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.”

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.

More Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Challenge

My heart is heavy. Here in America we have people dying before their time: from fires in Santa Rosa, flooding in Puerto Rico. Bullets in Las Vegas.

(Fires exacerbated by drought linked to climate change. Floods from an extreme weather event that’s part of a pattern linked to climate destabilization. All the while, political corruption keeps the fossil fuels flowing. And political apathy, it seems, keeps Puerto Rico’s plight off the priority list. As far as the bullets…I’m just tired.)

Meanwhile we have whole swathes of our population subject to brutal treatment because of their race. And then being told that they are anti-American for their peaceful, silent form of protest. Never mind that nothing else has moved the needle on police brutality. The ugly face of white supremacy has taken off its mask, emboldened by our bully-in-chief.

I don’t know where to begin to unravel the intertwined injustices and exploitation and alienation that grip our society.

But I don’t want to go numb. Let me not go numb.

I confess I’m not well-read in these arenas, perhaps in part because I myself have not had up-close-and-personal experience with a superstorm (yet?), or a mass shooting (yet?), or racial violence. But I experience myself as part of the collective, and I am affected. I feel increasingly uncomfortable swimming along in my tidy, sheltered life in the face of monumental suffering.

In my last post I wrote about erosion as metaphor for social change. I acknowledged my unearned good fortune. I spoke of my role as a changemaker on a quiet scale.

All true. Yet something about that combination seems too easy, a bridge to complacency. For someone as privileged as myself—born by sheer accident to middle class white Americans with preferential opportunity/credit/housing over black Americans—the cop-outs come a little too quickly.

(The nest egg my parents nurtured through this preferential treatment, they passed on to me in the form of higher education and help buying my first home. Just one example of societal inequity in action, aka The Water We Swim.)

At a recent civic conversation on the historical implications of slavery,* we white folks were challenged to use our power, access, and money to address systemic racism.

I am trying to figure out what that looks like. I feel like a child still learning. So I’ve turned to other voices to school me.

Here’s Layla Saad, speaking to spiritual white women about white supremacy:

Without meaning to, a lot of times nice, well-meaning white women can contribute in a big way to the problems we see because they don’t speak up, or they want to keep things polite, or they think the best thing they can do is just focus on being a loving person rather than ‘getting involved in politics’. This white silence, white privilege and white shame leads to a lot of white complicity in white supremacy…

As a white person, you have the privilege of being able to say, ‘high vibes only’ and ‘I don’t follow the news because it’s too political’ and ‘I just want to focus on love and light’.

I don’t follow the news. I do want to focus on love and light. Which leads me to keep silent on many issues, believing naively, lazily, that emanating love/peace/care is enough.

The cognitive dissonance is rising. I say I care about justice. What does that look like? Bottom line: I need to figure out how to use my platform (such as it is) to talk about injustice much less obliquely.

Here’s Andrae Ranae (who offers a marvelous coaching-as-activism program) on the limits of the self-help industry and why those of us identifying as do-gooders need to bring social justice into our healing work:

Your work could bring massive sustainable change to many lives, families, and communities, but it won’t if you don’t critically look at the social context that you’re working within….

Your isolated happiness and success does not serve anyone, including you. We are not meant to thrive in isolation. We need each other to do well. If there are people down the street from you that are not well, you’re not well. If there are people across the world that aren’t well, you’re not well. If our Earth is not well, we are not well.

Challenge accepted. I want to continue learning and self-reflecting and imperfectly stretching toward wherever this leads.

My current feeling is this: Since any one of us could die at any moment, we’d better get to living now. It’s always been true, but seems even more so these days, in an age of crisis. Far from bringing me down, remembering this gives me courage.

That, and the basic fact I am Light. And so are You.

* Public Conversation on Race, happening the second Sunday of every month (except November). See https://www.racedialogues.org/

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.

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.