You can’t own me: a lesson I learned from water.

Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

There’s a ritual I practice every Sunday afternoon.

It’s a humble, worldly ritual. Yet it connects me with the spirit that moves all life in a way that nothing else can.

Every Sunday, I water the plants.

Growing up, I never considered myself a green thumb. I didn’t know much about caring for plants. But when I inherited a carload of houseplants from my biological mother after she died, I knew I would have to learn.

In the decade since my mother’s passing, I’ve grown into an adept and attentive waterer. Once a week I circle around the house, stopping from room to room, tipping a longnecked metal watering can into the vessels of houseplants that make their homes in nearly every window.

As I go, I stop to admire and tend to each plant. I pinch off dying leaves, adjust stems and saucers, rotate pots to accommodate for seasonal changes in light. I stand on tiptoe and wiggle my fingertips into the soil of hanging baskets—have I watered enough?

As water settles through soil, I circle back a second time to each plant, topping off the water for those who need more, seeking the sweet spot that lies between giving enough, but not too much, for everyone to thrive.

*

My weekly ritual reminds me that water is a commons.

In sociopolitical language, commons are public resources shared by the collective. Spaces where everyone can gather and give and take freely. Experiences owned by none and available to all.

Parks and trails, sidewalks and streetside benches are commons. So are mountain views, the ocean’s edge where all can bathe, and the shade of ash trees on an urban parkway. Air and sunlight are commons. So are the night sky and the stars.

Land was once a commons. But since we modern humans have the hubris (and the real estate contracts) to claim we “own” tracts of earth and the life upon them, the concept of land as a commons has been largely lost.

Yet we remain humbled in the face of water.

We cannot own water, no matter how much we try.

We can use water. We can channel it, contain it, freeze and thaw it. We can fight and kill for it, and we can pollute it. We can even steal it. But we can never own it.

Water slips from our fingers when we try to grasp it, evaporates should we try to encircle it, deluges us with rain showers on its own schedule. It shapeshifts from solid to liquid to gas, and cuts canyons through solid rock. It cleanses all the world with its healing vapor manifest as rain. And there is nothing we can do about it.

Nor should we want to.

Science tells us that our bodies are 70 percent water. Without water, we’ll dry up and die.

Experience teaches us that water is necessity. She quenches our thirst and blesses us with resilience, flexibility, and flow. Blood is water. Tears are water. Water is our every move.

And spirit tells us that we are part of water, and she is part of us. We dance in a relationship of reciprocity, we the containing vessel and she the prism that reflects the rainbow. Water does not belong to life, and life does not belong to water. We belong to each other.

Body, blood, breath: water is a bridge between the commons of the world, and the commons of the spirit.

*

When I inherited all those houseplants from my mother, I also inherited six cats and a dog.

The cats were accustomed to drinking their water, not from a standard-size cat bowl, but from a 5-gallon plastic bucket in the corner of the kitchen. The bucket was much bigger than needed. Yet for six cats, it somehow seemed the right size.

Amused, I watched the cats not only drink from the bucket, but wade their paws through it, peer curiously at their own reflections, and scoop it over their whiskered faces to drink and groom themselves. Touched by this activity I couldn’t bear to take the bucket away. I kept it and renamed it the “swimming pool.”

Each week, the swimming pool got a little grimy with use and needed to be emptied, scrubbed, and filled with fresh water.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize the opportunity: transfer settled water from swimming pool to watering can and repurpose it to feed the plants.

And thus began the ritual of feeding all the home’s life with one bowl.

It didn’t take long for me to sense that I was operating my own microcosmic version of the water cycle. What in the macro would be transformation from ocean to clouds to rain, in my cozy little house was mirrored as tap to bucket to watering can. And behind both the phenomena of transmutation whispered its magic: water becomes air, becomes ether and the world of the unseen.

And so, my task of watering began to take on a timeless quality, a sense of participating in something ancient. In my ritual of care I was no longer simply watering plants and scrubbing buckets. I was tending to the perennial cycles of life.

And not only tending, but participating. After all, don’t I also need water to survive?

*

Over time, I’ve learned that different plants like to be watered differently. The calathea loves to have water poured over her broad-striped leaves like a waterfall, dripping from her curves and edges to fill her saucer below.

The jade plant tells me when she’s had too much water: she shrivels up a single leaf and drops it onto the rocky soil beneath her.

And when the lily has had too little, she droops her leaves sorrowfully, one eye open to make sure I’m paying attention.

Aren’t we humans like this too? We all need the same basic elements for survival. Carbon and oxygen. Nutrients and sunlight. A place to spread our roots and call home. And water.

We, like the plants, each need these elements in different measures, more of one or less of another, depending on our nature. And we ask for them in different ways, too.

It’s humbling to know that we humans have a deep, shared need for water, something we don’t own and can’t control.

But it can be a joy to awaken to the shared blessing of interbeing: something that no one owns is something that belongs to all.

Water gives herself to the lily and the jade, as she gives herself to the songbirds in the morning birdbath, the sloppy grin of a dog paddling in the river, or the squeal of a child splashing in a mud puddle. And me, running barefoot and laughing into a rainstorm.

In interbeing, we get to be simply one more part of nature. We belong.

*

Recently I’ve added a closing step to my weekly plant watering ritual.

When the watering is done and the bowl is scrubbed and all have what they need, I pour myself a glass of water, and drink.

The life of the world is in a dire state. The planet needs us humans to care about the commons of life, from the forests to the oceans to the thawing tundra. The web of interbeing spans the globe like ocean water, all our fates suspended within it.

The need can seem so big that we may feel incapable to help, or unsure of what to do.

This is where mother water can be our teacher. In her generosity, she nourishes us all, each in the place we are, according to our need. And in quenching our common thirst, from plant to animal to humanimal (us), she reminds us how intimately we’re all connected.

Never does she stop to ask whether the task is too big.

Ironically, in a time of great collective need, it may be the smallest of tasks that teach us how to heal.

What if we could sink into that great need, and feel our place in it? What if we could ask from there what small thing we have to give, and give it?

One small thing doesn’t solve every problem, but it does help us show up as part of the solution. We can start with what is close at hand. Give to each what is needed. And know that should we cease to grasp, and let our gifts flow, there will be enough for all.

From that place we might remember our great power as one essential drop in the great ocean of spirit that moves all life.

I remember, and I pick up my watering can.

*



There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list. Please check your email for a welcome message. See you on the inside…


Birds and Dogs. {poem}

Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

I face the bathroom mirror…

I face the bathroom mirror
Standing silent
Listening to the sounds outside my window.
Birds chirping, dogs barking
Breaking through the peace
That hangs heavy in the summer air.

Meanwhile, somewhere far away
On the other side of the world
Bombs are dropping.
Someone like me faces her bathroom mirror
As explosions shatter the peace
Outside her window.

She will scream
And grab her children
And run.

Meanwhile, 
I twist my hair into ringlets
Wondering what if
Instead of lazy summer sounds
I heard bombs 
Exploding outside my window?

I try to imagine the horror
But I cannot.

I can imagine wild horses' hooves
Pounding over dry mud.

I can imagine the roar of a great dying tree
Split open by the wind.

I can imagine the cry of the eaglet in the nest
Unable to fly, falling to his death.

I can imagine many things 
I’ve never heard or seen.

But I can’t imagine 
The horror
Of the bombs.

You may say I can’t imagine it
Because it’s never happened to me. 

But maybe I can't imagine it
Because it's something that should never be.

How fortunate I am, I think,
To hear only birds and dogs.

*


There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list. Please check your email for a welcome message. See you on the inside…


Rest is Radical.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.

Lao Tzu

In the month of July we enter into the time of Idir Ait, the in-between, according to the Irish-Celtic tradition. At the summer solstice, the sun stands still on high. The days are long, and life slowly ripens, in this midway time between spring planting and fall harvest. July saunters in lazily and falls across our laps with a popsicle in her hand. Work has been done. Work can wait.

My mother’s family of Nebraska farmers takes advantage of this time, to take a breath. They park the tractor and combine in the shed, and get out on their fishing boats. They shine their hot rods and drive into town, pay visits to neighbors, chat away long evenings over glasses of iced tea and lemonade.

I ask myself how I can find such rest amidst the traffic and sirens and over-scheduled bustle of my city life. Then a goldfinch lands on my fence and sings to me. Work has been done. Work can wait.

Rest, like herbal tea or cool water, can be a medicine for this season. In the space between the wild unfurling of spring and the ripe urgency of fall, midsummer invites us to make like the sun, and rest.

Our culture might try to convince us to disregard rest as a privilege, or a luxury. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this society that depends upon our constant movement to keep its machine running—and rewards us for it—rest is a radical act.

Nature allows herself to rest when the sun is high; we can follow her lead. Everyone has a right to rest. Work has been done. Work can wait.

Dandelion Seeds. {Poem}





Dandelion.

She catches my eye
Poised quietly among the irises,
A tall and spindly star of seeds.
Wild among the cultivars,
She’s a quivering silver sphere
Among the docile lavender blooms.

I bend down and pluck her,
Gentle, careful not to shake her
Lest her seeds come loose
And cascade onto the lawn.

But something in this feels wrong.

I look at dandelion,
And she looks at me,
And I consider my choice.

When I was a child I would have
Blown this little flower to smithereens
—in a good way—
Without even thinking twice.

Rushing to sweep her off her feet
I’d wave her wildly in the wind,
Smiling eyes to the sky
Watching her seeds take flight
On the breath of the day
Off to far-flung reaches and unknown seedbeds
Where she could take root and grow.

But now, all grown up, I hesitate.

“But, this is a dandelion!” I think to myself.
“If I blow it, seeds will spread all over the place, and next year
the whole yard will be full of hundreds of little yellow flowers!”

She hears my thoughts and whispers back,
“Isn’t that the point?”

Dandelion waits,
The breeze tickling her seeds,
Wondering what I’ll do.

Who taught me to think this way?
I didn’t come with these instructions.
Where did I learn
That a perfect plot of manicured grass
Is more worthy of protection
Than the lavish, wild diversity
Of nature’s aliveness?

What is more important…
A lush and radiant lawn,
Or a lush and radiant life?

I breathe in, and blow.

Dandelion opens her wings
And farewells herself upon my breath,
Tumbling into her destiny.

Inside me, a little girl smiles.
She’s the one who once ran ahead
To spread the seeds.
No one had to teach her
That lips are made for blowing,
And dandelion seeds
Are made to fly on the wind.

And the funny thing
About all this is,
I don’t even care about lawns.

*

Photo by Sarah Mak on Unsplash



There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list. Please check your email for a welcome message. See you on the inside…


Tomboys: Don’t be just another Archetype of the Patriarchy.

Photo by NOTAVANDAL on Unsplash

Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already. What we need is the archetype of the strong woman.


“Is that an upside-down cross you’re wearing?”

I looked up from my instrument as I prepared for first period band class. A girl I’d never met from one grade down stood above me, curiously studying the silver pendant hanging from my neck.

I shrugged. “Yes, that’s what it is.”

We were both stating the obvious. There was no mistaking the symbol suspended from a thick rope chain over the center of my chest. A sharp-angled, inverted cross at least three inches long flashed defiantly over the black backdrop of my heavy metal t-shirt.

“Why do you ask?”

She smiled. An open, genuine kind of smile I didn’t see often back in those days.

“I’ve just never seen anyone wear one of those before. It tells me you must have a different point of view, that maybe you think deeply about things.”

She tilted her head, waiting for my reply.

And she captured my attention then. Her flowing, multicolored skirt sweeping the floor, just high enough in front to reveal her Birkenstock sandals, long auburn hair flowing over a floral, woven top. In one hand she held a clarinet. With the other she reached out to me.

“Hi, I’m Jen.”

I smiled back and shook her hand. She felt open, not closed like me. She felt light and warm. Not cool like me: cool on the surface but screaming hot on the inside.

I wondered where a girl like her came from.

*

As a young girl I emerged early, much to my mother’s dismay, as a tomboy. Despite her tireless efforts to dress me in flowered jumpers and tights, I preferred bare feet and shorts. She enrolled me in ballet lessons and gifted me barbies; I rejected them in favor of model cars and construction sets.

I writhed in annoyance on the couch at night while my mom yanked my hair into curls and pinched them to my scalp with bobby pins. In the day I learned to cook and bake, plant a garden and fold the laundry, all the little things that helped our household run smoothly.

My younger brother was held to no such standards. He was perfectly happy—and allowed—to spend his free time climbing trees, making mud pies and setting things on fire.

I was well aware of the patriarchal double standard that restrains girls and rewards boys in our culture. I’d heard women on TV talk shows complaining that while they felt diminished by society as they grew older, men their age were considered distinguished. I learned, via sitcoms and ladies’ coffee-table conversations, how our culture shames women for living fully into our sexuality, yet celebrates men for doing the same.

I saw my mom get up early to make breakfast, take us kids to school, work all day, come home just in time to make dinner and put us to bed before crashing into her own mattress, late and exhausted.

I saw my dad come home from work, crack open a beer and watch TV until the credits rolled on the Johnny Carson show.

In a culture that pitted men and women against each other in a social hierarchy of power, it was clear to me who was winning.

*

In fourth grade my mom finally gave up fighting my fashion sense and allowed me to choose my own clothes. I dropped the dresses for corduroy pants and polo shirts. I bought myself a BMX bike with my paper route money and never looked back.

No one told me to do these things. I wasn’t trying to please anyone or be anyone. It was my natural way.

But I quickly found that my “natural way” carried with it some excellent perks.

In response to my outward changes, grown-ups and even some other children now started kidding me, “You’re such a tomboy!”

On their faces were smiles of quiet approval.

When I grew my hair out over my face, eyes barely visible behind stringy bangs, people now smiled and shrugged their shoulders. When I asked for a skateboard instead of a manicure set, my request was obliged with a wink.

I realized that the tomboy in me not only felt more natural, she earned me a reprieve from the pin curls, the dancing lessons, and the boring barbie doll play sessions with the neighbor girls. She gave me railroad tracks and toolboxes and fishing for water skippers on my belly by the ditch. In contrast to the constraints of girlhood, my tomboy gave me freedom.

It didn’t take me long to heed the cultural signs and lean hard on the tomboy for the benefits she gave me.

What had been merely a preference for pants became a strict mandate of no dresses. My simple delight for dirt over dolls morphed into a self-imposed requirement to avoid anything girly. No pink. No purple. No painted fingernails. And Absolutely. No. Crying.

I saw my classmates insulted for throwing like a girl, and I took it upon myself to learn to throw “like a boy”—harder, faster, longer.

When I realized I didn’t have a good throwing arm, I just stopped playing.

I adored singing, and auditioned for the school choir. When I was accepted to the chorus, I was thrilled. When I learned I’d been assigned to the girls chorus, I promptly dropped out.

My masculine had taken over as a self-reinforcing identity, locking out the feminine from my life like an annoying little sister.

At the time, I suppose, I was fighting to be free.

But in the process, I was quitting things, dropping things, and shrinking my sense of self. I was becoming not only less free, but less me.

*

By the time I met my new friend Jen in high school band class, I was fully ensconced in the patriarchal worldview of masculine power supremacy.

There was no fearless maiden archetype in my world, no warrior goddess, no wise crone to inspire me toward a higher vision of the feminine. No heroine but perhaps Wonder Woman, who fought bad guys with long fingernails and large breasts and wore a swimsuit to work. That would not be me.

But when I started spending time with Jen and other girls like her, my eyes opened to another side of power. Free spirits confident in their femininity, those young women were just as strong as me in body, mind, and spirit. But unlike me, they had not learned to prop up their power on the masculine.

Those girls, even the boldest ones, weren’t afraid to cry. They could throw the ball however they wanted, and enjoy it. They could wear pants or dresses. They could be tough, or kind, or both. And any way they did it, they were fine.

Jen was right about me when she met me. I did think deeply about things. I’d begun to witness the sorrows of our world, and they hurt me deeply. I had a poet’s heart, an activist consciousness, and a voracious appetite for questioning the status quo.

I was aware of the sociocultural power structures limiting the freedom of me and my peers. I knew our ability to live free lives would depend on resisting the suffocating directives of religious, state, and corporate power.

The upside-down cross that had caught Jen’s attention was a symbol of that resistance. It wasn’t meant to be satanic. It was meant to question authority.

I refused to be owned by organized religion, to have my values and choices defined by an archaic, hierarchical power structure. I refused to be controlled by “the man.”

But what I had not seen is that by empowering myself solely with the masculine, I had let myself be owned by another archaic and just-as-dangerous hierarchy: the patriarchy.

Now I saw it.

I saw that the unchecked masculine energy I’d cloaked myself in for my own freedom was the very impulse making the world around me so unfree. Military and war. Aggression and cold logic. Objectification and commodification of nature, beauty, and life itself.

I saw that by feeding the masculine and starving out the feminine in my world, I’d not only become controlled by the man, I’d become part of him.

I was pissed.

I wanted my feminine back.

But the damage had already been done. Because after so many years of practice, even when I wanted to cry, I couldn’t.

When I wanted to sing, I couldn’t.

When I wanted to jump in and play ball, good throwing arm or no, I couldn’t.

And even still, I hadn’t learned my lesson.

*

The next year I fell in with a group of boys whose masculine power was enticing enough to eclipse my newfound curiosity with the feminine.

These boys were tough, uncompromising, and competitive. They did what they wanted and took what they wanted. They pushed themselves, and each other, to a high standard of cool. I couldn’t resist.

It wasn’t hard for me to befriend them. All I had to do was offer rides in my car and take them where they wanted to go. I knew how to show just the sides of me that were tough. But the boys weren’t convinced. They let me into their circle of friends, but from time to time one of them would ask me quizzically, “You’re a girl. Why are you hanging out with us all the time? Don’t you have something better to do?”

I did.

But I’d fed my self-worth with my masculine for so long, I couldn’t break myself away.

So I tagged along, fishing (I abhor fishing), jumping off the highest objects we could find (not at all interesting to me), or dangerously drag racing our cars on the highway (actually, pretty interesting).

But the boys never stopped trying to push my buttons. They didn’t want me to forget I was a girl. They were jumping higher and fighting harder, not only for their own sakes, but for mine. They’d say, “Let’s see if Shannon can make this one.” And I would.

I subconsciously knew those games were coming from a place of disrespect. But instead of walking away with my dignity, the tomboy within me just tried harder.

Until one day after school, the boys and I set out to explore the remains of an abandoned warehouse in the canyon west of town, and my cover was blown.

Walking through an old gravel pit along the river we found the building, a sentinel reminder of a more industrious time gone by. A cavernous skeleton of rusty metal and broken windows, the sagging structure stood in stark relief against the quiet landscape of lava rock walls and sagebrush at its back.

From inside the building we heard the echoing coos and calls of hundreds of nesting pigeons who’d taken up residence in the rafters. The birds circled in and out of the jagged windows, swirling peacefully above our heads. Oblivious to our presence, they rose and dove between nest and sky on the warm, heavy air.

The boys’ first instinct, not surprisingly, was to throw something.

Without saying a word and seemingly in unison, they began scooping up handfuls of gravel and hurling it at the walls of the building. Rocks pelted off the metal siding like buckshot, exploding into the silence. Alarmed birds shot from the building in haphazard confusion, trying to escape a threat that must have seemed to be coming from everywhere.

As the boys laughed in their childish play, every protective instinct in my body caught fire. I began to scream.

“Stop it! Leave them alone! Don’t hurt them!”

The boys stopped their antics mid-toss and turned to look at me, arms half-cocked with hands full of gravel.

Sparks flashed in their eyes.

“Aww, look at that.”

“Shannon doesn’t want us to hurt the birds.”

“She loves them.”

“She thinks they’re beautiful.”

“Maybe we should get a couple down here so she can take ‘em home as pets.”

With that they sneered and pelted a fresh hail of rocks at the building, setting off an avalanche of breaking glass and terrified pigeons. My heart leapt in terror as rock after rock barely missed the fleeing birds. I screamed furiously, trying to grab the boys’ arms and peel the rocks from their fists. “No!” “Assholes!” “Leave them alone!” They just laughed harder.

After a minute or so the boys got bored with their game, and we moved on, thankfully with no birds injured or killed in the process. Adrenaline rushing through my veins, I felt like I’d just outrun a freight train. But the boys walked with a calm swagger ahead of me, wry smiles of satisfaction on their faces.

They’d finally found my “weak” spot.

And they didn’t let me forget it. For weeks, every time we saw a bird, there’d be rocks and sticks and threats and taunts. One of the boys started carrying a slingshot and they passed it around in front of me to uproarious laughter.

Yet, I stayed.

Until one afternoon a month or so later, when they got me.

We’d all planned to meet after school at the “living room,” the hidden partying place we’d constructed below the canyon rim at the edge of town. A cave-like depression in the rock to the north framed by tall scrubby trees and brush on the south, the living room was a secluded respite from adults, school, and the boredom of small-town nothingness.

Stepping down the last of the jagged lava rock steps that afternoon, turning the corner to the living room, I was surprised to find it empty. I was the only one of our group with any after-school activities and I usually got there last. I wondered why I was the first to arrive.

Until I turned southward to look out over the canyon, and gasped at what I saw.

Suspended from the juniper and olive trees above me, strung upside-down from high above my head, hung the bodies of dozens of lifeless pigeons.

Each bird was hung by its feet, tied with twine to an overhanging branch, swaying silently in the spring breeze that whispered through the canyon. Twisting, bobbing, peaceful. Dead.

I stood for the longest time, staring blankly out into the sky.

Then I did the only thing I could think to do. One by one, I cut down each bird with my pocketknife, loosened the twine around its feet, and tossed it into the canyon.

The last bird down, I sat down on the rocks, and cried.

*

Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already.

We don’t need more competition, aggression, or masculine warrior energy.

What we do need is the archetype of the strong woman.

The earth goddess and the protective mother. The fierce warrioress and the wise grandmother. The torch lighter, the well keeper, and the fearless truth teller. Maiden, mother, and crone.

The world needs whole, wild, unapologetic women. Women strong enough to be independent, yet smart enough to know we can’t do it alone. Women strong enough to fight, yet wise enough to know what’s worth fighting for. Women strong enough to push back against the patriarchy without becoming part of it.

A strong woman understands that tears cleanse the window of the heart and clarify our vision.

She understands that the power of jumping higher or throwing farther is nothing compared to the power of standing our ground.

She knows that kindness is strength and violence is weakness. She knows how to respond to suffering and pain without creating more of it.

And she knows that the way to be free as a woman is to reclaim the feminine—to embrace and uplift her—in a culture that has bullied our mothers, daughters, and sisters for millennia.

The masculine is not the enemy. And men are not the enemy.

All of us, of every gender, contain both masculine and feminine within.

The trouble comes when the masculine is allowed to be a parasite, feeding on the feminine, considering her at best a weakness to be devoured, and at worst, an enemy to be destroyed.

When this happens, all of us—of every gender, race, and species—are the victims.

And we get what we have now: a world rife with people who’ve lost touch with their hearts, pursuing personal profit and short-term gain over the welfare of all. A world of suffering and destruction that’s imploding upon itself. A world of people who can’t cry.

*

I have to admit, the tragedy of the birds was not my last disastrous run-in with masculine power. Embracing and owning the feminine power within myself is still a work in progress.

But that day I sat down on the rocks and cried for the birds, something broke free in me. I stood up and walked away from that place, and I never went back.

It turns out there was something those boys could do that I couldn’t. They could be cruel and heartless. That was something I was not willing to be.

And I could do something they couldn’t, at least not yet. I could take a stand for the sacredness of life.

To this day I still consider myself a tomboy. I still love bugs and dirt more than dresses and pin curls. (Who wouldn’t?)

But I’m second guessing whether I even want to use that word “tomboy” anymore.

Because if there’s any chance that calling a girl a tomboy will estrange her from her feminine power… well, I don’t wanna be that gal.

So I say, by all means, let’s play in the mud. Let’s climb trees. Let’s definitely set things on fire. And let’s wear our symbols of resistance with pride.

Let’s just remember what we’re resisting, and why.

And let’s celebrate every little girl for the fullness of who she is: masculine, feminine, and everything in-between. If we see a girl who’s lost her sense of her own power (or a woman, for that matter), let’s reach out a hand to her and help her rise. Let’s offer her a smile, and a warm and open hello.

Warm and open—and strong.

(Thanks, Jen.)

*

What if Nothing had a Name? A Practice in Connection without Words.

Photo by Shahzin Shajid on Unsplash

Dear reader, this includes practical exercises for reconnecting to our native powers of being and knowing. No time or desire to read the whole article? Jump down to the practices at the bottom of the page to get to the practical stuff. And may it of benefit.


The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Tao Te Ching

I find an open spot on the gymnasium floor and roll out my blanket. Arranging myself silently among a room full of fellow students, I sit up straight in respectful attention as the teacher takes his seat.

I’ve come to learn from this respected yogi and mystic, a wise elder who has spent a lifetime in devotion to the ancient yogic path. I’m fortunate to sit at his feet, even for just a morning.

We’ve gathered in the echoing hall of a sports gymnasium converted to a classroom for today’s lecture. Surrounded by bins of balls and nets, tumbling mats stacked aside rows of empty bleachers, every slightest sound bounces in sharp relief from the walls and rafters.

The master speaks.

“Why are you here?” His voice rings through the air like a bell.

“Have you come here today because you want to wake up? Because you want to know the truth?

Maybe you expect to receive a mystical insight, words of wisdom that will open your eyes and give you the answers you seek.

He smiles and raises his eyebrows.

“I tell you now, there will never be any words that can give those things to you. Because truth is something that no word—from me or anyone else—can express.

He lifts his eyes and surveys the room with receptive awareness. Resting his gaze on the wall behind us, he gently raises his hand, and points.

“What is that?”

We students shuffle about, unhinging our crossed legs and cranking our necks to look behind us for the object of his attention.

I follow the pointing finger to a spot high on the brick wall behind me, and there I see it.

“Basketball hoop,” I whisper to myself.

Others speak the words aloud. “It’s a basketball hoop,” “Basketball hoop.” “It’s a hoop, man,” someone offers, in a voice warm with amusement.

“Yes,” the teacher nods. “In English we call that a basketball hoop. That is the word we use to label it. Now. What is it, really?”

No one makes a sound.

*

When we are just babies, our consciousness newly awakened to the world, our parents begin teaching us the words for things.

Red. Blue. Dog. Cat. Sun and Moon. Mommy and Daddy.

This is all great fun for everyone. We humans have a proclivity for naming things. It’s one of our natural ways of learning the world. Our childhood brains soak up words like dry land drinks in the rain, and the world unfurls its magic before us as we begin to know its names.

We learn a word—red—and the fiery color of blood and roses blooms into life all around us. The tiny child points and bounces on her toes with delight as she spies her newly christened color, perhaps in a box of crayons or woven into the winter parka of a passerby. “Red!” she exclaims with joy. “Doggie!” “Moon!”

Naming the world organizes our lives, makes sense of things, and brings us joy.

But what if nothing had a name?

I recently interviewed Taoist teacher Solala Towler for the Wake Up, Human podcast. We talked about about words, and names, and whether human language can ever fully reveal the true nature of things.

As Solala reminded me, shamans say that in long-ago times, we humans could talk to the animals, and the animals could speak back, in a language we both understood. They say we could talk to the plants and rocks and streams, learn their stories and their songs. They say we lived in communion with all life, with no need for the likes of human words.

If this is true—if there is a language deeper than words, one that connects our soul to nature’s song—where has it gone? How did we modern humans lose this native power of communication, the unspoken language of life we once knew by heart?

It happened, the sages say, when we started naming things.

In the Tao Te Ching, the foremost book of Taoism written some 2500 years ago, the author-sage Lao Tzu addresses the folly of naming.

The very first line of his timeless work on the Tao, or the Way of the Sage states the impossibility of expressing truth through words:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The story goes (as Solala reminds me again) that Lao Tzu didn’t want to write his teachings down in the first place. He was connected with the lineage of the Wu—the shamans, women, and storytellers of ancient China, who would have passed their knowledge orally from teacher to student, and never through written words. He likely believed, as did the modern shamans who admonished early western anthropologists for insisting on taking notes about everything: “No, don’t write the stories down! If you write them down you imprison them.” But he was prevailed upon so he did write the Tao Te Ching. But he was careful to begin his work, in the very first lines, with the reminder not to take the words for the truth.

The Buddha expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “My teachings are but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t mistake the finger for the moon.”

Are our words just fingers pointing to a greater truth? Have we forgotten that there is a difference?

*

I once read a book by the white South African author and explorer Laurens van der Post, in which he recounted stories of his time living among the Kalahari Bushmen in Southern Africa during the 1950s. In one memorable story, Laurens told of sitting around a nighttime fire with a group of Bushmen, under a vast expanse of star-filled night sky.

As they chatted and shared tales of their day’s adventures, one of the Bushmen casually remarked how beautiful the stars sounded that night. The others nodded in agreement. “Yes, yes. The music of the stars is beautiful tonight.”

The modern and civilized Laurens chuckled at the comments, thinking the Bushmen were making a joke to trick him.

He responded with something the likes of, “That’s very funny, pretending to hear music of the stars. Of course, the stars don’t make a sound, yet you are trying to convince me otherwise. But I will not be fooled.”

The Bushmen laughed as well. They in turn thought that Laurens was was playing a joke on them. For the deeply-connected Bushman, living in full immersion with nature, that the stars could sing was a given, a fact of life. The very idea of stars without music was ludicrous to them.

After some back and forth and no small amount of confusion, Laurens and the Bushmen together realized something shocking. The Bushmen really could hear the music of the stars. Laurens really could not.

In that moment all the men in the circle fell into sadness. The Bushmen felt sorry for Laurens because he couldn’t hear the sound of the stars. And Laurens felt sorry for himself, because he understood that something precious had been lost. He was devastated.

I share that sense of devastation. I have never heard the stars. Yet I sense that we have the capacity to hear them, and so much more. I believe the shamans who say we have the ability to speak the language of the animals and the trees, to understand the primordial language of life. I believe that life sings to us, whether we can hear it or not.

I ponder my own loss of hearing, and I wonder, if we do have this capacity, is it truly lost? Or is it still alive and latent within us, biding its time, waiting for us to remember?”

During my conversation with Solala, it occurs to me that understanding the power of naming might be key.

I wonder, if it’s true that we separate ourselves from other things by naming them, what if we could separate ourselves from naming?

I decide to try it.

*

Experiments: the Practice of Not-Naming

The sages say that by naming things, we lose some of our connection to them. By building boxes with words to describe things, we separate them from other things; we separate them from ourselves.

So what if we were to try not naming? Might we, in the absence of names, find a doorway back to our original self—the self that knows things as they are, and not how we have labeled them to be? Might we hear, see, or sense something new? Or something old, remembered again?

Below are some experiments for remembering.

*

Practice 1: See it before you say it.

Practice connecting before the words come in.

Sit in front of the object you’d like to comprehend, aim your gaze toward it, and close your eyes. Sit silently for a few moments, and focus on your breath, or perhaps the sounds or sensations around you; just get present in the moment. When your mind feels quiet and your vision empty, open your eyes, and focus on the object before you. What do you notice the very moment the object enters your awareness? What is there before words come in to label it?

There may not be any earth-shattering message in this. There does not need to be. What we’re looking to practice is just the instant of connection, the flash of recognition before the name. See if you can experience it.

Practice 2: Forget what you know.

While going through the passes of daily life, practice contemplating things you’re familiar with, but pretending you don’t know their “names.”

Consider the flame of the candle. The pot in the sink. The shoes, as you tie them to your feet. Look, listen, as though you are seeing them for the first time. Pretend you don’t know what they are. You only know that they are.

Instead of “brushing your teeth,” there may be only movement. Instead of “music on the radio” there may be only sound. This does not need to be hard, or forced. It is just a practice of getting to know things without the words we’ve superimposed upon them.

Practice 3: Encounter the new without a name.

Though we know the names for many things, there will always be new things that come into our lives, things we haven’t yet experienced. We can use such fresh experiences as an opportunity to engage without words.

When encountering something new for the first time, approach it without asking what it is. Maybe it’s a flower you’ve never seen before, or a bird you’ve never heard. A new model of car that drives by. Or a cloud in a formation you’ve never noticed. Resist the temptation to ask, “What flower/bird/car is that?”

Instead, simply drink in the experience of newness, without asking the name. You may be taught something even better, which you would never have thought to ask.

Practice 4: Your name is just a name.

I have an old friend who used to introduce himself, “My family calls me Pancho…nice to meet you.” I appreciated this reminder, every time I heard it, of what he meant to express with his choice of language: his being was not to be equated with his name. Our identity does not depend on words.

I’ve tried Pancho’s strategy, but find I can’t say “My family calls me Shannon” without chuckling, or at least feeling compelled to explain my choice of words. So I go for a softer approach. When I introduce myself, instead of defaulting to, “Hi, I’m Shannon,” I go for, “Hi, my name is Shannon.” That’s all the reminder I need to touch in with the part of me that has no name.

Try it. This exercise may or may not make a difference to the person you’ve just met, but it can make a big difference to your consciousness.

Practice 5: Rest your mind on things that don’t have words.

Our world is so full of words that it can be hard to get away from them. How can we expect to practice connection without words, if words are everywhere we look?

Practice getting away from it all. Get away from the word, written or spoken, and into a place where only the language of the unspoken is known. This does not require a vacation to the mountains or the beach, or a silent retreat. It does require removing our attention from words, and making an effort to be present to that which does not require them in order to be known.

Lift your eyes from the page or the screen. Look around your everyday space and give long, loving glances to anything that has no words on it. Perhaps consider a blank wall with nothing on it. Better yet, witness your own starry sky. Listen to music without words. Touch the items close to you and feel their quiet textures. Open to receive the kindnesses that can only be bestowed upon us by a word-silent world.

*

Back in the gymnasium, the master breathes deep into his belly, lowers his hand to his lap, and continues.

“We must never confuse the name of something with the truth. We must ask ourselves in every moment, with everything we experience, what is this thing, when answering only to itself?

“For everything has a life, a truth of its own, before we apply a name to it. Nothing depends on human words for existence. What we happen to name a thing is never what it really is.”

“When we understand this this, only then will insight come. Only then will our consciousness open. Only then will truth transform us.”

The master nods his head in the direction of the wall.

“Now, I want you to look at that basketball hoop again. But before you do, you’ll need to close your eyes and clear your mind.

“Turn in the direction of the object, such that your eyes, when opened, will fall upon the object with fresh awareness.

“Now, close your eyes. When you open them again you’ll notice that there is a moment, a fleeting instant, of apprehension without words. A flash of recognition where the consciousness sees the object before the mind catches up. For consciousness is faster than the mind.

“In that instant, that thing has no name. In that moment there is no “I” and no “thou.” There is only consciousness, experiencing itself.

In that moment, when there is no word to describe, in English or any other language, you may understand.

He tips his head back and laughs heartily. “And then the mind will arrive and tell you it’s a basketball hoop, and the practice will be over for today.”

“Remember,” he winks. “Naming is not the same as knowing.”

I turn my body toward the wall and aim my gaze toward the hoop. I close my eyes and clear my mind in meditation for several minutes, until my thoughts are as empty as they’re going to be. I open my eyes, no expectation. There is a flash. And for only an instant, I see it.

A split second later the intellect steps in dutifully. “Basketball hoop,” it instructs me, surely trying to be helpful. But it is too late. I’ve already seen it. I’ve already made the connection.

The yogi was right.



There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list. Please check your email for a welcome message. See you on the inside…


Why are We Sleeping? An Essay on Disconnection.

Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

Are we sleeping? And if so, how can we wake up?

Dear reader, thank you for dropping in on this essay, which I pour my heart into in an attempt to describe the epidemic of disconnection.

As explained on the about page of this website, the intention of Wake Up, Human is to explore the ways we humans have become disconnected from our native ways of knowing, what we have lost, and practical knowledge and wisdom for coming back into wholeness.

The intention of this essay is to explore the epidemic of disconnection as the root cause of our ‘sleep’ and reconnection as our opportunity to ‘wake up.’

This is a long form essay, and due to the length of it, I will be publishing it partially and adding to it bit by bit. I’ll drop in the first segment below, and add to it as time goes on.

For anyone not the long form essay-reading type, I’ll post the article’s key points below: a summary of the content without the deep dive. For an audio related to this discussion, check out Wake Up, Human podcast, Episode 2.

Otherwise, I’ll see you on the inside…



Essay on Disconnection: Key Points

  • We humans have forgotten how to use our inherent human powers—powers such as intuition, keen awareness, and sensory communication with the natural world. The sands of time, along with the destruction of our own indigenous cultures, have erased ancient forms of knowing from our shared memory.
  • We’ve been conditioned away from our natural inclinations toward wholeness via modern ideologies of progress, individualism, and cultural superiority.
  • We’ve been distracted by the alluring comforts of technological advancement and placating materialism (and encouraged to do so by decades of targeted advertising and media propaganda).
  • Our psychology is susceptible to negative biases, stereotypes, and fear-based reasoning, which, if continually and unnaturally stimulated, can short circuit our inner knowing.
  • We’ve been manipulated by powerful economic and political interests, and the institutions and systems built to serve them, to remain in such states of fear and separation…for a very long time.
  • This state of disconnection estranges us from our own wisdom, and our place in the interconnected web of life. This estrangement leads us to objectify the natural world, and thus, become able to rationalize the ways we destroy it.
  • This is not the way it has to be. By recognizing our state of disconnection, we gain the ability to address it. We can dismantle the rationalizations that allow us to destroy ourselves, each other, and our home. We can wake up into reconnection, and grow together, and heal.


An Essay on Disconnection.

What are our essential human powers?

Historically, we humans were more attuned to the natural world than we are today. We lived in deeper connection with the rhythms of nature and communion with other forms of life.

Inheriting this attuned sense of knowing as a birthright, our ancestors were able to see, hear, and feel the essence of reality more clearly than we do today. They lived in a state of interconnectivity with the natural world that has largely been lost in our modern distracted and fragmented world. This sense of connection enabled them to survive in harsh and sometimes dangerous environments, but it also allowed them to live full and harmonious lives in tune with the rhythms of time and place.

From indigenous and wisdom traditions that shine light on our historical and spiritual beginnings, we understand that our native state of being is receptive and communal, our inner and outer lives harmonized to our natural surroundings and the lives of other beings around us. We understand that our species is but one instrument in a planet-wide symphony of life.

If we consider our species as but one voice among many, it might worry us at first that in such a worldview our species would become less important or valuable. But this is not true. In fact, the more we understand ourselves as one facet of a greater whole, the more we can tap into the the vast shared capacity of that whole.

Rather than living for ourselves and solving problems by ourselves, we can access all of nature’s combined intelligence as our guide. The more we discern our role, and our power as world citizens, the more impactful we can be.

The wisdom indigenous to every one of us is capable of this understanding: to communicate across time, space, and species boundaries. To be guided and helped by nature. To know the truth of who we are and what we are capable of. To leverage our remarkable creativity and intelligence to collaboratively transform our physical world, for the benefit of all.

These are our essential powers.

*

We’ve largely forgotten our essential powers—
but they are not lost.

We “modern” humans are less embodied than our ancestors, living more in our heads and less in our hearts. As modernization has urged us forward across thousands of years of historical terrain, we have developed our thought and reason at the expense of our intuition.

In our march toward the mental and mechanical, we’ve forgotten how to use our inherent human capacities—powers such as intuition, awareness, and sensory communication with the natural world. In doing this, we have disconnected ourselves from ways of knowing that are essential, and might even seem magical to our rational scientific minds.

But these powers are not lost to us. They are still alive within us, albeit perhaps deeply buried under lifetimes of conditioning. They are tools that evolved along with our bodies and minds, to help us understand the world, and our place in it. Such tools still belong to us, as our birthright. For those of us who wish to reawaken and use them, is it still possible? I believe it is.

Through good fortune and perhaps grace, we continue to have access to a multitude of living traditions that carry the ancestral threads of our collective being, leading back over many centuries, to the source of our ancient knowing.

We also have access to millennia of written records of mystics and sages who have pondered the deepest questions of existence, and come to conclusions instructive for both their time and ours.

Finally, within each one of us lie dormant the seeds of our innate human powers, seeds that when watered with the light of our attention are ready to sprout to life and direct us toward the full expression of our essential nature.

We need not become anything new. We only need to open to what we already are, and reawaken the great power that sleeps within us.

To the extent we can do this, we may find ourselves once again able to perceive our interconnectivity to the whole: dormant, yet ready to come powerfully alive in us, and reawaken to the truth we have always known:

When we harm one thread in the tapestry of life, we harm us all.

*

How we got lost: the epidemic of disconnection.

I believe we’re suffering from what naturalist Jon Young calls an “epidemic of disconnection.”

In our species’ centuries-long push toward scientific and economic progress, favoring individual gain over collective evolution, we have isolated ourselves within our own self-centered experience. Focusing on expansion (of knowledge, territory, power, etc.) above all else, we have leveraged our significant creative-intellectual powers to advance our own interests.

Through scientific and technological advancements, we have increased our knowledge, extended our capacities, and firmly established ourselves the most secure, comfortable, and powerful species on the planet.

However.

This advancement has come at a cost. For our growth has been so impressive, progress so enticing, comfort so bewitching that we have largely become content to advance our own interests at the expense of the rest of the world.

We humans have always looked out for our own kind. Self-protective instinct within one’s species is not new, nor is it wrong. Focus on collective welfare is a survival mechanism that has helped us thrive for hundreds of thousands of years.

What is new is that modern humans seem to have forgotten that the collective welfare of our species depends on the collective welfare of the whole.

Ironically, in our unbridled push to secure “our” well-being, we have taken self-interest of our species so far that our collective action now focuses on the individual human to the extent that it threatens the very fabric of the world that holds us.

Thus, we now favor human needs over the needs of non-human animals and the natural world, to the extent that we routinely destroy and commodify nature to advance our interests.

We favor our individual addictions to comfort over the needs of other humans who do not have as much as we do, even when our comforts are frivolous and others’ needs are basic.

And astonishingly, we often favor our addiction to expansion, our desire for more, faster, and better, even over our own inner peace and health.

The upshot is that we seemingly have no trouble destroying our own earthly home, our own species, and our own personal well-being in the name of progress.

*

The symptoms of disconnection.

Thus we exhibit symptoms of the epidemic of disconnection: estrangement—from the natural world, the suffering of other beings, and the importance of our own physical and mental survival.

This disconnection, while it portends to offer us security against the wild world, has left many of us so-called “advanced” humans in a state of desperation and hopelessness. Why?

Because we are part of the wild world.

We are meant to be wild.

Ahh, we intuit that something important is missing from our lives. We feel incomplete. We struggle to find happiness in the trappings of the modern world, with all its distractions and comforts, and we fail.

Time escapes us and slips through our fingers; we feel we never have enough of it.

Health escapes us; we suffer en masse from ailments with unknown causes, and succumb to modern diseases we’re unable to cure with modern methods.

Understanding escapes us: our science and reason promise to give us all the answers, yet information overload, without connection to true knowledge, leaves us with more questions and less insight into what truly matters.

And peace escapes us. We long to know our place and purpose in life, yet find ourselves overwhelmed by too many choices, unable to discern where we belong.

As all these searches come up empty, in our sense of lack we continue to look for more, to fill the gaps in our hearts that know they are lacking. Pulled in multiple directions by the dizzying array of “opportunities,” we may result full of experience yet devoid of meaning, or falling into depression, sickness, and overwhelm. We sense the lack of security in this; the comfortable rug has been pulled out from under our feet. And we are back where we began, running on the treadmill of daily life, too busy to ask ourselves what is wrong.

Separated from our inherent wholeness, it is not surprising that we feel incomplete.

We have become the hungry ghosts of Buddhism, ravenous beings suffering from endless desires that can’t be fulfilled, compulsively feeding ourselves to soothe an emptiness that only grows larger the more we try to feed it.

Why do we let ourselves live this way?

To be continued…

*

You Darkness, from which I come, I love you more than all the fires that fence out the world. Because the fires make a circle of light so that no one can see you any more. But the Darkness holds it all. The shapes, the animals, the flames and myself… I have faith in the night.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Translated by Robert Bly

	

We Are All Radical.

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash

We are all rooted in the same source. But sometimes we forget we have roots at all.


Shortly before the recent US presidential election, amidst an incoming flurry of political calls, emails, and text messages, I received a text from a progressive organization I’ve been following for years.

“By voting in this election,” it said, “we can send the radical right to its rightful place: the ash heap of history.”

I closed the text and sat quietly for a moment, thinking. What end does that serve?

The night before the election, I texted a friend of mine on the far right of the political spectrum. “No matter who wins,” I typed with my thumbs, “I pray we won’t fall into violence, and that we’ll treat one another with respect.”

His answer: “No matter who wins, I pray the radical left will take control over their minions who are rioting and hellbent on destroying our country.”

In a country where peaceful demonstrators for racial justice have been labeled “radical leftists,” and law abiding pro-police advocates dismissed as the “radical right,” we would be visionary if we ask after the origin of the word “radical,” discern where our current use of the word is leading us, and decide whether we want to continue using it in this way.

The core definition of “radical” follows, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

– of, relating to, or proceeding from a root; growing from the base of a stem

If we consider the roots of plants as a metaphor for our polarized political climate, we might visualize the following: two different-yet-vital plants unfurling their flowering tendrils combatively toward one another, roots wildly rippling toward opposite horizons in unbound ideology.

But this is not how plants work, and this is not how life works either.

A plant cannot survive with roots exposed to the open air, however furiously it may fight.

Deep Roots, by Ruth Palmer

A plant survives by sending its roots down and in. It pierces and plunges its energies deep into the earth (wild darkness of the living earth), extracting its nourishment and protection from the soil.

A true, living root reaches for the center. The center of the earth.

We could take a cue from our plant brethren, and dig our roots deep, lest we dry up and die.

Instead we cry “socialist” and “racist,” and any word to dehumanize one another, convinced that if we could only remove our opponent from the game, our precious way of life could be saved.

But that is not going to happen. No side is ever going to “win.”

For like the dancing polarities of yin/yang, the political right and left are not opposing forces, but comingling halves of a whole. We contain each other, support each other, and illuminate each other’s truths.

There is no light without dark, and there is no right without the left. This is universal law.

Gravity. Seasonality. Cycles of life and death. Fallow times and fertile times. Brightest light. Darkest night. Clay and sand.

All of it is needed.

We need other people, people who are different from us. We need the push and pull of opposition to evolve. Other people—and their opposing views—are gifts of self-realization, soul-opening portals into the full experience of being human.

Coursing beyond the obvious association with plant anatomy, the definition of “radical” also includes the following:

– of, or relating to the origin: fundamental

In our culture we call someone a fundamentalist when they hold to their ideology so strongly that they become unwilling to entertain any other belief system as having merit. Such people may grasp their version of truth so tightly that it becomes the only truth that exists, or at least, the only one that matters.

It’s clear how the term “radical” has become commonplace to describe people who hold strongly to the edges of their parties’ ideologies as fundamental truth.

But these words are not innocuous descriptors in our discourse; they are loaded guns.

When political leaders use the term “radical” as a means of othering, we must see that for what it is: weaponization of language.

When we succumb such othering ourselves, we must realize that by labeling someone a radical we dehumanize not only them, but our own selves, in the process. By separating other people from their humanity, we lose the connection to our own.

When we fall into calling someone a “radical” for holding fast to their beliefs—a belief that is different than ours—it may also be a sign that we are holding onto our own beliefs too tightly.

Either way, we fall into the trap of powerful interests that benefit from us hating one another. If we allow our perceptions to be programmed by divisive labels, our thoughts run the danger of appropriation by factions on both sides who would use them to divide and conquer us.

And I don’t know about you, but I refuse to be programmed to hate.

That is why my vision is a future without a radical right…or a radical left.

My vision is to live into a new definition of “radical,” based upon another meaning that is already part of our lexicon, just a few lines down in the Merriam Webster list:

– favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions

A radical, in this definition, is a person who is dissatisfied with the way things are, and willing to work far outside the box to change it.

If we choose, we could see our so-called opponents as radicals like us: rooted in our convictions, deeply pained by our current state of affairs, and ready and willing to fight for something better.

According to this definition, we are on the same side.

To be clear, there are people in our society being “radicalized” to become hateful and violent. But using “radical” as a derogatory label for those with diverging opinions from ours does not lessen the potential for dangerous radicalization. It heightens it.

And of course, there are many things worth fighting for. But if we spend our energies fighting one another as enemies, we’ll have precious little left for fighting to heal our collective wounds.

I didn’t respond to either of those text messages I received during election week. They sunk further down in my thread and I refused to give them any more of my energy.

But the metaphor of the plant stuck with me. And from it emerged a vision.

What if, as members of opposing sides, we defined ourselves by our extremes and our roots?

What if we dug in our roots, not along divergent lines of right and wrong, but down and in, tumbling over and under and toward one another in a dance of intertwining destiny?

And from there, what if we were so extreme to dare think we could rise together toward the radical changes we seek—and dearly need?

We might send our roots so deep that one day we would finally tap into that place where we all began, the place we meet: we are all human.

From there we might spread our shoots and branches from seedbeds diverse, reaching so high and wide, and stretching to such extremes, that the furthest edges of our leaves might one day touch each other in surprise recognition.

We’re all rooted in the same source. But sometimes we forget we have roots at all.

My vision is that we will remember our shared roots, and that one day there will no longer be a “radical right” or a “radical left” in our public discourse. There will only be the radical we.

“They” are not our enemies. “They” are not the left or the right. They are the other half of us.

*

This article originally appeared in Kosmos Journal at this link.



There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list. Please check your email for a welcome message. See you on the inside…


What will you do with your “One Wild and Precious” new year?


Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

This invitation from Mary Oliver is a beautiful question.

It is also way too much pressure.

It is true that life is wild. It is true that life is precious. And it is true that we only get one. One.

The fact that we only get one life makes it all the more wild and precious!

Does this make anyone besides me feel terrified and excited at the same time? Like every choice I make has the potential to make or break my future, and potentially the future of the planet?

In our society of too many choices and impossibly ample opportunities, we all know it is not so easy to know what we want “to do” with our lives.

This is nothing against Mary Oliver. She writes to inspire, and rightfully begs us to take this one opportunity seriously.

But what if we take it too seriously?

A year ago, when a new year dawned and I once more pondered what I want to do with my life, I yet again teetered on a fine line, between making a bucket list of the ten thousand things I want do, vs. doing absolutely nothing.

I want to do it all—isn’t that what our culture trains us to want?

But overwhelmed by the prospect of the next fork in the road becoming the determining factor for the rest of my life, I don’t want to get it wrong.

The question is too big for me to handle.

So this year, rather than paralyze myself or give up, by good fortune or grace a thought came to me that would help me parse the too-big question into smaller pieces.

It’s a new year. A year. It’s not a new “rest of my life.”

What if I only had to decide what I want to do with this one, wild, precious, singular, 365-day year?

Now that is a question I can handle.

As the year began I asked myself the question, What do I want to do with this year?

Who do I want to be at the end of it?

What experience do I want to have?

What do I want to contribute?

Turns out, these were all variants of the same question.

And the answer came: I want to write.

I’ve always loved to write. It brings me joy. I am decent enough at it. So I thought, I may be able to say something that would mean something to someone, or help someone.

Or maybe not. But I was pretty sure I’d enjoy trying.

I knew I needed to clarify that “want to write” intention further into a singular goal, a specific, clearly-defined keystone goal, as our en vogue time management and habit gurus have christened it.

A keystone goal is a foundational touchstone that holds the rest of our goals together. It’s a focal point that keeps us on track in our chosen direction, rather than enticed off-road onto the ten thousand tracks of distraction and overwhelm. It’s an exercise in specifics.

So I asked myself to get specific.

Q: What would it look like, specifically, to devote myself to writing this year?

A: I’ll write something new every two weeks.

Q: How will I keep myself on task?

A: Well, I’ll need accountability. I’ll tell someone I’m going to do it. And I’ll go one step further: I’ll promise to post it online.

Ok, that starts to feel a little vulnerable. But it’s only a year. And it’s only writing.

So I decided to set up a blog to write. I got a website, with my name as the URL. I joined a writing course, with fellow students and mentors supporting one another in our writing. And I embraced the goal-achieving equivalent of a silver bullet: an accountability partner.

I told my AP, with all the nonchalance I could muster, “I’m going to publish 24 articles this year. Two per month, for twelve months.”

He said he would hold me to it. And the race began.

One article went out and up. I shared it on Elephant Journal, and it got promoted as an editor’s pick. Inspired, I wrote another. And another. One article got bumped up to a curated section on Medium. Another got accepted for publication by Kosmos magazine. I kept going—kept my “butt in the chair,” as the irreverently helpful Steven Pressfield would say in The War of Art—and pressed on.

Sometimes it took two weeks to write an article; other times it took two months. A few times it took one or two evenings of wild inspiration bubbling forth from the open veins of my psyche. But the timelines evened out, and about every two weeks on average, I was able to extricate some word-filled creation from my depths and splatter it into the digisphere and tick it off my list: one more piece of writing in the books.

Impressed with my progress, I started thinking beyond the writing. What do I really want to write about? What about those causes and communities that are so important to me? What if I wrote a little less about how to make a tasty golden milk elixir, and instead began weaving my life lessons and hard-won experience into a more thoughtfully designed tapestry of meaning?

I’ve always had plenty I want to say, but here I was, saying it on purpose, and on plan. Re-energized by the fresh consideration of the recurrent themes of my life’s wanderings, a shape began to take form within the shadowy waters of the still-emerging year.

I gave my website a name.

I gave her a project, and a personality.

I started filling her in.

And by the end of the year, I had explored my life in writing from twenty-four different directions. I built a body of writing, and shared it with others, exposing my vulnerabilities and growing braver in the process.

I set a new foundation under my feet, reopened old doors of thought and inspiration, and remembered what I have always stood for. Then I reached out to people who stand for the same things, and continued my learning.

Courses. Mentors. Deeper exploration of self. A vision quest in the wilderness. A journey to the upper and lower worlds, all spurred on by my urgent desire to become more fully me. I struck up a new apprenticeship with my soul. And on the other side, I found a richness I had been looking for back in the day, in those scrawled-upon notebook pages filled with rambling bucket lists. Ever elusive, such riches would never have been found in to-do lists pieced together with other people’s dreams.

The year rolled toward it’s end. I settled in to a rhythm, not only of writing, but of becoming more like myself. I asked someone I’d met, someone who stands for the same things I do, if they’d like to record a conversation with me. And voilà, a podcast was born.

A podcast? Ah, well now I’ll need to learn some new software, make myself some graphics, figure out the best microphone to use, and find the best closet in my house to convert to a recording space to drown out the neighbor’s hot rod and the cats’ random meows.

Bit by bit, I learned.

I checked in with my accountability partner. I posted my writing on social media (not my style). I stretched far outside my comfort zone as my “simple” goal led me to explore into complexities I hadn’t expected.

I grew further into the person I want to live with as we walk together through this wild and precious, terrifying and exciting life.

Some tough things happened last year, the year before this one.

I had tried to get myself a step up in life by taking a data science course, and after an excruciating six months of pounding my head against that wall (and spending a lot of money I didn’t have), I realized that I hated data science.

I lost a precious, beloved friend to a meth addiction. I regretted and negotiated and held on to what was long gone, leaving my heart bloodied and my soul exhausted, to no avail.

I rambled and cried, and punched the sky in anger. I tried to choose one path or another, again finding myself lost in tangles of questions I couldn’t answer. Man, I thought I had some of this figured out years ago, but I still have no idea what to do. I sat to meditate, kept up the sun salutations, languished on long road trips searching once again for my peace, and then lost the bliss as soon as I opened the front door.

But this year? I just wrote.

What would we do if we really only had one wild and precious year at a time to live?

What if we couldn’t do everything with it?

What if there were no such thing as a bucket list? (Hint: 50 years ago, there wasn’t.)

What if we gave ourselves the gift of making just one choice for this year, a list with just one item on it?

We might find out that we are braver than we thought we were.

We might find out that we do know how to choose.

We might find out that we have a cornucopia of possibility inside us, and if only we stop trying to sort through the possibilities outside us, we might find our own voice within us just chilling, twiddling its fingers, waiting for us to catch up.

Mary Oliver is a blessing of a poet. Her poem, “The Summer Day,” ends with that question that so perplexes and titillates we modern masses of lost souls desperately searching for our “purpose.”

What will we do with our one precious life, really?

That same poem begins like this:

Who made the world? 
Who made the swan, and the black bear? 
Who made the grasshopper...

I marvel at the simple grace of Oliver’s poetry. I wonder along with her about the source of life and wisdom, the infinite intelligence that weaves through all being, the creative impulse behind all blessed choices.

Then I take a step back, and ask myself, who made my sandwich?

By golly, it was me.

The year has once again turned, and this week another spin of the wheel begins.

Lao Tzu teaches in the Tao Te Ching:

The worldly man learns something new every day. The man of the Tao forgets something every day.

I’m ready to forget everything except what this one next year calls me to do.

Meantime, I buy a bottle of champagne. “Pop.”

I’m celebrating. Not the beginning of a new year, but the end of a year just ended and fully, simply lived. I feel no need to look forward to another year of infinite possibility. I’m looking forward, instead, to a year of bare and beautiful minimums, some colorful, unexpected twists and turns sprinkled in along the way, and a pinch of accountability thrown in for good measure.

I do know the size of my plans for the coming year: they’re big enough to hold just me and and one elegant, simply-dressed goal. We will dance a couples dance and sing a folksy duet in rotation around the seasons of the year. And when that new year grown old draws to a close, the two of us will pop another cork and drink.

There is a place in life for the big questions. I live in that place most of the time. But it is a place we can get lost in. If we don’t allow ourselves to live in the smallness of things once in a while, we may ironically become so lost that we end up smaller than we ever meant to be. Being too small easily leads to being too overwhelmed by life, and there’s a darn good chance from there that we’ll never be comfortable making another big decision ever again.

This is the year I kept it small (but not too small). And I won.

So I say celebrate what you’ve made, what you’ve achieved, who you’ve become! Life needs us to push ourselves, to evolve.

But don’t make it too big. The world is big enough already.

Just make it the right size for you. And you may find that your small, simple calling ever so quietly expands to fill the whole world.

What is it I will do with my one wild and precious and just-the-right-sized new year?

What is it you will do?

Life is waiting for us to decide.

*

This article also appeared on Elephant Journal at this link.



There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list. Please check your email for a welcome message. See you on the inside…


Words are Actions too: our Stories make our lives Matter.

Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

The old man and I sat facing each other in the light of the morning sun.

Steam danced over the rims of our teacups, swirling through sunbeams and bouncing off the round wooden table between us. 

I was young, not much over thirty. He was decades older, just inching into his seventies. We talked together as unequal colleagues, he the mentor and distinguished professor, I the apprentice and developing leader. He had hired me to help run his organization, an idealistic training center for young activists. 

Lounging in the wicker chairs of our rented office, we sat reviewing the galley proof of the professor’s latest book, mining its chapters for talking points and teaching opportunities. 

It was a beautiful book. Ripe with wisdom gathered from a lifetime of academic study and lived experience, seeded with stories that eloquently captured its points, woven throughout with threads of practicality and purpose.

I saw it as an impeccably written guidebook from a master in its field. It was, in my mind, a gift to the world. 

But the old man that day was not seeing the gift. 

As he fingered through the pages of his masterwork, his hands slowed. A pained expression overtook his face. The sun creased shadows into his furrowed brow.

He reached across the table and took my hand, a shaft of light striking his silver wristwatch as his blue eyes welled with tears.

“My dear,” he said, “I fear that I have failed.” 

I sat up, fully present.

“Failed?” I shook my head slightly. “How so?”

Shoulders heaving, he pulled in a long and careful breath, as if drawing together the edges of a tender wound.

“I have failed,” he said, “because my life has been all words, and no action.”

“I’ve written a great many words in my life,” he continued, “and spoken many more than that. I’ve lectured enough words to fill a great library with thoughts and ideas.”

“I believed, when I began this journey many decades ago, that I could change the world with a sharp intellect and a pointed pen. But now I’m nearing the last chapter of my life, and I can’t say that with all my words I’ve changed anything at all. In fact, I’m not sure my presence in the world has truly helped anyone.”

“My life, I fear, has been a waste. And I’m running out of time.”

He squeezed my hand tightly, and a tear whispered over the wrinkled curve of his cheek.

I opened my lips to protest, but no words came out. 

This articulate gentleman, whose intellect had paved road maps for social change, whose words wove disparate spiritual and historical sources into tapestries of modern relevance. I knew he had changed lives with his words—he had changed mine. How could he think that he had failed?

As I struggled to pull my thoughts together I was swept back in time, from my spot at the sunlit table to a memory etched upon the hourglass of my own life story.

*

I got the call on the clinic phone. Seven-thirty a.m., first call of the day. On the line was a technician in the lost and found department. She had just arrived to work to find a cat screaming in his cage, distraught, in obvious pain. Could I help?

Of course, I would try. 

It was the early shift at the animal shelter where I worked, and I was the morning on-call veterinary technician. I hung up the phone, grabbed my medical pouch and rushed across the parking lot toward the lost and found annex. 

Inside the building would be at least one hundred homeless dogs and cats, locked inside barred cages and awaiting their fates. Having been dropped at the shelter by good Samaritans, some of the animals would shortly be reclaimed by relieved owners. Others would be adopted into new homes. The rest would not make it out alive.

I could hear the wild cries of a cat in distress long before I reached the door. 

The technician showed me to a corner where a handsome tuxedo cat, white-whiskered with a shining black coat, sat howling to the roof of his metal 2×2 cage. He squatted uncomfortably in his tiny litter box, hind legs shaking with exhaustion. I knew immediately what was wrong.

“Hi baby,” I spoke to him softly as I flipped open the latch on his kennel. “You’re in a bad situation. Let’s see if we can make you feel better.” 

I pulled him gently from the cage, litter box and all, and carried him to the examination table.

Placing the box on the scuffed tile floor, I lifted the cat tenderly as flecks of dry litter fell from between his toes.

As I cupped my hand under his belly he let out an exhausted cry, and I felt what I expected: the tight hard ball of his bladder, so full it was about to burst.

His urinary tract was blocked.

The cat desperately needed to release his bladder, but his urethra was blocked by calcium crystals, leaving him unable to urinate. As he struggled to relieve himself the pressure could only increase, causing him tremendous pain.

“Shhh.” I stroked his head. “We’ll take care of you.”

While the kennel tech held the cat securely atop a clean towel, I pulled an extra-large syringe from my pouch and fitted a needle to its tip. I steadied the bladder between my fingers, pierced the needle through the belly wall, and released the plunger.

Red liquid surged into the body of the syringe. Blood. A sign of a severe blockage and a life-threatening condition.

The instant the trapped fluid flooded the syringe, the pressure on the bladder released. I continued to pull and the cat’s weight sunk into the table as his muscles relaxed.

Belly heaving, with his last bit of energy, the turned his golden eyes to look up at me with what I swore was an expression of gratitude. By the time I pulled the needle out seconds later, his head had flopped to one side and he’d passed out from relief.

As I stood over the limp animal, I felt my own cascade of emotion as relief washed over my body. Had this cat not received help today, I thought, he likely would have been dead by tomorrow. His bladder would have ruptured inside his body, flooding his system with deadly toxins and poisoning him from the inside out. I had almost certainly saved his life.

But it was the next thought that came to my mind that would be a gift to last a lifetime:

No matter what becomes of me, I will never think my life has been a waste.

*

Thank God for that moment with the cat.

Ever since that day, my life has been graced with a buffer, an inoculation against any fear or dismay that may have subsequently arisen in my heart at the prospect that my life would not matter.

Why am I so grateful for this? Because I am also a person of many words. And words don’t always feel like they matter.

On the one hand, we humans are made for words. We are storytellers. With our large brains and penchant for language, we have the ability to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, to reveal the wild landscapes of our inner worlds, to teach and learn life’s lessons, via nothing more than sound expressed through our lips.

But we are not made only for words.

We would not survive if we talked about escaping danger, yet never ran from it. We would die of thirst if we told stories about water, but never drank. The hand must pluck the berry from its stem before it can be eaten. The bread must be made and the shelter maintained, the harvest preserved for the winter, or there is no life to speak of in the spring.

We thoughtful and lively humans are clearly built for both words and actions, comingling in an ancient dance of mutual support and balance.

In bygone times, this was better understood. In ancient Greece, for example, poets and philosophers were revered in equal measure to athletes and statesmen. In indigenous cultures even today, storytelling elders are respected for their words and their wisdom, as much as young warriors are beloved for their strength and bravery.

The myths and stories of all our native cultures are themselves manifestations of this balance. They are most often stories of action, yet only because they were carried forth on timeless threads of language may we drink of their wisdom today.

There is necessity for both word and action in our world. Indeed, each of us is a unique combination of both elements, and our calling is to live into them, as a gift to our own time and place.

But our modern culture, with its definition of success measured upon the well-oiled machines of productivity and progress, has neglected this balance. We have forgotten, in our rush to achieve, build, and expand, that strength needs wisdom and action needs words.

Thus the most skilled wordsmiths of our day are often judged relevant only according to the number of books they are able to sell in the marketplace. Our greatest thinkers, often relegated to eking out livings in the halls of academia, are required to crank out assembly lines of papers in peer-reviewed journals to prove themselves relevant.

Even you and I are admonished not to sit around talking about things, but to “do something with our lives.” Even as activists for balance and harmony, our identity and our value is chained to our ability to be the change. Simply being ourselves is no longer enough.

Maybe that’s why my dear professor friend was afraid that he had failed. His fear might suggest less about him and his words, and more about the false dream of the modern world so many of us are swimming in: that the value of who we are depends on what we do.

The result is that a man may come to the end of a long life of meaningful contribution, and yet believe he has done nothing that matters.

*

So what to do? How to make our lives matter, if not according to society’s dream, at least to ourselves? Do we trust the ripples of the word, if words are our particular magic? Or do we push ourselves into action?

I think we have to do both.

The wonderful thing about actions is that we receive feedback immediately when we do something meaningful for ourselves or another being. The ripples we send into the world through our actions return to us like boomerangs. For better or for worse, we reap what we sow.

To be sure, words can hit their mark and bounce back like boomerangs too. Our terms of endearment, affirmations of support and understanding, compliments offered, shared expressions of grief, grand pronouncements and great works of written art, create our lives as we speak them. Expressions of gratitude and thanks can powerfully transform a moment, a day, and a life.

Our words can even mirror to another person the value they give to the world, perhaps allowing them to be more secure in knowing that they, too, have made a difference.

So if someone has made a difference in your life, tell them.

If they have made things better for you, thank them.

If you have witnessed them say or do something that matters, remind them.

Because it is easy to forget.

But there is another powerful play we can make with our words, one that binds words to actions and ripples their combined weight into the world where they can make magic:

We can tell our stories.

Sharing our stories connects us to the social world and acts upon other lives, as the stories of others act upon our own, in a dance of reciprocal meaning. Story telling is meaning making. Stories we share become living memories, breathing our past experience into future flight across space, time, and culture. Through the telling and the receiving, we discover the universal themes that connect us all. We heal, we learn, we remember we are not alone. We remember that we matter.

In fact, that’s what I’m doing here: telling my story.

Because I woke up this morning, and in my half-awake state I started to worry whether anything I have done has mattered, whether my life has been worth anything at all.

And then I remembered that cat.

So I say, embrace the word. Use it, send it far and wide, and wield its power as a tool for connection and transformation. Especially in this rapidly-connected world, where our collective reality ripple-shifts across the planet at an instant’s notice, you never know whose life might be transformed by the gift of your words.

And in the case you ever have the slightest doubt whether your words have struck gold, step outside your door and do a real, tangible, kind act for someone or something else, something beyond yourself, something needed in that very moment and within your power to do. Do something that changes someone’s life, with a big, fat ripple that no one—especially you—can deny.

I expect you will never have to doubt again.

*

Back at the sunlit table, only moments had passed. I squeezed the old man’s hand in recognition, then turned to reach behind me.

From the threadbare arm of the lounge chair along the wall, I picked up a book I had laid there just that morning, before our meeting. It was my personal copy of another book this very professor had authored, a book written early in his career.

Dog-eared and underlined, creased and stained, the book was an unsightly mess, marked up along its side with colorful tabs and bookmarks I’d inserted among the pages to remind myself of what mattered.

I plopped the book on the table, sunlight illuminating the pockmarks in the wrinkled cover, and nodded my head to its bulky form like welcoming an old friend.

I had found the book years before, on a shelf in a used bookstore. Since then it had directed my attention, led me to new discoveries and relationships, and impacted my thoughts and actions for years. It had, in fact, through meandering twists and adventures, eventually led me to this very moment, seated at the well-worn table of the very professor whose words made it all happen.

“Well, I can’t speak for anyone else,” I said. “But I can say that all those words of yours certainly made a difference to me.”

I rotated the book to face him, turned open the front cover, and displayed handwritten words I had scrawled on the title page with looping letters in blue ball point ink, so many years ago:

“This book changed my life!”

The old man and I locked eyes and smiled. Then in unison, we spoke sound into form upon swirls of sunbeams, in a shared expression of the healing power of the word.

“Thank you.”

*



There’s a monthly digest of this stuff…

Thank you so much for visiting! If you liked this offering, you can sign up below to receive the monthly Wake Up, Human digest, which includes writings, podcast episodes, and other offerings, sent on or near the time of the full moon. Have something to share or suggest? Head over to my contact page and drop me a line.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list. Please check your email for a welcome message. See you on the inside…