…we are not defeated when we are worn down, just exposed anew at a deeper level. We are meant to live between the two. ~ Mark Nepo
I have been born again and again
and each time, I have found something to love.
~ Gordon Parks
When I was a teenager, I longed for two things: truth and wisdom. It might sound a little nerdy, but that is indeed who I was. Sure, I wanted some of the other things that teenagers wanted too, like a new pair of shoes, a cool outfit, the latest record album by a group I loved, or to hang out with my friends.
"These bodies are perishable, but the Dweller in these bodies is eternal." -- Bhagavad-Gita
In this marathon race, each time I believe I’ve found my stride, evened out my breath, I find myself needing to shore up the heaviness of my heart about to burst from my heaving chest. Needing to lift my burdened spirit from the depths as I stumble forward, staggered by another senseless disregard for a Black or Brown-bodied life.
"Maybe that’s why I want to touch people so often -- it’s only another way of talking." ~ Georgia O’Keefe
I miss touch. I miss grabbing onto someone’s arm for support when I am bent over in laughter. I miss the casual brush of a hand across my skin. I miss shaking hands. I miss linking my arm with a friend’s as we walk along a path. I miss the soft touch of our cheek to cheek as we kiss the air. I miss intentionally bumping and nudging someone’s side. I miss the kind act of tension being kneaded out of my shoulders by a friend. I miss leaning into someone’s body. I miss collapsing into someone’s arms. I miss holding hands.
And boy do I miss real hugs!
I have heard expressions of longing for this last form of touch more than any other. Did we ever consciously know that we hug so much and how needful we are of those hugs? How needful we are of physical touch?
“Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” -- Cornell West
One of the joys in being back at work has been listening to check-ins at the various meetings I’m having. To hear about, as if in the village square -- or actually the Zoom square! -- the goings-on in the lives of the people in our beloved community. Over the past year, life has thrown us collective curve balls -- even if personal lives for some of us might be going relatively well.
"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness...because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace."
~ Frederick Buechner
Hello Dear Ones, how are you doing?
Whatever your problems and challenges, you are, you exist in this bright world with others, with trees, sky, water, stars, sun, and moon. If you sit there long enough and regularly enough you will feel this, even in your darkest moments. ~ Zoketsu Norman Fischer
What have been your sources of inspiration these past couple of weeks? What have you read, seen, or heard that has opened up your heart in expansive ways, filled you with hope?
Yes, I know. That all seems counterintuitive right now.
If you’ve been like me, in these anxiety-provoking, sheltered in place times, it’s easy to find ourselves on the edges of something other than inspiration. Up and down, teeter-tottering between joy and sorrow, courage and fear, energy and fatigue, hope and despair, confusion and certainty, discouragement and elation, and so on.
It’s important to acknowledge the authenticity of our feelings. They often serve as somewhat humbling reminders of our connection to other humans who feel these things too. They’re important information for how we’ve got our world constructed.
Perhaps uncertainty has come up for you a lot over the past several weeks. Each day, nay, every hour seems to bring the unexpected in unimaginable ways as it's never come before.
If an overwhelming sense of anxiousness and uncertainty has been squeezing at your heart these days -- know that it’s got a hold on many of the rest of us too.
How will our current global predicament end? No matter how many forecasts are brought forward of when things will peak or when the curve will flatten, we still do not know how anything will be tomorrow. Truth is, that’s how it’s always been. It’s just in our faces now in ways we cannot avoid.
How do we just live with uncertainty nonetheless?
We can be the best we can be. We can love those we’ve been given to love, make room in our hearts to love others too. We can do our best to give more than we take. We can help and we can hope. We can pray. We can send our best energies out to the universe.
In her famous novel Parable of the Sower (1993), science fiction writer Octavia Butler introduces readers to a new religion called Earthseed, founded as the Earthseed community struggles to survive the socioeconomic and political collapse of twenty-first century America due to poor environmental stewardship, corporate greed, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor.
(Yikes -- does that sound strikingly close to a dystopian now?)
The Earthseed religion holds the belief that God is change:
“The one irresistible force in the universe is Change. Everything in the universe Changes.
Whether youʼre a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true.”
I am sitting at my desk in my home office, the sun filtering through the open slats of my blinds, forming a play of light and shadow on my desk, on me. I am aware of birdsong outside my window, and imagine I sense the beat of their wings. A wise friend asked just yesterday, “How is life best lived one day at a time?"
Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, writes that she “heard that in Tibet in the past, the only way women could attain enlightenment was by practicing in the gaps of their busy and full lives…..Any moment of ‘betweenness’-- waiting for someone, walking from one place to another, milking a cow--became a valuable chance. Instead of thinking about what just happened or planning what would happen next, they enjoyed the space to pause the conceptual mind and touch in with nowness.”
When I first learned I had cancer my mind raced, as my mother would say, “Every which away.” My thoughts moved into the immediate future and what I needed to do next, then farther outward into the beyond of an unknowable chasm that was frightening to contemplate. One evening I found myself moving backward into my past, and wondering what had been the meaning of my life until this moment. What had it stood for -- is standing for?
These questions of past and future brought forward anxiety, vulnerability, a sense that the ground was giving way beneath my feet. As I attempted to grab hold of something to thwart an emotional freefall, I began to realize that I was most comforted being in the embrace of now, focused only upon this moment rather than the monkey-mindedness of racing backward and forward in time.
I use meditative inquiry to ask, “What is this here for?” I do not ask, “Why?” -- for me a more anxiety-provoking and useless question. But to inquire, “What?” has led to deeper explorations about possibility and purpose: “If this is here right now then how might I be with it, whether a full recovery is in the offing or not?” And, “While I shall willingingly follow most directives of my medical team -- who seem to have a version of my future well in hand -- then what might I do about now, in this moment?"
I began last January 2019 with an extraordinary adventure: a trip to India for the Kumbh Mehla. The largest spiritual gathering on the planet, the one I attended attracted over 179 million pilgrims over six weeks to a temporary tent city in Allahabad, where everyone was immersed in ever constant ritual and chanting, such that even the simplest aspects of life seemed extraordinary.
I chose to undergo a very personal ritual head shaving by an Indian barber who was brought into our guru’s camp. He shaved my and the heads of others who chose the ritual by using nothing more than water and a single straight blade. Pretty intense. After it was over I felt quite odd and vulnerable with my egg-shaped dome of a head. But later in the day, after being blessed in a ceremonial ritual by Her Holiness Sai Maa Lakshmi Devi -- the first woman of her lineage to be declared Jagadguru in 2500 years -- I felt radiant and filled with light and beauty far beyond explanation.
By December 2019 I found myself yet again a pilgrim on the unexpected journey of cancer. As with many pilgrimages this is not an easy one and I am learning much about myself and the world around me in -- to paraphrase a passage in Lamentations of the Hebrew bible -- new ways every morning; great is my faithfulness.
I am bald again. I suppose one could say that this too has been a personal choice, decided upon accepting chemo-theraphy as a very taxing partner to my healing.
After being told my hair was going to fall out, I’d read that it was often less of an emotional shock to proactively shave one’s head rather than having hair fall out in clumps (or thinning in patches as was the case for me). I also suspected that intentionally shaving my head in these circumstances was a way of claiming a small modicum of control with a proactive response to a situation that felt so greatly beyond my control.
Many have asked for a recording of the spoken word piece I delivered at Jazz for the Holidays on December 18. The service was unrecorded but the text is available below in this longer than usual blog post:
Life is veiled and hidden, even as your greater self is hidden and veiled. Yet when life speaks, all the winds become words; and when she speaks again, the smiles upon your lips and the tears in your eyes turn also into words.
When she sings, the deaf hear and are held; and when she comes walking the sightless behold her and are amazed and follow her in wonder and astonishment.
Thus wrote Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran.
What I know for sure is that when
deigns to be embodied
in the becoming
of each one of us,
it is only then that she is truly something to behold.
The awesome beauty and magnificent terror,
the fierce strength and tender fragility of
embodied as human being human
in all its glorious and terrible forms:
each one of us
into being out of the DNA of stars
now cells and sinews and bone and blood and flesh.
now speaking in the high pitched wail
of we newly arrived and baby born
into human consciousness and
wants to offer us
My mother is the family griot. She holds the memories of our family from way back, and enjoys sharing them, sometimes for the sake of the stories themselves, at other times for the irony and teachings they hold.
In certain West African cultures the griot is a highly respected hereditary position; the person who holds the community’s historical narratives, oral traditions, and genealogies. No one ever conferred the title upon my mother, except me. After I learned of this position within African communities, I immediately recognized her role within ours.
But I was puzzled by Mom’s deep fascination to know the stories of our family. When we gathered at my grandparents’ South Carolina home, Mom would eagerly ask her father to tell the stories of times past, of the old ones, of siblings who died less than a year of being born, of grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. She was also intentional about visiting with other elder relatives to find out how they were doing and, it seemed from her inquisitiveness, to collect some new memory.
Memories which sometimes frightened me. They were of a world, a time, people and suffering I could not relate to in all my modern, educated, New York City-fied ways. I was glad I didn’t live during the old times they remembered, and wondered at the relevance to now. Wouldn’t it be easier to just move on, glad for today?
Over time I began to recognize what these memories had to tell me about myself. How they form the resilient woven cloth of who I am. How much there is to be learned in the wisdom they hold. How finely they are woven into the fabric of our nation.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.
Do justly now.
Love mercy now.
Walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the work,
But neither are you free
To abandon it.
On a Saturday morning not long ago, a yoga instructor shared these words, attributed to the Talmud, to center the minds and hearts of those of us in her class.
It had been a hot summer week that was particularly fraught in our democracy. We released a collective sigh at these words of comfort. I also sensed a twinge of uneasiness at the reminder that we were not to become too comfortable. No, we were not free to do that.
Every wisdom tradition offers reminders like these -- about our responsibilities to each other; exhortations not to abandon one another. History across the ages and global cultures has provided us with ample examples of the terrible things that happen when humans have chosen not to heed these appeals or have twisted their meaning. And so it is true for us in this moment.
In their exploration of the life and death realities of our current global crises, Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe, Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker say, “The necessity in our time demands that we listen to all [spiritual traditions] for whatever guidance they can offer us in what is the defining evolutionary crisis of our entire human journey.”
In June I took my first real vacation in quite some time. A confessed workaholic (a term I discovered in the book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang originated from a study of ministers!), I was finally tired enough to unplug from work.
I leaned very deliberately into my time of rest and embraced days filled with joy, love, contemplation, and simple fun. I made art, read books, played board games, listened to music, slept in, played in the ocean, lazed in the sun, danced, put my feet up, and perhaps most enjoyable of all, surprised my mother with a visit on her birthday.
Then on the last Thursday in June I sat in an airport transfixed by a television monitor covering news of what had been going on while I was away. My heart hurt. I thought about people I knew who would be upset, discouraged, and overwhelmed by these latest national and world events.
Activist and healer Jardana Peacock says, “Overwhelm and burnout continue to be pillars in our activism and inside our organizations—however, more and more people, organizations and movements are committing resources to healing, to spirituality, to resilience.” Yes.
Science backs up the notion that deliberate rest aids healing and makes space for building personal resilience and the fortification of the spirit.
I moved to North Carolina from Brooklyn 15 years ago, with much apprehension, two boys, and a dog in tow. A friend who relocated here several years before said, “Give it three years to decide whether it’s working.” What?! I thought. Three whole years?
She proved correct. We settled into a Raleigh home, convinced by conservative southern relatives that Durham was not the place for us. But it wasn’t too long before I wondered whether suburban southern life would work for the particularities of my family and our northern liberal big city ways. Even as one of my greatest surprises was that, except for my relatives, rarely did I meet a native North Carolinian.
By the third year I decided to move to Durham. The diversity and imperfections of the city reminded us of home. We formed friendships and it seemed things might work after all so we remained, and eventually found ourselves at ERUUF, immersed in Unitarian Universalism in ways I’d never imagined.
Each Sunday as I meet newcomers who find themselves at ERUUF, by choice or happenstance, I remember my own mix of eagerness and apprehension when I arrived the first time, long before I ever worked here. I stood alone at the edges of what felt like a sea of people in the Fellowship Hall after Sunday service, wanting to feel welcome and trying to figure out how to navigate the place. I departed and it was three years before I returned.
Feeling welcomed, connected and engaged in a new community can be challenging for both the one who wants the welcome and those expected to do the welcoming. The responsibility lies on both sides though. Newcomers, however tentative, must explore, seek out the information or connections they want.
I’ve been reading National Book Award winner Nikky Finney’s beautiful collection of poems called Rice. I close the pages after each haunting verse. This is the world of black folks who lived in Horry County, South Carolina, first enslaved and then free but oppressed and profoundly impacted by their labor in the rice fields of South Carolina’s coast.
Each poem seems peopled by lives that feel surprisingly familiar to me; then I realize that my mother was born in a tiny unincorporated village in Horry County called Green Sea.
And it’s also where Myrtle Beach is. I remember when visiting as a child my mother telling us we were not permitted on the beach because we were colored, though I believe by that time black people were legally allowed there -- but my mother and her family were not yet able to risk believing it.
Each of Finney’s poems bring forward the recognition of cracks filled with a hurting in my heart many generations deep. I close my eyes, become still, and breathe into them. Pause. I express love and gratitude for these ancestors. I read another poem the next day.
Even before Finney’s work, I’ve sensed the presence of ancestors with me always as I move through each day, the vibration of their energies powerful and strong. When I’m down in Paxville, SC -- a 1 mile square village of 500 people where my father was born, I walk the church graveyard on family land where the last person born enslaved holds the center and everyone else is gathered round. I walk the graveyard because I feel I must, out of respect for ancestors who I most physically resemble, whose struggles I cannot begin to imagine and whose deep joy I sometimes sense. Pause. Breathe.