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. 

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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. )

3 Comments

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.

 

6 Comments

July 27, 2014 · 2:34 pm

dandelion drift

2014-05-01 10.44.23I am drinking locust-blossom elixir.  I’ve been drinking it all morning, and contrary to the assertions of the marvelous Doug Elliott (from whom I learned to make the stuff) it is QUITE intoxicating.

Though, to be fair, the giddiness started the moment I walked the boys to school through groves of blooming locust trees this morning, and was fairly advanced before I ever took a sip of the blossom-infused water.  I had not expected the locusts to be in bloom yet—I spent last week in Boone, where the trees are only in the precontemplative phase of leafing out (sorry, counseling joke)—so I used my travel mug to carry home handfuls of the blossoms. Carrying a coffee mug filled with frothy flowers is like holding the poetic precursor to a latte.  I got a lot of smiles. (Smiles were a theme—the smilacina racemosa has come out, lining the path through the forest, and the boys were nibbling new sprouts of smilax on their way to school.)

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It was too beautiful to go straight home. I stopped at my friend’s house first, to talk with her about an expressive arts workshop she is putting on this weekend, and then it seemed to me Randall Jarrell would appreciate the scent of locust flowers, so I visited him too.

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And eventually, as I always do, I ended up in the meadow.  I love this meadow.  Last week, I even found myself sitting in its tall grasses near midnight with a lit candelabra (I was walking home from joy circle, so naturally I had a candelabra), looking at stars. Life is good in a meadow at midnight with a candelabra.

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This time of year, the meadow is brimful of dandelions, and I had just signed up to bring four dozen cookies to my son’s end-of-kindergarten picnic, so I improvised a pouch and started collecting petals for dandelion cookies.  My hands are already stained turmeric-yellow from gathering gallons of dandelion blooms in Boone yesterday; those will become infused oil and medicinal tincture, but today’s dandelions are for pure delight.

 

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This whole morning was for pure delight.  The scent of locust in bloom, slow time to gather dandelions, watching my children chase geese and pick up tulip poplar flowers and discover lily-of-the-valley for the first time. Conversations with friends and dead poets, fields of nodding flowers, sipping blossom elixir, the scent of baking cookies.  My inspiring friend Briana just wrote a beautiful blog about drifting for pleasure, and that is what this morning was, a long slow drift of delight. (Even the cookies drifted over the edges of their pan a little bit!)

What a wonderful gift, time simply to absorb any pleasure, any inclination for delight, that might be blossoming at the edges of consciousness.

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2014-05-01 11.23.07(Another incredibly creative and inspiring friend, Laura, taught me to document these moments–her feedback is always along the lines of “hmm, great story, WHERE ARE THE PICTURES?” Thank you Laura. This blog’s for you, baby.)

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Dandelion Drift Cookies2014-05-01 12.47.09

2 egg whites

1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

1/2 tsp vanilla

1 c. raw sugar

1 c. shredded coconut

1 c. dandelion petals, calyx removed

Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and vanilla until they froth.  Add the sugar a tablespoon at a time and continue beating until the whites are stiff, but not dry.  Fold in the coconut and dandelion (you can use all dandelion instead, but it takes a looooooong time to gather 2 cups of petals, and then what are you going to make oil and wine and tincture and vinegar with??) and drop by spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets.  Bake at 300 for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

(Note on gathering: make sure the area you are gathering in has not been sprayed and is not near a roadside or a frequent pitstop for pets.  Leave a few open flowers for the bees. After you’ve gathered the dandelions, let them sit in a basket outside for a while so the critters can jump ship.)

Now go visit Doug to learn how to make locust blossom elixir, and Briana to giggle with unfolding joy, and Laura for complete creative inspiration!

 

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5 Comments

May 1, 2014 · 6:44 pm

handmade solstice

solstice treeWinter solstice is probably my favorite celebration.  There is something about gathering in the dark, cold, stark night to light candles and celebrate the returning of the light…something intuitive and ancient about bringing people together for music and laughter and dancing and body heat and feasting when the days grow short and the trees are bare against the stars.

Liberated from coursework for nearly a month, desperate to procrastinate (I declared to myself that I would finally obtain my driver’s permit this December, and I DON’T WANT TO), I have taken great delight in making new blended body butters, developing exquisitely scented solid perfumes, and returning to tablet weaving and knitting. Working with my hands instead of my brain, creating gifts that will help my beloved friends and family feel nourished and loved, planning a solstice party and circle dance, baking homemade bread again…ahhhhh.  Long mornings of soapmaking and kundalini yoga, hours of painting, mug after mug of st. john’s wort and damiana tea, George Winston playing piano, letters to friends. Such a beautiful time.

I wanted to share my favorite solstice recipes with you, so that even though we are centering in our own stillness at the dark of the year, we are still learning from each other.

DREAMER’S PILLOWS

these are wonderful eye pillows for savasana (if you do yoga) or to tuck beneath your pillow when you sleep, or even travel pillows to carry with you and alleviate the stale plastic aroma of commercial travel.

Cut 2 rectangles of material (I like lavender velvet) about 12″ by 6″ , turn so that the wrong sides face out, and hem along three sides. Turn right-side out and stuff with 2 cups of dried lavender, 1/2 cup of dried mugwort, and 1/2 cup of either dried passionflower or dried catnip.  Sometimes I’ll use a combination of elderflower and rose instead of the lavender.  Pin together the open side and sew shut.

PERSONAL PERFUMES

I learned long ago that of the senses, scent holds the most power for me. One good whiff of peat smoke can transport me into instant rapture, and the plastic scent of big-box stores plunges me into a depressive tailspin.

As a teenager, I practiced harnessing this power by experimenting with essential oils.  I would choose one oil to be my “happy” scent, and for weeks, whenever I felt particularly joyous, I would dab the oil on my wrists and under my nose.  Soon I had only to smell the oil to feel instant joy.  I could use the oil for months to inspire happiness, but eventually its powers would wane and it would be time to choose a new “happy” scent.

I like to study my friends for a few months–what scents seem to bring them alive? I’ll walk them through my soap-making workshop and notice which soaps they breathe in most deeply.  And then I design a perfume for them.  It’s easy to do—all you need are almond oil, beeswax, and essential oils—and a great way to get to know your friends even better.  Maybe I should design some for my enemies too so I can smell them coming…

2 tbsp. sweet almond oil
2 tbsp. grated beeswax
20-30 drops of your favorite essential oils

(some blends I love are petitgrain and patchouli, benzoin and amyris, vetiver and cedarwood, or bergamot and grapefruit)

Melt the beeswax and almond oil together in a pyrex bowl nested over boiling water. When melted, remove from heat and drop in your scent blend, stirring as you go.  (Keep in mind that the scent will mellow as the perfume hardens; get to the scent strength that smells perfect and then add 10 more drops!)  Pour quickly into empty lip balm tins or chapstick tubes–or an empty locket?–and let harden.

To use, simply rub some balm onto your finger and apply to pulse points and temples.  These are wonderfully subtle, perfuming your personal space without invading the air around.

SOLSTICE TEA

I do like the dark times of the year, I like the journey inward, but sometimes it can hurt. Sometimes I forget about the return of the light and let the darkness sweep me away.  This tea is for those times.  Hawthorn and rose strengthen and nourish the heart, St. John’s Wort reminds of the light, mullein clears the lungs (and energetically dissolves grief) and holy basil lifts the spirits.

1 c. dried holy basil (tulsi)  (if you can’t find this, you can substitute lemon balm)

1 c. dried rose petals

1/2 c. hawthorn berries

1/2 c. st. john’s wort flowers and leaves

1/4 c. mullein

Blend together and store in an airtight jar or tin.  To prepare, measure out 2 tbsp. of herbs per mug of tea.  Cover with freshly boiled water and let steep 5 min. before straining.  Sweeten with honey if desired.

SUNLIGHT BATH

This fizzing bath bomb perfumes the bathwater and leaves your skin slightly sparkling with golden mica. Take this bath by candlelight and I DARE you to stay sulky!

1 c. baking soda

1/2 c. citric acid

1 tsp. mica

3 tbsp. sweet almond or grapeseed oil

1 tsp- 1 tbsp. essential oil (I use lavender or rose, generally)

2 tbsp. crumbled cocoa butter

dried herbs or flowers, if you wish (though these can make a bit of a mess in the tub after.)

rosewater

Stir the dry ingredients together until well-mixed, then add the oils and cocoa butter.  Mix until it stays together when you squeeze it. Sprinkle a tiny bit of rosewater ( less than a tsp.) over the mixture, stirring constantly to keep from fizzing.

Working quickly, press the mixture into molds (empty easter eggs, silicon candy molds, flexible ice cube trays work well; I’ve even heard you can use a melon baller!) and let set a few minutes before popping out.  Air the bath bombs for 24 hours.  Then draw a hot bath, light candles, and drop one in.  Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Much love to you at the dark of the year! And happy Summer Solstice, Australians!

5 Comments

December 12, 2013 · 7:53 pm

croesus & fukushima

I spent yesterday learning bollywood-style choreography, hosting/taking an intense workshop on the touch drawing technique, and wildly spinning to amazing fiddle music at the contra dance.  There was hardly a moment to take a breath, but while my body made hand mudras and shimmied my shoulders, pressed ink into paper, and twirled in the arms of my dance partners, my mind doggedly pursued the same topic it’s been tumbling for weeks now.  Weeks of making art and writing papers, studying for exams and curing hundreds of bars of soap, visiting family and holding babies and blending body butters and solid perfumes, watching plans coalesce and unravel, feeling by turns utterly filled and completely devastated–I’ve been thinking about what’s beneath it all.

All of these different layers of self—the ones that come out at family dinners, the ones represented by the photographs we throw away and the poems that would embarrass us horribly if they ever came to light.  The parts we claim and don’t claim.  The parts we don’t even notice—the way our walk differs from everyone else’s, or what incites us to love, or why certain colors or sounds induce longing.

It strikes me that the ones who inspire me, my dearest friends and deepest teachers, are the ones who live frighteningly close to the surface.  We feel EVERYTHING.  It can be called sensitivity, touchiness, flakiness, vulnerability, mental illness, intuition, creativity, genius….so many of us who are this open to the world end up broken by it, submerged in depression or mania or something in between; so many of us develop  addictions as ways of dulling this excruciating sensitivity. Some of our addictions are benign—too many cups of sugared tea—and some kill us.   All are ways of tuning out, because our default setting is so very very tuned in.

But some of us manage to shift our value system, to see this burden as a gift.  We decide to highly prize experience and sensitivity.  We linger over every new idea, every scent, every painful and deeply felt emotion.  We let ourselves grieve in every color over situations that others seem not even to notice.

And lately I have learned something—we ALL notice.  All of us are born this close to the surface.  It’s just that some of us hide it better than others, and some of us dull it away with behaviors or time or routines.  I haven’t managed to hide mine. Or, perhaps, I have, by building my life around it.

At the touch drawing workshop, beautifully facilitated by Katrina Plato, we were urged to ask questions and let the drawings answer. I drew with closed eyes, on tissue paper that had been laid over rolled paint, so that the pressure of my fingers and elbows and hands marked the page. When my eyes opened I would quickly lift the drawing and begin a new one. I made 31 drawings in this way. They cycled through downcast faces, trees, weeping eyes, dancing women, ambiguous swirls, and back to downcast faces. Some of them terrified me.

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In the end we were asked to quickly number and title our drawings, keeping them in sequence so that they could tell an unfolding story.  There was one disturbing series that I titled “Croesus” for no particular reason. When I came home I read about Croesus and learned this:

Croesus was a spectacularly wealthy king crowned in 560 BC.  He reigned at a time when the once powerful Ionian cities were falling to the Persians in Anatolia.  He asked the oracle at Delphi if he should go to war; the oracles answered that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.

The empire, of course, turned out to be his own, and Croesus was burned alive.  Some stories relate that as he burned, he cried out ‘Solon!’ three times–Solon, a poet and reformer who had warned the king that good fortune is fickle.

Terrible as that is, this is the story that broke my heart: There was a Phrygian prince called Adrastus, a young man who had been exiled for accidentally killing his own brother. Croesus took pity on Adrastus and offered him refuge. Adrastus thanked him by accidentally killing Croesus’ only son, Atys.   (what is it Maya Angelou said?  when someone shows you who they are for the first time, believe them.)

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Croesus series

It is so hard for me to come to terms with this, that our very mercy, our desire to do good, can be the vehicle of our destruction–that sometimes there is no reason, no redemption, only terrible waste. I know that it is true and I do not know how to make peace with it.  But boy oh boy did it answer my question! Art amazes me in this way, in its power to coax out meaning, and in doing so, to heal.

Because it does heal. I have to remind myself of this; it is easy to think of expressive arts as ‘soft’ therapy, useless in times of real trauma, self-indulgent when there are so many who need water or light or, I don’t know, stitches.

But I had a dream several nights ago in which I lay beneath the ocean floor and looked up through layers of oddly warm water.  Fish of every color swam urgently past and then a whale, slowly, looking straight into my eyes.  And then another.  I was pinned there, beneath the water and between the unyielding gazes of these beautiful, sincere creatures trying fiercely to communicate something of extreme importance.  I saw a leaf catch fire at the corner of my eye and felt an overwhelming and inexplicable sadness.

When I woke , I saw my friend Zoe’s partially painted canvas.  She’d left it with me, urging me to either paint over it or complete it, and so I began painting.

I did not know I would paint my dream–not until the next morning. After painting on and off for several hours, I could see that I was painting about Fukushima and my deep despair over what is happening in the oceans of this world. And then I saw that my friend Zoe, who speaks fluent Japanese and studied papermaking in Japan, who practices acupuncture and shiatsu, was all over the canvas: layers of handmade paper torn up and collaged, points of light swirling along the meridians of the ocean as if to diagram its acupuncture points, underlying colors and depth she had left there for me.

fukushima Everything is a dialogue.  I am never in this alone, and neither are you.  When I finished that painting I felt emptied out—there was so much grief I did not know I’d been holding. But I also felt held, by my friend, and by the simple loving craft of papermaking, and by the power of acupuncture, by all of the good and beautiful things we humans have done.  Held by the mystery of it all, the mystery that is so much larger than my sadness or my dream or my vision.  Held by my own sensitivity, that is willing to open me to so much in this world that could hurt, and that defies explanation, but is willing all the same.

It is good journeying with you all. Thank you for your own willingness to live close to the surface of things, your bravery in feeling everything, the way you communicate what you’ve learned to the rest of us. That’s an answer right there.

15 Comments

December 8, 2013 · 9:34 pm

keep the old

old friends

I have known Zoe and Sarah since I was thirteen years old. On my first day of boarding school, sitting high on the third floor of that ancient brick building and trying very hard not to cry, I saw someone turning cartwheels on the lawn.  It took every shred of my bravery to go out and introduce myself to that free spirit, but it turned out to be Sarah.  She made me laugh right away. She’s inspired infinite bravery and laughter since.

Zoe was a sophomore, impossibly beautiful in glittery ska pants and plastic butterfly rings. It took me longer to acquire the courage necessary to speak with Zoe (she was a SOPHOMORE) but soon we were writing poetry back and forth, dancing in cornfields and trying to reach each other in dreams from across the hall.

The three of us wrote letters, real ones, all the way through college and after.  Sarah’s letter to me from a farm she was working on in France saved my skin once when, hitchhiking through Scotland, I ran out of money and had no place to stay. I called my mother, as one does, and she told me there was a letter waiting for me from Sarah.  I asked her to read it to me over the phone, and soon I was herding goats with Sarah in France.

Another time Zoe, back in Pennsylvania from the life she’d found in Australia, walked with me through cow pastures and balanced on trees over the Brandywine.  I’d just returned from the Middle East and was brimful of self-righteous politics.  Zoe was sitting on a fence post as we watched the sun set over a field near her mother’s home.  She stretched languidly and said “Lissa, for a pacifist you sure fight yourself a lot.”

I held on to that beautiful bit of insight for a long, long time.  Old friends, the real ones who know you through and through—they say hard things some times.  At times it feels easier not to be around them.  When I was barely holding on in California, when my marriage was falling apart and my life felt so constricted that it was hard even to draw breath, I cut off my family and friends.  I stopped returning Sarah’s calls and Zoe’s letters.  But they never stopped calling and writing.  They each found ways to show up at my door, all the way across the country.  And they continued to hold a mirror up to my life, much as I did not want to look.

Four years ago we decided–I forget how, it must have been divine inspiration!–to gather at Sarah’s family property in upstate New York.  We built wood-fired saunas and cooked elaborate feasts and swam in the lakes and sunned along the rivers, drank wine and laughed and wrote and reunited.  I remembered how large life is.  We all wrote about that experience on Sarah’s wonderful blog The Perspective Project.

We’ve met each year since. Each year felt different–one year, we were hosted by a dear friend on Nantucket in a palatial guest house, taken for ornate dinners and given free run of a jaw-droppingly well-supplied art studio.  We were all knee-deep in our own painful crises that year. To be so well taken care of felt like a drink of cool water in the midst of a punishing marathon.

Another time we gathered at Zoe’s place in Boston.  We made paper and kombucha and body butter and lip balm. We sang karaoke in a tiny Japanese bar.  And we laughed.  There is always so much laughter.

This year, Sarah and Zoe came to Boone. We had all reached a place of relative equilibrium.  The arc of this friendship covers so much–at first you do not notice the changes, but then suddenly here is Zoe, the freespirited poet and world traveler, opening her own acupuncture and shiatsu practice.  And Sarah, artist/writer/wit/cartwheel turner, a college professor.  Both here, in my world, thickening the thin places, weaving the loose ends back in.

oldfriends

oldfriends5

We have all changed.  But when we are together, the thirteen-year-olds are here too.  And the seventeen-year-olds. And, I think, the seventy-year-olds.  The past overflows into the present, and the present feels velvety with depth.

We sat on my sunny porch and did Johari Windows together, and enneagram tests.  One of the questions was this: does your life feel permeated by a sense of longing?  Unequivocally yes, we answered.  And thinking about this, it became clear to me:  this life has been so full.  Each of us has traveled so far, been so many things to so many people, tried on so many roles and languages and ways of being.  No one place can hold us anymore.  No matter where we are, there will be a longing for some aspect of our Self that cannot be held by that moment.

And yet, when we three are together, there is a broadness greater than the sum of our individual selves. When we are together, there is no part of me that is not fed.  We are big enough to hold it all.

oldfriends3

I look at my changing friends—the laughter lines (so much laughter!), the odd gray hairs, the incremental and transcendently lovely beginnings of self-acceptance—and I see myself.  That mirror is held up yet again and, seeing my friends, I see myself.  I see how brokenness heals, how some things remain immutable and some shift endlessly.  I see how age brings rare joy and wisdom as well as heartbreak.  I see how large this life is.

Being loved like this, by old friends, there is nothing like it.  Sometimes I wish they did not know me so well, it’s true, sometimes I feel called onto the carpet by issues I thought I’d resolved with puberty.  But until I am surrounded by old friends I forget how much energy I spend each day trying to be acceptable, trying to be liked.  With Sarah and Zoe, there is no question of being acceptable or liked–that question was settled long ago.  All of that energy is released outward, sizzling into art, and dance, and life, and laughter. Dear friends.  New friends teach me how much I can expand, the beautiful and haunting potential held by this life.  But the old ones—ahh, the old ones remember what I AM.  What WE ARE. What we have always been.  And that is big enough to hold everything.

olfdriemds4

this is a poem i wrote after the visit of another old friend (rob, your time is coming!!)–but it seems to fit here.

an old friend’s visit

continuing: remaining seen

there was a thread undone,

now woven in

and there is freedom here,

in being known

a freedom anonymity can’t own

continuing a thing!

o it is strange

that there is one who calls me by my name

.

6 Comments

November 20, 2013 · 2:37 am