A Safe Space

When someone says all is lost, do you agree? Do you match her intensity of lament with your own, amping up the despair?

Or do you try to talk her out of her fear and angst, knee-jerkily attempting to cheer her up so you don’t have to hear her pain?

Or do you make a safe space for her to express what she needs to express, without agreeing or negating, so she can hear herself and move the lostness and pain out of her body and mind?

I do all three, though I aspire to the latter. Depending on my own emotional state of the moment, I may or may not be able to offer that spaciousness. Sometimes I turn away from another’s declaration of lostness. My own fears get triggered, and I shut down. Or try to shut the other person down. “Don’t catastrophize,” I snapped once when a friend told me of her overwhelming fears. Not my finest moment.

Sometime earlier this week the streetlights on my block mysteriously went out. I am sure someone is following up with the city, keeping the neighbors informed on Facebook, monitoring when they will be turned back on. In the meantime it seems more important than ever that our porch lights stay on and illuminate the street. (I’m adjusting the timer on ours today to match the shorter day length of this season. Happy fall, though it feels like endless summer around here, just another disquieting “new normal.”)

But you get what I’m saying, about the lights, right?

Last night in yoga class our teacher guided us through an experience of mutual support that could be felt in our very bones. We stood four and five across in the small studio space, and each took a tree pose (balancing on one foot with the other pressed into ankle or thigh) while pressing palms into our neighbors’ palms. Some worried they would destabilize those around them and trigger a domino effect of falling tree-bodies.

But that didn’t happen. We stood separately yet connected, a grove of human trees. No one toppled, and if we wobbled a little, the contact with another’s hand steadied us.

I was in the back row and got to glimpse this roomful of interlinked trees, like life-sized paper doll chains.

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Photo by The Real Estreya, via Flickr Creative Commons

Balancing in mutual support felt effortless—even when Gaynell next had us reach one leg backwards and bend forward into Warrior Three, this time with our arms outstretched and resting straight across the arms of our neighbors.

What a pleasure to bend forward in synchrony with my yogini friends. I felt that we could sail across an ice rink as one! Simultaneously holding and being held.

When times seem dark, we have this to count on. In the press of each other’s hands, we are stronger and steadier than we could ever imagine.

Getting and Spending

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

A long time ago, when I worked in a corporation, I kept this William Wordsworth quote on my cubicle wall to remind me of what I knew—that my life was about more than producing and consuming.

Now I see that this statement doesn’t go far enough. Not only does endless productivity and consumerism crush our personal power, it destroys our planet.

Witness the fires devastating the Amazon. Deliberately set, left to burn until God knows what point of no return. Why is Brazil’s rainforest burning? In part, to feed consumer demand for paper, lumber, soy, and beef. (That’s not even taking into account the impact of mining minerals like copper, tin, gold, iron ore.)

We could blame the people who set the fires, but the more we buy into capitalism, the more complicit we are. Not to say that we don’t need to hold companies and governments responsible for the greedy policies that encourage slash-and-burn deforestation. But when something “out there” disturbs me, I try to to look within to see what is being reflected back to me. 

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Photo by Katja Schulz, via Flickr Commons “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Curiously, I started this blog post wanting to talk about doing nothing. In her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell reframes doing nothing as a potent form of resistance.

I have yet to read the book, but a review of it in Yes magazine piqued my interest. It is not a call to passivity, but an invitation to true transformation.

Odell writes that our constant activity and stimulus-addiction keep us from imagining the bold action that would truly change the world.

If we keep trying to feed a bottomless hole with products or busyness or information, we just heat the globe more. But if we step back and get quiet, allow ourselves to feel, we might get in touch with radically different possibilities. Like undoing capitalism.

The master’s tools will never bring down the master’s house, as Audre Lorde put it decades ago. We’ve got to make new tools, and to do that, we’ve got to dive deep.

What of the need for urgent action, to fight the powers that be? Charles Eisenstein has suggested that our urgent scurrying from problem to problem (along with our shame-and-blame culture) are symptomatic of a bigger cultural story driving the intertwined problems of our age. Not only symptomatic, but propping up that story, which is one of alienation, separateness.

We are part of this world. By getting quiet, concentrating ourselves, choosing to stop doing from time to time, we heal a little corner of it. We don’t always know the extent of that healing’s reverberation, but it’s real.

Now, if I stop there, I could use this truth as an excuse to never make a move that feels scary. Worse, as license to let injustices ride and exploitation continue unabated.

Without some measure of self-awareness—and a willingness to act when needed—“doing nothing” becomes self-indulgent. But sitting still, without input from screens or other media—isn’t that the cradle of self-awareness and compassion, a place that can spur inspired action?

A friend posted this quote yesterday along with her rainforest-inspired commitment to a vegan diet: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Where does it arise from, the deeply committed, maybe-small-but-world-changing action? From a spacious, quiet place, in touch with the deep pain of our time, and in touch with infinite possibility.

How to help the situation in Brazil: This Newsweek article lists some action items and organizations to support.

The Uses of Joy

Yesterday morning, I met my dear neighbor on the sidewalk as she came out of her house to go to work. I was walking my dog home from a little golf course jaunt, in a sunny mood having seen a bit of sunrise and heard the birds’ voices.

“I am so glad to see you,” she said, in tones that told me something was wrong. I hugged her and asked what was up. Her beloved cat has been sick, but that was just the start of it. She had gone into a sort of panic fed by news stories of imminent global food shortages, water crises, violence–on top of the suffering of one adored creature who depends on her utterly. She cares so deeply, my neighbor-friend.

“It’s a lot,” I said in sympathy, knowing my own despairing times.

“It’s real,” she said of the bad news.

“And yet,” I said, “life is so good.”

She smiled at me with great affection, perhaps a bit of wonderment, saying, “And that is why I’m so glad to see you this morning.”

“See how beautiful?” I said, gesturing to the day at large: birdsong, sycamores, blue sky, happy poodle winding the leash around us. I admired her shirt, which was emblazoned with Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.

She had not known the identity of this elephant-man and was pleased to learn that he’s the Hindu god responsible for removing obstacles. (Also, he “creates obstructions in the path of those whose ambition has become destructive,” which seems like a timely duty given the “leadership” we currently endure in this country.)

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Ganesha, by Craig Moe, via Flickr Creative Commons

She hugged me again before heading off to the office where she counsels people in ill health and financial peril, people no one else listens to.

I could never do the supremely important work she does, but perhaps by fortifying her in this way that comes naturally to me, I have made a small indirect difference with her clients.

Possibly my privilege makes it easier for me to hang onto my joy (despite being rather anxiety-prone myself). Possibly I’m just extremely sheltered and unwilling to fully face up to the bad stuff. Yet it seems radiating joy can be of use to someone in pain, if it flips the script in some small way.

Now, did this encounter change the fact that later that same day someone was shot at a nearby gas station? Did it change the fact that mass shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace in my country? Did it change any dire predictions about the world’s future?

No. Still: I believe that the more inner resilience we cultivate, the better equipped we are to be there fully for each other, to anchor the shift, to hold a higher vibration, and to act from that expansive state, instead of out of fear and contraction.

I could fret about recent mass shootings, localized violence, or future projections, and go down a rabbit hole of information/commentary/outrage/worry. Or I could allow all my emotions to flow and shift, attending to them gently, and return to a steady place, in touch with my fierce joy if possible. Then I take whatever action calls me. (I used this script to call my Senators and demand universal background checks for gun purchases. I donated to Everytown for Gun Safety.)

Some resources: Rick Hanson’s lovely “Take Heart” post is all about cultivating inner resilience in troubled times. Jen Louden’s recent “When You Feel Powerless” speaks to the feeling of “what I do is a drop in the bucket,” specifically in the face of mass shootings. Also see my “Tips for the Anxiety-Prone.”

The Wound

A parable for our times?

A few years ago I had a wound that wouldn’t heal. It started as a tiny boil on my shin. I assumed the eruption was a spider bite, covered it with a band-aid and tried to forget it.

Then the little “bite” darkened, started to hurt worse.

Next it swelled up and turned angry-red. By now I had a quarter-sized wound that was hot to the touch, excruciating.

At this point I finally went to the doctor and discovered I had contracted MRSA, a bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics. (I’ll spare you the visual. You’re welcome.)

I fought any suggestion of draining that wound, though everyone who looked at it told me it was the only way it would ever heal. The idea of a blade touching that thing sent me into the stratosphere.

Instead I tried everything else. Antibiotics. Hot compresses. Charcoal. Essential oils. Chewed-up plantain leaves! I spoke to the wound, asked it to please please please just let that infection go.

I began to think I would have to live with a grotesque open wound forever.

Needless to say, it did not drain on its own. After almost a month, I finally went to a wound specialist who briskly prepped the area for lancing.

It was as I thought: Lancing a wound hurts.

Yeah it really, really hurt. Blood and pus rolled down my shin. Awful.

And that wasn’t the end of it. The wound was deep. Necrotic tissue had to be cleaned out in a process called debridement, which amounts to vigorously rubbing a Brillo pad over the wound (or that’s what it felt like anyway).

But that open wound could even not begin to heal until the nastiness and dead junk could come out. The wound had to be expressed. Only then could my flesh begin to rebuild.

Maybe it’s like this with the body politic. I don’t know if this is a good parable, but what if… ?

What if … in this time which I like to call the Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs, we are at the very early stage of expressing the wound, readying for some deep inside-out healing?

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Photo by Jordan Small, via Flickr Creative Commons

Our country was founded on some fine ideals, but it was also founded on slavery and genocide. Horrific wounds.

The infection has always run under the surface of this country. Those of us who live with a measure of privilege, because of our race and/or class and/or gender status etc., have been able to ignore it.

Or maybe we think that covering it with band-aids will be enough.

Or maybe, like some in power, we actively move to put salt in the wound while simultaneously denying its existence.

Meanwhile people of color have never been protected from the ugliness that festers.

It’s painful to see that ugliness brought to the surface in racist words and deeds. Is it possible that this dangerous deterioration of public discourse is (at least partially?) about facing up to our collective past? That we are on the cusp of finally cleaning this wound out so our collective body can heal?

Of course, I’m not at all sure this “last gasp” isn’t the start of horrors beyond belief. But I imagine that is largely up to us. A wound can get reinfected if it isn’t properly tended to. The growth of new tissue happens slowly, in raw and tender layers.

A metaphor that only goes so far, but perhaps has some usefulness.

I, Wonder

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Lake Hawea, NZ

A quick program note: I periodically send e-newsletters to my mailing list, with explorations of personal resilience and big-big-picture musings. My heart is full as I share these missives. Click the subscribe portal labelled “Spaciousness: An Invitation” at the upper right, if you would like to partake. (My gift in return for subscribing is an e-book I compiled of my most uplifting and “spacious” posts.)

Here are some previous e-newsletters, for those not yet on my mailing list.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Here’s a photo of just one of the small things that stopped me in my tracks last week.

Damselfly with iridescent wing on my back door

I left the country for two weeks in April to tour New Zealand, my insane good fortune to have the opportunity to travel through one of most beautiful places in the world.

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Milford Sound. Dolphin at lower left of frame.

(Traveling abroad feels so weirdly privileged and consumerist. I’m so glad I went, but I had mixed feelings about the way we sort of appropriated another country as our playground, with nature as a thing to be snapped up in a photo and taken home. Yes magazine came just after we returned, with a whole issue dedicated to radical travel, summing up all the issues with business-as-usual touring.)

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Rainforest rainbow, Fox Glacier, NZ

Yet I wouldn’t give back the stupefied feeling I had nearly every day, in the presence of these stunning landscapes.

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Sea Lions near Allen’s Beach

Since I’ve been back, I’m cultivating wonder daily. Reminding myself to listen, look, sniff, feel, even taste the world. Especially on my morning outings with Opal the poodle.

Things in nature don’t have to be totally grand or far away to stupefy. This treescape against this Indiana sky is big enough to evoke wonder.

Morning walk, here at home

But in a pinch, any old ant will do. (Not pictured: eye-level ant marching up the tree trunk where I leaned this morning).

Teeny anthill. The littlest creatures can move the earth.

I mostly sit behind a desk, but I love to get up close and personal with the beings that share our world. I recently took part in a bird banding day at Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary, and had a chance to briefly hold and release three different birds. Just a second or two of quivery warmth before opening my hand and watching them sail away into the treetops.

Male indigo bunting. Not my hand (but I did get to do the release.)

Meanwhile here at home, I hear song sparrows trilling every morning, and one sometimes shows himself, toward the tail end of my walk.

Song sparrow preparing to trill

Even while pumping gas, I can find a chickadee taking a dust bath in the dirt of a neglected landscape island.

I believe we all can find wonder wherever we are. We actually contain wonder: Consider the fact that our very cells integrated another coevolving organism. At our core we are symbiotic beings. According to Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes, our mitochondria are descendants of ancient bacteria that became integrated into the type of cells that eventually gave rise to all complex life.

Smallest of all, and most wondrous to contemplate.

Where do you find wonder?

The Importance of Embracing Earnest

I’d like to praise the amateurs out there. The earnest beginners, the ones who dare to create something they’ve never tried before, who risk falling flat, who most certainly fail.

This is all of us, at some time or in some area of our lives. At least, I hope so.

I guess it is hip to be snarky and removed, to know everything already, to mock the earnest. Let me reveal my age, perhaps, by declaring this: Snark is the language of fear. When I use it myself, I feel a brief charge of satisfaction, then deflation. It hides what’s truest in me.

But there’s courage in earnestness—in daring to be a newbie or a total geek. Maybe it’s a gift of midlife (or a gift of the Midwest), but I have come to the conclusion that amateurish enthusiasm is endearing in self and others. I appreciate quality, but I don’t want to stop myself from leaping into the ring by focusing on quality alone. I want to be in the game, not standing on the sidelines.

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I have never seen artifice in my “Earnestina.”

I found a recent local production of Radium Girls to be refreshingly earnest. Community theatre is like that, people putting their hearts into collective art, allowing their neighbors, friends and family to see them in a different light, embodying all kinds of ugly and beautiful things that reflect us back to ourselves to make us think and feel.

This was an amateur production, made powerful by the actors’ passion.

Other recent examples come to mind. An octogenarian friend printed his own chapbook to share the wisdom he’s gained in 80 years. A folk musician came to my St. Patrick’s Day yoga class and performed ballads he’d written himself. A handful of women gathered for an EmbodieDance experience to move our bodies and express our spirits.

Countless others in my circle ply their creativity in poems, paintings, gardens, improv, photography, dance, textiles and more.

We may be experts or we may be newbies, and we may be more or less devoted to craft, but we all do our thing imperfectly, humanly.

Earnest people inspire me. Especially as I embark on the Tim Clare podcast Couch to 80K, a series of writing exercises in search of the Novel Within. It’s a relief to know that my initial (earnest!) efforts will be “amateurish.” To expect it.

See, I’ve stopped thinking of amateur as a bad word. I strive to be professional in my commitment, but I’ll be less lofty, more amateurish, if that means I’m all in—flubs and all.

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Nature is art. And what’s more earnest than a honeybee?

Creativity belongs to everyone. The word “art” shouldn’t be reserved for the museum or the canon. (I think of a visual artist friend who created a marvelous pictorial history of my neighborhood. Painting it on a signal box on a busy street corner, she often had people stop to admire her work. One impressed young boy told her, “You could be an artist!”)

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What my friend painted on a signal box

I’d love for that boy to understand that artmaking capacity belongs to everyone. To see this neighbor as artist, and honor her bravery, and take inspiration for his own self-expression.

The earnest artist says, This matters, at least to me. This is what I see. This is how I see.

And we’re all the richer for it.

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.