Baldwin's brilliant, trenchant piece is as relevant today, sadly, as it was in 1962. Take the time. Read, understand, act. #thefirenexttime
"We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell."
Tara Westover, Educated
I just finished the last 150 pages of Westover's memoir, pinned to my chair, across from my husband at an outdoor cafe, the first cafe we have been able to visit since March 16. By no coincidence, the cafe has special meaning for us. We ride our town bikes there as often as possible, usually to hear live music, read and write. While music is still not allowed, our cups were filled this morning.
Westover's portrayal of her survivalist family, by turns flinching and unflinching, is a captivating journey of resilience, forgiveness and acceptance. (Not mutually exclusive, all comprehensively complicated.) Of the traumatized Self, before and after.
As much as I loved and devoured this book (my half-sister, whom I found when I was 29, is Mormon and had four children in five years), I can't wait for the movie.
I know I'm late to the party on this one, but if you haven't picked it up, do yourself the favor.
Six of us, women between the ages of 45 and 55, circled up yesterday on a sand dune above Dillon Beach to celebrate my friend's 46th birthday. (Practicing safe distancing of course.) The partners and children were down below, closer to the water. We knew our time was limited but we seized and cherished the hour.
The birthday interview commenced. First, rapid fire questions-lite. Favorite movie, favorite meal, your superpower, three people at the dinner party, etc.
"What are the three things you love most about yourself? ... What are you appreciating more, during shelter in place, that you would not have appreciated without it? ... Describe your perfect work day one year from now."
On the topic of silver linings during SIP, we all decided the PACE is actually helping. We are, in fact, more connected to loved ones, family. Reading, resting, cooking, feeling.
I shared that these shelter-in-place days have been reminiscent of my earliest memories. My great grandparents lived in a tiny town in Southern Illinois. The pristine ballpark, just a short walk through a meadow from their backyard, was the focal point of most evenings, weather permitting.
The rhythm during those visits was comforting. We arrived, we peeled potatoes (for au gratin), sat in the yard on those chairs that swayed, watched grandma garden, cooked (apple pie, later to be served a la mode WITH a slice of melted cheddar on top), feasted, visited in the breezeway. My grandfather worked at the Schlitz distillery, so there was always beer for the grown ups. My perch was the chaise lounge at the west end of the breezeway next to a sliding screen door. On the other side of the screen door was the setting sun and my grandmother's mystical rose garden, shrouded in silhouette and intoxicating ambrosias.
By day, she turned her roses into oils, mists, lotions. She dyed some of them blue. She floated the petals in water features in her garden. Helping her with these tasks was salve for my restless soul. Her fresh cut stems were ever-present on the dinner table, above her pork chops, potatoes au gratin and iceberg lettuce salads.
A century later, we have roses. And the blessed time to remember hers -- and why they were so grounding. This sacred pause -- this portal to the magic that was my slow-paced childhood -- when "come sit" was an invitation rather than an obligation. When visiting with one another, giving them your undivided attention, was a gift. Like a new bloom. When each day, opportunities were explored within and between us -- not outside of us.
If only for an hour, six women on a sand dune, feeling seen, loved, heard and connected.
*I"m aware that to write about anything other than the catastrophic loss, pain and hellscape of the coronavirus feels indulgent. privileged. But writing is one of my adaptive coping strategies. I help victims (mostly domestic violence and sexual assault) 40 hours a week. They are struggling, to say the least, during SIP. Oh, and my ex got laid off last week and is now suddenly forbidding me from stopping by to see my youngest daughter, who is almost 17.** #punishing, #pattern, #blamesomeone. Even now, almost ten years after we split, when he has a setback, he lashes out, controls what he can, which is not much -- not anymore.
** She doesn't yet have her license, thanks to the closed DMV and her older sisters aren't always up for the 25m drive between our houses ... so I often go to them, or go pick them up, after work and on the weekends. Having fewer places to "come sit," to connect, other than their dad's porch or backyard, has been a challenge, to say the least. We have room here, and they come up, sometimes sleep over. But when dad has a setback, they still feel they have to take care of him, not make alternative plans ... which is of course, not their job, as he is the adult, the parent. Yet there's an unspoken contract, an allegiance, as often happens in divorces when one parent self-identifies as the victim and alienates the children from the other parent, emotionally parentifying them in the process. Mistakes were made ... are made, and yet we are all doing our best. Forgiveness is less verb than perpetual season. For them. For me. For us.
Reiki is relatively new to me. It's defined as a healing technique based on the principle that the therapist can channel energy into the patient by means of touch, to activate the natural healing processes of the patient's body and restore physical and emotional well-being.
As advocates for victims, we have a Reiki body worker/healer because self-care is critical. Jane (we will call her) is available to staff as well as clients through an OVC (Office of Victims of Crime) grant. I did a couple sessions earlier this year. It helped, in the main, or so I thought, because I had to lie still for 45m, which is NOT my wont. I've never met a mountain I didn't want to move. But I'm working on becoming more centered, more still, more Buddhist ... more like Tara Brach. Non-Attachment, especially at work, is a big part of my practice.
In week six of shelter in place, I caved and signed up for a Distance Reiki session with Jane. At the appointed time, she called and gave me an option. We could hang up and I could sit quietly while she read my energy for half an hour, give or take, and she would call back to debrief, or we could stay on the phone while she read said energy and shared her thoughts, in real time, free-form. I went with staying on the phone. More connection, please. Especially now.
We started with tapping ... then went on to the energetic stillness part.
Earlier that day, I explained it to my husband, "She will hover her hands above me through the phone, channel my energy and tell me how I'm feeling and why."
Eyebrows raised above his smirk, his deadpan riposte was "Is it too late to sign me up?"
Ten minutes into the silence, Jane said "I'm being pulled in two directions -- between your heart chakra and your throat chakra."
"Tell me more," I said, hungry for excavation, revelation.
"I just keep seeing an infinity sign between these two chakras. Your heart has a story to tell, but you haven't. It's looping."
More silence. Bated breath.
"I want you to get a gold infinity necklace to hang between the two chakras to remind you that you are allowed to tell your heart's story, to share your voice."
The next day, I ordered the infinity necklace. #etsy
Permission to share granted.
In my day job, I help victims/survivors of domestic violence and other heinous crimes. It is, by far, the most fulfilling job I've ever had. Victimhood is complicated and nuanced. One of the corollaries of my experience is that I brook no revisionist, perpetual (invariably privileged, first-world) "victims." I've learned that real victims and self-appointed victims are distinct. The former emerge from reality, the latter advance their agenda, which is to say they assign blame.
The former -- the clients I help through my job -- had bad things happen to them because the circumstances of their lives were unavoidable. Abject poverty, for example. Abusive parents. Severe mental illness or addiction. An intimate partner who was once happy and charming but who now lives at the intersection of despair and rage. Incredibly and against all odds, many of these victims become survivors. They find the agency and the pathways to move forward, clear-eyed, open-hearted, hope-filled. Some even break the cycle of intergenerational victimhood. They don't let it define them.
The latter had bad things happen in their lives, at least in part, because of the choices they made. Despite the stories they (and their enablers) tell themselves, they cannot heal (much less move on) until they own their role in their It's-Wasn't-Me-It-Was-You story.* Until they see their embodied memories for what they are -- self-serving stories told over and over again until they actually believe their Story is Truth -- they will remain stuck somewhere between co-dependence, self-pity and delusion, pointing their fingers outward. Armored up by way of focus-group-tested narrative and critical (or more accurately, non-critical) consensus: "These things just happened to me! I had nothing to do with it," they won't enter healthy relationships, won't break free from their patterns, and won't get past their self-inflicted suffering. They will bring the people around them down with the ship ... until those people can break free, move away, grow up and out of their story.
The victims I serve are often caught up in the domestic violence cycle. That is to say they fall within the former camp. They are real victims. They love the partner who hurts them. They depend on him (using gendered pronouns for simplicity) financially, emotionally because he has made sure of it via power and control. He is often the father of their children. He has isolated her, gaslighted her, diminished her. DV statistics tell us she will try to leave but will return an average of seven times before breaking the ingrained cycle.
One victim for whom I am an advocate has returned to our organization three times with a battered face and body. Most recently, she called me while she was hiding in the bathroom. Her abuser was asleep in their bedroom. She wanted to be on the phone with me when law enforcement arrived because in the past he silenced her and refused to answer the door. The amount of cortisol causing my body to shake uncontrollably undoubtedly paled in comparison to hers, despite the numbing agents (aka adaptive coping strategies) she employed. When I heard law enforcement pounding on the door, I told her to answer or call out for help.
"I can't," she whispered.
"Did he wake up?"
"Yes," she said, crying quietly.
"You can," I said, "scream help."
Then the call dropped.
Two hours later, after my fortuitously-timed weekly therapy session (there was tapping) and after a therapist friend did a grounding exercise with me by phone (there was more tapping), I had stopped shaking enough to call the victim again (always from our blocked number), praying she would answer.
She did. From the ER. She was safe.
That was two weeks ago. She is back with her abuser now. In the interim, I got her into an all-women safe shelter. She didn't like it. Everyone is in lockdown mode due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders and, deprived of her adaptive coping strategies (as in, alcohol and other drugs of choice), she wanted to go anywhere else.
But, I wanted to her remind her, wherever you go, there you are.
Next time I see her -- and there will be a next time -- I will share the below Hopi Prophecy with her.
I've been reading it daily since a friend, who is a true survivor in every sense of the word, shared it during my women's group in another friend's backyard (we practiced physical distancing AND it was hard because we love each other and hug early and often).
You have been telling people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour.
And there are things to be considered…
Where are you living?
What are you doing?
What are your relationships?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.
It is time to speak your truth.**
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for your leader.
Then he clasped his hands together, smiled, and said, “This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.
And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word ’struggle’ from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
--Hopi Elders' Prophecy, June 8, 2000
* Victims of crimes when they were children are excluded -- they played no role in the horrors that transpired in their lives.
** Your truth being your story, which is always worthy of sharing, but is not to be confused with objective truth or reality ... or what really happened and why.
*** In addition to the books I've already shared with her, including Moore (Birds of America), Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking), Doyle (Love Warrior and Untamed), Lamott, (Traveling Mercies), Gilbert (City of Girls), Ngozi Adiche (Americanah), Cline (Girls) and Diamont (Red Tent), the latter being one of her favorites. She is a voracious reader and loves fantasy novels as well, so I also gave her a trove of those, the authors of which I couldn't tell you.
In the dream, my father (who passed away in 2016) is calling to tell me to hurry to the airport to catch my flight. There's an urgency beyond his usual urgency. My parents, who tried for twelve years to have a bio-child, adopted me at birth in December of 1965. They brought me home at midnight, Christmas morning, after my then 17-year-old birth mother (so the story goes) vacillated until the 11th hour. They proceeded to protect, provide for and unconditionally love me for the remainder of their days, our days, together. To recount their sacrifices would be to relegate them to two-dimensional words on a page. Their lives were governed and defined by selflessness.
Also, my father was never late for a meeting, much less a flight -- ever. So when I didn't tell him I was AT the airport, he called repeatedly to monitor my progress. Only this was one of those dreams. I couldn't get to the phone. My body moved as if in Dippity Do. (My parents embodied all things 70s.) I remember training my gaze on my forearm and willing it to pick up the phone. When I finally did, his was a stentorian command -- "YOU NEED TO GET TO THE AIRPORT NOW BECAUSE YOU ARE ON THE LAST FLIGHT FROM EARTH!"
I promptly woke up. I remember my dreams most nights. When I deconstructed this one with my husband -- who, when it comes to Jungian dream interpretation toggles between sincerity and hilarity -- we decided that my subconscious definitely needed to hear from my father in week six of this brave new world order. And yes, he was sending a message. He was letting me know that I'm moving closer to him every day ... and the world we know is ending. Just as it did on 9/11.
As we are invited, globally, to take the Hero's Journey a la Joseph Campbell, the obstacles are undeniably mounting. We are deep into Act II ... and yet we (mango clowns notwithstanding) persist.
We keep doing what my dad would have done.
We keep calling.
And taking care of each other.
And ... 24 hours after my March 14 post, everything escalated. My daughter's state university confirmed that we could get prorated reimbursement for tuition and housing. She confirmed that she can and will finish all her classes online for full credit. The scales tipped.
After a couple very tense three-way calls with her dad and me, I booked her flight home. Needed her here. She landed Saturday. Now I can sleep again. Was logging a solid three hours a night last week, dreaming of her getting stranded at the airport.
While there is no certainty she will necessarily be more safe here than in the UK, she is with us ... and I'm exceedingly grateful.
Also this ... I gravitate back to the brilliant DFW when I really need escape and laughter. If only he had lived long enough to cover our current circumstance—POTUS in the Time of COVID-19.
Jack Kornfield comes through on the above Tim Ferriss Show podcast with essential reminders to stay grounded, steady and flexible in this era of uncertainty. Leave it to Jack to deliver a perspective rescue.
We just had to cancel our upcoming trip to the UK to see my oldest daughter, who is studying abroad in London. We are crushed. We had planned to take my youngest daughter and to meet my brother-in-law, whose daughter attends Trinity, in Dublin. It all lined up perfectly.
A few days ago, my daughter's US college gave her the option to stay in London, however, and she seized it (after signing a waiver). She persuaded her father and me with the convincing argument that she is subject to the same risk there as she would be here and she would rather not take an international flight just now. Can't fault her for that. Oh, and there's the small matter of not getting credit for her work this semester if she returns now. Not really a financial option for us. Nor is an extra semester of college. It's a colossal cluster. The understanding is that her UK university, which is still holding classes, will soon shift to online and that she can stay in her dorm—private room and bath, but six suite mates—until May, barring a worst-case scenario. Instagram photo-ops notwithstanding, she was and is resolute in her ability to take proper precautions including foregoing, with her professor's blessing, the plays she is supposed to be attending each week for her London Theater class.
I'm proud of her courage. She's not risk-averse and she's not irresponsible. Now the real work, as a mother, begins. Namely, I have to trust that she will make good choices, as she lets her doughty, individuating spirit shine, per Jack Kornfield's directive.
Meanwhile, as I typed this, I checked my newsfeed, as is my wont these days. Pence (not my VP) just announced a travel ban to the UK and Ireland. It's officially out of our hands.
To Jack's other point, I will endeavor to make the most of the temporary downshift. For starters, I will have plenty of time on hold while canceling flights, accommodations and events (including Taming of the Shrew by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, alas) to read the books and magazines on my nightstand. While I still have to go to the office M-F to work with a very vulnerable population, the clearing of the social calendar and often-optional errands will allow more time to run our dog in my favorite open space (above), learn to make yummy, vegan Indian food, go to Dillon Beach, re-watch Out of Africa, and, most important, connect with loved ones, six feet away and otherwise.
"Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make peace with that and all will be well." Jack Kornfield
A coworker friend of mine read 37 books last year. Her goal this year is 50. She is 29 years old. And my heroine. Her generation will certainly clean up our comprehensive mess. She recommended The Great Believers because she knows I'm from Chicago and need to escape my exceedingly stressful day job by way of can't-put-it-down storytelling. This book DELIVERED, for countless reasons. Can't recommend it highly enough.
Here, I am a writer and change agent. Opinions: not vetted. Stories: my own.