Ruminations on Reverence

I almost did it again. I almost got caught in an old thought pattern, the one that goes: Foolish child, gazing at birds, loving up trees, singing to streams. Have you seen the news? There’s work to do! Wrongs to right! 

Woops, I forgot for a minute. I forgot that wonder and reverence are the very things that bring the old story of separation—source of all the wrongs—to its knees.

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Echinacea photo by Sara Long

The last few nights I’ve watched a little bit of a DVD series loaned to me, called Journey of the Universe: Conversations. I didn’t know that reflecting on the grandeur of the universe would be the antidote to this old thought pattern. But when the late Paula Gonzalez (rad scientist nun!) spoke of “falling in love with the world” and how this changes us, I thought, YES.

Here’s a quote from cosmologist Thomas Berry, whose work inspired the series:

“Our relationship with the earth involves something more than pragmatic use, academic understanding, or aesthetic appreciation. A truly human intimacy with the earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live.”

—From The Dream of the Earth

I am of the ilk of those who can no longer call a companion animal a “pet,” nor a forest “natural resources.” I don’t see the planet as something outside of myself, to be appropriated. That intimacy Berry speaks of…I feel it developing between me and the spaces I love, and by extension the entirety of the world.

In his portion of the series, poet/activist Drew Dellinger says that reverence for the planet extends to all its people (and ourselves). If we begin to sense our place in the unfolding story of the universe, we gain a sense of wholeness and connectedness that forecloses any idea of exploitation or misuse.

Because make no mistake, the injustices perpetrated on indigenous people and people of color are part and parcel of the same old story that “thingifies” a tree or a waterway.

Yes, much work to be done. And where to start? What thread do I follow if I want to untangle some part of the mess? It’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed, lost in despair or anger.

So I go back to the heart of the matter: the story I want to live.

I bow to reverence once more, and give myself over to wonder.

Photo courtesy of Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.

The Water We Swim

One of the few places where people of different races and ages gather to converse about difficult topics is Kheprw Institute. In the atrium where public meetings take place under smudged skylights, we circle folding chairs and introduce ourselves.

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We’re discussing How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. An eye-opening book for those of us privileged enough not to be affected (so far) by gentrification.

A quote from the book:

“The ignorance of the lives of others is what allows gentrification to happen. … If you ignore the destruction of the lives of the people who’s always mattered the least, things are going great. If you acknowledge that their lives exist and that they matter, then it becomes immediately obvious something is terribly wrong. So what does it mean that we are not only ignoring these people but increasingly erasing their narratives in the name of progress?”

—Peter Moskowitz

To open the discussion, we listen to an interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, as he lays out the most egregious historic housing policies that sidelined African-Americans. Three things stand out in this brief clip:

1) When public housing was initiated in the mid-20th century, integrated neighborhoods were destroyed to make room for segregated spaces. 2) Meanwhile the federal government subsidized suburb development on the condition of these neighborhoods being open to whites-only. 3) Then black neighborhoods were rezoned to allow toxic and industrial uses, so that African-Americans were living next to waste disposal and industrial facilities.

Stories like these, and books like How to Kill a City, make it harder for white Americans like me to ignore something that we never consider: Our comfort, our security, our privilege, our inherited wealth—is built on a rigged game, on money stolen, housing denied, opportunities refused.

***

In junior high Language Arts class I wrote a paper for a unit on Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. I remember including a sentence like: “It’s amazing to think about how well we’ve put racism behind us.” My teacher, who was African-American, put a ^ next to the sentence and wrote in something like “and it’s sad to think about how much racism remains.”

I remember feeling shocked, even a little offended, at my teacher’s insertion, in her authoritative red-penned handwriting. What racism? I tried to think what she might be talking about. But when I looked around, I didn’t see any “Whites only” signs or German shepherds barking meanly at protestors like in the films we were shown. Could she be exaggerating?

That should have been my first inkling that my reality as a white person differed from the African-American reality in fundamental ways. That I might be swimming in water and never even feel it—but they did.

Several years later, a Goshen College classmate from Africa spoke of her hurt when a library clerk rudely flung coins onto the counter rather than hand them to her. Though she fingered racism, I couldn’t believe someone at my liberal arts school would still—in 1987!—harbor prejudicial attitudes. I thought, There must be some other explanation than racism. Maybe she misinterpreted what happened…

Again, I shrugged off another woman’s experience.

I’d learned about systemic racism in my Liberation Theologies class. I understood some things, or thought I did. Still there was so much I didn’t want to see.

***

Recently I heard an NPR story about affordable housing. In Dallas, a black mother sought to use a Section 8 housing voucher but was repeatedly denied housing by potential landlords. She said, “Even though we’re financially less capable, we still love our children the same.” Tears in her voice.

A broken heart, reverberating out from the radio waves straight into mine.

***

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It’s hard to look squarely at things we don’t want to think about. Like our country’s genocidal, avaricious origins, and its continued betrayal of large swaths of its people, and the way the legacy of slavery still plays out in devastating ways.

But it’s even harder, these days, to remain blind. The water we swim in is more and more obvious.

I can no longer deny, dismiss, invalidate my brothers’ and sisters’ realities. I can no longer say that my family enjoys a tidy nest egg simply because “we work hard and we save our pennies” when that’s only part of the picture. Our people (going back generations) also were given opportunities to take jobs, buy homes, enjoy tax breaks, receive enriched education. The wealth-generation capacity that we take for granted has been repeatedly denied to people of color, through shameful policies and practices at every level.

It’s angering, horrifying, embarrassing, painful business. The system has consistently rigged itself in white people’s favor.

When facing painful things, it helps to be in community, to hear different voices and experiences, to listen, to accept and feel acceptance in a circle. That’s what happens in Kheprw’s book club and other public forums. Actions grow out of hearing each other and building relationships.

And I know that the black participants in this circle are the authorities on racism, and how that gets expressed through gentrification and so many other ways. All along they’ve been tasting the water we swim in, that I am so late to see as any kind of fluid at all.

Kheprw is a place that both models and works for change—in the hearts of people and in the halls of power. The organization holds its doors open to all willing to create community and serve justice, knowing that who we are on the inside—and how we show up for each other—is as crucial as any external advocacy.

 

 

In a few weeks, youngsters ages 10 to 15 will take part in Kheprw’s three-week boot camp. It’s called eSTEAM, an acronym for Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math. Participants will learn everything from 3D printing and game animation to aquaponics and soil science.

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This innovative program has far-reaching effects, like everything this nimble grassroots organization does. Judy and I decided to allocate some of our resources in support of the scholarship fund. Will you join us in sponsoring a summer camper?

Note: The author of How to Kill a City will join Kheprw’s upcoming book discussion via Skype at 6pm Thursday, June 22. Check out the event page for more ground-breaking gatherings.

Photos courtesy of Kheprw Institute.

The Calder Conundrum, or Lack Thereof

Artist Alexander Calder is the subject of a homegrown musical—written, choreographed, designed and directed by local talent. Calder was an artist who played with movement—in wire figures, sculptures, and mobiles. His whimsical work brought joy and wonder to people in troubled times, particularly during the Depression.

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By Alexander Calder via Wikimedia Commons

I absolutely loved the uplift of the musical, which was fun and campy as well as inspiring. The show offered a celebration of artistic commitment.

Here’s something that struck me as I watched the show: Calder (as depicted onstage) feared his work was juvenile, and at times he internalized other people’s disdain. Self-doubt, the enemy of creativity. A state familiar to many of us.

What struck me also was the way the co-directors of this musical framed our evening as an “escape” from today’s tense times. When I thought about it later, this felt like an extension of the “juvenile” indictment.

I felt that by connecting Calder—and this gorgeous production—to escapism, we did him and his art an injustice. I thought to myself: Joy is not an escape. Joy is fuel. And wonder is not distraction. Wonder is an engine.

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By Caracas1830 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to declare that art is not optional, nor is wonder, nor is joy, nor is love. That these are essential pieces in an activated human’s soul.

The next morning I read Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Poets” in Chasing Utopia. It says in part:

Poets shouldn’t commit suicide. That would leave the world to those without imaginations or hearts. That would bequeath to the world a mangled syntax and no love of champagne…

I thought, yes! For a poet, certain activities are suicide.

My mind went to a sentiment I’ve seen expressed: “People need to stop complaining and run for office if they are serious about change.” For some of us, running for office—let alone holding an office—would be death.

My inner argument ended up here: There are many ways to make change, and we all have our part to play. Some of us will create art that brings joy, or show people a different way of living. Let’s respect and praise and enjoy each other for the countless ways our souls shine while we do our best work, whatever that may be.

Postscript
Interestingly, after I drafted this argument, I mentioned my thoughts to my spouse on the dismissiveness of the term “escape.” (“Escapist drivel” is what I judgmentally “heard.”)

She responded that she doesn’t think of escape in that vein at all. To her, it evokes a pleasant place to go in one’s mind. Nothing negative or demeaning about it.

Apparently I got all up in arms over something that was in my own head. There I go again, doing battle when there’s nothing to battle.

Now, of course,  I realize that this internal argument has everything to do with feeling OK about myself and the level of activism I choose to undertake. With the new administration in the White House, every day there are new actions that pain me. And I want to take part in righting wrongs.

The many requests to call decision-makers…flat out drain me. It’s been tricky to figure out where to direct my time and energy. And I’m constantly judging and pressuring myself.

An underlying story informs my need to prove that I’m good enough through activism. It’s what Charles Eisenstein calls the cultural myth of Separation. The story that says I’m separate from you (whether better—if I make more calls than you!—or worse—if you are one of my many super-engaged friends whose activism goes beyond a mere phone call).

This idea of “I’m bad/wrong for not doing x” leads to …

“I’ll force myself and then I will be worthwhile” which leads to…

“I’m better than you because I care more, and look at what I forced myself to do.”

Basically, I’ve been using the master’s tools (of domination, control, force, separation) in an attempt to bring down the master’s house, to paraphrase Audre Lorde.

This underlying Story of Separation, Eisenstein would say, gets to the root of the interlocked problems we face. It’s the same root that underlies the very problems I do or don’t call about. A sense of humanity as separate from nature, from each other, from the magic of an intelligent cosmos. Which we know now isn’t true.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re talking about a cultural shift from old story to new story.

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By Manuelarosi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how keying into this bigger picture brings me back to a place of joy, wonder, and activation. So that even if I choose do the exact same actions I previously forced myself to do, the energy behind the tasks feels different. More spacious.

The Impossible

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

—Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 18 years of his 27 years of captivity. This is his jail cell on Robben Island, Cape Town, South  Africa. When he stretched out on the floor, he could touch both walls. Photo by Judy Hostetler.

The World We Seek

“Isolation and fear reinforce each other…The mystery at the core of our existence is that simple: we are held in a web of mutual belonging.”

Joanna Macy, Buddhist activist and teacher

Joanna Macy talks about three dimensions of “The Great Turning”—the cultural shift happening all around us, taking us into a future built on justice, equity, and respect for our earth home. She divides this most important work of our time into three overarching action areas:

  1. We can hold the line, protecting what’s at risk.
  2. We can reinvent, building new structures that supplant the crumbling outdated ones.
  3. We can reimagine, nurturing a consciousness shift to transform the world from the inside out.

In recent years I’ve been drawn to the third of these. A little bit to the second. Not so much the first, though I care deeply about what happens to women, marginalized groups, the poor, and our planet.

I care, but I’m not much of an activist in the traditional sense of the word. Constitutionally I am more primed for shining light on beauty than beating back ugly.

So I admit I was at first hesitant to go to my local rally in support of Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington. Protests are important and needed, as are phone calls and watchdog alerts and bodily interruptions of heinous activities like mass deportations.

I’m more of re-envisioner by nature. And I don’t like crowds. I guard my energy carefully.

But my intuition told me that going to the sister march in Indianapolis would not drain me. And I knew it was important to show up and be counted as an Indiana resident in favor of ethical leadership and fairness and, well, humanity’s future on the planet.

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What I didn’t realize that riding the bus downtown, joining the jubilant women and men assembled there, would fuel me. That being part of this fantastically big (worldwide!) event would renew my hope and feed my desire to remake the world.

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I saw a very young boy with a rainbow scarf and a small sign that said “Make America Kind Again.” A man with a Steelers jacket and an incongruous (or not!) pink ribbon around his arm.

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Photo by Gaynell Collier-Magar

I saw fathers being tender with their daughters and sons, a woman in a wheelchair with oxygen tubing in her nose and a Planned Parenthood sign across her lap, and many beautiful people of all ages, body sizes, genders, and races.

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“Though she be but little, she is FIERCE.”

The day left me with a sense of unity that feels part and parcel of both reinvention and reimagining. I could see it in the creativity and passion expressed through signs, clothing, song, speech, movement.

img_5808When I got home and started to see reports of other cities’ marches all over the world, I felt an incredible lift. I thought, The world has my back.

This healed my broken heart, or began to heal it.

I know that the impact of a one-day march, no matter how colossal in size, is limited if we all go back to our regularly scheduled lives. But something tells me that this is just the beginning. If we hold to our hearts, staying awake AND kind, we can’t be far from the new world we seek.

This is Humanity

Charles Eisenstein, in this interview, challenges me to something more radical than empathy. What if we believe everything we read and hear? Not in the sense of “That’s Absolute Truth,” but in the sense of: This is what’s real for this person.

It’s a difficult assignment, because it requires giving up being right. But practicing it would open up the potential for new learning.

What life circumstances could I imagine that would give rise to the various stories I hear? What enculturation/emotions/experiences underlie people’s opinions? Or the scenarios being played out, which are expressions of the stories people know to be true?

What stories must be firmly in place for so many African-Americans to be brutalized and killed at the hands of authorities, so often with impunity?

As this writer posits, “America has conditioned society to regard us (African-Americans) as beasts, superhuman, faster, and stronger. So when we are killed, it’s easy to rationalize and accept.”

That’s one possible story. A painful one. Giving rise to the need for all of us to say, unequivocally, Black Lives Matter.

This morning in meditation I saw a flower with countless small petals. One bloom, many petals: This is humanity. A flower doesn’t have to be told that it’s insanity to pluck out some petals. It is all one whole, one body.

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From my journal after one such shooting:

Is it possible that I carry all the permutations of humanity in my cells, in a more literal way than I ever imagined?

What if: I am the police officer who killed the black teenager. And I am the teenager who died. I am the crowd that formed. I am the mother. I am the judge, the jury, the media, the Facebook storm, the Twittersphere.

All of these are within me and I must must must love them now. The young woman wanting to smash up stores in anger. The older folks grieving. The Fox News people spinning. The truckers in the truck stop, the teens at the mall, the babies in wombs ready to be born into a quaking world. The deflection. The pain. The heartache. The horror.

The fear. Everywhere fear. I am that. And I must love that.

I am the return, too. The opening.

Can we imagine a story that would solidify our shared humanity, and our mutuality, and our need for everyone to feel safe and respected as they walk through the world?

Guest Post on Kindness

Today’s guest post is by my friend Heather Horst, and fits right in with a campaign by Indy Holistic Hub to spread kindness in December. #GetYourKindnessOn is the hashtag we are using to shine a light on compassionate acts we encounter. (I’ve found it quite uplifting, during these fractious days, to tune my radar to kindness. If we watch for compassion, nourish it, and spread it, we can’t help but magnify light.)

Guest post by Heather Horst

Lately I’ve been fostering a dog who is both gravely ill and incredibly sweet. Her name is Joy, and she’s pictured here.

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Joy and Heather

I’ve also been called out to do massage therapy during a friend’s labor and delivery. Between the two, there has been so much kindness. I’ve experienced so much support in caring for Joy. I’ve witnessed so much kindness and care for my brave friend as she worked hard to bring her baby into the world.

When I glance from my real life to national and world news, it’s culture shock. Because I’m not hearing about kindness. I’m hearing about brutality and a turning-away from the suffering of others, a turning-away from one’s own humanity.

I don’t accept that this is our true nature. It feels like a brokenness, a wound, an illness.

I trust that kindness is our true nature. That one day so many of us will be healed by (and healed to) kindness. So many of us will heal that when brutality or callousness appears among us, we will recognize it as an aberration.

We will surround it and heal it and not give it weapons or money or media attention.

…when brutality or callousness appears among us, we will recognize it as an aberration. We will surround it and heal it and not give it weapons or money or media attention.

I trust that kindness is our true nature. To those of you who have been carrying out these many kindnesses — THANK YOU! You heal my heart.

Heather is a nurse, a massage therapist, a spinstress of hula hoops and an amateur urban farmer. She lives, works, and plays in Goshen, Indiana.