Category Archives: Uncategorized

Salt is a Sacrifice

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Listen:

What we forget is that

Salt is a sacrifice

 

Each bite is Earth ground down

Body into taste to

 

Waken you

Here

To this bite, this breath.

 

To shield ourselves from this is

A strange falling

 

Listen: ritual can be simple,

Easy as noticing that this salt is

Earth,

Ground down.

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The changes I have undergone lately, the journeys I have undertaken, have woken me again and again to two things:

I have much to offer and

The world is hungry for me to offer it.

There is a strange falling in shielding myself behind the eternal student, the safety of beginnings, and yes, that infusion of fresh air is always necessary. But the accumulated wisdom needs somewhere to go. And it wants to go into my work.

The odd piece of this for me is that on the one hand I’m a baby counselor, not more than a month into my first counseling job, and it feels really disingenuous to start rocking the boat already. On the other hand, I am a seasoned woman. Life has taught me, and taught me, and taught me, and I have had the wits to listen.

So: I am all of it, baby and wise woman, student and elder. The fires that burn deep in my belly are the same fires: to fight for the personhood of mothers, for available childcare so that women can participate in the culture. The sweetness of self-determination for all, a yearning for each person on this planet to have the food and space and respect and love and art supplies they need to ripen into themselves. The deep, deep-in-my-bones love for this earth, these mountains, the stories the forests and stones and rivers tell and the magic beneath those stories.

To this burning I offer: a mind sharpened by the privilege of an excellent education, a heart warmed by the generosity and sacrifice of untold ancestors and fellow travelers, a life story that has broken my ears wide open to hear the experience of others without losing myself, and wisdom passed down from people, plants, and traditions that held me and held me until I learned.

In the day-to-day, this ritual fire takes the shape of a windowless office in the bowels of the Buncombe County Social Services building. Here, I listen to the stories of humans who have been batted around between walls of not-enough. Not enough options, not enough privilege, not enough respect, not enough attention, not enough love. My job is to assess their need for substance use disorder treatment and sometimes that is what I do.

But the fire burns, invisible beneath my pressboard desk, and what I really do is try to listen with every pore of my skin. I offer tea and water and a closed door and attention and flowers. If there are resources I can offer I will offer them, but more often what I collect is the story.  I place it as a twig on the fire. And the fire of these voices is growing  into a conflagration that wants to burn away all the not-enough and leave childcare, time alone, laughter, and fruit trees in its wake. I don’t know how to do that yet. But I have faith that I will. Or, more truthfully: WE will. 

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The mountaintop I left this morning was shrouded in fog and a sweet soft rain, a rain I realized suddenly was a hydrosol of Earth, every plant and clay and being in this watershed distilled and condensed in the falling mist. I am so blessed to have this time to make art, to learn, to nourish myself.

May I always feel the blessing in the rain. May I always remember that salt is a sacrifice.
May I be of service to the ones who walk into my office. May I be of service to the great fire beneath the surface of what I do.

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May 20, 2016 · 5:51 pm

of cleavers and crows

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I have had the odd sense, ever since I moved to Asheville, of seeds I planted and forgot years hence coming to mysterious bloom.  Over twenty years ago, I moved to Asheville with a frame pack and a guitar. I crashed on the floor of a friend’s dorm room and walked the streets until I found lodging in a sweet, small apartment in a house on Chestnut Street. I took long runs every morning, following Chestnut Street until it dead-ended in a stately old cemetery.

All these years later, I was told that finding lodging in Asheville was a difficult proposition. I should be prepared to live outside of town and to wait months for the right thing to show up.

The first house we looked at was on Chestnut Street, right by the old cemetery where I used to run. It was a sweet little wood-floored home with a fireplace and a yard, in the heart of the historic district, walking distance to town. The rent was astonishingly affordable, considering the location, and perhaps for that reason the open house was bombarded with applicants. Afterward we walked to a nearby restaurant and talked excitedly about how amazing it would be to live here, and how unlikely we were to get the chance. All those applicants!

I sat and watched the phantom of that seventeen-year-old girl run by, and I knew we would get the house.

We got the house. I live on Chestnut Street again, all these years later, this time with my family.

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Two years ago I sat out in the sun eating, in Boone, and talked with a new friend from my Expressive Arts cohort about our dreams and hopes for the field. We were both fascinated by the intersection between art and place, and I told her of my connection to Ireland and my deep desire to return there. She told me of friends in Ireland who had just started a fledgling expressive arts institute, and we began to dream of traveling to Ireland someday to visit them and collaborate on these ideas of art and landscape. We laughed, and made art about it, and moved on with our lives.

This Monday my friend and I flew together to Ireland to attend the Expressive Arts Spring Symposium, and spent a week making art about sacred landscape in a conference hosted by the friends she’d told me of on that day two years ago.

Honestly, it frightens me sometimes, the way life brings its harvest in. I feel unworthy of it, and worried about the price I will have to pay for all of this beauty. I feel very conscious of each move I make, each word I speak, knowing how irrefutably the seeds grow and show their fruit in my life.

On the day we flew to Ireland, two very momentous things happened. I had my first job interview for a counseling position and I learned that Touchstone Farm, the place I landed right after I left Asheville twenty years ago–the place that set me on the path of herbalism and yoga and searching for the sacred–was being put up for sale. It felt like the closing of a circle. I had returned to Asheville, had reached the beginning of my life as an Expressive Arts therapist, and the door to the past had closed.

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Touchstone was very much on my mind and heart as I woke the next morning and walked out into the Irish countryside. Horses stomped and blew steam into the air, and a hooded crow lifted off from the fence in front of me in a heart-stopping line straight upward to the sun. It seemed to hang there for a minute, far above my head, and I wondered how the world felt to the crow, spread beneath it like that.

The hedgerow in front of me was overgrown with nettles and cleavers. Back when I was an apprentice at Touchstone, Shaker gave me a guide to edible plants from the community library and pointed out a few to get me started. Cleavers was one of the first I tried. It clings to you—the leaves are slightly sticky, and the seeds velcro themselves to your socks. This is a good way to remember its properties–it’s a spring-cleaning plant; it adheres to and cleans away the winter ick. I tried it plain and found its taste clean and springlike, full of chlorophyll. I liked the way it felt in my body, how it cleaned me out. But I hated the texture. Another apprentice suggested I put it in a blender and make a smoothie. That was worse. Finally, I read a recipe for cleavers coffee that consisted of dry-roasting the seeds and grinding and preparing them like coffee beans. I had a handy supply of cleaver seeds right there on my socks, so I tried this and found the resulting beverage delightful, slightly cocoa-flavored and smoky. Seeing the cleavers here on the tumbled stones of a farm wall in Ireland was like being surprised by an old friend.

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cleaver bouquet

I wouldn’t have known what cleavers was the first time I came to Ireland, because I had not yet been to Touchstone, had not yet learned to see the world through the eyes of a botanist. I was fifteen the first time I came to Ireland, and sixteen when I returned the summer after that, learning quickly enough what nettles were as I pulled them out to make a garden.

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nettles rampant!

That summer I was living in Miltown Malbay, working as housekeeper/companion for Josephine Phillips. If Shaker taught me about plants and the sacred, Jo taught me about poetry. It was alive to her. She sat in her windowseat watching the storms roll in and softly recited poems to herself. Her eyes were slowly losing their battle to macular degeneration, so she committed as many poems to her formidable memory as she could.

I was full of energy and wanderlust, wanting always to bike off to Ennistymon or wander by the sea, but Jo was very firm that I should take some time each day to sit still and memorize poems. On rainy days we listened to poets read their work aloud on the BBC and Jo would sit there, dreamy, lost in the words. I learned to love words, watching Jo.

The crow flew away, and I picked a little bouquet of the nettles and cleavers, thinking of Jo and Touchstone and the way these long-ago seeds have borne fruit. Here I am, in Ireland, writing poetry, I whispered to Jo. Your lessons took!

Nettle juice heals its own sting, I thought, recalling all the teachers who have guided my steps through the world of plant medicine. I rolled the nettle leaves between my fingers until their stinging hairs were crushed and I could take them like little Ireland-acclimation pills.

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Jo is gone now. I felt her so strongly this week in the wind that blew through the trees by the river Nore and the poetry that came flowing onto the page. Touchstone is gone too, in a way. But they are alive. They are all alive in me. 

I made nettles-and-cleaver tea when I got back to the hotel and sat sipping it in the sun, sending out a prayer for the seeds others have planted in my life and the for the ones I am planting. This world is sacred, and so is this life. I sometimes cannot believe the beauty of the stories I have been honored to carry.

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Carrying On 

(for Jo and Touchstone)

 

I am knee-deep in nettles and peat.

I am one beat of breath to the crow above me.

I am caught in the arms of ancestors long fallen.

Who remains in me? Whose story am I walking?

 

                                                        ~ Kilkenny, 3/30/16

 

6 Comments

April 5, 2016 · 6:32 pm

Witness & Wound

photo 1Perhaps it’s the impending trip to Ireland, but I’ve been drawn recently to the story of Ceridwen’s cauldron.

Ceridwen lived on an island with a loathsome son and a beautiful daughter. Troubled by her son’s deformities, Ceridwen toiled for a year to bring together a complicated herbal potion that would grant him complete wisdom. The process so exhausted her that she fell asleep toward the end of the year, just as the three shining drops of prophecy and wisdom rose to the top of her cauldron. They were so potent and pure that the moment they rose to the surface, the cauldron shattered into pieces.

There is much more to the story–Ceridwen’s son, Afagddu (“utter darkness”) was pushed aside at the last moment and the wisdom was received by a boy who eventually became Taliesin, the greatest bard ever known–but it is this first part that haunts me.

 Awen, the divine spark of inspiration, arises from Ceridwen’s cauldron—a cauldron of transformation, a cauldron of experience and knowledge and suffering.

Struggle, difficult as it may be to accept, is a necessary ingredient in wisdom.

I wrote last week about the five kleshas and I’ve had the first klesha on my mind: Avidya, or ignorance of the truth.*  I’ve been thinking about what a slippery concept “truth” is. I’ve been led by the nose into very unhealthy situations while I was searching for the “truth”. It’s a chameleon. Grabbing onto any single “truth” dogmatically can completely destroy my connection to the evolving nature of experience.

 

Ceridwen’s cauldron is a glowing metaphor of this. The suffering, the knowledge, the experience, all of it gets stirred into the cauldron, and over time beautiful pearls of wisdom are distilled. But in order to create that wisdom, the cauldron has to shatter and spill all of the poisonous leftover dross. Every time I wake to a new truth, the cauldron shatters. New truths aren’t something I can contain while remaining the same.

The cauldron shatters every time. I wonder if that’s why it can seem so much easier to maintain ignorance!

This part is important to me. I have found, as I walk deeper into the field of therapy, that there is a danger when we examine wounds. We can fall into them and aggrandize them, make them into a story from which we never escape. Yes, it is important to confront our shadows and learn the origins of our pain patterns. But this doesn’t mean that we allow them to eternally weigh us down and prevent change. We confront them so that we can transform them; we place them in the cauldron, distill what wisdom we can, and then throw away what’s no longer useful.

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This offers a door of understanding into the first klesha, ignorance of the truth. Becoming aware of the truth in order to eliminate this cause of suffering is not a passive process. It requires the willingness to confront what is untrue and engage with it, distilling truth from it. It can even mean looking again at truths we’ve held past their usefulness (those cauldrons really hurt when they crack!)

Long ago I learned that complaints are just desires in drag. If you can figure out the desire behind the complaint, you will have a clear map to your own happiness. This process of confronting the truth and distilling wisdom from wounds reminds me of unmasking the desires behind my complaints.

There are wounds I’ve sustained that felt so destructive, so poisonous, that it seemed impossible they could contain a desire. I would never have imagined that they held any beneficial power or wisdom. Now, years later, some of those wounds exist ONLY as wisdom. They don’t hurt at all anymore. Other wounds, not yet fully processed, still lead to great embarrassment and dysfunctional behavior even when they are lightly grazed. The difference, I’ve found, is in my willingness to confront the wound. Once witnessed, wounds begin to lose their power. The ones I’ve owned and spoken of over and over again have faded in their power to harm me, and because I have directly confronted them, I’ve changed the problematic behaviors they led to. Others, I have not yet had the bravery to confront directly. They still operate from the shadows, guiding my behavior in unhealthy ways and sponsoring knee-jerk reactions that hurt those around me.

It is my ignorance of these wounds that causes suffering. By this I do not mean that talking about the reasons why I act destructively is enough. It’s the first step in a process that has to include changing my beliefs and behaviors, confronting the desire behind the complaint and acting upon it. Sometimes I remain ignorant to wounds because I know that confronting them would force me to change in ways I am not yet ready to contemplate. I’m comfortable in my ignorance… until it causes suffering great enough that I can no longer ignore it.

eostraeAs I’ve learned more about Expressive Arts therapy, I have found myself drawn again and again to witnessing the wounds. How do we use art and poetry and music and movement to safely uncover these parts of ourselves and look them in the eye? How do we alchemize them into wisdom, allow our old ways to shatter, safely pour away the dross, and move on?

Maeve and I will lead another iteration of this exploration on April 21st, using movement and art and poetry to contact both wound and witness. By witnessing our wounds, we begin to dispel the ignorance that leads to suffering. We gain in wisdom and self-control and self-love. We map out our desires and walk fearlessly toward them, fortified by the Awen distilled from our suffering.

All are welcome to the workshop–just bring your brave self and a journal. If you want to participate from far away, I’ll post details about how to watch live (just as soon as we figure them out!)

*Disclaimer: everything I know about kleshas and Ceridwen I know third- or fourth-hand. I cannot read Gaelic or Welsh or Sanskrit and have not immersed myself in the cultures that originated these beautiful stories. Please take my interpretations as what they are, the impact of these stories on one woman’s life and experience.

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March 31, 2016 · 10:15 am

Celebrating the Solstice

 

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Yesterday evening we held a lovely, warm gathering in the studio to celebrate the return of the light. There is a part of me that longs every year to travel north and celebrate the solstice in the company of the sacred circle dance community there, where each year they dress all in white and and dance by candlelight for the longest night. It dawned on me this year that I could dance these beautiful dances within my own community.

There is a subtle magic that happens with circle dance, when your feet follow simple steps that have been danced for generations upon generations, a sort of window of sacred time that opens and bestows a deeper meaning upon every movement. I watched the candlelit faces of dear old friends and new acquaintances as they moved in the circle, remembering other faces that have danced this dance, feeling so much love and fulness as we moved, again, in the steps that honor our changing rhythms and the way we mirror and learn from the rhythms of the Earth.

We opened the evening with a mini-herbal workshop, where we learned how to make massage bars with infused oils. There is something warm and wonderful about creating gifts this time of year, when sources of light and warmth are low and a small handmade surprise from a friend can be the candle that keeps us going for the day. I love to give massage bars as presents, because it is a gift that inspires further warmth, love, and touch in the using of it. Here is the recipe we used:

3 oz. unrefined shea butter

3 oz. cocoa butter

5 oz. beeswax (up to 6 oz. if you prefer a more solid bar; I like mine to melt bewitchingly in my hand)

6 oz. herb-infused oil (more on this in a bit)

1-2 tablespoons essential oil, depending on your preference

~This is a very forgiving. adaptable recipe and can be easily altered to make greater or lesser quantities. Just keep the beeswax and oil roughly equal to each other and use half that amount of cocoa and shea butters. For example, to make only 4 or so massage bars, you would use 1.5 oz of the butters, 3 oz. of beeswax and oil, and just half a tablespoon of essential oil. ~

imageThe first step is to infuse the oils. I prefer to use sweet almond oil, as I like the way it absorbs into the skin, but you can use jojoba, grapeseed, apricot kernel, even olive.

For a sun extraction, pack a mason jar about 3/4 full with your chosen herb (I used calendula for its skin-healing properties; other good choices would include rose petal, witch hazel flower, comfrey, and lavender) and fill with the oil of your choice. Make sure no botanicals are peeking up over the top of the oil; these can rot and introduce bacteria to your infusion. Nobody wants a bacteria massage (at least, nobody I’ve met).

Let your jar sit in the sun for several weeks, checking occasionally to be sure the flowers are submerged. When the oil has taken on a bit of the color of your chosen botanical (usually 4-6 weeks) you can strain it and it’s ready to use!  Be sure to label right away. If you’re anything like me, you think you’ll remember what’s in that jar, but you won’t.

The other method we discussed last night was a warm extraction.  I tend to use this method when a) I’m infusing bark, twigs, or roots and b) I’m in a bit of a hurry. Roots tend to be concentrated sources of herbal compounds, so they aren’t as easily destroyed by heat, but it’s important to make sure you don’t overheat them all the same.

I prefer to use sun extraction with more delicate plant parts like leaves and flowers because they are easily overheated and their medicine compromised. You could do a warm extraction on pine bark, twigs of black birch (this makes a beautifully sassafrass-scented massage oil that goes deep into the tissues) and even garlic.

We used kava-kava root tonight, which has lovely muscle-relaxing properties when applied externally, making it an excellent choice for a massage bar. To do a warm extraction, you need either a crockpot or an oven-safe crock. Place your herbs in the crockpot and cover them with oil. I usually cover strong roots like kava kava with double the amount of oil.  Set your crockpot on ‘warm’ for two hours (or place in an oven at 100 for two hours) and then turn off.  Let sit all day, then repeat the process the next morning.  Do this for seven days and your oil is ready to strain.

imageNow you have your infused oils, you are ready to make the massage bars. First, melt the shea butter, cocoa butter, and beeswax in a double boiler (you can improvise one by resting your pan upon a mason jar lid in a larger pot of simmering water). Let them melt slowly; it does take a while.

When they have melted, remove pan from the heat and slowly add the infused oil. It may congeal a bit; continue to whisk and allow the residual heat to re-melt your mixture (you want to avoid heating your infused oils, as it can destroy the medicine).  Then add your essential oils.

We used a tablespoon of lavender with the kava kava for a deeply relaxing, skin-soothing bar and combined the calendula-infused oil with a teaspoon of rosemary essential oil and a half teaspoon of peppermint essential oil.  I love peppermint for its diaphoretic, opening properties, but you have to be careful with it as some people react to having it on their skin, so don’t use as much as you would use a safer oil like lavender.

Pour while still warm into your molds—I use silicon baking molds; you could also use muffin tins lined with waxed paper. You can pretty much assume that any implements you use with beeswax and butters are never ever going to get all the way clean again, so maybe have some dedicated pots and pans for your herbal creations!

Let your bars solidify and pop them out of their molds…you are ready to go!

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I wish all of you a deep dreaming in the darkness and a candle in the longest night. May there always be a source of light available to you, and may the darkness encourage deep rest and strong vision for the year to come.

 

3 Comments

December 19, 2015 · 2:38 pm

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
thing
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
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To find
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
listening
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
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

3 Comments

November 9, 2015 · 4:17 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evening

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 ~

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

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