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On choosing life as a radical act of defiance

“If you have come to help, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lila Watson

The moment my feet hit the trail, I offer up the same prayer, “Let me feel a part of the web of life. Let me feel and know this connection.” Every day, I am greeted with some surprise: a fawn, a baby coyote, a snake, an intricate bird’s nest. Every day I am offered a chance to forge that connection I seek. It’s not just a matter of noticing the gopher snake slithering off the path. It’s also acknowledging that we shared that same space for a moment, that my footsteps (or the dog’s) prompted a reaction in it, that we each depend on this beautiful planet for survival and that because of my relative power of destruction, the snake depends on me to choose wisely.

These visits into nature center and ground me as I head back to my desk to face the consequences of our destructive society. Yesterday, I was greeted both by a case of a young man who went the way of too many and entered a gang, shot up a party, and now will never see the light out day outside the prison yard, and the shooting in Portland. Both situations involve a senseless waste of life. Both invoke a feeling of utter powerlessness in me to do anything to resolve the situation. Neither received as much public outcry, grief, or rage as I had expected. We are a tired nation, tired of seeing our youth either shot down or wielding a gun, tired of feeling that our voices never even penetrate the doors to the political buildings in Washington, D.C. We are tired of our fear, and tired of our grief and moral outrage. We’ve lain down and we just take it.

As all of this horrible brew started to bubble up in my belly and spill over into tears and fist-pounding, I told myself that to feel better, I must choose life. I must do something life-affirming. I must take #notonemore and make it mean something in my life. But how, right? Isn’t that the question we are all asking ourselves? How do we stop this?

Well, I don’t have an answer for that. Not yet, anyway. But at the moment I asked, I saw a post asking if anyone could transport a baby hummingbird from where I live to a neighboring town for rescue rehabilitation. I hesitated. I had a lot of work to do. And then I decided to accept the offering from the divine to make a difference and I texted the rehab woman and coordinated.

I then got to share some time and space with this little guy for 30 minutes:

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He peeped at me regularly. I peeped back. It seemed a simple thing to do. It seemed to reassure him. Or me. Or maybe the two of us. Maybe we both needed to know the other was there, just for the duration of the ride. He’s gone on to his new home and I’m told he’s doing very well, which warms me.

On the ride back, I was listening to THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER and heard the following line, “There’s more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind.” In the wake of hearing that, I knew it. I was connected to the web of life. I wasn’t a simple observer, noting the deer on the path and then undergoing the intellectual gymnastics about what it all means. I was simply there, using my power in a way that helped save a baby bird (plus, I got to say, “I’m the transporter,” with an air of authority and I kind of liked it).

Sure, it’s just a baby hummingbird. It’s not a kid. It’s not a gun out of a kid’s hand. But, I wonder how many opportunities we miss to choose life, to choose to belong to this intricate, beautiful web of which we are undoubtedly a huge part, because we are so trapped in our heads. Solutions need to look a particular way and if they don’t, well, what’s the point of even trying, right?

One of the great scientists was supposedly asked by his dad at the end of every day, “Did you ask yourself any great questions today?” It didn’t matter if he’d failed, just if he’d asked good questions. Maybe this is our problem. Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe we’re making them bigger than they need to be for right now. Every building has a foundation. Where do we start? What is the first step we take to get where we need to go? How do we forge connections in such a disconnected world? What opportunities are we overlooking because they just aren’t big enough? And what blessings we might reap if we seized those opportunities?

It may not seem like much, but each morning, I am going to ask myself, “What can I do to choose life today?” Today’s opportunity has yet to present itself, but I’m on the hunt. Maybe I’ll rescue a spider or maybe I’ll help my neighbors buy their groceries since I know they need the assistance. Whatever it is, it’s a tendril, a little shoot of stretching my hand out to connect with the web around me, to engage with all of this life brimming up as a way to hold back this tide of violence and anguish.

I would love to hear your ideas, too. How will you choose life? Or what great questions have you asked yourself about how to make build a foundation and make a step forward?

 

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Don’t kiss the snakes

Just now I was inappropriately joking with a friend about drunk frat boys kissing rattlesnakes and how my hope as a parent is to raise two children who don’t kiss any rattlesnakes. Then it occurred to me, this is in fact my greatest wish as a parent. I’m not talking literal rattlesnakes, of course (though that should go without saying). I’m talking the metaphorical ones.

I’ve spent a lifetime kissing rattlesnakes. I’ve been trained that that’s just what a proper girl does. She opens wide and lets herself get poisoned time after time. Her job – my job – is to just keep doing it. It doesn’t matter if it hurts, if it kills you. “You’ll build up a resistance, dear,” they say. “You’ll get to like the taste of venom on your tongue,” they promise. “You might even turn into snake, if you’re lucky,” they coo. But I never did. I never did like the sensation of being bit, I never did get used to being stung, even when I could see it coming a mile away. And, despite my efforts to conform, my desperate attempts to please, I never did shapeshift. Well, not into a snake anyway.

It’s funny, in a way, because the past few months have been all about the snake for me. I live in the southwest, in a dry, coastal scrubland. We have more than our fair share of the reptiles here. I saw one when we first moved down and then nothing for a couple of years. I suppose I should count myself blessed. Then, three months ago, they started showing up: a huge, dead rattler in the jaws of my dog; a tiny gopher snake on the trail; another dead rattler in a neighbor’s driveway; snakes in dreams, on cards, on signs. I know enough of them to know they signify death and rebirth, radical or spiritual transformation, and even, in some cultures, wisdom and healing (caduceus anyone?). I love this symbology of the snake and that’s what’s come to mind each time one has appeared lately. And yet, there’s that other image of them too.

The deadly snakes I’ve kissed have been the ones that told me not only to be something I’m not, but that I never was what I truly knew myself to be. The ones who whispered that that’s not what good girls do. The ones who made me think only of financial security and not of passions or joy. They are the ones who told me I needed to be more masculine to be successful in my profession, less whatever it is that I am. They are the ones who seek to gag me, to numb me, to transform me into some smaller, more manageable version of themselves.

I’ve read more parenting blogs, articles, and books than I care to note. Many of them advise NOT to tell your children to follow their hearts, their bliss, their passions, whatever you want to call it, because, hey, they’ll be living in your basement for the rest of their lives not earning a damn dime. They had brilliant, wonderful suggestions and advice up to that point. But then their forked tongues came out and they bit, hard. Only, I’m immune to the venom now.

You can believe that is exactly what I will tell my children to do. Concerns about “financial security” have landed us in a soulless, heartless world that completely ignores the fact our planet is on fire and gasping for breath. It ignores the fact we are putting ourselves squarely in the crosshairs of extinction for the sole purpose of a dollar. Or a dollar menu. I want more people living this life with heart, according to their heart. I want people who are going to use all of that heat in them to turn this shit around. I want people who aren’t out to numb and control everyone around them under the guise of it being what the good folks do. I am so tired of the good life. I want my kids to have the great, impassioned, fired-up life. And so I’m going to advise them to skip the snake-kissing. It will be a whole lot less painful in the long run.

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A dose of courage for the cowardly lion

MerryNell has her fingers deep into my soft, yet rigid, abdomen, coaxing my constricted psoas to release. My face contorts and I wince. I would really like for this to end. I can handle pain, a lot of pain actually, especially if I know it will lead to greater relief in the long run. Physical pain, anyway. The emotional kind makes me run face-first into a pantry. I wouldn’t call this experience painful. It’s more a deep, deep discomfort. 

“The word that keeps coming to me is ‘courage’,” she says as she pushes in a little deeper and I see stars. I can’t help but laugh and the action of that pops her fingers up and my psoas cries in relief. Crossing the threshold into true pain wasn’t funny. Courage was. 

MaryNell is not just my Hellerworker; she seems to be my spiritual therapist. Each of my struggles manifests somewhere in the soft tissue of my body. “Your body never lies to you,” she tells me, and I am grateful to know that there are ways in which I cannot deceive myself, even when I most want to. Prior to attacking my psoas, we had been discussing my next step and my profound desire to not follow my inner guidance.

My safe, stable government job ends in November. I have not found other work, despite a couple of interviews. My husband proposed that I liquidate my retirement account and write for a few months. Just take some time off. Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it? It took me months to accept the offer. We have two small children, a house, and it felt so, so selfish. Our lives would change dramatically without my income. And it wouldn’t be a permanent break. Just for a while, until the money runs out, I guess. 

The week I accepted, at least in my own heart, I saw Sue Monk Kidd on Super Soul Sunday. She said that in college, her choice to major in nursing was a failure of courage. My heart both sang and sank. I knew that choice. I was living that failure. I wanted to get a Masters of Fine Arts. I wanted to write. And to say “want” here does it a disservice. Writing for me is the same as breathing and eating. It is a necessary, vital function to sustain my life. As Sue Monk Kidd said, writing is prayer for me. 

When I was reminded of my failure of courage, I told myself I was going to accept this opportunity to make good on my past mistake. I was going to take whatever time I was given to write, to give myself over to this calling. 

Only it’s not as simple as that. There was a time, too, when as a kid I wanted to be a lawyer. My grandfather was a lawyer and I loved hearing stories about how law could help people. As much as I have always wanted to write, I have also always wanted to be of service. I was the child who collected all of the stray animals to take care of them. I later collected and cared for human strays. I held masses for the birds in Hawaii. I worked for Greenpeace after high school and volunteered for Amnesty International after college. Had I not met my husband, I was bound for the Peace Corps and wherever it would take me. (Instead, I took a chance on a boy, who turned out to be the one I was supposed to take a chance on.) It was my volunteer work with Chicago Legal Aid for Incarcerated Mothers that made me realize I could be an activist and be paid for it. So, on a whim, in the middle of a cloudy evening as we sat in front of a campfire in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I declared to my husband my intent to go to law school.

In law school and after, I worked with prisoners, the seriously mental ill, people with disabilities, and documented human rights abuses. I was so hell-bent on saving the world that a few of my classmates joked that within five years I’d have sold out and started working for Chevron. That didn’t happen. But five years out, the fire had certainly dimmed and I moved over to the courts, seeking a respite from the ego and drain of the work I’d been doing. Law is a sharp tool, but a highly dysfunctional field.

That deep need to help, that motivating force to serve others, the one that keeps me up at night and keeps me awake after the kids have gone off in the morning is still there. I firmly believe writers serve and help the world. But it’s a different kind of calling for me. The two haven’t intertwined, except to the extent that the pain I see in my work informs my stories, not the specifics of it, but the general universal truths that underlie it.

I am no John Grisham, so I don’t weave the two together by writing legal thrillers. Grisham does a fine job of making our profession sound much more riveting than it actually is. Perhaps some distance would do me good.

Yet, this idea keeps calling to me. It’s an idea about starting my own legal practice. It’s like a boy in high school who keeps asking you to go out. He’s cute enough to kiss with the lights on, but you don’t feel that immediate whoosh. Or maybe you do, but there are a million and one reasons not to go out with him. Yet, every day, he’s there to walk to you to school and he walks you home. He offers to carry your books. And you’re finding that all of your reasons to say no might be contrived because you’re just so afraid of going down this path because you were so dead-set on going down that other one. 

I told MeryNell about this idea, about the emails that keep coming to me about veterans (whom the practice would serve), and venture capitalists starting to invest in legal services, about all of the people who’ve lit up when I’ve shared the idea and said, “I want to help!” And about the idea’s general persistence.

Like me, she believes in signs and guidance. “Didn’t you ask for a sign? Seems to me they’re popping up everywhere. What’s the harm in following the thread of the idea for a bit?” Oh, she makes so much sense. And then she busts out with the “courage” and she becomes one of my signs.

Three years ago, I had a coaching session with Lissa Rankin. She’s just amazing. She’s a doctor, but also a spiritual teacher and she does an amazing job combining the two. I told her I wanted to leave law then, but my job was too great, so I’d wait until it ended and then get out. She asked me if I had a deep-rooted need to serve others (most doctors and lawyers do). I said yes, of course. And then she asked me if writing alone could fulfill that. I told her I didn’t know. I still don’t.

I have been asking my inner guidance for what the next best step would be. I want the sexy, write-all-day in your pajamas and don’t worry about a single damn thing other than that to be my next best step. But every morning, there’s this boy on my doorstep asking if he can spend a little time with me. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition like the Peace Corps and marriage to a graduate student does it? I can take a walk with the boy and see where it goes, right?

It’s occurred to me in all of this that part of my internal struggle is one of identification. What am I? Am I writer in a lawyer’s body? Or am I die-hard lawyer committed to using those tools to help others? This is where my dichotomy stems from. How do I explain who I am to others? And what about my writer friends who bleed ink? Will they understand the choice?

Wherever this boy and I go, it takes courage for me just to step off the porch with him, a kind of courage I didn’t think I’d need. It shows me I’m still worried about external appearances, despite all of my work to move past that. It also shows me how much I need to start integrating the areas of my life that drive me. I cannot keep living separate lives in different spheres. I am not one or the other. I am both and more.

The truth is, I see lawyers as healers. Well, not all, but that’s a post for another day. We are shepherds through a very scary and difficult arena of life. We are coaches and cheerleaders. We are advocates and servants. Not surprisingly, these are the overriding characteristics of the characters in my fiction work. 

I have a multitude of gifts and talents and to not use one feels in a way like saying, “I’m just going to go ahead and amputate that. No way I’ll need it later.” My work on this earth is to heal, to bring people together, to a more complete space. Sometimes, that will be through legal efforts, sometimes through writing. And through it all, I will need courage to accept the work I feel called to do and to reject the rest, regardless of the lack of sense it appears to make to others and myself. I suppose I could make courage my other word for 2014. 

Because I love it so much, and because I’ve already quoted Sue Monk Kidd, I wanted to share this poem of hers from SOUL WEAVINGS:

To be fully human, fully myself,

To accept all that I am, all that you envision,

This is my prayer.

Walk with me out to the rim of life,

Beyond security.

Take me to the exquisite edge of courage

And release me to become.

 

I joke about being the Cowardly Lion because I’m not the brashest Leo out there. But this poem really hit home for me when I read it and I continue to read it. The fact is, I think my cowardice is trying to stay within lines that I think others have drawn for me. I must be this or I must be that. I must choose one label because society requires you to appropriately label yourself. And then you must act in accordance with it. I have no idea what to label myself as and I think that’s the releasing to become that Sue Monk Kidd talks about. I’m just going to step on out to that place where I don’t have to explain myself to anyone and see what’s there. That is the real courage.

May you find the courage for whatever calls you today.

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Surrender

Last Sunday, my two-year-old daughter slipped into the pool without a sound. My son screamed, a siren blaring at me to stop worrying about dinner. Right before I jumped in to get her, I saw her head nearly rise above the surface and sink back below. She didn’t kick or flail her arms. She just flowed up and back down in the water. It wasn’t until I pulled her out that she let loose with every ounce of resistance she had.

* * *

At the start of the year, I got a 2014 workbook from Leonie Dawson to help make this year The. Best. Ever. Considering there was a decent amount about 2013 that I wanted to put in the Diaper Champ, I was all for the closing ceremony for that year. I started filling out the pages for the year ahead and came to the one where I had to come up with a word for 2014, one that would define and shape the way I approached it, and perhaps how it approached me. I got stuck. Each word I tried to cram into the box didn’t fit. It was too strong, too rigid, too not me. I did what I do with a lot of difficult projects, I set it aside with the intention of coming back to it, but no real action on that front.

* * *

Two days after the near drowning of my daughter, I went to have Hellerwork (or Rolfing) done. The woman who treats me is kind and generous and has basically become my therapist now. We met at the dog park the day after I assured the universe I would start asking for, and accepting, help. We talked about my dog’s hip dysplasia and she mentioned she was a bodyworker. I asked about Hellerwork and she offered me a free session. I almost refused and then I remembered. I was saying YES! to help. So, I gladly accepted and now I see her every two weeks. She’s able to tell what I’m struggling with just by seeing where my body holds tight and refuses to release. That day it was my adductors. 

“You’re trying too hard to control,” she said. “Just relax.”

Each time she went to touch me, I tried to anticipate where she would place her hands, what the purpose was, how my body was supposed to respond. I clenched and tightened when I was supposed to release and exhale. I tried to control my response in a way I hadn’t done two days earlier or been able to since. Tears came at will and all too often. I shouted at my husband (who was out of town during the event) because I had nowhere else to release my fear, my anger, my debilitating guilt and shame at not paying attention to a toddler near a pool. I had even been warned by our home inspector three years ago. He hated when families with children moved into homes with pools. His family had experienced tragedy.

* * *

Ten years ago, I decided to take salsa lessons. I love to dance and it seemed like a fun way to get a little exercise, to brighten up what was a very dark time in my life. My husband hated dancing, so I went to lessons alone. Though, he did accompany me to a salsa club in the Mission District of San Francisco a few times. 

He danced with me, but I think many of the men there felt sorry for me. It was obvious he didn’t know what he was doing. He hardly tried. But he went to keep me company and I appreciated it.

I remember one night particularly well. I had a number of offers to dance and I accepted one. Everything I had learned in class, dancing mostly with women who were in similar situations as me, went out the window. I anticipated; I turned when there was no direction to turn from my partner; I stepped the wrong way. I tried to lead. Mostly, I tried not to open up and allow someone else to take over.

* * *

As I lay on my Hellerworker’s table, I was back in that dimly lit club, not being asked to dance again because the men soon realized it was my husband they should feel sorry for. I couldn’t, or more accurately, wouldn’t be led. I would not be that vulnerable. And for the first time since I’d started getting the Hellerwork done, my body refused to let down its guard. There had been a breach in the control wall and my daughter almost died because of it, or so my ego-controlled body tried to tell me.

I started to cry. And to laugh. How ridiculous that I could not allow myself to enjoy a dance or to accept a healing because something terrible might happen if I opened up to the joy of it all. And, yet, all of that clenching and holding tight hadn’t prevented my daughter from going in and going under. All it did was rob me of my joy in those other moments.

I told my Hellerworker about the salsa dancing. And then I told her about the workbook, my attempt to control this next year and make it my best yet. I would do 100 new and beautiful and wonderful things! I would plot out my success! I would even make a vision board! (Note: most of this remains undone. Additional note, I think the workbook is AWESOME. I must have bought one for at least a dozen friends and family. It is well worth it. But, I approached it in the wrong spirit.)

And then it hit me, I have my word after all.

Surrender.

This is my task for the coming year. Probably a task for the rest of my life. Going rigid and clinging isn’t going to get me through the uber-hectic days, the upcoming job transition, or help me finish my novel. More importantly, it won’t help me keep me kids alive or keep anyone I love safe. In fact, it was clinging to a rigid idea of when my kids had to eat and what they were going to eat that got me so distracted I missed her plunge in the first place, not a relaxing of that operating system.

I simply cannot anticipate the moves. Nor am I supposed to. The lesson for me in all of this is the response, the fluidity with which I turn when guided to do so. The way I make the dance look easy and beautiful because I’m not resisting being led. The way I smile instead of grit my teeth because I’m no longer white-knuckling the ride. Control is simply an illusion our egos come up with to comfort us in the shadow of uncertainty. It may keep fear at bay for a time, but it keeps the happiness away as well.

 

 

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Who am I without you?

You send me notes from every hiding place in the world,

sketches of my dreams,

those late-night whispers I shared while

sweat beaded our sake glasses and smoke swirled above us.

“We’ll do it together,” you’d said.

Now it’s just you on the stage of Instagram,

as I sit and watch you act out

those things I swore I’d do before I died.

I no longer remember where you end

and I begin.

We were never more together

than when you left me behind.

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Be Daring…

I loved this post and the idea of being daring in one’s writing. (I swear the love has nothing at all to do with the link to my own earlier post.) Sometimes I hold back, thinking, “I can’t do that! That breaks X rule.” Or, “People won’t understand what I’m going for here.” I think I need a “Be Daring” card of my own for my writing space. 🙂

writeinseattle

This little card is from Madison Park Greetings. This little card is from Madison Park Greetings.

I didn’t think I had a problem.  I would have denied that I had writer’s block.  I was still working on my novel, mostly.  I just was avoiding writing scenes that I didn’t want to write.  One part of the novel seemed like a chore to develop.  So I did other things, like research and plotting.

Last week, I bought this card that said, “Be Daring.” I love this idea, the opposite of being rigid and fearful.  I didn’t connect it to my writing until I came across this blog post.   The Dharma Diva wrote about writer’s rejection and how she changed a piece to fit a theme.  How it started with a truth that got lost in the writing.  Her whole post is wonderful but that part about forcing the writing into a theme, rang bells in my head.  Why was I…

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Winter ghosts

It’s been so many years 

Since you were more than a ghost

Yet I return to you, grasping

At nothing but air

Though I finally appreciate you

The way I should have

When our knees threatened connection on a summer porch

You sit with me through the dark and the cold

I feel your hand on my back

An icicle on my spine

And I wonder why we waited so long to touch

I’d touched others

They had your face

And I could have sworn it was you

When the sun returns, you release me

As though that’s what I want

Perhaps it’s my penance

Only getting the winter together

The time when it’s so hard to see

There are things I’d wished we’d done before

You’d decided to go it alone

Things I wish I’d had the courage for

That I’d licked sweat off the side of your neck

After you’d come back from a long run

The taste of you and your efforts filling my head

Like the smoke of the longing does now

That our bodies were slick with moonlight in a lake

Somewhere we weren’t supposed to be

That I’d kissed you the way you deserved

With presence and delight and deep gratitude

My eyes peeking open to see yours closed 

Not just a passing peck in fear of what could be

Of the woman I would have to become

If I let you inside

Though it seems you already knew

The back way in

That I had engulfed the physical form of you

So I would have something to carry

Beyond wondering and wishing

That I had taken the time to commit you to memory

Your odd way of speaking

An affect I recall noting

Though the specifics evade me now

Your frequent use of the side eye

Whatever it is your middle initial stands for

Anything that could help me piece together

The you I want so much to hold

I should have known you were only passing through

Your frame seemed impossibly light

But it carried with it the whole of my heart