Three Hours North

I was born the same year as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

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Oh of course, we both were in existence long before this birth, but 1966 was when our current recognized incarnation began: When my soul consolidated into this body, and the Dunes were designated as National Lakeshore.

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I’m only three hours south of this incredible place, something I allowed myself to forget for way too long. Recently we became reacquainted. Exploring the trails and shores for a couple days, I felt restored.

Walking the beach you might see trees pressing down across the sand and into the water. The brushy ones make it look like you can’t get past, till you arrive and find: Here you can walk under the tree, or here you can go up higher on the sand, or here just hoist yourself over. Or go a little deeper than you mean to, out in the water.

Or here maybe you just want to savor standing on a downed tree and feeling its smooth skin with your feet. The water doing its dauntless polishing, tempting a toe.

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To the east or west from the beaches lie the trappings of industry. Lakeshore and I were both born under the shadow of human folly, which continues still to this day.

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But there is peace even in the smokestacked encroached-upon existence. (Not-so-fun fact: Lead pollution, like that of the steel mill described here, fed into my health problems a dozen years ago, when high levels of both lead and mercury were found in my body.)

Still: These waves. Their power feels truer than anything. Sitting here you can’t hear industry, you can’t hear vehicular hum, or any of the ubiquitous noises of civilization that just.never.stop.

The waves are like breaths—sometimes slowing, sometimes racing each other but constant, the sound of moist, fluid, rhythmic life. Every single wave and breath its own experience.

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The answers are within, say the sages. Sit still long enough and you will find your answer. Or at least find a newer more pregnant more potent version of the question.

Sit still long enough and you contact something like eternity, the thing that goes on long before and long after this small understanding of a life.

Healers for the Culture

After yesterday’s proceedings, I passed a bad night, my body tensed as if against physical blows. To be a woman in this culture is to know that at any moment your body might be violated, and your voice dismissed.

Back in college, I remember a women’s studies professor saying something like: “If you take a man and a woman and strip them of all status, till they’re homeless on the street, the man will still be in a more privileged and protected position than the woman, just by virtue of his gender. He’d have to wear a sign that says, ‘Don’t take anything I say seriously,’ to even come close to her experience, and even then….”

Angry? Yes. Scared and sad too. A bad night.

I realize that this is nothing new to people who are less insulated by the things that usually cushion me from our culture’s violence. My race and class, my monogamy, my savings account—all these mitigate the full impact, even as a lesbian woman, of hatred of the “other.” So when I dip into this space, I know that I am just tasting a hint of the animosity that others swim in every day.

A woman-hating culture is a racist culture. Is a transphobic, ecocidal, xenophobic, heterosexist culture.

I write these words and stop to read them. I am part of the culture. People create the culture. I create the culture. My actions, thoughts, words form the story we live by. What do I choose? I choose otherwise.

In search of sustenance I take my dog for our usual morning walk on the golf course. I am one of the privileged who can walk at dawn in relative safety—my skin color (if not my gender) ensuring that I won’t be targeted for being in the wrong place, potentially risking my life.

The sun comes up and lights steam rising from the creek. A heron flies through my field of vision. My bleary eyes open to the beauty of a sycamore.

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A few clover plants bloom at my feet despite the groundskeepers’ daily efforts to maintain a monoculture of turf.

I’m looking at you, clover. They try to cut you down, chemicalize you out of existence. They say you don’t belong in this white-boys’ club. Yet you persist. And I see your sisters there with you. You’re not alone.

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Further on a small colony of mushrooms pushes up, also defying the chemical onslaught and furious mowing that are business as usual here. This fruiting body is just the part of the organism that we see. The mycelium under the earth may be in mysterious communication with nearby trees, according to Michael Pollan. Trading nutrients.

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I see you, fungi, and I thank you.

Leaning against a big hackberry tree, I can finally take in a deep breath, and think about what I want to create.

Let us find ways to nourish each other, recognizing that we are not alone in the pain being wrought these days. Let us seek underground communicative pathways inaccessible to those rolling along on the surface, blithely reaping the benefits of inequity and exploitation.

Let our outrage/fear/grief lend itself to deep listening and empathy, as we imagine ourselves as each other—whether that be a different race, immigrant experience, or a different life path altogether. Or even a different species. We are not alone on this planet, threatened by destructive rules made by men drunk with greed.

Let us be healers for each other, through our listening, and healers for our fractured culture, through our words and deeds. Because a culture built on other-hatred cannot stand. Its failure is assured, one way or another. How it fails is ultimately up to us.

Letting the Carapace Go

In San Diego I learned about sheep crabs, the largest California spider crab and impressive as can be, with a knobbily bluish shell.

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Photo by Eva Funderburgh, via Flickr Creative Commons

I learned that crustaceans molt several times over their lifespan: backing out of their carapace after first growing a soft new shell. They pull water into the new shell to expand it to allow for growth. It soon hardens and they go on their merry way in this roomier carapace (until it, in turn, becomes too cramped).

I’ve been taken with this image, thinking: What if we, too, could back out of our shells and emerge with a new watery skin? Though extending the metaphor requires a shell to harden, the expansion is what intrigues me.

We have the power to expand beyond what we think is possible. (And maybe we can be different from crustaceans, and choose to retain that soft, wet outer skin, instead of armoring up.)

What if the world, itself, could molt like that? What if it is in the process of molting right now? I use “world” here to mean consciousness, the stories that guide us, the collective agreements we have all upheld.

Can we make way for something that has yet to take its full form but that gives room for all of us to grow into the fullness of who we are?

In that personal and collective growth, we can look clearly at the shell of what is passing away. Perhaps it protected us, for a time. Or some of us anyway—those who have been privileged enough to be considered normative through race, gender, orientation, etc.

But: It’s time. We don’t have to buy into a story that makes no sense anymore.

We don’t have to agree to a dominant (but dying) cultural myth that diminishes someone else to make ME bigger. We don’t have to purchase (literally) the trappings of a culture that relies on what amounts to slave labor and massive inequity. We don’t have to buy into oppression, exploitation, racism, fear, war.

What if we all just walked away from that old defunct thing, just backed on out and moseyed on our happy way with something much softer surrounding us?

It isn’t easy, I’m not saying that—we white people in particular feel safe in our habits, in our business-as-usual. And the sweep of change encounters tremendous resistance in the form of the nation’s leadership (as Michelle Alexander brilliantly writes in her New York Times Op Ed today). But in the immortal words of Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

To get quiet enough to feel the newness beckon, that feels crucial. To allow the call of the new to bolster us as we get out from under the old.

For me, this exploration lends itself to a simple inquiry: What can I let go of in this moment? Maybe it’s a breath I’ve been holding, a grip in my eyeballs, a resentment, a knee-jerk defensiveness, a fear of speaking up… or a habitual dissing and dismissing of whatever I need to feel, as emotion washes through me.

Acknowledging, allowing, and melting any rigidity… That is where I want to place my attention this first day of autumn, and in the coming season of letting go.

What about you: How do you conceive of the old constrictive shell, whether for yourself or the world? Can you envision a new, slippery, softer shell? What you would like to fill it with as you create more spaciousness?

In backing out from under the carapace, we join countless others in an expansion that can’t be stopped.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?”

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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