If all we have is Jack Ryan, everyone looks like a terrorist

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In her mesmerizing TED talk, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor tells the story of having a stroke in her mid-40s. She points out that, biologically speaking, we are not thinking beings who feel. We are feeling beings who think. Great intelligence resides in the space of our heart and when we nurture that with breath and awareness, our resilience and creativity in crisis increases dramatically.

This innate wisdom and gift of connection to our fellow beings is lost in the rush to analysis brought on by recent crises and instability around the world. We channel our inner Jack Ryan when we resort to habitual ways of relating to the crisis, to each other, and to any possible courses of action that occur to us. Still, in modern western culture, reason and analysis are revered above all. Anyone who suggests a more feeling response is ridiculed as soft or complicit. Continue reading

We are all Parisians

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The horrific event on November 13 in Paris has a familiar tone to it, an energetic signature much like a terrible earthquake and tsunami or a hurricane with devastating flooding. Prediction and prevention are just as imprecise and impotent as in the face of a huge “natural” disaster. The victims are struck with random cruelty. We feel helpless in the aftermath.

True, the attacks in Paris were planned and carried out by people, acting out of a story they fervently believe. As such, we may tell ourselves that acts of terror or riots of unrest are preventable—if only we have better intelligence, stronger police response, more proactive targeted drone strikes—in short, we push back. Better. Harder. First. Continue reading

The humility of yielding and being led

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Yielding is not well regarded these days. To give in to the will of another, to allow oneself to be led in an unknown direction, to withdraw from conflict—these are all seen as signs of weakness in a culture obsessed with leadership and action. This is at odds with the messages I keep getting to slow down and be still. To, as this turtle recently showed me, pull into my shell and wait until it’s time to continue.

I am a student of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes.” As an outside source of wisdom, it teaches me to trust my own intuition and be more present to the many lessons I can learn just by showing up more authentically in my life. I use it not so much as an oracle, but as a reminder to stay open to situations as they arise. Continue reading

Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech shows the disconnecting effect of naked facts

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Thirty-six years ago, President Carter made a televised speech during prime time. It was a political disaster, and has since been called derisively the “Malaise Speech.” It’s available on YouTube, but I ran across it watching Michael Moore’s 2009 film, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” The speech is fascinating, in an anthropological kind of way. Carter looks so wooden and sincere up there, shaking his fist to occasionally animate his otherwise stiff body.

After telling his fellow Americans how upset he is about the low ebb of our national self-confidence, he launches into his advice. From the perspective of over twenty years in the green movement, his words are eerily familiar. He proposes using energy as a rallying point to renew America’s confidence and spirit, along with our economy. What was it about this bald truth-telling that equated to political suicide? He clearly did not display the gift of rhetoric that several of his successors did, but I think it was a deadly mixture of message and delivery that doomed him. Continue reading

Challenging the Dreamers: Ta’Nehisi Coates on the deadly power of stories

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With the fiercely honest, gorgeous language storm that is Between the World and Me, Ta’Nehisi Coates offers no prescriptions, plans or programs. He simply holds up the chipped, tarnished mirror that we call “civilization” to show us what he calls “the dream.” I love this book. It has broken my heart in a way that few books have. It has cracked me open and turned me upside down. To say that it challenges my assumptions about the state of race relations in this country is as far off the mark as saying that Silent Spring is a book about songbirds.

It’s not a long book and yet it contains everything. Worlds, galaxies, histories, ancestors. Having lived for the past twenty-five years in Baltimore, I enjoyed listening to the recorded version, hearing his words in his Baltimore-tinged voice. Even though I’m well aware that his Baltimore was vastly different from mine, a tiny part of me feels connected. So many thoughts, reactions, fears, despairs, and hopes are swirling in my body in this moment—a sure sign that this is one of those books that changes everything. I will listen again and then read it too and insist that everyone I encounter read it. It’s that important. Continue reading

A case for seeing human affairs through the eyes of grace

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“I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.” ~ Anne Lamott, from Grace, Eventually

Grace is a word you don’t hear much in secular discourse. Last week, President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney was both about grace and full of grace itself. It awakened a memory of a conversation about grace with my father when I was in High School. He was one of those traditional dads who worked and did dad things, so I didn’t have a lot of interactions with him. This conversation about grace was a rarity. Turns out, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, either. I think he spoke of God’s presence or friendship, and we both enjoyed wondering about it together. That in itself was a moment of grace, a precious heart connection to each other and to something bigger than us.

Human affairs are full of flaws, opposition and contradictions. There never seems to be that one right solution that we can all agree on. And so we wrangle. In interactions with friends about the President’s recent successes, they were quick to point out his many failures and betrayals. It’s true he compromised on health care reform, and I can’t say I understand the appeal the Trans Pacific Partnership, which seems to me like a nightmare for workers and the environment. And let’s not forget, these friends say, about the drone strikes and the “Surge.” I get it, I do. And yet, there’s something we are missing when we argue like this. It’s too easy to find these imperfections. Continue reading

Two ways of making space for truth

1987_8.2_Agrigento-Temple-of-Juno_620wI recently had the great privilege of seeing Anna Deavere Smith and Sherilynn Ifill in conversation. Ms. Ifill lives here in Baltimore, though she works nationally as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Ms. Smith grew up here, and played one of my very favorite characters on “The West Wing”—the no-nonsense National Security Advisor who had no trouble standing up to the generals of the Joint Chiefs’ office. She’s a talented actor, and she’s also a playwright and teacher.

Ms. Smith is working on the “Pipeline Project,” which investigates “the school-to-prison pipeline—the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth.” She’s interviewing hundreds of people involved in the pipeline at all levels: students, teachers, parents, police, thought and policy leaders, psychologists, community activists, and others. Using the alchemy of theater, she’s going to perform the stories in several cities, as fodder for town hall meetings and further advocacy. The tie-in to Baltimore’s recent civil unrest (also known as an “uprising”) is clear, although she began this project long before then. Continue reading

Our voices, our power: women’s paradigm-shifting work

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“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” ~ Audre Lorde, 1984

The resonance of our inner callings with needs and trends in the outer world seems to be gathering momentum lately. In this time between stories, I am being urged, by both interior and exterior promptings, to value my unique voice and speak up more. The signs I get range from encouragement like Audre Lorde’s 1984 speech, to learning from Priscilla Ward’s eye-opening essay about her experience as a black woman, to the fierce witnessing of Nell Bernstein in this interview about her book on juvenile incarceration, Burning Down the House.

At the time of Audre Lorde’s speech, I was just graduating from college, looking to work a year in a firm before grad school. Very much playing the game by the rules. Ronald Reagan as President was busy dismantling the social safety net so carefully woven over the last decades. The Soviet Bloc countries boycotted the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Feminism had been around for a couple of decades. Though I did not identify as a feminist, I was entering a traditionally male profession, slipping noiselessly if unconsciously through the access hard-won by my sisters before me. Continue reading

The essential questions at the heart of our lives

Still-Life_620wLately, I keep bumping up against that old saw, The older I get, the less I know. I have more questions than answers, and while it is an invitation to humility and surrender, I find myself getting frustrated too. Looking for signs and affirmations that I am on the right track. And suspecting that the signs are everywhere, if only I would notice them. Sometimes I think maybe the questions themselves are the sign.

I recently heard Ricardo Semler speaking on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. In 1980, he took over his father’s company, Semco, and redesigned it to be a corporate democracy, where people design their own jobs, define pay levels, and select and evaluate their supervisors. During his 2014 TED talk, Semler recounts his discovery of the power of asking “Three whys in a row” to access deeper wisdom. Continue reading

Pardoning helps us experience interconnection

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It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

Under the influence of the Judeo-Christian values of modern culture, I have the habit of believing the story that we are all flawed, that part of my task in this life is to work on myself, to fix my failings, and try to be less bad. While it’s certainly rewarding to grow and learn and increase my awareness and equanimity, there is a big difference when I come at it with the intent of discovering innate capacities, rather than purging unwanted ones, or rooting out evil and unworthiness.

Forgiveness and blame are two sides of the coin of pardon. When I forgive another, I forgive myself, because pardoning comes from a sense of worthiness—my own and another’s. We are all worthy of empathy and understanding, and therefore pardon. Blame is the opposite of pardon. Blame directs anger outward, making an object out of a subject, creating separation and “othering.” Through empathy and compassion, pardon draws both subject and object together through a shared understanding that we are all connected. Continue reading