Come on Out

Yesterday I outed myself as “woo” to my new colleagues, and you know what? They didn’t bat an eye. One wants to have coffee to learn more. Another wants one of my services.

With Pride Month in full swing, I’m reminded of the closets where I used to hide, in so many ways.

Back in the early 1990s, when I entered the workforce, I felt I needed to hide most of who I was. Most tragically, I pretended my beloved was my roommate. That’s what we did back then (in that town anyway).

I also hid my spiritual bent, my tender underbelly, my writerly aspirations. Interacting that way was like trying to fly with one wing.

What a relief, nearly 30 years later, to find that having a wife instead of a husband is a nonissue for everyone in my ever-widening circle. And to be able to talk about transgender loved ones as well.

And what joy to feel appreciated for all of who I am.

Where are you with that? Do you feel safe to bring all of you to your endeavors? It’s an energizing proposition. One I wouldn’t have expected, at many points in my life.

What would happen if we all came out as … ourselves? If we let our sweet inner weird kids come out and play?

Long ago a counselor told me something about myself that made me cry. He spoke of a Persian proverb that goes something like: “If you have two loaves of bread, you must sell one and buy a flower.” He said it meant that we need both bread for the body, and a flower for the soul.

He said, “You are our flower.

Which still makes me tear up.

20180607_202926

Open up, little flower.

 

The Shape of Redemption

Have you seen The Shape of Water, that marvelously innovative film with atmosphere that just won’t quit? Mostly I loved it. So lush and creative!

The film has been lauded as a modern fairy tale about embracing the “other”—with characters who are all outsiders (monster, mute woman, gay man, African American woman) banding together in the name of love.

But: I was disappointed in the ending.

Spoiler alert. I’m going to reveal the ending.

monster

Here’s my thinking: The monster/amphibian man/Amazonian river god could have emerged as a true hero if the last five minutes of the film had gone differently. Sure, the Hollywood ending works—he slashes the throat of the man who shot him and his beloved. He exacts revenge for torture and imprisonment as well as the final insult of murder. He gets the girl and even brings her back to life in a dreamy underwater scene.

Satisfying, on one level.

But I was rooting for something really innovative. The god-man’s foil is the heartless Colonel, who throughout the film jabs the “asset” with a cattle prod. Faced with the “other,” this white man persists in cynically disbelieving that he might have anything to learn.

Throughout the film I watched the villain suffer both emotionally and physically—while the river god-man turned out to have bona fide healing powers. And I thought that maybe, just this once, Hollywood might surprise me.

5806126162_70978be261_z

Amazon River photo by Mariusz Kluzniak, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Maybe it didn’t have to be all “kill the bad guy” this time. Maybe the river-god would turn out to be a true healer. He could turn to the man who had made his life hell, recognize his suffering, and show him something different, reveal a whole new worldview.

The transformative power of love—real love, not just the limited “I-need-you-you’re-mine” romantic variety—would surely alter the Colonel. The fingers the river-god had bitten off could be regrown. Healing and forgiveness would pack even more punch than a vengeful, justifiable slash to the throat.

It sounds sappy, maybe, or wispy. But compassion doesn’t equate weakness in my mind. And it doesn’t have to be exercised without muscle. Say the villain, fingers restored, still lashes out in violence instead of bowing down to the greater power of love. The river-god could contain him, without hurting him physically, understanding that his suffering is of a different sort. The kind that takes longer to heal.

I’m aware that it’s largely my privileged and coddled life that allows me to think this way: Never having confronted true evil, I am free to look for the sliver of light I believe everyone possesses. To watch for the wounds beneath the villainy. To consider the villain as more than just the sum total of evil acts.

I am free to call for transformation, never having been on the receiving end of violence.
But there are people who’ve been there. People like Immaculee Ilibagiza, who survived genocide in Rwanda and brings a message of forgiveness now.

Or Phan Thi Kim Phuc, Vietnam’s “napalm girl” who, years later, embraced the man who ordered the bombing of her village.

Their courageous example tells me that this impulse toward healing over vengeance is possible, and that I’m not wrong in seeking it. And maybe it isn’t only about effecting change in a “villain”—change that may or may not happen. Maybe it’s about the transformation arising in the one who holds compassion.

It’s just a movie, you might say (back to Shape of Water). Let the ending stand unquestioned. It’s what we’ve come to expect. After all, the same theme turns up in countless novels, song cycles, video games, operas, paintings, on and on. It’s the theme that’s driven Western society for eons: that we overcome by force and domination.

20170928_092552

Not the Amazon. A river I’ve visited, with its own transformative healing power.

But the cultural myth we live by is shifting, and needs to shift, and it’s time for our cultural expressions to reflect that. Who better but the artists to explore and embody a new Story of Reunion, as Charles Eisenstein puts it?

Note: For more on the transformative power of compassion, check out the Forgiveness Project, a powerful collection of stories from all over the world. 

 

A New Chapter

Here’s what’s been on my mind lately. Stewardship. What is the best use of my time, money, and energy? I work this problem all the time, attempting to follow my soul’s leading and my body’s wisdom.

Which brings me to a new development: A dozen years after leaving corporate life, I’m reentering the workforce. This time around, no pharmaceutical company. This time, my work will completely align with who I am. In fact, I was inspired to apply for a part-time communications position at the nonprofit Central Indiana Land Trust largely because of its stewardship mission. (I start at CILTI May 1!)

20180422_113343 (768x1024)

Tulip poplar, Indiana’s state tree because it was used for so many log cabins, stands straight and tall on land protected in perpetuity.

“Stewardship of the kingdom” is a Christian value I absorbed from a young age. In Mennonite circles, stewardship ranks pretty high on an unwritten list of What Makes a Good Mennonite. We don’t discard things lightly at my house, even though I’m years away from my Mennonite upbringing.

I had the example of my parents: Mom who hated to waste air-conditioned air on a wide-open doorway, Dad who contrived creative ways to get the last drip of salad dressing from the bottle. Dad also volunteered extensively with CILTI, finding its vision a match for his passions. So it’s sort of in my blood—this impulse to conserve, tend, preserve.

(These days, I wouldn’t call it “stewarding the kingdom.” That phrase denotes a dominion mindset that no longer rings true. Here in my state, some controversial logging invokes stewardship as a rationale.)

Back to my new workplace: Sunday, I joined a CILTI-led guided hike of the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve, a portion of which is old growth forest. Old growth means it has been forest for thousands of years.

20180422_115107 (768x1024)

Love the color of this fungus, which I can’t ID. Anyone?

The preserve was donated to the Nature Conservancy before it was even the Nature Conservancy, and given to the DNR under the 1967 Nature Preserves Act, protecting it from development forever. It’s the site of tons of studies, along with scads of spring wildflowers and ginormous trees.

20180422_110439 (768x1024)

Trout lily in bloom at Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve.

It was downright moving to hear executive director Cliff Chapman give the wider perspective on CILTI’s work. And it has everything to do with seeing a tree as an organism, not an economic commodity.

20180422_115026 (768x1024)

One of many fallen trees left to decompose as “nurse logs” for other species.

The goal is to buffer the 28-acre old growth forest with new trees, spanning hundreds of acres. Cliff pointed out a nearby field that he would like to see planted with trees and monitored.

20180422_115737 (1024x768)

A field beyond the border of Shrader-Weaver that may someday be put into trees.

Why undertake such a task? Well, consider the birds. Brown-headed cowbirds thrive in the edges of natural woodlands. They lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and other migrating birds. That wouldn’t significantly affect warbler population if habitats weren’t so fragmented. But warblers fly into places like Shrader-Weaver, and cowbirds fly out. These little underdog birds need to reproduce, or their numbers will dwindle away.

The answer is to unfragment the wild. Bigger patches of habitat give migrating birds more cover.

Beetles, spiders, fungus, all manner of rare plants all thrive in such a place as well. And in what sometimes seems like the last days of biodiversity (how many bugs went splat on your windshield on your last road trip?)—protecting them becomes even more critical.

How do we imagine that humans can thrive when our kin—winged, petaled, myceliated, rooted, scaled—collapse all around us? And who would want to live in that kind of world anyway?

We’ve got to start embracing other species not as “resources” but as organisms. Each has its own life and its own role intrinsic to its being. It doesn’t exist to serve us.

And knowing this can heal some of the painful loneliness of modern life, where we walk around feeling like nonbelongers on the land that sustains us whether we acknowledge it or not.

Speaking of embracing: When Cliff gave a one-armed bro-hug to a big old Shumard Red Oak, I thought: I am joining the right team.

More info: See the CILTI website to learn all about their stellar work (soon to be our stellar work!) Here’s a blog post I wrote about Dad’s volunteer work with this organization.

More Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

A few weeks ago I gave a rundown of some hardwon lessons in the anxiety arena. Then a friend messaged me her experience, and I realized I left some things out of the picture. So: some more tips below.

  • Try a beta blocker. “If you find yourself too overwhelmed to practice those natural self-care techniques, you might benefit from a beta blocker such as propranolol, a drug that reduces the physical symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety. It lowers your blood pressure and slows your racing heart. Finding relief from those physical symptoms can give you the space you need to recover your energy and focus on more healthful habits.” —tip from a friend
  • Go the supplement route. 5-HTP, a naturally occurring amino acid, is a serotonin precursor. B vitamins also are my go-to (I favor a high-quality combo called Thera-B). I have just restarted these myself due to some situational stress in my life.
  • Calm your nervous system down using energy work. This is so foundational for me that apparently I completely forgot to note it down last time. Here is a good video showing several ways to calm the Triple Warmer meridian, which governs fight/flight/freeze. Most of us walk around in a state of overstimulation, with our nervous systems on overdrive. Even if we don’t think we’re in fight-or-flight, chances are our Triple Warmer wants calming.
  • Take a news fast. I mentioned limiting social media and online media, but sometimes we need a break from all of it to restore our resilience. Remember that the corporate media machine is geared toward hooking you. I favor media like Yes magazine to help me see broader trends. I might not be on top of the latest tweets and twaddles, but I maintain my balance, and stay informed in my own way.
  • Speak truth to power. I mentioned taking action last time, but leaned toward the feelgood stuff. Yet sometimes the most challenging thing, the action that seems to spike our anxiety, might be exactly what we need to do to reclaim ourselves.
  • Make space for discomfort. (Only if it isn’t overwhelming.) As transformation guide Lee Harris puts it in this video:

    “We are stronger when we allow ourselves to sit with hopelessness and helplessness from time to time. As it is often our energetic undercurrents (grief, sadness, frustration) that are the very energies we need to sit and be with (or learn how to support), in order to rise into the next place we want to go…”

  • Finally, consider anxiety a call. I don’t think this perspective from novelist Walter Percy makes light of the pain of living with a mood disorder, but recognizes it as a possible gateway:

    “Anxiety is, under one frame of reference, a symptom to be gotten rid of; under the other, it may be a summons to an authentic existence, to be heeded at any cost.”

20180417_131914 (1024x768)

More tips from the 14-year-old daughter of a friend who attended my Sheroes in Everywoman workshop this week.

As always, please add your thoughts and any tips of your own in the comments!

Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

20180402_080217 (768x1024)

You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

20180404_130910 (1024x768)

Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

20180404_131042 (768x1024)

Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

20180404_133655 (1024x768)

I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler

 

Ephemeral Nature

The “radical ephemerality of the mind.” That’s a phrase from yesterday morning’s yoga class, which kicked off a spring day when the snow just fell and fell.

I happen to love snow, no matter when it falls on the calendar, no matter if it’s wet and sloppy or airy and feathery. Snow brings out the little kid in me. Not for me the grousing of most folks confronted with a late-season blizzard.

In fact, I notice that I want a storm to last longer, snow harder, more more more. Never mind if it means I need to shovel longer/harder/more. There’s still this internal clinging. I believe the Buddhists would call that attachment.

It’s just: I like the draping of snow over every twig and berry. I want that to stay. I want to fill my eyes with that clean beauty. It’s even more precious for being so fleeting. (A few years ago when we were in the deep freeze with that Arctic Vortex, I hated the extreme cold but loved the way it preserved the softness of snow.)

Today I woke up to a different kind of loveliness, with wind and sun conspiring to wipe the snow off every limb. I got out for my walk as soon as I could.

scene 1 (1024x768).jpg

Watching the ephemerality of  nature (and my mind), I noticed my tendency to focus on past and future moments instead of NOW. Like: This creek view reminded me how I walked on it when it was frozen solid a few months ago. That was another moment I wanted to last forever.

scene 2 (768x1024).jpg

I decided I would continually draw my attention to the here and now, instead of mentally wishing for something to last beyond its particular moment. “Be where your feet are,” is something I remember Anne Lamott saying, and in my Yak-traxed boots, I did my best.

scene 3.jpg

The same wind that chilled my face and kicked up snow like desert sand had carved gargoyle shapes on top of this bridge railing.

scene 5 (768x1024).jpg

Is this the last Yak-trak of the season? Would I step less reverently if I expected more?

scene 7 (758x1024).jpg

What I’d like to do is pay close attention in every moment regardless of its assigned significance. Barring that, I’d like to remember to remember to remember to come back to the present moment… as soon as I remember to!

Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

A recent medical procedure that emptied my colon brought back vestiges of a mood disorder I thought was long gone. I realized again the close link between mood and gut flora. I’m happy to say that with time and scrupulous self-care (below) anxiety has mostly left me. But it made me remember how painful it is to live with anxiety, and I thought a blog post might be useful to others dealing with similar.

beautiful hackberry (562x749)

I visit this tree every day. It keeps me grounded.

So, below are a few tips drawn from personal experience. This is not an exhaustive list, and not meant to replace professional medical/mental health advice.

  • Take deep breaths. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s physiologically calming. It’s something you can control. Just watch the air come in and go out.
  • Feel whatever you feel. Don’t judge it or push it away. You can touch the emotion as if it is a beloved child, be there for it, love on it, and watch it shift. (Note: If this gets overwhelming, stop and reach out for help from a trusted friend/spouse/professional. Consider, too, that you can access help from the unseen: Source/God/spirit guides/higher self.)
  • Nourish your gut bacteria. This will help to rebalance neurotransmitters like serotonin, 90 percent of which originates in the gut, not the brain. According to my holistic physician Kevin Logan, a diet rich in vegetable fiber provides an ideal environment for diverse gut flora. Reduce or eliminate processed food and sugar, and introduce lactofermented veggies like sauerkraut and kim chee.
  • Take nature as your tonic. If you can’t get to the woods or the beach, just take a walk and look at the sky and the trees. Time outside (or even in the company of loved animals indoors) will increase your resilience to stress.
  • Limit social media and the online universe in general. Speaking for myself, social media can be a huge energy drain, and the overstimulation it creates is subtle but detrimental. I make it a rule that after 8pm I don’t check email or Facebook. My health coach buddy Bill Heitman recommends unfollowing anything (and anyone) giving you anything other than 100 percent warm feelings. (You can always seek out news when you want to get informed.) Or, you can install an app like Social Fixer to customize what you see on Facebook.
  • Get some movement every day. Even five minutes of freeform stretching is a start. Focus on the pleasurable aspect of feeling into your body as it moves.
  • Make positive habits the rule. If exercise is hard to work into your routine, consider what a recent TED Radio Hour guest suggested. Turn it into a rule, so there’s no question about whether to do it or not. He compared his gym habit to brushing his teeth at night: He doesn’t have to decide whether to do it or not (and if he had to make a decision, he probably wouldn’t go!). He just does it, regardless of how he feels about it in the moment. This is how I am with walking my dog every day: I just do it. And it’s self-reinforcing, because I’m also getting my nature fix.
  • Put deposits in your health bank. That’s what Christiane Northrup, MD, calls restful, restorative activities that engage the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for causing vital organs to rest). (Examples: meditation, napping, cuddling, sitting and staring into space.) By contrast, anything that activates the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for revving up your metabolism, protecting you through fight/flight, etc.) will withdraw from your health bank account. We forget how important it is to STOP, get quiet, and allow our nervous systems to rebalance, in this overstimulating age.
  • Lean on your tribe. If you have a trusted friend or two who will hear you in your most vulnerable hour, kudos. Even if you don’t, getting out and connecting with people in real-time will probably bolster you.
  • Let your creativity out. In coloring books, even! Creativity heals.
  • Consider taking action. Sometimes our minds spin and spin about whatever worrisome thing has hold of us. Taking even a small action might make a dent in the worry. If some of your anxiety centers around the state of the world, ask yourself if there’s something you can contribute to the good. It doesn’t have to be grandiose to have meaning. Maybe it’s a creative project, or a small generative act that you dedicate to the uplift of all, like a kind gesture to a stranger. (Note: Make sure that what you decide to do aligns with who you are! Vs. a “should”!)

For me, all of these are cross-reinforcing. I feed my body well (most days) so it supports my mood and movement. Several times a week I practice yoga, which slows my breathing and moves me into the parasympathetic nervous system, while also strengthening my body. I get outside every day with my dog, which helps tire my body out so it rests easier. I try to avoid media after about 9pm so I don’t go to bed with my brain on overdrive. When I’m rested, it’s easier to write about what troubles me, and sometimes the writing turns into a creative piece that boosts others. And so on.

Please add your own tips in the comments! We’re all in this together.