that is why the experience struck me so deeply.

Perhaps it was the first time I felt connected to everything I was looking at without being the center of it.

I looked up children’s stages of self-awareness and found the following stage-theory, in which a child’s response to a mirror is used to describe each stage:

“That, right there, is self-awareness in a nutshell: that’s a mirror (Level 1), there’s a person in it (Level 2), that person is me (Level 3), that person is going to be me forever (Level 4), and everyone else can see it (Level 5).

Queue your five-year-old’s first existential crisis.”   

https://www.fatherly.com/health-science/children-five-stages-self-awareness-mirror-tests/

I was definitely a kid who had a difficult time with that level 5 self-awareness. Being “seen” was excruciating for me. In photos I am often contorting my face in an effort to avoid looking directly at the camera, as if this would somehow make me less visible to the lens.

At the same time, I had a child’s lack of awareness that everything wasn’t about me. If my parents fought, if my sister was cranky, if it rained on the day I wanted a picnic – these all seemed to be about me. And, if I’m honest, there have been many times throughout my adult life I’ve had to shake myself out of this kind of self-referencing. (Just yesterday, a colleague’s demeanor changed dramatically during a meeting and several of us sought her out, afterwards, thinking we must have said something to upset her – she was suffering from a sudden-onset migraine. I guess this is a human tendency, not just mine.)

Back to that long-ago morning, that sense of connection without direct attention (or even awareness) was definitely part of it. There was my grandfather, clearly in a good mood as he whistled off to work. He had no idea I was watching him. He had no idea that, at that very moment, I was feeling love for him. And there was the rest of my sleeping family, to whom I felt connected, also – all with only my awareness. Was this one of the first times I was aware of feeling non-transactional love? Love for my family that was just love – not a response to some behavior or input from them? I don’t doubt I felt it before that moment, but how often was I consciously aware of that love emanating from me?

Then there was the land – the trees, our yard, the hills, the river, the limestone – I was filled with wonder and love for it, too. The sun, the light, all of the beauty in that early morning: had I ever felt such an outpouring of love?

I remember feeling a tingly, buzzy, sensation in my fingers and toes – I was full of some energy I couldn’t name. In fact, there were no words to articulate the experience. This was one of the few times in my childhood that I didn’t follow my mother around the house blabbing every detail of something to her. Later, when everyone was up, I held my tongue. I knew those few minutes of experience had been mine in a way that was deeply personal.

Many years later, I had a discussion/philosophical argument with my brother about chaos theory and the butterfly effect (can a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico cause a hurricane in China?) He wasn’t buying it. But I argued that everything was connected. I remember saying, “I believe it. I believe it is all connected – we are all connected.” He suggested that was magical thinking for which there was no “real” evidence  – and I told him I “just knew it”. (Of course, science has proven spooky action from a distance now, so I feel vindicated on the evidence front.) But I was convinced long ago on the level of personal experience – I had felt that connection.

Is that why this one childhood memory has remained so cherished and luminous? Was this the moment I first had the felt, lived, experience that all is connected? I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that even after years of taking this memory out and turning it over and over in my hands, it has never lost its shine – and that’s how I know it is important.

This morning, I woke just as the sun was casting a pink glow over everything. The green trees outside my window were lovely against that pink sky. I felt both gratitude and a sense of well-being, waking up to so much beauty. But it wasn’t an “awakening”.

 You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it. –Mary Oliver





Let Go…and sleep

1 09 2017

My mother says that, as a child, I could – and did – fall asleep anywhere. Once while shopping downtown, she stopped to chat with an acquaintance for a few minutes. When she was ready to move on with our errands, she looked around for me – and discovered me, sound asleep, on the sidewalk.

I wish sleep came as easily now.

Oh, I can still fall asleep (sometimes) with the rapidity and grace of a fainting goat. But the depth and duration of my sleep is often not impressive. I am becoming more well acquainted with the hours between 2 and 5 a.m. than I ever wished.

On my good nights, I sleep for a couple of hours before waking up. On the bad nights, I am keenly aware of each tick of the clock.

My thoughts have been casting a shadow on the moon of my heart.

Some nights the shadow looks suspiciously like Donald Trump, or the clashing of angry crowds, or a family waiting to be rescued from their roof. Sometimes it is just a blobby shadow with no distinctive shape. I think and I worry about politics, about what is happening to the earth, about all of us.

I must remember how to let go of thinking.

 

 

 

 





School Days and Transitions

24 08 2017

This week is the beginning of the school year for children in our community. Even though I don’t have children myself, there is no way to not know this fact – my Facebook feed is wall-to-wall first day of school pictures (and that includes teacher friends, who post their own first day photos). Also, for a surprising number of my friends’ kids, this year marks a transition – from kindergarten to first grade, or from grade school to junior high, or junior to senior high. The kids seem to be taking these transitions in stride, but a number of their parents are emotional wrecks.

As a kid, I experienced more than the normal number of transitions in school. Kindergarten wasn’t offered at parochial schools, so first grade saw me transitioning to a new school, with all new kids. In fifth grade, we moved across town in October. In my new school district, I went “shared time”, meaning I spent half a day at the public school and half at St. Anthony’s, my new Catholic school. Then in January, we moved to Minnesota. School number four that year was the Catholic school. That summer we moved from our temporary rental home into a house my parents had bought, and I started 6th grade at another new school. 7th grade saw my entry into the consolidated junior high in town, where overcrowding had us students attending in split shifts (I didn’t start school until noon). In 8th grade we moved to Ohio, where I finished junior high and, the following fall, began high school. After my junior year, we moved back to Iowa, where I finished by senior year and graduated from high school. My K-12 years were followed by college at a small Catholic university, then graduate school at a major public research institution. If I’ve counted correctly, that is 12 new starts – new schools, new rules, new peers.

Looking back, there are several observations I can make: it wasn’t always easy to find my way, either physically or metaphorically; as an introvert, I struggled at times to make friends; occasionally, the differences in protocols, methods, or subject matter pacing caused confusion and required extra time to catch up (or boredom if I was far ahead on a subject).

More important, though, is this universal truth: in every educational setting I met incredible people who cared about me. And eventually, I made friends with other students. But the first people to care about me were always and invariably employed by the school: teachers, librarians, lunch ladies. They noticed me, even when I was trying to shrink and blend into the drab institutional walls. Sr. Joseph Mary in the St. Raphael’s library was always setting aside books for me to read. Mr. Nelson invited me and others to have “rap sessions” at the end of the day (it was the 1970s after all). Sr. Pat Nolan took me in as a bewildered high school senior and helped me believe in my own way of seeing the world.

Here’s a true story, one of many which have left me feeling that school librarians are the unsung heroes of the world. When I was in high school, there was a gas explosion and I happened to be at the epicenter of it. The school evacuated, while I, dazed and bewildered by the concussive force of the explosion, wandered slowly in the empty halls, my chemistry goggles still on. Mrs. Slusher, the librarian, was outside the open doors, and happened to glimpse me at the far end of a hallway. Against orders, this tiny little woman ran into the building, put her arms around me, and guided me out into the sunlight.

Yesterday, as I was enjoying the first-day postings on Facebook, I suddenly received several instant messages simultaneously. They were from college friends who wanted to let me know that Sr. Mary Ellen Caldwell passed away. Sr. Mary Ellen was an amazing religious studies professor. I can remember people asking me, as I was registering for every single course she taught, what possible use these classes were for my future. The only answer I could give was that Sr. Mary Ellen was an incredible teacher, and my mind came alive in her classes. Interestingly, thirty years later, I’m using what Sr. Mary Ellen taught me every single day, both personally and professionally.

To all the parents out there who are worrying about your kids: I can’t say you don’t need to worry. I can’t promise that the school year will turn out the way you or your child hopes it will. I’m aware that this world is a different place than it was when I was young. But I still believe that most teachers, counselors, social workers and other staff in our schools care about the children entrusted to them. I encourage you to keep breathing, and allow some time to pass before you judge how well it is going. Kids and teachers are a resilient bunch; together they can accomplish things no one would anticipate.

“One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.” (Carl Jung)

 

 

 





Making Waves

17 08 2017

“Woman Killed in Road Rage Incident was a Fat, Childless 32-Year-Old Slut.”

You may wonder what possessed me to read the Daily Stormer article with this title. After all, I knew that the website was a neo-nazi “news” and commentary site. Part of me didn’t want to believe that, hours after Heather Heyer had been killed in Charlottesville, anyone would be vile enough to write such a headline referring to her. Part of me felt compelled to know for myself what they said, rather than just rely on commentary from others. It is hard for me, after the fact, to reconstruct my thought process prior to clicking on the article because reading it changed something in me.

The gist of the piece was that women are always a drain on men’s resources and, as such, have only one redeeming purpose on this earth: procreation. Women who are not mothers should be exterminated to reduce the drag on men. This, the article assured me, was doubly true for fat women who are not mothers. What possible purpose could such individuals have? Following this line of reasoning, the commentator went on to say that, therefore, Heather Heyer – and by extension any woman without children or past their child-bearing “usefulness” – deserved to be murdered.

The article was vile. Truly, unequivocably, vile.

But, truth be told, it felt a little familiar. It was definitely more direct, more intentionally hurtful, and less sanitized than a lot of messages our culture sends to women. But it was, underneath the nazi rhetoric, not that different from what women are told repeatedly in this culture: We are worth less than men; We don’t deserve (nor do we receive) the same care/benefits from society as men; We should be grateful for the attention of men, even when it is expressed as harrassment and/or violence. I don’t want to spend this post arguing that these assertions are true: if you want convincing that women are treated as less-than and systematically discriminated against, you can do the Google search as easily as I can. Try “women and healthcare” or “women and wages” or “women and violence”.

Reading the Daily Stormer piece flipped a switch inside my brain. I could feel, at the deepest level of my being, the ways that I’ve both received and internalized cultural messages about my own worth and power (and also about the worth and power of a variety of other folks, whether people of color, LGTB+, those living in poverty, etc.) At the core of who I am, a word formed:

ENOUGH.

As in, “I/we have had enough.”

As in, “I AM/We ARE enough.”

As in, “There is enough.”

While there are definitely people who know where I stand, I have mostly tried to play by rules that I now see more clearly than ever were intended to keep me quiet: don’t ruffle feathers; don’t lose relationships over differences of opinion; be likeable; don’t be forceful; don’t assume you know anything (or that what you know means something). Sometimes, I have lived my life as if the greatest good that could come of my choices would be my own invisibility. I have allowed myself to make occasional small ripples, but I have avoided ever making waves.

I’ve believed the myth of my own powerlessness for far too long; I’ve finally had enough of that bullshit lie. I am powerful enough to change this world. Despite the scarcity narrative so prominent in white supremacist and nazi chants, there is enough to sustain each of us in this world if we will only use our power to shift dominant paradigms. We are – each and every one of us – so much more than just a drain on resources.

Today, I find myself wondering about Heather Heyer. Her friends say she was afraid there would be violence, but that she felt she needed to protest on Saturday anyway. What was she thinking when she left home that morning? Was she hoping to send a ripple of love or justice into the waters of racism, misogyny and hate? I feel certain she wasn’t seeking death. Whatever her hopes and dreams, Heather understood that she had the power to effect change and she chose to use that power.  Heather definitely made more than ripples: when she chose to stand in her power on Saturday, she unleashed a wave containing all the force of a tsunami. May each us discover our power and courage to do the same.

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.” — Virginia Woolf

 

 

 

 

 

 





Our Nuclear Family

10 08 2017

 

When I was younger, I had a recurrent nightmare. Though in reality I was in junior high, and later high school, in my dream I was an adult living at a distance from my family. The dream always began in the middle of the story: the world was in imminent danger of nuclear destruction, the country in utter chaos. In the midst of this, I was attempting to reach my family in order to face what was to come with the people I loved best in the world. After a period of time in which I was fearfully, anxiously (and unsuccessfully) striving to get to my destination on crowded highways and congested city streets, the “thing” would happen. I would wake then, sweating, with my heart beating as fast as if I had just run a marathon. On many nights, my panic was such that I had to “accidentally” wake a family member just to be grounded back in reality.

On June 12, 1982, one million people demonstrated in New York City’s Central Park against nuclear weapons and for an end to the cold war arms race. In solidarity, I protested in Washington Park, in Dubuque, Iowa.

In November of 1983, as a new college graduate, I gathered with others at a friend’s apartment to watch the television movie, “The Day After”.  This film eerily echoed my nightmare as it depicted an escalation of tensions, warfare, then full-scale nuclear engagement and its aftermath. According to several sources, more than 100 million people watched “The Day After” during its initial broadcast                         (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_After).

We were living with a shared nightmare.

However, the 1980s saw a widespread movement, along with a number of international agreements and treaties, that led toward a safer world. Though we’ve never been free of the specter of nuclear war, by the 1990s there appeared to be agreement that preemptive use of nuclear weapons was unacceptable among civilized nations. And while, since 9/11, we’ve worried about nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists, by and large our nuclear nightmares have been centered on accidental rather than intentional destruction. At least, this is the world I, personally, have been inhabiting.

Sometime in my 20s, I stopped having that nuclear nightmare. Then this week happened.

Listen: this is my experience. I am not saying that everyone has experienced the same. I know there are folks whose nuclear fear has never been calmed. I know there are others who are not worried today. But I lived through events and political movements that gave me hope and that allowed me to feel the world was, somehow, a brighter place than the one I was born into. It does not feel that way anymore.

I don’t like the way things have been going. I also don’t like wallowing in my own dark thoughts or giving in to despair. I wandered back in memory to think about what gives me hope, as well as what contributes to the darkness. What I found were many examples of people coming together to work toward a more peaceful vision. I remember the Great Peace March, from Los Angeles to DC. I remember the pride I felt when marriage equality was legalized here in my home state of Iowa. I remember how moved I was to join my sisters and nieces across the country for the Women’s March last winter. And I remember that every day the place I work offers a haven for peace and transformation, where love for all of creation is expressed in what we do.

Earlier this week, I was introduced to the Birdtalker song, “One”. The lyrics speak so powerfully to what is happening in our world – and what we are forgetting in these divisive times – that I wanted to share them today. We need to be quiet long enough to hear the lowly hum of every particle vibrating with one life. That is the deeper truth that will make itself known, whether we as a species choose to learn that truth by walking the path of unity or by taking the way of division: we are one.

“One” by Birdtalker

I’ve played the teacher, the preacher, guru
Maintaining postures separating me and you
As if the thoughts of God were mine and mine to speak
I’ve listened with an agenda so I could prove
All of the shit I believe to be true
Just to hide the fear of being weak

Burn the scorecards, balance out the scales
We are one wind distracted by our different sails
Underneath what’s detectable with eyes
Every particle’s vibrating with the same life

If we keep running around deciding who’s right and wrong
Then tell me, where are we headed?
How can we all belong
When all our logic is colliding
And it’s constantly dividing me from you

So damn those eager protestations on your tongue
Shut your brain up long enough to hear the lowly hum
Underneath what’s detectable with eyes
Every particle’s vibrating with the one life

There’s a field waiting for us
All the notions of you, the notions of me
We finally agree don’t mean a thing
Burn the scorecards, balance out the scales
(We are the land of the right, the land of the wrong)
We are one wind distracted by our different sails
(There’s a field waiting for us)
Damn those eager protestations on your tongue
(All the notions of you, the notions of me)
Shut your brain up long enough to hear the lowly hum
(We finally agree don’t mean a thing)
Underneath what’s detectable with eyes
(Beyond the land of the right, the land of the wrong)
Every particle’s vibrating with the one life
(There’s a field)

 

 





Wherever You Are…

3 08 2017

Wherever you are, be there totally. If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally. If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of those three options, and you must choose now. Then accept the consequences.
–Eckhart Tolle

Wherever you are, be there totally.

Last week, I was on vacation in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. Whether we were hiking to Treasure Falls or getting lost on our way to Piedra Falls, hot-potting in the natural springs in town or hot-tubbing on the deck at our rental house, I had no difficulty being totally there.

But while on the two-day drive home, it became harder to “be there” with each mile that flew under my wheels. Thoughts of the past, or the things waiting for me in the future (both near future and far), invaded my calm and I began to feel the anxiety, fear, overwhelm and shame that signal that I’ve lost that presence in the here and now. Back home, I had difficulty sleeping through the night, I felt the stirrings of panic over concerns (some beyond my control), and I felt generally stretched thin once again.

Why is it so easy to be fully present while on vacation, and so hard in daily life?

If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy…

How bad, I find myself wondering, is “intolerable”? I mean, I’m functioning. I’m capable of humor. I’m not facing the days with dread. On the other hand, I’m not happy with myself and with the daily choices I am making (or abdicating). How long can one drift in the “not exactly stage”: not exactly unhappy but also not exactly happy? Not exactly fully present here, not exactly somewhere else?

…you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally.

I see the wisdom in this, but how do you pick one option? All are fraught with difficulties, and I’ve tried each at different points in my life – to varying degrees of success. What I think I’ve learned is that it isn’t a one-and-done prospect; you will have to keep choosing one of these options with each step along the path. Every time you land in a new spot, either you are fully there or you are eyeing one of these options.

If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of those three options, and you must choose now.

Something else I’ve learned, though I still have difficulty taking corrective action: Every day of not choosing is incrementally worse than the day before. The phrase, “Wherever you are, be there totally” sounds deceptively easy. But it isn’t as if we stay in equilibrium – things shift and change all the time. So we must shift and change too. Not choosing is allowing the universe to decide – which sounds more pleasant than it actually feels. And while accepting it totally may seem like the easy way out, it is so much more difficult in practice than moving or making some other change, because it is all interior work. At least if you remove yourself from the situation you are in, or you make some other outward change, those changes in and of themselves assist by offering momentum. Where you end up may not be great, but at least it is different!

If you aren’t happy, it is awfully difficult to reach the level of acceptance that takes you through to the other side of that unhappiness without actually moving someplace else.

Then accept the consequences.

One thing I know for sure: you live with the consequences whether you “accept” them or not. Consciously choosing to exercise volition: to leave or to change or to purposefully remain rooted and committed to where you are makes it easier to find that acceptance. When I can’t be fully present where I am, or I find it overly burdensome to accept the consequences of my choices, I know it is time to take a hard look at Tolle’s three options again – turns out the distance between not good and intolerable can be bridged fairly fast.

And while taking another vacation might be nice, I know it isn’t the long-term solution. Still. When you’re living on the plains, it is so easy to miss the mountains!