befriending our burdens

altarLast night I had the privilege of facilitating, with my dear friend Maeve, one of the most nourishing gatherings I’ve ever attended.  We gathered to explore the idea of befriending our burdens—noticing the hurts that we walk with in this world, and entering into dialogue with them through art and movement and the senses.  We wanted to learn, not just how to better care for ourselves as we wrangle our shadows, but also what gifts and lessons might be lurking beneath the surface of the curses we carry.

Several minutes in, the lights went out. The rosemary tea for the footbaths I’d been planning, merrily bubbling away on two electric burners, had shorted the electric system.  Fortunately the tea was ready, the water was warm, and the evening continued even more beautifully than we’d originally planned–lit by candles and accompanied by the soulful, spontaneous singing of our circle rather than the pre-recorded playlist.

We nourished our feet with the turmeric foot soaks I wrote about here, and scrubbed them tenderly with grapefruit halves filled with salt and coconut oil. We sipped rose petal chai and rose-hawthorn wine. We tasted bitter chocolate, sweet dates, salty and pungent almond dip, sour raspberries, astringent turmeric sake. We listened to our bodies’ response. Each sense– from the sound of the tea pouring to the sight of steam rising from the cup, candlelight reflecting here from the skin of a bell pepper and being absorbed there by the flat richness of cacao powder, the scent of roses and neroli and fresh sage, the feel of our feet in warm water, our hands curled around warm cups—invited us again and again into this sweet body, this lovely moment of carrying our burdens with tenderness and self-love.

All of us carry something— the loss of a loved one, a frightening diagnosis, a hurting child, a country at war. We are born into a world of darkness and light, joy and loss. No amount of herbal medicine and yoga will ever remove these hurts from us. But we can learn to love ourselves through the pain, take the moments of deliciousness and beauty fully in whenever they come. Our deep pain points the truest way to our most cherished desires, and we can choose to keep walking joyfully in the direction of those desires, however fearsome the obstacles become. (And we can choose to stop walking and give ourselves footbaths every once in a while!)

datesDecadent Mascarpone Dates

Slit several fresh dates halfway and remove the pits. (If the only dates you can get are quite dry, soak them overnight in a bit of fresh-squeezed orange juice.) Set aside.

Meanwhile, whip together 1/2 cup of mascarpone cheese (if you make kefir, kefir cheese works really well too) with raw honey to taste and a tablespoon of orange flower water. (If you are lucky enough to live in the presence of orange trees, you can make your own orange flower water using the hydrosol recipe I gave here; otherwise look for it in middle-eastern markets). Using a frosting pipe or a ziploc bag with one corner snipped off, pipe the mascarpone blend into the awaiting dates. Sprinkle with rose petals, calendula, or borage flowers.

feastAlmond Garden Bliss

Soak about a cup of almonds overnight in springwater; allow to sprout for a day. At the same time, soak 1/4 cup of sundried tomatoes in about 1/2 cup of spring water.

When the almonds have been soaked, the skins should rub off easily. Place your barenaked almonds and soaked sundried tomatoes in a blender, reserving the tomato soak water. Add a big handful of fresh basil and a clove of garlic and sea salt to taste. Blend until smooth and about the consistency of hummus, using the tomato soak water and olive oil as necessary to make the blender do its thing. (Last night the garden did not have nearly as much basil as I wanted, so I added a lot of fresh oregano and wild dandelion greens.  You could also use nettles! It’s a very adaptable recipe and lots of fun to play with!)

I want to say one thing more about befriending burdens. Nearly twelve years ago, I was walking alone in my neighborhood in Santa Monica.  I was pregnant, sad, isolated, and scared. Across the street I saw light and music spilling out from a little cafe and I was drawn almost magnetically to the sound of happy, laughing people. Inside, I observed a wonderland of art, music, color and beauty. Radiant people were sipping wine and gazing at luminous art. I knew I did not belong here, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I shyly stepped inside and found myself in conversation with the most beautiful woman in the room, a woman who turned out to be the artist who had designed the whole gathering!

She became a dear friend. She also turned out to be my lifeline as I navigated my way through that pregnancy and the crazy years to come.

I could so easily have succumbed to my burdens that night and not walked through that door. I could easily have listened to the voices that told me I didn’t belong there, could so easily have followed my normal patterns and quietly slipped home. Instead, I said yes to the quiet nudging of my lonely heart and fell into an opportunity for deep friendship, creative sustenance, and art, an opportunity that circuitously led me into this life I am living now, a life in which I am, somehow, miraculously, holding luminous artistic gatherings of my own. (I love you, Laura. )

All around me, the leaves are changing, falling onto the ground in incredible mosaics of color. If the chlorophyll did not die, we would never see the secondary pigmentation beneath it, these heartrending reds and oranges and purples and yellows.  I think life is like that sometimes. Life deals us a blow and BOOM! there goes our chlorophyll. But we are resilient, beautiful creatures, and we not only survive, we begin to show new colors that we never suspected were there. Sometimes our burdens walk us directly into the beauty.

kneelphoto by Maeve Hendrix

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

To find
another’s voice,
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems


November 9, 2015 · 4:17 am

walk on feet of gold

2015-10-14 10.31.04I’ve been playing giddily in my new studio in Asheville, amazed at what it does to a life to have a space dedicated to creativity.   The lined-up jars of herbs and clays and petals and powders set my mind spinning down roads of possibilities and the scent is overpoweringly delicious.

Yesterday, dreaming about an upcoming workshop I’ll be hosting to inaugurate this space, I let the threads of life’s whisperings to me meet in this recipe for a fizzing foot soak.  That sounds a little grandiloquent, so let me explain.

This summer was a welter of weddings, dear friends diving with great celebration into the future; this fall has been a deep and sobering reminder of mortality, with the loss of loved ones to cancer and addiction and accident. I remember one moment from this summer, standing at the head of a lovely contra dance promenade to celebrate Anna Lena’s wedding. Her bridal bouquet, which was hand-gathered and heavy with fresh basil, was being passed from person to person in the dance. As I stood there, playing the role of ‘bride’ in the dance, the spicy-sweet aroma of crushed basil woke my memory of so many summers past, growing basil amid the rows of flowers at Touchstone Farm, blending basil from my california garden into a delicious potluck pesto, steeping holy basil in a tea for a hurting friend. This basil that I held now felt like a friend too. Yet this sprig of basil was grown in a garden far from those of my memory.  My idea of basil was overspreading, incorporating this sprig and every other I had held and grown and tasted.  This one branch of basil that I held was a symbol, both an individual and an archetype.

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It was not a great leap from there, standing as I was in the role of “bride” at a wedding, to understand myself in the same way.  I have attended weddings in the role of flower girl, in the role of attendant, in the role of bride.  We move through the roles of these ceremonies in an ancient dance, sometimes the maiden, sometimes the mother, sometimes the crone. Our lives wax and wane, and we dance the circle and fall, but we are more than just our one small life in the dance.  As we dance it, we incarnate every archetype and hold all the power of that role, all those who came before, in our small selves. I felt that, standing there with the bouquet, that just as this small sprig of basil evoked every experience I’ve ever had with basil, each time I engage in love, or heartbreak, or art-making, or poetry, or friendship, I am participating in an ongoing dance that is far bigger than I am. I get to dance the idea of love, of art, of poetry, of friendship. And in that moment, I am more than myself. I represent the vastness of that idea, breathe in all that has come before.

So, you’re wondering, how the hell is she going to bring this back to footsoaks? So glad you asked.  When I moved here to the mountains of North Carolina, a deep sense of home settled in my bones. I have never been in love with geography the way I love the contours of these mountains. My feet lead me through twisting rhododendron paths and amidst towering oaks and maples, and my heart almost hurts with the joy of it. I explained this feeling to someone I’d just met at an herbal gathering, and she told me that the substrate here is mica, a mineral whose message is “you’re okay.”

2015-10-19 13.53.27

You’re okay. Isn’t that the essential message of self-care? I like to pick up flakes of mica from the soil and crush it in my fingers to a fine silver powder, then dust it into my hair and onto my face, so that I glitter in the sun.  I like the silver my feet pick up when I hike barefoot here.  I put powdered mica in all of my bath bombs now, so that when I step from the bath I am covered in a silver sheen, glittering and steeped in I’M OKAY.

I put lots of mica in these little footsoaks I made, thinking of that contact between foot and ground, the archetype there. Bare foot to bare earth, all of the feet that have walked these trails before me.  It’s powerful. We can have feet of clay and of gold, both. We’re all of it. It’s okay.

And I put turmeric in, thinking of a friend of mine from India with radiant skin.  I asked her about it one day and she said she made traditional turmeric masques for her face once a week. That weekend I mixed turmeric powder with an egg yolk and some calendula tea, placed it all over my face, and waited twenty minutes.  When I washed it off, I was every bit as radiant as she said I would be.  Because my face was yellow.  Deep, bright, permanent yellow. It didn’t wash off for a week.

I am too white, it turns out, for turmeric masks. But I never forgot the power turmeric has on the skin, the way it nourishes and draws life and color to it. A pinch of turmeric in a foot bath draws the blood to the surface, enlivening and awakening our heroically perseverant feet.

I added sea salt, for the power of the ocean and the exultation available in racing the surf, the deep delight of feet in warm sand. I added rosemary, for its woodsy scent and evocation of memory, and its way of stopping nasty little infections in their tracks. And lavender, because OF COURSE.

After I pressed the little golden, shimmering foot soaks into their molds, I went to rinse out the bowl in the utility sink.  It fizzed up golden and aromatic.  I balanced on the edge of the sink and submerged my feet in that scented water.  I breathed in, aware that in this moment, so many of my dreams have come true.  I am working as a counselor with women, doing what I can to ease the heavy burdens of their lives. I am deep in love and deeply loved. I have an art studio on the river! I carry everything that has come before, all of the other roles I have played in the dance, and the dance goes on.  In this golden moment, I am one with all of it.

Golden, sparkling feet touching earth, for this moment, and all moments.


1 cup baking soda

1/2 cup citric acid

1/4 cup sea salt

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 teaspoons crushed mica

2 tablespoons sweet almond oil (infused with calendula, if you have it!)

1 tablespoon cocoa butter

1 tablespoon rosemary essential oil

1 teaspoon lavender essential oil

Rosewater, for spritzing

Mix the dry ingredients carefully together, preferably with your hands, because then they will glitter the rest of the day! Add the cocoa butter and knead as though you are making pie crust, rubbing through your fingers until it pebbles evenly. Add the remaining oils and mix completely. Spritz very sparsely with rosewater just until the mixture holds together into a ball when squeezed. Work the rosewater in very quickly so the mixture doesn’t lose its fizz.  Press into molds (silicon baking molds work well, or old plastic easter eggs) quickly before the mixture sets.  Let dry overnight.

Drop one into a warm tub of water and submerge feet. Dream. Walk on feet of gold.

2015-10-12 10.43.24


October 23, 2015 · 3:22 pm

a still place, containing everything


moon“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. ”
~Pema Chodron



I woke this morning in a dreamy fugue, not quite able to pull myself from the world of sleep into the bright one of legos and breakfast-making that awaited me.  In the kitchen, I danced with my son to this song while I cooked eggs and tried to push away a growing sense of nostalgia for a life that wasn’t mine.

There is something about this music that reminds me of the time I spent in New England, working on an organic flower farm that also offered yoga and sacred circle dance.  It was a long time ago, and the friendships I made there still bear fruit, but this nostalgia is not about that place.  It’s about something deeper than that.  It’s about a life built around the deeper spirit of things.  It’s about a life built around seeking, and mystery, and an overarching pattern that I fit within but can never encompass.

I’ve written about nostalgia before—here and here—but today wrapped its arms around me and reminded me that however often I come to this understanding, it will both elude and find me again. There is no endpoint to life.  It goes on and on, with its immense joys and unbearable losses. Things come together and they fall apart again. We never ‘arrive’ at happiness.

And yet–there is, always available to us, this deeper place of relating to life, this ever-present and invisible river of other lives, other experiences, those who came before and are yet to come.  There have been long stretches in my life when I lived more in that world than in this one. Lately, with the tasks there are to do, with time stretched thin between studies and work and children and projects and plans, I have mostly forgotten that there is more than today’s to-do list.

I danced with my son in the kitchen, and I cooked breakfast, and we walked to Meeting, pausing to look at the striated colors the rain had painted onto the path.  It was a beautiful morning, bright and warm, and my heart was full and ebullient as I readied myself for the silence.  Yet the moment I sat down, tears began to fill my eyes and drip onto my chest.  I played it cool and kept my breathing even, surreptitiously swiping at my eyes from time to time, unsure of the origins of this sorrow.

yvar3My youngest son looked up at me, puzzled, and asked why my eyes were crying.  I told him  I did not know.

The moment I spoke these words, I began to concoct theories.  I’m crying because I won’t see the boys for seven days.  I’m crying because I’m overwhelmed.  I’m crying because my grandmother is in pain and dying.  But I wasn’t listening to the reasons.  My heart knew.  It was bigger than that.

The tears kept falling, steadily, for over an hour.  People rose and spoke out of the silence of Meeting, sharing messages of loss, of the connection of community, of the beauty to be found in stillness.  I spoke too, worried my voice would quaver but unable to silence myself.  I spoke of the world of linear time and the world of presence just alongside us, always, infinite and containing everything.  I spoke of the sense that sometimes the boundaries between self and world blur, and I fall in love with the rise and fall of everything, the transience and beauty and impermanence of lives that have brushed mine and passed on.  I spoke of the gratitude I feel in these moments of supreme joy, walking in the sunlight with my children, even as I know they are growing and changing, as beautiful children are born, beloved elders die.

The sorrow ended as abruptly as it began, and we walked home laughing, but I’ve been tender all day.  I want to hold everything close and bathe it in my attention.  I want to understand why that song tugs at my heartstrings, I want to wrap my mind around the scope of all that I’ve lost and all the treasures I’ve experienced. I find myself wondering whether I will still be here in thirty years, wondering and wise, whether I will be strong enough on this path to put my hand on another’s shoulder and say ‘this is how it is, the daily struggles and losses, the small joys, and this is how it will be always, and that’s the beauty of it’.

I think about the ones who have done this for me, the ones who have really seen and opened my heart to seeing:  Rilke, and Teilhard de Chardin, and Hildegard von Bingen, all the ones whose names I don’t know who have felt this same shuddering beauty.  Where are they now?  When I think of this, I am not afraid of dying.  I love life so much, and yet I cannot fear to walk a path that these have walked before me.

The days go on, full of floors that need to be swept and dish drainers that need to be emptied; applications that must be filled out and nails that must be clipped; tires to inflate and battles to fight.  Each day marches forward from the last, bearing pain and ugliness and boredom and beauty and delight.

 And beneath all of it, always there:  this still place, containing everything.

2013-12-23 11.59.32


March 16, 2015 · 3:23 am

living the question

2014-12-05 12.21.43I have spent most of the past year gradually falling in love with one of the most patient and observant men I have ever known.    He is attentive, generous, creative, and wise.  One of the many gifts he has given me is a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (other gifts include earrings shaped like the dopamine molecule, a hand-hammered ring he crafted out of a quarter, numerous bouquets of flowers, and some of the most heartfelt and lovely works of poetry and art I’ve ever been privileged to look upon. I mention this to give you an inkling of the quality of man we are talking about here.  And also to preen a little.  Preen, preen.)

Right.  Anyway, one of the most famous passages of that beautiful book of Rilke’s is this one:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have read this passage. So many times that, gradually, it has lost its power.  It has lost its power because I look at this quote and think “ah, Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. Seen that.”  And the experience of these words gets filed away.  I already know.  So I deny myself the experience.

I have fallen in love before.  I have attended school before, participated in art therapy before, cooked stew before, celebrated my birthday before, taken trips overseas before.  Over time, it grows easier and easier to believe that I can never experience the delight and vibrance of this world in the way I did the first time.  It grows easier and easier to slot new experiences into pre-existing categories; easier and easier to take for granted things, people, and experiences  that once lit me up with gratitude.

It’s insidious, this having-of-answers.  I used to live on a tiny street in Culver City, near a school that had planted its borders with mexican marigold and lavender.  Every morning, walking to my bus stop, I’d crush a leaf or two in my fingers and sniff the sweet, heady scent all the way across Venice Boulevard. Sometimes I’d tuck a sprig into my pocket or behind my ear, where I could lift it to my nose throughout the day.  And then one morning, in a hurry, headed to an appointment with a person I loathed, I found myself at the bus stop with a fistful of crushed and withered leaves that I could not remember plucking or smelling.  This ritual of delight had become just another bullet point on my to-do list. I “knew” what lavender and mexican marigold could do for me, so I’d plucked them.  But I’d forgotten to have the experience.

I write this now because, as I entered into love this year, I had so many answers.  I’d been in love.  I knew what worked and what didn’t.  I knew what I wanted and whether I could realistically get it or not.

But this love has taken my answers from me one by one.  Slowly, begrudgingly, I have learned that I cannot apply the tricks and techniques and shortcuts that I learned in other relationships to this one. I have learned that  a) I know nothing about this love and b) that is a wonderful thing.  Sometimes it is very ugly, being me.  Sometimes it is the hardest, most awful, paralyzing-pulpy thing to admit that I have been wrong, that I do not know, that this experience I face is different than anything that has come before.  It takes extraordinary energy and raw nerve to live questions instead of answers.  It takes almost unimaginable courage to allow myself to be fully seen.

On the other side, though!  When I do take the deep breath and do the courageous thing, when I welcome this man into my life each day as a surprise and as an enigma, when I allow myself to stumble and show ineptitude and admit that I do not know, life grows so exquisitely vibrant.  There is a spectrum of experience, and when I narrow it to keep myself from experiencing the most intense suffering, I am also denied the most transformative joy. Slowly, I am relearning how to welcome all of life.

The dust accumulates in such subtle ways: the retelling of a story until all the feeling is worn out of it, the frustration at having to re-experience something I did not like the first time, the assumption that I already know how an apple tastes and that this apple can hold nothing new.  I think this is the way that we can wake up, eventually, and feel as though we are no longer alive.

Sometimes it is easier to keep my head down and deaden myself to experience—sometimes there is so much to do that tasting the apple feels like one task too much.  But when I am walking down the hall after tucking my children into bed and they call after me “we love you the MOST!”  I want to hear it every time.  It is no less beautiful for having been said several hundred times before. I don’t want to deaden myself to it.  I don’t want to stop hearing it when the man I love says I love you.

This man that I love, loves me.  That is the newest, most surprising, most fantastically beautiful feeling I have ever experienced.  I don’t ever want to teach myself to take it for granted.  I don’t ever want to teach myself that I know this already. I don’t want any answers.

I know I will forget, again, to read the words Rilke wrote instead of saying, “oh yeah, Rilke.” I know there will be nights that I stride down the hall preoccupied with all there is to accomplish, not hearing the “We love you the MOST!” that follows me from the boys’ room.  And I want to welcome this, too—-gently welcome this mistake-making, this not-hearing—as part of the question I live every day.

2015-01-02 13.35.14









Slowly the evening puts on the garments
held for it by a rim of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands divide from you,
one going heavenward, one that falls;

and leave you, to neither quite belonging,
not quite so dark as the house sunk in silence,
not quite so surely pledging the eternal
as that which grows star each night and climbs-

and leave you (inexpressibly to untangle)
your life afraid and huge and ripening,
so that it, now bound in and now embracing,
grows alternately stone in you and star.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~


Filed under masculine & feminine, parenting and personhood, poetry, Uncategorized

golden rule, retooled

handsThe Golden Rule has gotten me into a lot of trouble. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It sounds so simple.  Such a helpful, obviously correct guideline. Except when it isn’t. The thing is, in trying to maintain a warm, unassuming, unconditional love for my “neighbor”, I have at times driven myself deeper and deeper into resentment, despair, and martyrdom.  There are, in this world, people who will take the loving intention of the well-meaning and manipulate it to achieve their own ends, caring not for the suffering of those whose resources they are subverting. How does one apply the Golden Rule to those who will take advantage? How does one forgive oneself for an inability to love these neighbors? And what is the value of a rule, however Golden, if it cannot be universally applied?

There is a particularly intransigent fellow in my own life who has called into question every belief I ever had about myself, about “goodness”, about relationship.  I watch in stunned amazement as, once again, he emerges from the background to bring into my own life the shadows that play across the world stage.  This is a man I have tried to love as my neighbor, only to watch each of my good intentions twisted into ammunition that is used against me. This is a man whose needs and emotions I have tried to consider, only to see my consideration treated as a weakness and exploited on the battlefield of our interaction.  This is a relationship to which I have applied every tool in my experience: listening. attention, meditation, space, lovingkindness, forgiveness, nonresistance, understanding.  All met with reactions varying from hostility to abuse. 

I stand before this man as if before a dark mirror, watching all of my own faults spit back at me larger, more gruesome, more hideously apparent.  I am not faultless in this exchange.  All of my uglinesses are drawn forth by this interaction, making the accusations he slings at me more than partially true.  It is true that I stand between him and what he wants.  It is true that I will not do as he asks.  It is true that I have some culpability in the misery he has made of his life. 

moonWhat does a person do when her moral code fails her?  How to proceed when even the Golden Rule proves ineffective? Are there simply problems we face as people, as communities, as nations, as a species, that will never be resolved? Or is there something here that I am missing?

As I sat in meditation this morning it occurred to me that a rule considered Golden for much of the written history of humankind might in fact be equal to my titchy problems.  Might it just be possible that I’m the one failing it ? From a very young age I’ve assumed that loving my neighbor as myself meant to love my neighbor with boundless compassion, unconditional love and understanding, and complete forgiveness. 

But the Golden Rule says to love my neighbor as MYSELF.  Since when did I ever love myself with boundless compassion? Hmm. Unconditional love? HA! Complete forgiveness? Never.

If I were to love my neighbor as I love myself, it would be with constant criticism, unceasing awareness of my neighbor’s faults, constant expectation of failure, intense frustration with lack of potential achieved, and anger at faults displayed, mistakes made, important deeds left undone.

If I were to love my neighbor as myself it would be in rueful resignation to the fact that, flawed as she is, she’s all I have, and I must make my peace with her daily if we are to go on.  

If I were to love my neighbor as I love myself, it would mean carrying the knowledge that today she is not at her best because she didn’t sleep well last night.  It would mean knowing that this day makes her sad because it is the anniversary of her grandmother’s death.  It would mean cutting her a little slack on certain days of the month and understanding when she snaps at her kids it is not because she does not love them. but because this is the seventy-second time today they have asked her this exact same question and she has already answered it with love and patience seventy-one times.

It would mean, in short, seeing her humanity.  It would mean being aware of her shadow, her faults, her imperfections, and forgiving her just enough to live with her every day.  It would mean a constant wariness tempered with the enduring hope that she may improve.  It would mean, if she is in a cruel mood, I keep her away from my children.  It would mean, if she abuses sugar, I try not to keep any in the house.

If I loved my neighbor as I love myself, I would never let her off the hook.  But neither would I completely write her off. 

Looking at the golden rule through this lens, I can see how I have erred in the past.  I have forgiven this man transgressions that I would never forgive in myself.  I have allowed him to behave in ways it would horrify me to have acted.  I have loved him, not as myself, but as some imaginary perfect being, even in the face of his obvious imperfections.  That is not love.  That is stupidity.  

Throughout the long and gruesome dance I have danced with this man, I have held this question:

If I cannot find peace in this one interaction, what hope can I have for the world?

There are players on this world stage that I find very difficult to love.  There are actions I find nearly impossible to forgive. What manner of love can we hold for these callous aspects of humanity that destroy people and planet alike–what world can we build that includes this particular scrap of shadow? 

Well. Here I stand, again, on the same ground, wrestling the same demons, and I don’t have any answers.  But it feels a little more possible to love these enemies with the kind of fierce get-it-together-or-else love I have for myself than it does to unconditionally forgive them. 

And if I am asked to love my neighbor as I love myself, perhaps that means I ought to spend some time contemplating how to love myself better, too. 


Filed under the shadow

tear up the art

swirlThis morning I had a far-ranging, heart-lifting conversation with the wonderful Michelle Wilde that set my mind spinning.  We were talking about the cyclical, eternal routine of the day-to-day and the incongruity of living that way when there are shattering losses everywhere in the world.  We were talking about relationship, and childrearing, and mental illness.

“We are always talking about setting boundaries,” she said. “Boundaries are what we set in politics—they’re imposed and artificial.  Nature doesn’t have boundaries.  What if instead of building walls we planted gardens?”

I thought about the deep love I have shared with people who have hurt me terribly. I thought about building walls around those experiences, trying to isolate them.  And then I thought about what it would be like if the walls were torn down, if I saw those incidents and relationships as strange soil–soil in which to plant the seeds that won’t germinate in the sun and rich humus of my daily life.

thornsThere is a gift that darkness gives us.  When I think about what there is for me to do in the face of the terrible losses we are sustaining right now, I think about the strange soil of my dark experiences.  I survived them.  Sometimes I survived them by behaving in ways that contradict my own moral code.  I think about some of the relationships I have sustained with people whose brilliance is matched by a searing lack of empathy.  In this strange soil, I can plant seeds that would not grow anywhere else in life.  A person without empathy does not worry about the judgment of others. She can live the kind of experiment that might greatly advance our species, because she does not fear social censure. But the personal costs of befriending her are terrible.  These are strange and vital gardens. They are frightening, and the impulse to wall them off is strong, but if we plant here we may grow answers that would not grow elsewhere.

It is only recently that I have had the courage to make terrible art. I asked my teacher, once, after having a profound art-making experience that resulted in a slab of what appeared to be gray vomit, if I had to keep this terrible thing.  She said I had to keep the message.  I could ask this art I had created: what do you have to tell me?  And I could hold onto the answer and let the form go.

I’ve been thinking about that, in the context of walls and political boundaries and activism and loss and gardens.  Where do I miss messages by holding on to forms?  Where do I refuse to notice the truth of my experience because it doesn’t look the way I want it to? Where do I build walls instead of allowing the soil to be what it is, perhaps not for heirloom tomatoes but for wild and thorny medicine?

When I do retreat to the soothing cycles of the day-to-day, when I do take nourishment from what remains the same, I want to bring the messages with me.  Those messages are an honoring of the terrible power of my own shadow and the shadows of others. On the days when I cannot even take action, I can pay attention to what is true.  Because nature does have boundaries, of a sort:  the edge zones of sand to ocean; the falling away of forests into grassland.  There are places that do not nurture life. But even these are not walled away; they too are ground down by water and wind, warmed by sunlight. We do not have to live there or look upon them every day.  But they are there, slowly becoming everything else.  And they are part of us.  We can tear up the art, but not before hearing its message.

(This song is another work-in-progress exploration of these questions. )


August 12, 2014 · 7:56 pm

talking to people

imageRecently my son and I attended a week of surf camp.  We had an incredible time swimming all day, gathering seashells, meeting with old friends and new, and yes, even catching some waves. In the afternoons we learned about the wider ecosystem of the beach we were surfing on, attending talks by the Cape Fear Riverkeeper and the founder of the Plastic Oceans Project and participating in rain garden maintenance with the Coastal Federation.

The Plastic Ocean Project slideshow affected my son profoundly.  After showing us some of the damaging effects plastics have on the turtles, fish, mammals, and birds of the ocean, and reminding us that the ocean is ‘downhill from everywhere’, Bonnie explained that one simple way to take action is to refuse a plastic straw at restaurants.

My son became an anti-straw zealot on the spot. And since we’ve been on the road visiting family for the past week, he’s had plenty of restaurants to practice his policy on. At first I was pleased and proud of his new social conscience, though I know that straws are quite literally the tip of the iceberg-sized plastics problem, but lately I’ve been noticing something disturbing. Every time we enter a restaurant he not only refuses a straw, but then proceeds to judge everyone who DOES use one. “Look at that man”, he’ll whisper. “He used TWO straws, one for his water and one for his tea.  He doesn’t care about the sea turtles at ALL.”

And it struck me that this is the same subtle ‘othering’ that can lead one population to kill another simply because it has unfamiliar values, or an unintelligible language, or a different skin tone.  It’s the same ‘othering’ that can make us view the children of ‘others’ not as laughing, vivid, crazy-making-straw-refusing humans, but as collateral damage.

Bonnie’s work with the Plastic Ocean Project is all about collaboration:  building bridges between the soft and hard sciences, between academics and puppeteers, between chemistry and biology students, in the name of rethinking our concept of garbage. I was especially struck by the tone of positivity and enthusiasm she brought into the room, the excitement engendered by this collaborative solution-building.

Which made it all the more glaring when my son took this message of inclusiveness and turned it into divisiveness. Most painful of all, however, was awakening to a pervasive tendency of divisiveness in myself. This family-visiting road trip has been incredibly instructive for me. Extended family members who had dwindled to nothing more than a few political sound bites and snapshots on Facebook have become flesh-and-blood humans again. I’ve been forced to step away from my comfortable little tribe of like-mindeds and associate with ‘others’.  And I’ve been reminded of something very important. Fear and hatred are powerful motivators, to be sure. When I see stats on what my country’s policies are doing to oceans and children, I am galvanized into action. But the actions I am galvanized into doing tend to promote the same kind of ‘othering’ that allows us to deport children and destroy entire species without compunction. I get fanned into a furor of me vs. them. ‘Them’ being anyone whose sound bites do not match my own.

This is why I tend not to post political articles or opinions on Facebook–I’ve learned that if my little sound bite is going to change someone’s opinion, then the next sound bite that comes along is just as likely to change it back. All I’m doing is preaching to the choir or being inflammatory, and the last thing I want to be doing is engendering more divisiveness.  But I have noticed that I judge other people by their sound bites. I make snap judgments, I dismiss whole humans or assign them into ‘my’ or ‘their’ camp, based on a skimming of my newsfeed.

I’ve been reading a book called mindwise by Nicholas Epley, a psychologist who studies the way we read people.  Turns out, when we try to take the perspective of others, we are often wrong. Turns out, if you want to know what someone is thinking or feeling, the most accurate way to find out is to ask them. Which requires us to talk to people.  It’s a lot harder to dismiss someone you’re eating dinner with than it is to dismiss them over Facebook from several hundred miles away

Last month I learned that during the deadly 1854 cholera outbreak in London, when the disease kept spreading and people kept dying and no one could figure out why people were getting sick, one man, Dr. John Snow, thought to interview the sick families to discover what they had in common. He discovered, through talking to people, that all of the sick people were drinking water from a single pump on Broad Street. And then he performed an elegantly simple behavioral intervention: he broke off the pump handle. And thus ended the deadly cholera outbreak of 1854.

So I’ve been thinking about John Snow and political sound bites and plastic straws and extended family. And it seems to me that any lasting, effective change any of us hope to make will have to be rooted in a different paradigm than the reigning one of us vs. them. The kind of change we need is planetary, because the mistakes we’ve made are planetary in scope. We can’t afford to be divisive anymore. We need to talk to people. We need to figure out where they’re coming from, what needs and hopes and desires their actions rise from. We’re going to have to see even the most inflammatory of the ‘others’ as human, and we’re going to have to be smart enough to come up with ideas that make it easy, even desirable, to change.

Another collaborative solution Bonnie mentioned besides foregoing straws was incentivizing the return of plastics for upcycling into fuel. Apparently, there remain a few companies whose patents haven’t been bought out by big oil (see the othering I did there? Betcha there are families in ‘big oil’ that love to surf and care about sea turtles too, whose employment choices were the complicated result of circumstances I can’t even begin to fathom) who recycle used plastic into usable fuel. Imagine if there were plastic-return centers where anyone could bring waste plastics in for conversion to fuel and be paid by the pound for their efforts–if waste plastic were worth something I doubt there’d be so much of it lying around waiting to float out to sea. That’s a pretty great breaking-the-pump-handle intervention right there–making it easy to do the ‘right’ thing.

It reminds me of desire lines in Permaculture design. We have a species-wide instinct-driven inclination to take the easy route.  Parks the world over have bare patches worn into the grass where hordes of people have ignored the visually appealing, curving pathways to take the shortest distance between points. If the pump handle is broken, you’ll get your water elsewhere. But we won’t know what the desire lines are, which pump handle to target, why the behaviors exist, until we talk to people.

I heard an interview with the amazing Israeli musician Idan Raichel recently. He spoke about the heartbreaking situation in the Middle East in terms I’d never heard before. He spoke about exposing Israelis to the music and theater and art of the Palestinian people. To paraphrase: ‘If everyone is clamoring to open the borders so that they can hear their favorite musician perform, if art-lovers petition for checkpoints to open so the artists they’ve been hearing so much about can come through from Lebanon and Jordan and Palestine and Syria, the rigid lines of politics will soften and we’ll all just be humans, making change on a human scale.’  In other words, if we learn to see the people we fear and hate as people, if we learn by interacting and listening and talking with them that they are similar to, even valuable to us, our behavior toward them will change.

Which is is why we can’t afford fear- and anger-based interventions. If we want to build change on the level that change is required, we need to talk to people–the way that Bonnie does, the way Dr. Snow did, the way Idan Raichel proposes.  We simply can’t afford to ‘other’ each other any more.



July 27, 2014 · 2:34 pm