Our Nuclear Family


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)



When the Dog Bites

This looks a lot like the little yapper that bit me.

So, Thursday evening, I got bitten by a dog. It was my first real dog bite ever, and from a complete stranger dog, too.  Last night as I arrived home late from visiting a friend, I was approached by a man I’d never seen before as I parked my car – he wanted money and couldn’t understand why I refused to get out of my vehicle after he assured me, “I’m a good guy, I promise!” (I was fine, I opened the window a crack and passed him the only dollar I had. I watched until he was a full block away before turning off the ignition and going inside). Today, I inadvertently left my favorite gloves on the fender of my bike while locking the bike to a rack. When I returned to the bike: yep. Totally stolen.

But am I going to let these things harsh my buzz? No way. Because today I am focused on the things that make me happy.

Instead of the dog bite, I’m thinking about the awesome weekend I had with friends and family. Hanging out with Sara and her kids helped me truly relax. Friday’s dinner with my brother Jeff and his wife Marsha was particularly special because it served as a reunion between Jeff and our friend Mike after decades apart. I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the blessing of positive health news on all three family members about whom I’ve been concerned – a late-night panhandler can have my last dollar in light of that! The kindness of a stranger who wrote a personal note to me in a rejection letter or my coworkers bringing me information about low-cost services are good counterbalance to the theft of my gloves.

Earlier today I read a post on Allison Vesterfelt’s blog (This is Where Your Fear Comes From) in which she recounts watching an interaction between a mother and child in which it appears that the mother, in an attempt to reassure her child, actually convinces the perfectly content child to be afraid. Allison’s “AHA” that fear is a learned response got me thinking about how so many of our reactions to life’s events, big and small, are learned responses. And once we’ve learned to respond in a particular manner, we practice it until it is habitual.

If you’ve been following Jenion since I moved to Minneapolis, you’re aware that I’ve been living in two different realities at once – the reality of loving my new life and new city, engaging with new experiences and people; and also the reality of panic, fear and loneliness. Here’s the thing: most of my life I practiced what I learned as a kid and I got really good at risk aversion/avoidance, waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling insecure, and worrying about bad things that could happen. Then, I experienced life-altering change, and began developing new skills like optimism, trust, confidence in my ability to figure things out. Also a belief that joy is readily available if I choose it. But these are fledgling skills, neither as strong nor as ingrained as the others. So I struggle to keep them active, to make them the default instead of the less-helpful skills I’m valedictorian of.

The lyrics of the song “Pompeii” by Bastille perfectly illustrate my conundrum these past few months:

I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above…

A pretty bleak picture, that. But the song goes on to ask what, for me, is an all-important question, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” 

No matter what we may have been told in the past, optimism and pessimism are not mutually exclusive or immutable traits with which we are hard-wired. You may, like my sister Gwen, be born with a disposition that bubbles with laughter. Or you might have an Eeyore-like tendency to overemphasize that which is glum. But these are predispositions, not personality requirements. We can practice rewiring our thinking, keeping the best traits of both optimism and pessimism, thereby impacting our physical and emotional health for the better. “Both personalities could use a little bit of one another to really keep an individual at peak health. The optimist needs the caution of the pessimist, and the pessimist needs the drive of the optimist. For well-balanced health, the middle road is the ideal way to go.” (“How being an optimist or a pessimist affects your health”)

So, since I may have been describing myself, above, instead of Eeyore, I am taking my cue from Bastille’s “Pompeii”. Whenever the negative threatens to overwhelm me, I’m asking, “How AM I going to be an optimist about this?” The truly amazing thing is that I can usually come up with workable answers. Answers that allow me to invest my energy in skills and beliefs that take me out of the anxious reality and back into the engaging one. Because there’s no question which one I – or any of us, really – would prefer to live in, is there?