From “Me too” to “We All”

Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.

If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.

One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.

We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.

I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.

Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.

Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?

What is the psychic toll?

And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?

(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)

My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?

What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.

Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.

Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.

Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.

It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.

20170928_095742 (768x1024)I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.

And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.

Rock Will Wear Away*

I find it helpful, in such fraught times, to consider the largest frame possible. Last week in the desert of southwestern Utah, I learned about erosion, about the effect of water and wind on rock.

From time to time erosion is sudden and dramatic: a rock calves from a cliff and crashes down.

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Erosion made this arch in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Mostly we don’t see anything happening. The snowmelt in the crevasse, the wind whistling through a canyon, the creek wearing a groove deeper and wider. These forces go about their work of remaking the landscape, without our taking much notice.

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Virgin River continues to shape Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.

There is much we don’t see. The news fixates on big tragedies. The commentators argue their points. The politicos fluff their feathers and brandish their big sticks. Watching, we develop a picture of humanity warped by our brain’s negativity bias and strengthened by the media’s wish to hook us hard.

We don’t see the kitchen table conversations, the neighbors organizing, the hands touching earth that might tell a different story.

It is a function of my extraordinary and undeserved privilege that I am able to go on vacation at all, let alone visit national parks and be at peace in nature. When I think of the inequity that my life is predicated on, it makes me squirm. I don’t think I’m complacent or lazy, yet I have the choice to turn it off, turn away, where others don’t. What does this say about me and my life, my work?

Specifically: Is it OK to pursue creative projects that seem to take eons, at least for me (as we speak I’ve just gotten my manuscript back from my editor and am preparing to dive in again) while social activism goes wanting?

Stephanie Smart’s Dragon Mystic stone reading recently gave me a clue to how to think about this. She uses stones as allies and sources of wisdom. For my mini-reading, I chose a blue purple jasper stone. Her interpretation, in part:

You are like the water in the river bed. You are powerful enough to change the shape of a stone. Yet, you do it in your subtle calm nature. Just as the water slowly flows along in the stream bed…

Trust your calm powerful nature. You are just as much of a change maker as the person on the stage. Yes, YOU ARE A POWERFUL CHANGE MAKER. You, who can change the shape of a stone. You may not ever see the effect of your words or actions, but trust that you are changing the world.

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Water in the streambed of Taylor Creek, Kolob Canyon.

Here’s what I know for sure: I want to shine a light as bright as possible. Because where does the balance tip? If I feed anger and violence even in my own soul, by ripping into this one small being, I fuel the violence in the world.

In the desert I took photos of lichen, that curious symbiotic amalgam of fungi and algae. Lichen is small and unobtrusive, yet it has the power to turn stone into soil, over time. Here is a collaboration among species, quietly altering The Way Things Are.

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Lichen, Kolob Canyon

*The title is borrowed from an old song by Meg Christian and Holly Near.

Contracting

Recently I spent some blissful days by Crystal Lake in Michigan, thanks to a dear friend’s hospitality.

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This was the sunset that greeted me on arrival. Photo by Julie Stewart.

The reason for my trip was ostensibly research in nearby Traverse City’s 19th century mental institution. My original plan was to spend just a night or two in the haven of my friend’s company and then head out. (On the way home I wanted to tour a Michigan farm that specializes in teff, on assignment for Acres USA. And since the farm lies halfway between home and Crystal Lake, it made sense to find lodging midway.)

But it turned out that the teff farmers were unavailable during that time, so my grand plan fell through. And I’m so grateful.

I needed those restorative days and nights to rest, integrate, and incubate. After touring the asylum as planned, I turned to my project with a fresh eye. I wrote in stints between riding my friend’s bicycle, lying in the hammock, walking along the lakeside, floating in the crystalline water, and other general deliciousness.

In the mornings I sat at the end of the dock and faced into the wind. The wavelets on the lake and the constant breeze made it feel like I was on a boat, moving steadily forward.

I thought about how we can draw to us exactly what we need, even if it feels like we’re sitting still. If we’re aligned with what wants to be born, it’s less about effort than showing up and paying attention.

Driving home, I saw this truism played out again when an audiobook I was playing refused to work. I finally gave up and turned on the radio, just in time to find a program on NPR that spoke exactly to a dilemma I’d been working out in my story.

Now, this was in a semi-remote part of Michigan, where very few stations were coming through clearly. I marveled that I could hear this piece all the way through to the end as I drove along between the evergreens. The station faded just as the next story began and I came to a well-placed rest area.

When I got back in the car, I tried the audiobook again. You guessed it: This time it worked.

It struck me that this synchronicity was a symptom of alignment, proceeding straight from my placement at the end of that dock, where I had given myself the gift of sitting still.

I forget this all the time. Part of me still believes that I have to make things happen. I was taught to keep on pushing, no matter what. Never mind that time and time again—say in a client session or on a writing jag—I find a larger truth. The “I” that I so cherish steps aside for a bit and lets something bigger take over.

When I came back from Michigan, I longed to sequester myself with my writing. I took over the guest room with its sweet view of the garden out back.

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I have been spending some time each day there immersed in my work, it’s true. But I still long for more. As the magic of my little Michigan expedition wore off, the usual obligations and distractions started to intrude. I have found myself overbooked and overstimulated.

Earlier this week I dreamt of coaching a pregnant woman through labor. When I woke, I realized that I am in the midst of a contraction. I have thought of “contraction” as a negative, as in “contracted state” opposite “expanded state”—but I understand now that I need to honor my need to contract. I see that turning inward is critical to the process of labor, which is really about so much more than active pushing. I need to allow a natural rhythm to flow.

And I need to pay attention, so I can be ready for those helpful tidbits that come my way as I appear to be sitting still.

In order to cultivate more quiet in my mind and spirit, I plan to sign off social media for the better part of August. This contraction requires that I evaluate every invitation and activity carefully before saying yes. I might not blog much. But I’ll be back.

Microbes: A Love Story

A few years ago my (former) dentist messed up—jabbing a spinning blade into the inside of my cheek while putting the finishing touches on a filling. Yes, I yelled.

She said to her hygienist (after shoving gauze in my mouth, and sort of apologizing), “Let’s get her set up on antibiotics.”

I said (as best I could around the gauze): “No.” Shaking, stunned, but clear.

“But you know your mouth is full of bacteria, and the risk of infection…” She began to lecture.

I realized I was not afraid of my own bacteria, and that I trusted my immune system. I made her understand that I did not want to take antibiotics. No thank you.

Fairly huge moment for someone who had struggled to rebuild her health for so long, who had been subject to catching “everything going around.” I don’t know when exactly it shifted, but I didn’t mistrust my own body anymore.

Among other issues, I had battled candida overgrowth for a decade or so, and had rebuilt my gut flora by consuming vast quantities of sauerkraut. I did NOT want to wipe out the friendly little beasties who had recently recolonized my body to good effect.

At home, using a natural mouthwash that burned the gouged-out place like blazing heck, I spit blood into the sink. My cheek had already begun to blacken and swell. I spent the evening holding my Triple Warmer* meridian points to return my nervous system to its hard-won state of safety and calm.

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Actual shot of my poor swollen jowl the night of the “incident.” Later my lips turned blue at the corner. It was a good look!

Before bed I whispered to my reflection in the mirror, to my swollen cheek, to my wise cells and crafty microbiome, “Thank you for knowing what to do. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for protecting me from infection. I trust you.”

My body responded by healing up tout suite—and further rewarded me by no longer requiring a medication I had begun tapering down.

It might sound wacky to some, but the body responds to our love and care, and I believe that respecting our microbes is critical. I’m now reading I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong, and finding all kinds of fantastic information in its pages.

It is fascinating to learn that only 100 species of bacteria can actually make us sick–the vast majority are either neutral or helpful to us. (Even assisting the immune system! “They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe,” Yong writes.)

But there’s still this stigma.

“Microbes are now so commonly associated with dirt and disease that if you show someone the multitudes that live in their mouth, they will probably recoil in disgust,” he writes.

I remember hearing: Your mouth is the dirtiest place on your body! (Apparently the mouth was one of the earliest arenas to undergo bacterial study.)

He later points out that shifting from the viewpoint that “all bacteria must be killed” to “bacteria are our friends and want to help us” is…equally wrong. Bacteria are neutral and have their own agendae. Symbiosis only means “living together,” not necessarily harmonious cooperation.

I get it. There was that tiny bout with MRSA—a naturally occurring bacteria that ordinarily lives under the radar in our nasal tissues. That infection took forever to get gone, and left me with a nickel-sized scar on my leg.

Yong likens our partnership with the microbiome to a relationship that takes work.

Work and love, I say. It can’t hurt. And it might help.

So go ahead. Show your microbes some love.

*governs the adrenals and fight/flight/freeze mechanism

Cocooning and Re-Forming

I’ve been cocooning. I’m on a news fast. I don’t check Facebook very often.

It’s just: I’m healthier this way. And I can best hold space for others if I let go of both outrage and fear.

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“Feather” by Nathan, via Flickr Creative Commons

Sometimes this might look like disinterest, or disconnection from the political realm that holds sway over so many people’s lives. I recognize that real people will be affected by the decisions coming out of Washington, and most of it won’t be pretty for a lot of us.

But if I rest in equanimity despite all that, I take back power and authority from those who would steal it away. I don’t have to give away my solid, grounded sense of basic OK-ness, no matter what dire outcomes are predicted.

And maybe by staying centered, I can be part of a cadre who will see a way to make real societal change. (I realize that my privilege insulates me from the worst of the proposals, which could have devastating impact. All the more reason to stay focused on transformation, as best I can.)

Instead of following the latest issues around health-care reform, I focus on ways to re-form myself and my approach to my own health and care.

This is something each of us can do. And we can help each other. And we don’t have to wait for anyone else to make that possible. It can happen now and now and now.

Not to oversimplify the real risks to people with major illness, disability, mental illness, and others in danger of falling through the cracks. I appreciate every single person who agitates for the little guy.

Still, surely everyone, regardless of politics, can support empowerment towards personal/community wellbeing. Especially if it costs nothing.

What costs nothing, yet enhances personal/community wellbeing? Some ideas:

  • Following Youtube videos from Lee Holden, who offers chi gong instruction to calm body and mind
  • Connecting with likeminded folks, say at one of Kheprw Institute’s many civic-minded forums and gatherings
  • Offering a smile to a stranger, chat with a neighbor, hug for a friend
  • Noticing beauty
  • Paying attention to one’s inner emotional state, and being kind to it
  • Being kind in general
  • Giving undivided (device-free) attention to a child, an animal, a friend
  • Connecting with my Facebook group, A Transformative Space, where we play with personal/planetary transformation
  • Enjoying deep breaths
  • Dancing
  • Walking in the woods
  • Forgiving someone else or yourself
  • Taking a break from media, or at least social media
  • Your idea here
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“Cocoon” by Louise LeClerc, via Flickr Creative Commons

 

My sense is that more of us could benefit from a measure of quiet introspection, even if it’s just for a few quiet moments each day. And certainly all of us could benefit from more real and caring communication.

I would love to hear what you are doing to re-form yourself, whether or not you find yourself cocooning in this fraught political season. Please comment below if you feel so led!

Picking Up the Healing Trail (Guest Blog)

It’s been a while since I hosted a guest blogger. This week the marvelously observant Katherine Hauswirth, a nature writer from Connecticut, contributes this post. (She also invited me to write a piece for her blog, and it will come out soon!)

Guest post by Katherine Hauswirth, author of The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail.

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Today, Shawndra is allowing me to visit her blog and contribute my own words, and I have gratefully received some words of hers to share at First Person Naturalist. I’ve gotten to know Shawndra a bit through her writing, and was drawn to her work because of its clear awe of nature—the topic I like best. Her admirable, dual tagline of Writer/Energy Worker conveys connection—connecting words, ideas, people with ideas, energies, the body with the mind and the soul.

Shawndra introduced me to the work of Gaian teacher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. She wrote about her here. Macy talks about “The Great Turning”—shorthand for our current age, one that’s suspended between a society shaped by industrial growth and the possibility of a new one that is life-sustaining. I examined Macy’s words a bit in The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, which launches this month:

Macy transmits hope for our ailing world in many ways, but she wonders aloud about the direction in which we will collectively turn. I, too, am unsure, but I seek out comfort in gestures of both adoration and action performed by those who, like Macy and me, are smitten with love for the world.

I continue to hold out hope that the many smitten folks out there will help our world to turn in the right direction. But today it occurred to me that love for the world also acts as a tonic for me, personally. I need to be smitten with that love in order to heal. And by “heal” I mean to feel like I am whole, like I am closer to my best self.

I had recently been sick with a minor illness, and while I was “cured,” in the sense of no longer coughing and sleeping more peacefully, I still needed to heal. The illness seemed to spark a pattern of not caring for my needs very well (or could it have resulted from such a pattern?). My schedule was off; my mind was off; my spirit was off.

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For me, time to myself and time in nature are essential for thriving, and if I can get both at once, all the better. So, despite a long to-do list, I’ve been taking myself on walks.

At the start of today’s walk I was tense, ruminating about a million pending chores and the little annoyances of family life that were stacking up in my mind like dirty dishes. Soon, though, I was happily distracted by a pair of Mallards in the cemetery pond. The female was curious about me, and floated quite a bit closer than her spouse dared. I watched her rubbery orange feet paddling for a while and moved on.

A drab-looking sparrow looked much more exciting when I trained my binoculars on her—I could see bright yellow marks by her eyes. (Later, a little research suggested she was a White-Throated Sparrow). An Osprey couple has taken up residence at Pratt Cove, a freshwater tidal marsh, on the same platform that yielded chicks last year. The female called from the nest in her familiar, high-pitched whistle. And front and center across from the viewing deck nearby sat a Mute Swan on her sizeable, cushy-looking nest, her neck folded over her body, her eyes idly watching her mate, who meandered the channel.

White Throated Sparrow by John Flannery

White-Throated Sparrow courtesy of John Flannery on Flickr

Healing feels like expanding. I am no longer “trapped” in the container of my intellectual mind, with its thoughts bouncing off the walls noisily. I am using all senses to connect with the larger world. I take it in and feel refreshed, open to new possibilities.

Awesome “side effect”: I think more generously about others when I have had these restorative moments.

Nesting Mute Swan by Mike Scott

Nesting Mute Swan courtesy of Mike Scott on Flickr

We all lose the trail sometimes. We forget to even take the time to figure out what we need. When we get our feet back on the healing path we feel more whole and hopeful. And we have more to give.

How lovely, this spring, to turn toward the sun and to watch the natural world turning in the same, light-loving direction. No doubt there is much to do for Mother Earth, but spending time with her is, in and of itself, a crucial act of love. As usual, she bestows much in return.

Katherine Hauswirth’s writing focuses on connection and contemplation inspired by the natural world. She has been published in Christian Science Monitor, Orion online, Whole Life Times, and Connecticut Woodlands. Her blog, First Person Naturalist, reflects on experiencing and learning about nature. Her awards include artist residencies at Trail Wood (Connecticut Audubon’s Edwin Way Teale memorial sanctuary) and Acadia National Park, and first place in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. She lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Her book, The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, comes out later this month.

The Case for Slowing Down

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Today I’ve been thinking about a “Good Samaritan” experiment. In this study, seminary students were rated for their helpfulness to a man in apparent distress, though they had no idea that he was even part of the experiment.

They were each given an assignment and sent to another building to complete it. On the way each encountered a man slumped in a doorway, moaning in distress.

Some stopped, some didn’t.

Some had been told to prepare a talk about the Good Samaritan, while others had a more generic task. The content of the task did not appear to affect their choice of whether to help the man or not.

What did make the difference was the seminarians’ sense of urgency. The experimenters told some of them that they were already late and should rush to get to the next building. These were far more likely to ignore (even step over!) the man in need.

Those who weren’t in a hurry helped in greater numbers.

Were the nonhelpful seminarians (especially those focused on the topic of the Good Samaritan!) crass hypocrites with zippo compassion? No, they felt pressured to get their central task done, to keep moving. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely been there.)

In fact, according to the article I read, many who did not stop appeared anxious when they entered the second building. Their inner conflict showed up in agitation.

To my mind, this study clearly shows one “unselfish” reason why it’s crucial to S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N the pace of our lives. (Of course, as our sense of separation between ourselves and the larger world breaks down, there’s really no such thing as selfish vs. unselfish. What happens to you happens to me. Witness the subjects’ bodies’ own distress signal.)

In the Western world we are supposed to be hyperefficient and “productive” all the time. We overschedule ourselves in an effort to get more done. Even when I am “off duty” at the end of the day, I’m tempted to keep checking my phone or laptop, to look up one more thing, to multitask when I am theoretically at leisure.

What is the cost of all our rushing around? Distractedness, high blood pressure, anxiety, and more. Meanwhile we live whole days, months, years, barely present to our lives.

Here’s my friend Melody Groothius, mom to two and lover of the world:

I hope I never think that what I’m doing is so important that I can’t stop and acknowledge – my kids, a chance to laugh at a joke (especially a terrible dad joke), a beautiful flower, the sound of a singing bird, the feel of a gentle spring breeze against my face as I step out the door. We’ve all got deadlines and “very important” interviews and articles and things to say but, honestly, those aren’t more important than any of those other things…actually, not really very important at all when I stop to think about it…

We tend to think we will slow down later on…when we get something big done, or go on vacation, or retire. Generally the habit of rushing is so ingrained that it is hard to overturn, even if we make a point of it. It can take a health scare or other personal tragedy to bring us out of our trance of busyness.

But creating some space in our schedule right now—though it will never be rewarded by the dominant cultural story!–is crucial to creating a world worth living in.

I leave you with a “Run Report” by my poet friend Alyssa Chase, who conceives lovely haikus as she takes her daily run, later to post on Facebook.

What’s the good of all I’ve learned? How to schedule peccadilloes, negotiate obsolescence, parse darts? Blue sky answers: Do something else.