December 21, 2016 § 9 Comments
Lately, I’ve been thinking about contemplation and its role in activism. In a period of political urgency, when there’s so much work to be done, how much time can we afford to spend in reflection about what’s working and what’s not?
Can we afford not to give deep consideration to our emotions and motives? Will the lack of contemplation cause us to drop into the very groupthink and confirmation bias that may have been partially responsible for getting us here in the first place? Will it cause us to skim over analysis and critical evaluation because we relish feeling tight and right with those on our side? Is our constant outward participation undermining our confidence and capacity to create new solutions?
Once the election cycle officially began in 2015, like many of you, I spent a significant part of my daily life campaigning, debating, doorbelling, obsessively reading the news, and worrying about people losing their dignity and basic rights. Since the bolt from the blue bombshell of Nov. 8th, I’ve pushed myself fast and hard through the grieving cycle, in order to write senators, participate in protests, sign petitions and research the “facts” of an endless “breaking news” cycle.
But amidst all this external movement, I’ve felt myself neglecting an underlying level of power—the power that grows from taking time to deliberately review what’s going on, and consider my interpretation.
Obviously, during this presidential campaign, social media provided an ample platform for political dialogue, and there’s no denying the value in it, but far too often, when someone bold dared to question a concept, dared to cast doubt, there was an immediate piling on of those on the same team as the original writer, as though we’d all forgotten the best path to truth was to disprove our hypothesis, not prove it.
When I was nineteen, I spent several months teaching in the Havasupai Village in the basin of the Grand Canyon. I met a woman named Maya there. She was a local artist and spiritual instructor with spectacular green eyes and long, disheveled red hair. Her gentle ease and confidence caught my attention immediately. Maya must have seen the sadness and anxiety I carried, because she spoke with me frequently about the power of contemplation. She taught me contemplation was a simple practice, a way of listening and witnessing—of using all the senses as a way to observe self and others without an agenda. “It is not avoidance nor apathy nor naval-gazing,” she said. “Gaze not to improve yourself. Gaze for no particular reason beyond breathing in compassion.” Maya took the art of contemplation even further, saying there was no such thing as a separate self. The self, she said, was yet another construct, an illusion, a story we tell ourselves—while the truth is, we are all residing in the movement of a single heart. She said that even assholes were part of the heart—that they brought issues to the table we’d been avoiding, issues that needed attention and healing, that assholes offered us opportunities to be fearless and face our discomfort. “Take time to contemplate other perspectives,” she said. “And then, proceed with love and strength. And don’t forget this,” she said, opening her arms wide to the lime-green of Havasu Falls, the little bells on her bracelets jingling. “This land. This water. Stay close to this,” she said, “and you will have continual awakening.”
When Trump nominated Jeff Sessions to enforce civil rights laws, a man rejected for confirmation as a federal judge in 1986, after testimony surfaced of him saying the Ku Klux Klan was “Ok, until I found out they smoked pot,” I decided to take a media break.
I retreated to the ocean for some serious soul-searching. For three days I beheld the force and curve and blue of water. I observed without any sentient exertion. And, in and out of breathing ocean, I wrote. I wrote my heart out. I wrote pages and pages about my visceral loathing of Trump and my fury at those who voted for a narcissistic, misogynist racist because they might get a tax cut. I wrote how he stood for everything cruel and violating in my girlhood. I wrote about too many bodies—black, transgender, gay, sexually assaulted bodies dead, immigrants punished, in hiding, in crisis. I wrote about the time in my forties when my ability to cope almost drowned me for real, and how I finally learned that crisis can provide a turning point, a chance to move in a new direction and create a fundamental shift of perspective. I wrote that maybe I read my kids too many fairy tales and too much poetry, when instead maybe I should have taught them to stand up to rubber bullets and water cannons. I wrote about my whiteness and the undeserved privilege of staying comfortable in my little, mostly white town, where I could walk anywhere I wanted without the fear of being threatened because of my skin color.
And then, I wrote terribly uncomfortable things. I wrote about how maybe Trump is the thing that propels us into a tremendous untapped power, because there’s no way we can turn away now, because we’re so woken the fuck up. I mean We. Lost. To. Donald. Trump. What if he, as the identified patient—the one in a dysfunctional family unconsciously selected to act out the family’s inner conflicts; the one who is the split-off carrier of the family disturbance, pushes us to evolve at an extraordinary rate?
Because what if Hillary Clinton had won?
If Hillary Clinton had won, what would we be doing right now? Would we have called five senators before breakfast and be organizing buses for protests on Saturday? Would we be fighting this hard for human rights and economic equality and the uncontrolled abuses of the environment? I’d like to think so, but sadly, I doubt it. Is it possible that this precarious time will finally make us look critically at ourselves? I mean, we can hate on Trump all we want, but jesus, maybe we should also acknowledge our own fuck-ups and confusions and selfish desires? Maybe it’s time we refuse to look away, and work on finding out what’s underneath thousands and thousands of Democrats changing their registration to Republican since the start of 2016? And why 53% of white women voted for Trump? And why 46.6% of our population didn’t even vote?
I’d like to say when I came out of hiding I had some profound new ideas, you know, like constructive alternatives to dismantling the incoming oligarchy, but ha, yeah, no. However, I did surprise myself with one thing. I thought I’d come out calmer, but instead, I came out more outraged—blood-boiling ready to stare the beast down in steel-toed boots, ready to double down on the resist, and do whatever it takes to protect the environment and prevent the vulnerable from being trampled, made invisible. But, it was a centered outrage, not the chaotic, blurred outrage I started out with.
In the midst of the Iraq War, John Sweeny, then President of the AFL-CIO, who sought leadership opportunities for women, people of color, immigrant workers and students, wrote in the Huffington Post; “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Could contemplation be the soul mate to outrage? It’s definitely part of learning to pay attention, to say nothing about how it opens up space for innovative solutions, and dares us to reassess our assumptions, illusions, and avoidances. As for me, water and writing?—ignited an unexpected energy, a potent force that urged me into greater political action than ever before.
Einstein famously said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them. We need to require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”
I’m saying it’s kind of essential to take the time to sit alone at the beach, by a river, in a forest, or on a mountain. Fill yourself with the gift that supersedes all—the sacred breathing in of nature. Give yourself that permission. It may be the most necessary step to solving humanity’s sufferings and the most potent step in proceeding forward with engagement, love and strength.
November 17, 2016 § 1 Comment
Last week, after the election, I invited participants in my workshops to write through their strongest emotions during this time. Today, each writer read their responses aloud.
Ache and raw despair.
Honesty, strength and commitment to love.
And the question threading through all: How far would I go to stand up for what I believe?
I walked home in tears—not tears of sadness and trepidation, but tears of thankfulness. Thankfulness in knowing there are so many, many extraordinary people in this world around us.
November 14, 2016 § 3 Comments
Today when I was out walking, a stranger with broken in her eyes, came up to me and thanked me for recommending a book to her—Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. She said it brought her beauty in a hard time. I don’t remember recommending the book to her, but I will remember her kindness for telling me that, and the way her words carried beauty too.
September 22, 2016 § 1 Comment
Fear, anger and uncertainty are escalating, and lately, I find myself caught between extremes of being scared shitless, profoundly sad, and trying to hold onto enough courage to stay present, listen, and take action.
But this I am certain of:
Abusers and misogynists and bigots count on our silence. They count on our fear. In our silence and fear lies their opening for greater intimidation and exploitation.
PLEASE do not allow yourself to be silenced. We have struggled to claim our voices and no one has the right to shame us for having found them. In telling our stories and claiming our voices we’ve had an epic impact in claiming equal rights and will continue to do so until equality holds all our names. Please let us not become divided against ourselves and retaliate with assumptions, combative words and aggressive actions. Please let us go out of our way to help each other and convince each other we are resilient and extraordinary. Please let us stay the course, however uncertain, and raise each other up with gentleness, sensitivity, and love.
PLEASE let us soften, and trust our fundamental goodness.
August 17, 2016 § 1 Comment
July 25, 2016 § 7 Comments
Years ago, I wrote out a list of my strengths with the misguided notion that if I reviewed the list often enough, I could actually rewire my genetic tendency toward perpetual self-doubt.
One Saturday, a week after my fiftieth birthday, I’d felt imperfect as hell and pulled out the list. I’d had a hard week. Among other things, I’d forgotten my address while filling out an AARP form—it was as if touching the form itself, had flipped off my hippocampus and I was now forever chained to the sinking ship of memory loss.
I stared at my list of strengths and felt anxiety rather than comfort. The problem was not that I knew these words were actually reframed flaws—pigheadedness disguised as confidence, indecisiveness spun into flexibility. The problem was that most of my strengths required my mind, and I knew where that was headed.
Mid-way down the list I noticed the word compassionate. Aha! There we go! A trait that evolves from the heart—an organ I was still feeling pretty good about. Empowered, I strategically moved “compassionate” to the top of my list, and committed myself to deepening its development.
My shit shield now sturdy enough to re-enter the world, I headed out to the farmer’s market to feel the love. The sun beamed enthusiastically, so I cranked down the roof of my VW bug and cranked up Marley’s, Love Is My Religion.
I’d driven maybe a ½ mile down the road, when out of the slits in my car hood, a small rodent emerged. We made eye contact. He stood stock-still for only a second before leaping onto my side of the windshield. He stared straight at me. I could see the tiny pink suction cups between his sharp little nails and then—scritchscratchscritch, he began to climb up the windshield, his quivering nose in the air.
I knew what he wanted.
He wanted to bite me with his pointy little teeth, his secret rabies injectors. He didn’t seem the type who cared a bit if he caused an accident, maybe even a death. His predicament was making him irrational and I could see it on his face.
“Holy shit!” I yelled as he climbed higher and higher up the window. I couldn’t bring the car top up because I had to be stopped to do that, and I couldn’t stop because there was a ditch to my right and a line of cars behind me. And then, I had a brilliant idea—the windshield wipers! I flipped them on– but what does the little vermin do? He grabs on with one hand, ok claw, but god those claws look like the kind of tiny horror story fingers you’d see in a Stephen King movie.
So there he was flying back and forth, back and forth, across the windshield like a trapeze artist receiving a good day’s pay and fulfilling a life’s dream. I switched the wipers to hyper-fast mode. He accepted the challenge and grabbed on with both claws, his legs and tail flailing out behind him, and his face stretched out tight as a Kardashian’s.
“Alright you little Willard wannabe,” I shouted while trying to stay in my lane and wondering if this was how I was going to die—fighting off a mouse in my car. Time to get serious. I pressed the window washer button. Through a soapy blur I saw the flying fugitive release the wipers and land back on the windshield directly facing me, blinking the water out of his eyes in such a sorrowful way that I turned off the washer, wipers and Bob Marley. Clearly, love was not my religion.
I watched as the mouse, a glaring metaphor for my absolute lack of compassion, slipped backwards on his hairless tummy, his drenched body sliding down the hood, neck and arms stretched out wide as he tried to hang on—until finally, he disappeared over the edge.
I arrived at the market and sat in my car. Guilt and doubt taking their rightful places. What kind of monster had I become? I used to be the one in the room who would catch a wayward fly in a tupperware rather than smash it with a swatter, who would fling the winged creature out the window calling, “fly little fly, fly!”
Then, on the ground in front of me, I saw the mouse standing on his hind legs with his back toward me. He cocked his soggy head side to side and ran straight for the cheese booth.
That’s when it hit me. This wasn’t about me. It was about the mouse. He probably had persistence at the top of his list.
June 13, 2016 § 8 Comments
(in response to the mass shooting in Orlando, Sunday morning, June 12th, 2016)
This is who we are:
WE are thousands lined up to give our blood to the wounded.
WE are first responders, grief counselors, doctors, nurses and friends who carried dying friends and lovers out of a bloody nightclub.
WE are millions of human beings who cried and screamed and raged and hugged and spoke up yesterday as if we’d lost our own children, friends and lovers.
We are millions who love our LGBTQ sons and daughters and friends and lovers fiercely and don’t you dare hurt them again.
WE are the president who declares WE WILL STAND TOGETHER IN SOLIDARITY, NO MATTER RACE, GENDER, RELIGION OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION.
WE are millions who are profoundly sorry we didn’t’ wake up sooner, who are only now recognizing the sleep in our privilege, the blood on our own hands.
We are millions signing petitions, calling legislators, voting, protesting, writing, painting, filming, creating, and speaking up to stop the bleeding.
WE are millions who won’t stop loving each other hard, until everyone is safe and sound.
We are survivors desperately trying to find a language that might somehow bring us all a little closer together.
THIS IS WHO WE ARE. -anna