What’s the Use?

words of wisdomI chastise myself for not writing. I hear the clock ticking, or rather the calendar. Ever more so since I turned 70 in October. Not because I feel old. It’s just that 70 makes it real. This is not a dress rehearsal.

I have the novel in short stories to finish (Because I Could Not Stop). And then there’s the Beans-and-Meatballs-and-the-Pink-Stuff memoir. Half way through one. Three chapters into the other.

I haven’t written a blog post since last July. Started one. Called it “How Big is a Crow?”. Stopped four paragraphs into it.

I think about it. Writing. Finishing. Continuing.

But what’s the use? I conclude.

The what’s-the-use demon has been strong in me for the past months. I can write my way through despair. But that demon overrides all that is holy and sacred in me.

And so I have been wandering in the Waste Land.

I think it started last July when the town I now live in, Sequim, Washington, became a microcosm of what’s happening in the country. Othering has run rampant.

“Time for cowboys and Indians,” reads a post on the Facebook group page of Save Our Sequim—a group that demonizes the local tribe, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe—the descendants of those who lived here for centuries before having their traditions, their ability to feed themselves, their economy, their rich spiritual life stripped from them. For less than pennies on the dollar, land was taken from the Tribe.

“Indian Land for Sale” read the advertisements meant to attract white settlers to the area.

Slowly, over time, the Tribe bought their land back. They became very successful through their businesses, including a casino, sharing their success with the community of Sequim. When Virginia Mason withdrew its support from the local clinic, the Tribe took it over, running it at a loss at first. It now serves 17,000 people in the area, about 16,000 of whom are not members of the Tribe.

In response to the opioid epidemic, which hit the North Olympic Peninsula particularly hard, it made plans to open a regional clinic for treating opioid addiction—a facility that will bring a John Hopkins’ level of health care to this rural location.

Rural locations are notoriously underserved when it comes to health care.

A local politician, one who creates wedge issues for their political agenda, seized on the Tribe’s plans as an opportunity to stoke fear and hatred in the predominantly white retired demographic that lives in the greater Sequim area.

Sequim is Mayberry they claimed. Idyllic—a gated community where nice people live. Nice people. You know not those others. The ones who are poor, addicted to drugs, are homeless.

Or aren’t white.

The “nice” people moved here to escape the urban landscape of the “other” for the idyllic landscape of rural.

But rural has never been idyllic. Drug addiction, homelessness, and poverty have long been here in Sequim. Rural communities have been at the mercy of the natural world, not the idyllic. Nature exists for its own purpose—to perpetuate life. It does not recognize privilege as a get-out-of-life-free card.

As I watched the country descend into the tar pit of fear and hatred, led by a sociopath who brags about assaulting women and teenage girls, normalizes racism, and robs the national treasury to enrich his own coffers, I have said that this is not the country I grew up in.

What I have learned is that this is the country I grew up in. As late as the 1970s, Native American women of child-bearing age were sterilized without their consent. Native children were taken from their families, abused emotionally, sexually, and physically. “Kill the Indian in the child” was the war cry of white culture.

The Civil Rights Movement exposed the landscape of fear and hatred—and I believed that that meant we had created a new one.

But, it’s never that simple. Trauma is passed down through generations. And until we as a nation face the gap between our ideal that all men are created equal, and the trauma inflicted by the centuries of otherizing those who were not considered the men referred to in that document, we are a culture, a society wandering in the Waste Land.

“The Waste Land, let us say then, is any world in which (to state the problem pedagogically) force and not love, indoctrination, not education, authority, not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives, and where the myths and rites enforced and received are consequently unrelated to the actual inward realizations, needs, and potentialities of those upon whom they are impressed.”

Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (Vol. IV of The Masks of God), p.388

There are no saints. Just human beings. We have the capacity for grace, as well as the capacity for vengeance.

I recognize grace when I see it, when I feel it. I believe in its power. I believe it is amazing. But it’s a rocky road for me. The road to grace. I have to find my way around the boulders and twists and turns of desire for vengeance and claim to victimhood first.

What I see, what I feel from the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is their grace. They did not have to serve non-Tribal people in their clinic, but they do. Their planned opioid treatment clinic is not restricted to Tribal members. It will be available to all residents of the North Olympic Peninsula—residents of Jefferson and Clallam Counties.

Grace. The unearned gift. We need to extend it—to others and to ourselves for life is not for the faint of heart.

The present, I once read, is where the past flows into the future. I think I understand that finally—that what we do today, in the present, can shape the future, regardless of what the past might have been.

I think I found my way out of my Waste Land by writing this post, rambling as it is. Instead of hearing what’s the use as discouraging words or a demon, I heard them as a question from an inner mentor. What is the use of writing?

“ . . . (humans have) a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” William Faulkner

I will do my part to craft our future with grace as my guide and words the tools of my craft.


Note: I wrote about the S’Klallam Tribe’s influence on me in 2015.

My Back Forty

51818499_10157341370533949_8502569876253048832_nAs I sat in our sun room back in February waiting for the snow to do—something—I started to wonder, what is underneath all that snow?

Well, now I know.

I have decided to let our Back Forty (basically our half-acre backyard) become a meadow. Tom had been there a while, but I thought I was supposed to please some imaginary home owners’ association (HOA) and keep it closely shorn.

It isn’t even really a lawn in the traditional suburban sense. It’s some kind of grass interspersed with various “weeds,” including dandelions. As it turns out, mostly dandelions.

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For weeks, I have overlooked a sea of bright yellow dandelions basking in the sun, waving in the breeze, drinking in the occasional rain. They grew tall around our patio, prevailed right in front of the sun room windows, dispersed themselves around the sides of the back forty.

As they turn into the fairy puffs, new smaller yellow flowers have begun to appear. Along with thistles that, quite frankly, don’t quite know their boundaries. Eventually they have pretty purple flowers, but they do try to take over.

I don’t know who declared war on dandelions, or why. They are quite lovely and I have noticed more bees buzzing and butterflies fluttering about since I let them have dominion.

I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I have never “gardened.” It’s mysterious to me. Neither my mother nor my grandmother gardened. So, perhaps, that is why. I have said that plants thank me for not paying attention to them for that assures their demise.

So, here is what I decided instead. I will let things grow and then listen to them.

I adopted this approach after discovering that snow does not exist to enthrall me. What it covers will be revealed in its own time. And it is not just snow that transforms the landscape. Look at the dandelions.

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All this as I find myself sailing into the harbor of seventy. In less than three months, I will have completed seven decades of one-more-trip-around-the-sun. It’s not so much that seventy years feels old or final, as that I find it demanding that I listen to it.

Here’s what it’s said so far:

I get to decide what my garden looks like. I am the artist in my garden. I do not have to listen to some mythical HOA to define its colors, forms, or purpose. Instead, I can let the garden grow and listen to it, let it show me the shape and rhythm of each coming journey around the sun.

It took courage for me, a people pleaser, to let the Back 40 be. People pleasing has always been a way of distracting people from seeing me, a way to fend off abusive behavior directed at me—behavior intended to keep me in line, well behaved, ready to serve. It was my inner HOA, as it were.

As I sat down to right* this, I remembered Alice Walker’s book of essays, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.” She introduced me to the word “womanist,” saying that it is to feminist as lavender is to purple.

“From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘You acting womanish,’ i.e, like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous or willfull behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good.’ . . . Responsible. In charge. Serious.”

Alice Walker from “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens”

I am a womanist.

In the spring, I plan to scatter some wildflower seeds. I hope to create paths that lead to the fruit trees in the far reaches of the Back Forty, and use containers to grow a few vegetables.

Most of all, every morning I will sit still and listen to what the grandmothers have to tell me about this small piece of earth that I have decided I belong to.

Motheroot

Creation often
needs two hearts
one to root
and one to flower
One to sustain
in time of drouth
and hold fast
against winds or pain
the fragile bloom
that in the glory
of its hour
affirms a heart
unsung, unseen.

Marilou Awiakta
Abiding Appalachia


*Note: I intended to write “write,” instead of right. But then I realized that I actually did mean I wanted to right what had been wrong minded on my part. Stop listening to my inner HOA, let things grow, and listen.

Spring Clearing

spring snowIt was as if that last patch of snow knew it was the last day of winter. Actually it’s stretching to call it a patch. It was more like the remnants of a discarded snow cone. It was gone by the end of the day.

I have never lived through “snow” before. Over the past 6 years in the Pacific Northwest I experienced snow’s occasional visit. It would last a day or two. I would watch sadly as the snow disappeared.

This year, I learned about the persistence of snow—how it can take root and linger, blanketing the landscape with its whiteness, burdening tree branches with its weight, covering what lay beneath.

I had wanted this, hoping the transformation of the landscape would transform my inner landscape. But as it lingered, I found myself almost anxious about what would be revealed when it finally relented.

The snow arrived in February as I was wrestling with grief and depression—an ordeal that began in October, midway through autumn. Winter seemed like it would be just an extension of autumn, as if it would drift placidly into spring, with no transforming landscape.

Then that last month of winter happened.

I have never experienced such a clear demarcation of the end of one season and the arrival of the next. Normally I know it’s spring when there is that one crisp, clear cold day — spring cold. Not a winter cold. Not an autumn cold. Spring cold.

This year it went from winter cold, to spring warm. Almost overnight. The landscape has turned to green with flowers starting to bloom. I don’t know if the tulips will have survived. Scattered around are the occasional branches taken down by the weight of snow.

I think I remember this landscape. But it was covered so thoroughly in white, it all seems a bit new to me.

I seem to have worked my way through grief and depression. I spent a good portion of fall and winter doing the shoulda’, coulda’ woulda’ dance. Walking barefoot over the red-hot coals of disappointment and failure, strangely hoping that would somehow change the outcome that led to my grief and depression.

It did not. I read in an Anne Lamott book that forgiveness is giving up all hope that the past could have been any different. So I forgave myself and accepted that the past was what it was.

There are no do-overs in life. Only well let’s-try-this-then. I discovered there were fewer this-thens this time around. That’s actually a function of wisdom gained from experience. And it’s a good thing because as I wander into my 8th decade (as in turning 70), I get that as the road ahead gets shorter, having fewer options is actually better. The illusions distract.

Teach us to number our days that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom. That’s from Psalm 90. I don’t quote scripture out of purity, but rather for its poetry.

I have arrived at my present. There are no bells and whistles or the desire to charge forth into the future. It’s simply one season following another. There’s work to be done. Not so much a spring cleaning, as a spring clearing.

And an understanding that when winter arrives, light returns.

Snow Relents

52696020_10157364199903949_8765742206314086400_nMy dad dreamed of giving us a white Christmas, though his love of exploration meant that we lived in Saudi Arabia. I’m pretty sure it has not snowed in Saudi Arabia in this archeological era.

Then we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where we would get excited to see a dusting of snow on the hills surrounding Livermore. It did snow once when I lived in San Francisco—February of 1976. At some point after I returned to Livermore in 2001, the downtown merchants’ association trucked in snow shortly before Christmas and dumped it on Lizzie’s Fountain. Livermore kids went berserk making snow angels, forming snowballs, and generally playing whatever kids play in snow. It usually lasted no more than a day—at the most two.

Last year, here in Sequim where I now live, it actually snowed on Christmas. It was my wish for a Bobbsey Twins’ Christmas. It stayed around for two, maybe three days. It never impinged on our ability to get in and out of the driveway or walk to the garbage cans, nor did it cause pipes to freeze.

It looked like we were going to get through this winter without a snow event. There were occasional snow showers, but never enough to stick around. It made me sad. I wanted snow that stuck around—that changed the landscape as I was fond of saying. “It’s magical the way snow changes the landscape,” I  claimed with great authority.

And then the snow came.

In February. January is supposed to be the coldest month.

51818499_10157341370533949_8502569876253048832_nIt didn’t just snow, it snowed for two days straight. A relentless, robust infusion that transformed the landscape. It stuck to the ground, piling deeper and deeper, covering our driveway, our car, the roof—the branches of trees bending to the ground with the weight of the accumulation of snow. I sent a picture to high school friends and asked, “Is this what Kilmer meant when he said trees bend their leafy arms to pray?”

They got the joke. Ed Brush’s (our high school English teacher) graphic of the tree Kilmer describes was etched in our minds some 50 years later.

I had no idea that snow was so tenacious. And I think I was a bit surprised to learn that snow didn’t exist simply for my enthrallment. I still marveled at its pristine beauty, but also felt an underlying threat. The pipe in the pumphouse froze. Fortunately we caught it early. Would it freeze again? Would our roof hold? Would we lose power? How could we get out of the driveway and to the store before the next onslaught of snow?

It’s not so much I took it personally as I began to see that snow has its right to be what it is, Bobbsey Twin fantasy be damned.

The snow is relenting. A few warmer temperatures, some rain, some sunny days and the snow is not so ubiquitous.  Instead of a pristine white landscape, patches of brown create a contrasting landscape.

But still, the snow persists. In fact, it has started snowing again as I write this post—those big fat clumps of descending snowflakes.

I wanted it to snow, to watch the landscape transform, to help me work my way through a depression I could not shake. I discovered, or rather I am discovering, that transformation isn’t as simple or predictable as I was thinking. There are times I feel sad that the snow will relent, will give way to a landscape that has no snow. I even have some anxiety about what lies beneath the snow. It’s the lot of the poet, the writer to ponder all of the above.

Snow on the roof is also a metaphor for evidence of aging. My depression descended on me after some profound losses and with them, deep disappointment that many things (more than I wished) simply did not turn out the way I had hoped. I spent several nights anguishing, sleeping fitfully and in spurts—mulling over the life I have lived to discern what had I done wrong, searching for ways to do things different as my seventh decade starts to recede in the rear view mirror and my eighth decade is the road ahead.

I will turn 70 in October. I need to write that out loud so I can let it sink in. Seventy they say is the new 50, but it certainly isn’t the new 20. My father died at 77, my mother at 83, my grandmother at 99, and her father at 106. I really have no idea how far the road ahead stretches, but it doesn’t start from 20. It starts with 70, and that has an impact on my choices.

Yesterday, I relented. I got it that the past is what it was and my present is what it is. I actually don’t regret much about the choices I made with my past, despite the disappointment and loss. Mostly I made choices based on my integrity—I loved the way I think it is important to love.

I still don’t know what lies beneath the transforming landscape. I’m not sure what choices lie ahead for me, or how to navigate the economic and physical vulnerability that comes with snow on the roof.

Maybe, just maybe, this relentless infusion of snow is helping me put the past to rest. The silence of the falling snow mesmerizes.

Heart of a Whale, Ambition of a Hummingbird

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Heart of a blue whale that had washed ashore.

Birds own my backyard. I have the deed to the property, but birds own it.

I don’t know enough about birds to name all who live there, but I can identify mourning doves, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and red-breasted robins. At least I think they are red-breasted robins; they are birds with red breasts.

They come for the grapes, to bathe in the fountain, to nest in the trees and grape vines that cover the pergola, and, I would like to think, to sing. I know that the songs are territorial songs. But who’s to say that our songs aren’t a way to claim our territory.

Did I mention there were hummingbirds in my yard?

In “Joyas Volardores,” Brian Doyle writes that hummingbirds have more heart attacks and aneurysms than any other living creatures. “The price of their ambition,” he writes, “is a life closer to death.”

He also writes that the biggest heart is inside the body of a blue whale. As big as a room. Big enough for a small child to stand in, ducking only to pass through one of its four valves into another chamber.

Little is known of blue whales once they reach puberty, Doyle says. Humans aren’t privy to their domestic habits. I suspect they know how to ride out typhoons.

I spent seventy-five days crossing the Pacific on a Dutch Freighter when I was a kid. Once we left the Phillipines for Long Beach, California, our final destination, we didn’t see any land for two weeks. We sailed through the tail end of typhoons, waves crashing over the bridge, which in calm seas rose three stories over the ocean’s surface.

We were not in our element. That’s how I feel when I fly in a plane. Probably OK, but not in my element.

Doyle says that blue whales travel in pairs and that their songs can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

It seems to me that uncertainty is the pervading force in our culture right now. Crumbling towers and tumbling markets have pitched us out of our element and we are at sea, riding through the tail end of typhoons, but uncertain where we are headed.

Perhaps this is an opportunity.

Maybe if we have the heart of a blue whale and are willing to notice that we always live life close to death, we will know why the nectar is worth the risk to the hummingbird, and we’ll create songs that will be heard beyond miles even we can imagine.


NOTE: I first posted this in June, 2009. We lived in Livermore back then.

The Transforming Landscape

transforming landscapeAbout a month ago, I said to a friend that I was waiting for the landscape to transform. I wanted it to snow. I also knew it was a metaphor for my inner landscape.

The end of the year turned very dark for me. I rode a roller coaster of black depression with occasional moments of gray. The precipitating event that sent me on the ride happened the day after my birthday in mid-October. It involves a profound loss, but not because someone died. I would have to reveal others’ stories to include the details, so they will not be a part of this post. I did not lose Tom, nor is he responsible for the loss (just to reassure those of you who know the two of us).

What is important is that it coincided with the waning of my seventh decade. I will turn 70 in October.

As I worked through the loss I alternated between feelings—sometimes the landscape was the waste land, other times a blank page. I kept asking myself, why am I here, where is here, and what is “here”?

I turned to story, as I often do, to navigate the course—and accidentally landed on “13 Reasons Why.” I had avoided it, thinking it was something it was not. I think it is a pretty accurate depiction of adolescence. I’m sad to see that it is still a breeding ground for the Brett Kavanaughs of the world—a place where young women get ground down and good young men struggle to find their way as well.

I recognized myself in Hannah, the young female protagonist. Seeing her struggle with trying to fit in, I saw clearly that I had made the choice to not quite make a choice about being myself back then. When I was in my 30s, I met women in their 60s and 70s through the Gray Panthers who had navigated a different path. They had defied what was acceptable at a time when being “acceptable” was enforced with an even more heavy hand. They had written their own stories. They showed me an alternative.

Yet, even with their model, the heavy burden of wanting to be nice, likeable, and placating—to make people comfortable, to fit in—weighed me down. I didn’t necessarily behave in the nice, likeable, or placating way, but I felt guilty about it when I did.

As I made my way through the “13 Reasons Why“ story of Hannah, Clay, and the other characters, my family’s dynamic started coming back to me. It was the matriarchy as much, if not more, than the patriarchy who enforced the narrow path of choices for me. My mother was the younger of the two daughters. My grandmother and aunt (my mother’s older sister) dominated. They were not alpha females—they just inflicted their dominance, which was fueled by their disappointments and bitterness at what they perceived as their lack of choices in creating their stories.

My mother submitted to their dominance, muffled her own light, and so could not shine a light on a path for me to write my own story. Whether it was her intent, or my interpretation of how she felt, I made the choice to protect my mother from the truth that we are the authors of our lives. I wrote my story, but in secret. Or, as I have described it before, I became a wolf in sheep’s clothing—I donned the clothing not to fool the sheep so I could make a meal of them, but so they would find me acceptable.

But, there’s no fooling sheep. They know a wolf when they smell one.

In the waning days of my seventh decade, I can see the ways I have tried to fly under the radar and the consequences of it. Thus I have been confronted with that empty page in my story as I complete my seventh decade.

I woke one morning two weeks ago in acute anxiety, with no reference to why. I don’t even know how I changed my perception of anxiety from fear of danger to fear of the unknown. But I did. I understood that I had the option to leave behind that which wasn’t me: walking those high school halls being nice, placating, and likeable.

I gave up on waiting for the snow to change the landscape and realized that I had to just walk those high school halls (they still exist everywhere) without reference to the nice-likeable-placating expectation.

And then it snowed. This hasn’t been the usual snow we have here on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s been one that brings with it the challenges associated with prolonged snow, cold, and ice.

The snow-transforming landscape still enchants me, but it also brings with it a lot of unknowns.

The metaphor continues.


nancy and AOCNOTE: Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters, Radhida Tlalib, Maria Cantwell, Ilhan Ohmar, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Mazie Hirono, Kamala Harris, and so many more who are currently serving in Congress walk fearlessly through those high school halls as strong, kind, badasses—they are the alpha she-wolves who will transform our national landscape. I walk with them.

Mercy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACertain words just speak to me. Something about its sound. It makes me pause. And even though I think I know the word’s meaning, I pull out my “Webster’s Universal College Dictionary” and look it up.

Inexorable is one of those words. It’s the second meaning that spoke to me: “not to be persuaded, moved, or affected by prayers or entreaties; merciless.”

As I prepare myself today to again stand vigil for the children abducted from their parents at the border, it’s the word mercy that comes to me. I pause, pull out the dictionary, and look it up: “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or forbearing.”

I know what my sign will say today: Make America Merciful Again.

MAMA. Mama. The children’s anguished cry.

Last Sunday, I lost it when a woman challenged from her car, “How about reuniting the soldiers with their children?”

“Yes,” I said, “bring them home.”

But she yelled back and so did I and it upset some of those standing next to me and I felt bad and guilty and also just kind of felt fuckitall.

Civility has died. It just has. We are on an inexorable march to gleeful cruelty (thank you Jon Stewart for creating that definition). And it’s hard to know just what to do.

Later I wondered about the woman’s story. Maybe she had lost a son or grandson in Afghanistan or Iraq. Maybe she was still grieving for what was taken from her. Were there time enough, and if I hadn’t been so angry over the previous week’s malfeasance by the man who holds the office of president of the United States, maybe I could have had a conversation with her. Shown her some mercy.

But it was hot, I was angry, and feeling hopeless. So, I forgive myself for what I have started calling my unique form of Tourette Syndrome.

When gleeful cruelty is the norm, how do we make our way back to mercy?

I have been depressed this past week. Depression is my least favorite place to be. It’s sometimes called anger turned inward, but I think for me, it’s a friend’s description that nails it: absence of imagination.

I haven’t been able to imagine any future other than one that is being sold by a very sick man. I won’t say his name, but he is the president and he has possession of powers that destroy life. And the thing that could rein him in, the congress and judicial branch, seem enthralled by his power.  Instead of reining him in, they are hitching their wagons to his.

The president enjoys making people suffer. It makes him feel powerful.

I’m afraid because I am aware of the inevitable vulnerability my aging bestows on me. Those in power seem blind to vulnerability, or more likely, that they can make themselves invulnerable by denying vulnerability as a fact of life. Life is neither merciful nor cruel. It is simply ruthless. We are all vulnerable to its vagaries.

So I think along the road to mercy we also need to embrace a kind of ruthless commitment to restoring the proper order. I had a new appreciation for ruthless after reading an interview with a Vietnam vet who said he learned more about love and pain from the war than he might have had he not had the experience. Then he returned to the land of the “big PX” where men who hadn’t had that experience were climbing over each other, exhibiting what he called false masculinity, showing neither genuine compassion nor genuine ruthlessness.

We need to make America merciful again.

I’m not going to worry about being civil. I think that ship has sailed. It doesn’t mean not having compassion for those who are so damaged that they are beyond showing mercy. But it does mean calling what they are doing what it is:

Gleeful cruelty.

I don’t know how to do this. I have both my inner show-no-mercy Celtic warrior (they dangled the heads of their dead enemies from their horses as they rode into battle), and the goddess of mercy. I think I need to call on both of them.

I don’t plan on, nor am I endorsing, beheading anyone. But I do think that fierceness of intent is called for when confronting this army of damaged people on their inexorable march into the darkest places in the human heart.

Compassion comprises two Latin words: to bear and suffering. It means to bear suffering. To be willing to see it, feel the pain of the other, and let it into our hearts so it can transform us, connect us to the other.

We need to hear the anguished cries of the children: “Mama!”

I don’t yet know how, but I do know we have to make America merciful again.