Advent 10: Flying takes Two Wings

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My pastor Sharon talked about joy this morning, and she showed this clip. Aleksander Gamme is a Norwegian adventurer and explorer, and the first to complete an unsupported trip to the South Pole and back. On the way in, he hid supplies and snacks in snow-covered caches. He purposely did not keep track of what he left so it would be a surprise.

On day 86 of his 87-day trek, he comes upon his last cache and expects to find the annoying practical things he’s found in the other ones—batteries, water purifying equipment. Instead, he finds Cheez Doodles, candy, and cheese, and he goes crazy with happiness. I barely ever click on links to videos, but do yourself a favor and click on this one. It might make your day.

There is the obvious takeaway here, which is, “Could I be the kind of person to go ecstatically crazy over a such a small thing?” It’s a reminder to us in our world of diminishing returns when we get antsy for the Netflix show to load or throw food out because it’s not exactly what we feel like eating.

Beyond that, though, my question is, “Am I up for the highs and the lows?” Gamme’s joy is largely due to the fact that he’s been living in deprivation—snow, sleet, cold, just enough calories. Because he’s been exposing himself to the elements, really pushing the limits of his humanity, all it takes is a bag of chips for him to soar to the heights. His happiness is in direct proportion to his discomfort.

I’m not arguing for masochism here, but if your life is anything like mine, it’s organized around comfort and security. Everything from the temperature of the house to deeper things like avoiding negative emotions. We avoid these in all sorts of ways, numbing ourselves through food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, image management, unhealthy relationships, even good things like exercise or spirituality. When we do that, we might be avoiding pain, but we’re also missing out on the Cheez Doodle dance! The tidal, total freedom of losing ourselves in the wonder of life, whooping with delight. I wish that for me, I wish that for you, whatever storms are brewing or behind us. Suffering and joy are wings of the same bird—without both of them, we can’t fly.

(P.S. The photo is from my time at Grace Cathedral in SF a few days ago. it’s an art installation of hundreds of paper birds suspended above the sanctuary. I caught it at the exact moment the sun was coming over the hill. A Cheez Doodle moment, for sure.)

Advent 9: Absence

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Had a quiet walk through the bare winter woods, feeling companionable with the trees and sky. I’ve been listening to Rob Bell’s 11-part podcast series on Jesus, and heard today that “Efficiency may not be God’s highest goal for your life.” Isn’t that relieving? How boring and exhausting that would be.

The bare trees remind me to be empty, to make friends with darkness, quiet, and hibernation, to relax into the way things are instead of trying to hustle.

December Trees

Puncturing winter sky,
a rough, reaching tapestry
of strength and loss,
colors long gone,
they become absence,
make space for the light.

Advent 8: I'm Lonely Sometimes

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My dad works at the Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham and every time we are together, he has saved up some stories. They are always poignant and full of humanity. He was with two of the guests recently who remarked to one another, “The holidays suck.” My dad (the most practiced observer I know) teared up telling me that, and we talked about how this time of year is painful for so many.

I am not homeless, poor or grieving a death or divorce. I am not sick or away from home. But I am familiar with loneliness. If we let ourselves listen, that’s the human condition.

Emily and I were talking about loneliness this week, and she said, “I don’t want to be ashamed of it.” Sometimes I feel alone when I’m in a crowd or with a friend. I feel alone when I wake from a dream about loss or failure. I feel alone when my phone is silent for too long. When Yancey is on shift over the weekend, I can go a long time without interacting with another adult, and I’ll think, “Is something wrong with me?”

I’ve heard a few spiritual teachers talk about our phones as mindfulness devices. And they are not talking about getting a meditation app! They’re suggesting that every time we reflexively pick up our phones, we ask, “What need am I trying to meet?” I’ve begun doing this, and often my answer is “I don’t want to feel alone.” I want to know someone is thinking about me. I want to know I matter to someone, that I’m connected, worthy, or valuable.

I could give a lot of tips here for taking the edge off loneliness, and you’ve heard them all. Plan ahead, read, text a friend, listen to music, join the YMCA. This season, I’m thinking of Mary, bringing her baby into the world in a stable. No mothers or mother-in-laws around, no friends rubbing her feet or bringing her ice chips. No meal deliveries, no “Congratulations” to the unwed mother. But she had something that’s available to all of us—a holy encounter, an angelic visitor that instructed her, “Don’t be afraid! Your ordinary life is extraordinary, though you can’t believe it. Don’t pick up your phone, don’t distract yourself, don’t keep track of who has been there for you or not. Just watch and wait, and the miracles will keep happening.” THAT is what our loneliness can summon, if we are brave enough to let it.

Advent 7: You are Loved

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Last time I was in San Francisco, the reader board at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts said, “The real leaders walk among us.” It was a year after the 2016 election, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. This morning it said, simply, “You are Loved.”

I walked from there to the top of Nob Hill and sat in the sun on the steps of Grace Cathedral. I listened to a a song that made me cry (link here, click on the first song on the album). At 44, what’s finally changing is that my very loud Inner Critic is starting to quiet down. I used to think that if I quit listening to her, I’d be less good. Or less lovable, successful, or action-oriented. The truth of my belovedness is starting to slip past all that, and the sign this morning confirmed it.

So that’s what I want to say to you: You are Loved. Whether you are beautiful or homely, you are loved. Whether you are single or partnered. Whether you are happy or sad, confident or scared. Whether you are rich or poor or anything in-between. Whether you are in community or you are lonely, whether you are fat or thin. Whether your body works right or not. Whether Christmas makes you happy or wretchedly sad, whether your mother loved you or not, whether you’re employed or not, whether you think your work is meaningful or not. None of these things—not one—changes the essential, universal, not-told-enough truth that you are loved, you are beloved, your life is worth everything, and we should all be shouting from the rooftops about it. Amen.

Advent 6: Enjoy Enjoying

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More from Rick Hanson, who says “our brains are like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones…We’re designed to over-learn from bad experiences while under-learning from the good ones.” So part of becoming healthier and happier human beings is learning how to encode good experiences, making them stick as persistently (or more so) than the bad ones do. From a neurological standpoint, he says we can flag experiences as “keepers” for long-term storage by intending to receive enjoyable experiences—being open—and then by letting them sink into us, going over them in our hearts and minds and allowing them to become part of us.

This time with Emily in the Bay Area are days I want to encode. I want to enjoy enjoying them, like photos I take out. Some moments I want to remember:

  • Helping Emily with her Tinder profile on the train

  • Doing the StoryCorps (!!!) interview she set up for us, encoding the story of our friendship and what we love about each other in front of some amazing facilitators and witnesses

  • Swimming together in the early morning with steam rising off the pool

  • Going to the Stanford Hospital Hanukkah service and singing “Grant us peace” in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic

  • Watching “Green Book” in the theater and going into the ugly cry

  • Doing morning, midday, and evening prayers together

  • Laughing our asses off with the college students who shared our Lyft ride

  • Dancing around the altar at St. Gregory’s

I think we’ve both had the rare experience of actually knowing we are in the present moment with one another, and how beautiful. To enjoy enjoying. I wish the same for you during this Advent season.

Advent 5: How will the Miracle Unfold Today?

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I have a ridiculous collection of devotional aids (prayer books and beads, oracle cards, candles and incense, icons), but my sister gave me a book that’s at the top of my list again this Advent. Gayle Boss’ All Creation Waits has 25 meditations on how wild animals adapt to winter cold and darkness. Her descriptions are factual and insightful at the same time, and I look forward to learning about a new animal each morning.

Today, Emily and I read about the chickadee who must “continually eat during winter’s short daylight hours to stoke its fires for the long night to come…on a winter night [it] burns through all the calories it ate during the day.” In the summer, the chickadee hides seeds under tree bark or in log cracks, and the memory center of its brain actually grows in winter as it recalls all the hiding places.

Gayle says,

Every winter day the equation of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason…they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.

I love this—”the equation of their existence is open.” And who among us can claim differently? Every day, the equation of our existence is open. Even if we manage to trick ourselves by a stable job, hot water and electricity, relationships with family and friends, money in a bank account. Everything could change in an instant. This is really what the animals and the poor have to teach us—how to survive and even thrive when the fragility of our existence is laid bare, when we can’t depend on the weather or the world cooperating.

Kevin Kelly, in his essay, The Universe is Conspiring to Help Us, talks about hitchhiking and everything it taught him about living day to day, about giving and receiving. He says,

When I was in my 20s, I would hitchhike to work every day. I'd walk down three blocks to Route 22 in New Jersey, stick out my thumb and wait for a ride to work. Someone always picked me up, and I was never late. Each morning, I counted on the service of ordinary commuters who had lives full of their own worries and yet, without fail, at least one of them would do something generous, as if on schedule. As I stood there with my thumb outstretched, the only question in my mind was simply, "How will the miracle happen today?"…I have developed a belief about what happens in these moments and it goes like this: Kindness is like a breath. It can be squeezed out, or drawn in. To solicit a gift from a stranger takes a certain state of openness. If you are lost or ill, this is easy, but most days you are neither, so embracing extreme generosity takes some preparation. I learned to think of this as an exchange. During the moment the stranger offers his or her goodness, the person being aided offers degrees of humility, indebtedness, surprise, trust, delight, relief and amusement to the stranger.

Wow. Like the chickadee, like the trusting hitchhiker, how can we embrace “extreme generosity” this Advent? Though the equation of our existence is open, how can we let that uncertainty be a freedom, a joy?

Advent 4: It's Okay to be Hopeful

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Yesterday I read an excellent piece by Christena Celeveland called The Privilege of Hopelessness. She says the phrase “Despair is the luxury of the bourgeoisie” has been overheard in a Palestinian refugee camp. Strangely, the farther we are from systemic injustice (by virtue of race, class, ability, life circumstance, gender identity, etc.), the easier it is to despair.

I remember right after the 2016 election when liberal white folks (myself included) were panicking, wondering what had happened to our country. People of color and other marginalized groups were saying, “ Welcome to our our world! It’s been scary for a long time. But it didn’t keep us from working for justice.”

And lately I’m noticing it again, that it’s become popular for people of my ilk to binge on news and then bellyache about how horrible the world is. I’m right there with them. I don’t believe things are getting better. I’m noticing the smoke hovering over Bellingham every August and the news of gun deaths every day and the barefoot children at the border. I’m horrified that so many people in power are ignorant, cruel, or greedy. I don’t have a generalized faith in humanity or God or science that we will figure these things out before it’s too late.

But, as a person of privilege who sometimes despairs, I don’t believe I have the luxury of staying there. The priest who gave the homily at St. Gregory’s yesterday (Photo above! Beautiful!) talked about “phenological mismatch,” a phenomena that’s happening more and more because of climate change. The white hares in New England are turning white later in the season because the snow is late and, without their camouflage, they are getting eaten by coyotes. Frozen sea turtles are washing up on the shores of Cape Cod since warmer water means they are migrating later and getting caught in the cold. Listening to the priest, I was backing into a darker and darker place, tears dropping onto my lap. As it should be, really. We’re talking about the end of the world here!

Then she surprised us by saying, “Despair is a phenological mismatch for the season of Advent.” This is a season when we are allowed to hope, even called to hope, despite all the evidence. I’ve always said that the antidote to despair is to live in reality. The turtles are freezing, but a record number of women just got elected to Congress. Black bodies are being traumatized by the police, but my white son is talking about it. There are hundreds of homeless people in my little town, but my Dad comes home from his job at the Lighthouse Mission and tells me stories about their courage.

The word “courage” has held a lot of meaning for me this year, and I think it takes courage to hope. Emily and I have been reading a daily prayer for courage from the Corrymeela Community in Ireland, an organization that works for peace and reconciliation. I’ll end with part of it:

…we are called
to live lives of courage,
love and reconciliation
in the ordinary and extraordinary
moments of each day.

We bear witness, too, to our failures
and our complicity in the fractures of our world

May we be courageous today,
May we learn today,
May we love today.
Amen.

Advent 3: Sacred Spirals

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Today was one for the books.

Emily and I celebrated Eucharist at St. Gregory of Nyssa then walked the labyrinth at Lands End in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was sunny and almost windless. On the trail out to the point, the cypress trees spread their windswept canopy over us. On the way back, we took Natalie Goldberg’s advice—she hikes a lot with friends, and has a pattern of hiking in silently and not talking until the way back. We reversed the order.

The labyrinth was full of happy people—friends and lovers getting their photos taken in the center, children picking up the stones and moving them around. Emily and I, like the liturgical geeks we are, actually walked it meditatively. In the middle, she pulled out anointing balm from her traveling chaplain’s kit (yes, she has that) and we anointed one another with the surf as our backdrop.

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Walking a labyrinth is a kind of body prayer, and they are hidden in sacred places all over the world. You don’t need a physical labyrinth to receive the blessings of one, though. Advent, a time of waiting and opening the door to possibility, is a perfect time to settle into a refuge moment and walk your self through the three R’s. You can also print out an icon and use your finger to trace the path:

Release: On the pathway in, ask yourself, What needs releasing? What am I holding too tightly? What fear, control, worry, or tension, anger, or apathy do I want to say goodbye to? Alternatively, ask yourself nothing and just feel a release in your body—a progressive lightening up as you move toward the center, enjoying a break from thinking about every damn thing.

Receive: This is my favorite part, probably because I have a much easier time giving than receiving. One you reach the center, stubbornly stand there and wait for a gift from the universe—some wish of the heart. Maybe you know exactly what you want, and you can say, Thank you for the gift of healing or I want to receive clarity about graduate school. Or maybe you have no idea what you need, and you just want to stand there, empty-handed or broken-hearted or bursting with joy, waiting for water to come pouring from the spring. Maybe you’ll stand there for a minute, maybe an hour.

Renew: The way out is as important as the way in. It’s not about rushing out to do whatever is next. The gift continues, one foot in front of another. After you’ve released what you don’t want anymore and accepted the gift at the center, the return is about renewal, about being invigorated, called again, or enlivened to keep doing your work in the world, whatever it is. Maybe it’s loving your narcissistic brother or finding the good in your boss. Maybe it’s loving YOURSELF, since no other love is possible without that. Whatever it is, feel a gradual tide of aliveness as you retrace your steps out.

Happy Trails!

Advent 2: Your attention is your property

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This is bark from a Douglas Fir tree along the Nooksack River where I take my retreats. Every time I go to that sacred spot, I notice more. I walked past this elder on a drizzly morning, my hat pulled down over my ears and the roar of the river behind me. It pulled me in, reminded me how ancient the universe is and that I’ll come and go while it persists.

Rick Hansen says our attention is our property. Only we can guard it, and we should guard it carefully. This year, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to trees, more attention to children, to silence, to the seagulls outside my office window, to how it feels to stay in the shower for a few more minutes.

There are lots of ways to say this:

Wherever you shift your satellite dish, that’s what you pick up.
What you focus on grows.
You are what you eat.

Shifting my satellite dish has meant taking some very practical measures. Among them:

  • I receive no notifications on my phone except for texts.

  • I read the NYT for 30 minutes every morning, but I don’t watch the news. I prefer not to hear certain voices or see certain faces, and I certainly don’t want everyone’s commentary on every nuance.

  • I use social media, but with a lot of rules. I have only actual people I know and care about in my private Instagram feed, and have a public one for following artists, writers, and other luminaries. I still have a Facebook account (for now), but spend about 5 minutes/day there and don’t use it as a news feed.

  • I don’t subscribe to any newsletters in my inbox.

  • I don’t give my email to stores so I can get discounts. I’d rather pay more and be left alone.

  • I keep completely separate inboxes—my work and personal one on my desktop, and my junk mail as web-based that I have to open other windows to see. That way, I see it far less often.

These guidelines aren’t for everyone, but they help me see the trees. And boy, they are worth it.

Advent 1: Take a Retreat Wherever you Are

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I’m at the airport, thinking I had 45 minutes to write this post. I refreshed my flight info to see I now have two hours because of a delay. Clearly, it’s time for me to take some of my own advice—to take a retreat wherever I am.

The first day of Advent is technically tomorrow if you follow a Christian liturgical calendar, but I adopted December 1-25 years ago because it’s much easier to remember, especially if you’re not a math major. So today begins a season of waiting, a season of anticipation, a season of being present to both light and darkness.

I’m reading Rick Hanson’s “Resilient” right now. Just a few chapters in, I can tell it’s going to be something that profoundly affects me. He says,

In the flow of your day, find refuges such as time to yourself in a morning shower, the friendly camaraderie of people at work, listening to music on the way home, or thoughts of gratitude as you get ready for sleep…When you find refuge, slow down. Be aware of what refuge feels like; perhaps a sense of relaxation, reassurance, and relief. Stay with the experience for a breath or longer. Notice what feels good about it. Let the sense of refuge sink in, establishing itself in you as something you can go to wherever you want.

I had a headache on my commuter flight to Seattle and was beginning to settle into some familiar scripts: I am probably not getting enough sleep. There are a lot of things I should be doing besides taking some time off right now. I should have stocked the fridge with food. I took a breath and looked around. The young woman beside me was texting someone she loved. Two elderly men a few rows ahead were talking about how much they are enjoying this twilight time in their lives. I leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and practiced ducking into a little micro-refuge, a moment where I appreciated myself and the crazy luck of being alive one more day.

In this next month of unrealistic expectations, I think our longings are the same: as they always are To know who we really are and what we are here for and to connect with one another. I hope you can identify what your own places of refuge are and put your feet up for a minute. Because if there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that there will be flight delays. The world won’t work like we want it to, but our inner life can warm and sustain us if we let it.

Twice-Baked Yams with Chorizo and Chard

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I’m far too late with this little number to affect anyone’s Thanksgiving table, but I think yams belong on the table much more often.

In that spirit, I offer the following “recipe,” and a lot of thanks for a multitude of blessings: all my clients who employ people, labor over decisions, and make the world a better place; my colleague and office-mate Laura Todd who makes my life infinitely richer; my hardworking husband who helps people stay alive at work and builds decks at home; Wyatt and Loretta who suffuse everything with meaning and fun; Emily, my other spouse in this life; every sunset Bellingham has been doused with this year; and the power we all have to transform ourselves and care for each other.

Twice-Baked Yams with Chorizo and Chard
Poke 4 big yams with a fork and rub all over with olive oil. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, until soft but not falling apart. Let cool. Meanwhile, in a big saute pan with a glug of olive oil, saute half a red onion and a few cloves of minced garlic. When that’s soft, add a handful of finely chopped Spanish chorizo, salt and pepper. Saute a few minutes more, then add a big bunch of chopped chard or kale and 1/2 head of cauliflower, finely chopped (or “riced”). Saute down for about 10 minutes more. When the yams are cool enough, split them and scoop the insides out into the chard mixture. (Carefully. The skins are thin. Don’t worry if they rip a little bit.) Mash the whole mixture up together with a potato masher, adding 1/2 c. plain Greek yogurt, juice from half a lime, and a little more salt. Scoop mixture back into skins and bake in a casserole dish or on a sheet pan for about 25 minutes, until warm and bubbly. When they are out of the oven, top with a few things for color and interest—the options are limitless. More chopped greens, pepita seeds, feta or blue cheese, chives, pomegranate seeds. Serves 8 as a side dish or 4 as a main dish.

How to take a Solo Retreat

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I’m here again, honoring the commitment I made to myself a year ago that I would take a quarterly solo retreat. This is a practice that was modeled to me growing up. My dad would take a day off work go to a monastery up in British Columbia. I remember him assembling his journal and prayer books and how “more himself” he seemed when he came home. I’ve been doing this for years, but very sporadically. This whole “once a quarter” business is a factor of several things—no babies, a flexible job, a husband whose firefighting schedule allows him to be home for a few days in a row, and finding the perfect set-up—a location that’s close to home but feels far away (read more about this place here).

Even so, there’s hesitation when I’m packing the car and leaving notes for the kids. I feel guilty that I won’t be home for a basketball or volleyball game. I rehearse the script about how many people don’t have this luxury or about how retreating from the world won’t save it. I’m nervous about leaving all my distractions behind. Those distractions are comforting, and mask an inner restlessness I'd prefer not to face. Every time, leaving is a counter-cultural act.

I do it to remember I have a soul instead of being clenched in what one poet calls “the fist of survival.” I do it to be bored, quiet, and alone. I do it to have a break from stimuli of all sorts—traffic, emails, texts, social media, doing favors for people, taking care of my family, letting the dog out, helping clients, making plans, comparing myself, or judging myself for not deep-cleaning the bathrooms or remembering to send canned goods for the food drive. All of that is SO LOUD sometimes!

Some of us are naturally more contemplative than others, so the struggle to leave is felt with varied intensity. If you’re an Enneagram TWO, leaving town will be Herculean and a sign of major growth. If you’re a FIVE, maybe you need to stay just for 2 nights instead of 10. (You’re welcome, Enneagram lovers. I’m sorry, everyone else.) Wherever you are in your personality or life stage, though, there’s hardly any practice I’d endorse more.

So if you’re open to the idea, if you sort of get the “why,” maybe the harder part is the “how.” What follows are a few highly subjective tips for the seeker in you who’s curious.

Find a place that’s inspiring and easy to get to. Before I had this rhythm, this was always a huge barrier. David Lynch talks about how artists need the “set-up” that will enable them to walk into their studio and get to work. That’s how I think of this. Maybe it’s a friend’s garden shed, a retreat center, a hotel, a tent. So many options depending on your aesthetic and budget.

Talk to a wise guide while you’re away. I see my spiritual director while I’m here, which is easy since she lives on and maintains this property. But maybe you can talk with a therapist or coach on the phone. It’s so transformative to have this kind of help and input in our lives, especially when silence has primed us for it. I bring in my journal, snippets of books, things I’m happy, sad, or confused about, and we make a tapestry of them together.

Bring a journal. I’m with Natalie Goldberg and Naomi Shahib-Nye and so many others on this one—no one ever felt worse about something by writing it down! Don’t worry about being profound or readable. Just start moving your hand across the page. Also, I usually bring an archived journal or two so I can get up on the balcony of my life and see what’s been brewing on the dance floor.

Assemble a collection of creative and meditative aids. It’s comical in my case. I haul so many things out here. I’ve got cookbooks, Enneagram, spirituality, and coloring books, poetry, novels, Tarot cards, stationary, watercolors. It’s always interesting to see what I feel like pulling out.

Bring simple, nourishing food. If you go to a retreat center with a dining hall, that can be very wonderful. I like to make my own food. For breakfast, I bring yogurt, fruit, bread and butter, eggs, coffee. For lunch and dinners, things to assemble rice bowls and salads—greens, cooked brown rice or quinoa, black beans, roasted yams, sharp cheddar, avocado, chiles. Cheese, crackers, pickles, and a chocolate bar for snacks.

Expect to be antsy. You may think of a million reasons to return to your life. You may look deep and be dismayed to find not much there. You may be forced to sit with sadness, uncertainty, boredom, or fear. Wonderful! If being on devices will be a temptation for you, don’t bring them. Embrace the emptiness, though you may hate every minute of it.

Stay at least two nights. I’ve learned over time that one night isn’t enough. Those first 12-18 hours are a detox, and the next day is where the good stuff happens. I’m finally settled into myself, ready to receive.

The late David Daniels, Enneagram teacher, said, “To make a difference in our world, for our planet, we need to begin by making a difference in ourselves. We so need to be able to do this simple work of getting honest, getting present, and becoming more responsibly conscious…our hope for the future depends on [this] ability.”

Thanks for reading, friends. Here’s to the evolution of consciousness!

Tips for Managing Climate Change-Induced Despondency

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I interrupt my months-long writing hiatus to bring you this heartening post on climate change.

Really. Don't leave yet.

Did you see the movie First Reformed? Did it make you sad? Are you reading the news about California wildfires, villages in India that are becoming uninhabitable? And the loads of things this country is undoing, like international accords, laws to protect endangered species, or emissions regulations?

In the car the other day, Wyatt said to me, "The biggest thing I don't understand is why all of us aren't talking about climate change every second of every day. Nothing else matters if we don't do something about that." Amen, 15 year-old.

I've had an incredible summer outside. I saw an Orca whale breach by our boat off the coast of San Juan Island. I've seen the reefnetting boats in Lummi Island's Legoe Bay, the sun setting behind their tall platforms. I've gone swimming in Bellingham Bay, Lake Samish, Ross Lake, Lake Diablo, Lake Whatcom, and various other inlets around the San Juans. I've walked through the old growth forests of the North Cascades. Today, on my quarterly retreat to a hermitage on the Nooksack River, I hiked 10 miles under the shadows of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan (see photo above taken by me a few hours ago. $%*&!!). Just me, no music or podcasts, hearing every footfall and every horse fly. I had the distinct sensation, the whole time, that I was one with the mountains, with the wildflowers, the expansive sky. That I wasn't a horrible human interloper (which I sometimes believe), but that the mountains and I were together, all part of this mystery of life, sharing our limping planet.

I meet with my spiritual director Jillian as part of my solo retreats (you can find out more about this soul food here). Today, I sat in front of her and cried. I told her I was in love with the world and indescribably sad that it was dying. I told her I didn't know if I had any business bringing children into this mess (too late for that!) and that I needed help knowing how to move forward. What follows are some things she told me, or that I've been thinking about for awhile and am finally putting down here. I hope they help you if you are sad.

Humans may be headed for extinction, but that doesn't mean our planet will not survive. Jillian recounted hearing this from a shaman from Greenland at a climate change symposium she went to. This is comforting to me somehow. Maybe our time on earth is limited, just like the pterodactyls' or tyrannosaurus' time was. Maybe we are part of a much larger story, and the story's arc doesn't depend on our survival. Maybe, in some altered state that we'd never recognize now, our planet will live on without us.

Our calling isn't to save the planet as much as it is to reduce our tendency to harm. Our tendencies to harm one another, to harm ourselves, and to harm the earth are killing us. We're locking families up, still fighting wars, polluting so we can manufacture more things that help us feel in control. No one knows what the cumulative outcome of all this is (though there are some VERY educated guesses and models out there), but that shouldn't prevent us from starting now, in every small way we can, to stop harming. Every small action counts.

The evolution of consciousness is also happening. I'm now officially irritated when I hear people make generalizations about how spiritual ideas are still in the shadows or how evil rules the day. From my perspective, that's just not true. I know people--lots of them--who are opening themselves up to love and working for the flourishing of health, goodness, and connection. Now, more than ever, we need this work. That's what we're here for.

Fear of death is one of the strongest barriers to love and intimacy. Sometimes I catch myself not wanting to love too totally or deeply. As Ivor Williams says, "Death involves everyone. Design accordingly." None of us can escape it, and it will hurt even more if we've thrown ourselves into love. But you know what I'm going to say here--it's worth it. Suffering is where it's at--even the joy. Especially the joy. One of the things I've held onto most fiercely is hearing Joanna Macy say, "You’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more, and actually, we’re made for that. But in any case, there’s absolutely no excuse for making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever. This moment, you’re alive." YES.

Still separate the compost from the recyclables from the landfill. Sometimes, when I'm scraping out the inside of the compost bin and the bacon grease has mixed with the rotten lettuce and it's all topped off with putrid black beans, I think, "What's the point of this when this country is digging up tribal lands for oil pipelines?!" But I need to do it. And other things like buying less plastic crap and  supporting the local businesses and food systems that will keep us afloat once everything else falls apart. Maybe I need a little ritual to perform as I'm dumping the compost: "From dust we came, to dust we shall return. Thank you, universe, for any journey we take between."

Keep becoming a Professional Noticer. I think of Gary Snyder's poem: stay together/learn the flowers/go light. What is more beautiful than that? I recently bought myself a book to identify the native plants and trees I see on my walks and hikes. It's easier to connect to things I can name. There is still so much to cherish, so much to celebrate, so much to SEE. Despair keeps us from doing that. So I'll be carting around that fat book, falling more and more in love.

Feels good to be back here. Jillian and I talked today about putting our work gloves on. These are mine. Lots of love to any die-hard readers out there still.

 

Thank you, Roosevelt Elementary

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We live too close to Roosevelt Elementary to qualify for bus transportation, but too far away to walk. So for seven years, I’ve been there almost every weekday. In a few days, that will change.

I’ve been so busy with work and life that this transition snuck up on me. I remember being a wreck at Wyatt’s fifth grade graduation. This time around, for Loretta, I have been hoping that I pre-grieved it all then and we can just move smoothly onto middle school.

But you know me. I feel it all.

At the end of this post is a poem I wrote about Loretta, who lights up this house, her school, and this world with her hard work, exuberance, and ethic of inclusion. Middle school will probably hold some bumpy moments, but I’m not worried about her. She is ready, and it’s pure joy to see her growing up.

This entry is a tribute to Roosevelt Elementary. When we moved to Bellingham 7 years ago, we toured some schools before deciding where to look for houses. We had been in a few by the time we entered Roosevelt’s unassuming, low-slung doors. A few minutes through the halls though, and I turned to Yancey and said, “This is it.” My lens on Roosevelt has certainly been as a parent, but also as an organizational psychologist who has workplace culture on the brain all the time. It’s a place where students are loved, in large part because the staff loves one another. They are astoundingly clear about their mission to come alongside one another so each student can grow, learn, and experience belonging. Here are a few of my thank-you’s:

Thank you, Teri McKee and Vicki Niles. The above photo is from the goodbye assembly the students had for them this week. Teri has been the music teacher in Roosevelt’s legendary choir and music program for years, and Vicki taught both my children in 5th grade and is retiring after 4 decades of service. The staff organized an alumni flash mob for the assembly, and 50 middle and high school and college kids ran into the gym dancing as part of their goodbye. There wasn’t a dry eye. Neither of these women will ever start their day wondering, “Have I made a difference in this world?” or “What legacy did I leave?” Being part of this celebration was easily a highlight of my year, and the takeaways are obvious: Love. Love fiercely. Work diligently. Finish well. And have fun along the way.

Thank you, Steve Morse, Tom Gresham and Valarie Swenson, for your leadership. Two principals and one vice principal during my time there, all with practices of listening, visibility, empowerment, excellence, and collaboration. This NYT article confirms what I’ve experienced, that great school cultures can’t be build without this kind of leadership. A privilege to behold.

Thank you, Robin Russell and staff, for your powerhouse assemblies. Assemblies at Roosevelt focus on character development—things like persistence, compassion, equity, kindness. I often have the thought that most the adults in my orbit need to be present for these on Thursday mornings. And these gatherings remind me that yes, we are creating a better world. The children trying their best to sit still are soaking up these messages, and they are our future voters, parents, teachers, politicians, business leaders, doctors, inventors, entrepreneurs, and visionaries.

Thank you, Meridith Hansen and Sarah Fairchild, for welcoming Wyatt on his first day of 3rd grade. We had just moved, he was nervous and lonely. You saw that right away and you introduced him to students who are still some of his closest friends today. I know it wasn’t long before his shyness completely melted away. Sigh.

Thank you, Michelle Ostendorff and Gretchen Simmons, for your patience with Loretta’s separation anxiety in the first days of kindergarten. Loretta is aghast now when I tell her the story of screaming and kicking you, Michelle, when I walked away that first morning. I remember Steve (principal) taking my elbow and sitting down with me in another room nearby so I could hear that she did in, fact, calm down. And now, she runs the school. Sigh.

Thank you Jenny Christensen and Megan Thygesen, for your patience with Wyatt in his fourth grade Chatty Chatterton stage, and all while the two of you were having babies of your own! I always marveled at the energy you brought in after sleepless nights with infants. It never once seemed as if you students got less of you. What a miracle.  

Thank you, Jackie Brown, for modeling to me what mindfulness and patience look like. Loretta’s second grade classroom with you had some students who were having tough times at home. When I came in to volunteer, I saw your loving strategy for each one of them. and I marveled at it.

Thank you, Meredith Attar, for giving Loretta what she calls “My best year ever.” She loves math because of you, she stops and breathes because of you, she loves you totally and sweetly.

Thank you, JoLynda Chronister, Shelly McKay, and Sylvia Furman, for your hard work in the office and the way you hold everything together, even on the hardest of days.

Thank you, Denisa Anderson, for instilling in my children a deep curiosity, a love of reading, and the warm, loving presence that radiates from your library out to the rest of the school.

Thank you, Russ and Mary Nuckolls, Penny Wills, Debbie Vasquez, Chris Wermus and Rhonda Shaffer for your patience, smarts, and joy in all the ins and outs of the day. Whenever I see any of you, I feel like things are going to be okay. I know the students feel that way times ten.

And thank you to everyone else who works in that building, serving food, cleaning classrooms, monitoring recess, teaching reading, administering discipline, unwrapping popsicles, answering phones, meeting with parents, sending home permission slips, wiping tears, applying bandaids, and giving so much every single day. There really aren’t any breaks in your world, and I want you to know that I see you. And my children are better for it. And we are all better for it. Thank you, bless you. May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you live with ease. The MK family will miss you.

Fifth Grade Graduation (for Loretta)

I like to soapbox
about how motherhood
isn’t my all-in-all,
how our children need to see us
loving the world, and please
don’t buy me a plaque
that exalts this journey.

I take it all back.
I am nothing
without this 11-year old, her jog-a-thons
and art projects, her popsicle-stained hands
and choir performances and endless
personal-size yogurts.

There’s no meaning apart from
her little loads of laundry
or the list she’s posted
under the bathroom light switch—
“Morning and evening routine—
wash feet if necessary.”

And everything will be lost
when she doesn’t play
Ode to Joy on her recorder,
when she doesn’t need a ride
to volleyball practice,
when the big graduations come
and I buy every motherhood plaque
I can find, finally seeing myself
the way she always has.

Logbook of Aliveness

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Missing Emily this weekend. One of the things I love about us is that, when we are together, we are Professional Noticers. Our antennas are up when it comes to people being especially human. When we were in San Francisco in November, we got on the hotel elevator with a housekeeper. She told us how much joy it gave it her to come to work every day, and that she wasn't ready to be retired. She liked to stay busy and move her body. When we got off the elevator, Emily said, "That will go in our book for the day." That's what this poem is about.

Postcard to Emily

Unusually, I make it to the YMCA this morning,
park in the slackening dawn, fumble with my earphones,
find an empty treadmill. And already,
there are so many things to tell you.

I want to tell you about the 80-year-old man,
grimacing on the bench press. You’d say,
“God. What a lamb. I hope that’s me someday.”

And the clouds over the water, all the shuffled grays,
how this workout room has the best view in town.

And seniors in my stretching class
with their bright white shoes,
their customary places around the multipurpose room.

Especially the one with the red lipstick
who sidles up to me, finds the tag sticking out of my shirt,
deftly tucks it back, and says,
“I’ve done my good deed for the day.”
That would go on the record for sure,
the one we’ve been keeping for twenty years,
the logbook of aliveness
that would be much slimmer
if not for one another.

Practicing Dying

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We are in Palm Springs with in-laws. If I were to keep this entry short today, I'd just say, "Thank you, Universe, for sun, for all of us being alive on the planet at the same time."

But you know me. I'm thinking about some other stuff.

I'm reading Elizabeth Lesser's book Broken Open, and she says, "Carl Jung said that he never met a patient over forty whose unhappiness did not have its roots in fear of death. I agree with Jung, but I would broaden his age range; I have never met anyone, of any age, whose unhappiness did not have its roots in the fear of endings, partings, and the dark unknown of death." Endings, partings, CHANGE in all its forms--they give us practice in letting go, in dying to the way we think things should be. Having a week with my 15 and 11-year old children is prompting all sorts of reminiscing about when they were younger and conjecture about when they get older. The eternal pop rock soundtrack they play at the resort has garnered lots of jokes. Wyatt said, "It's like we're in a commercial for the resort, and their goal is to banish all negative vibes." When I watch my kids playing together in the pool, I'd say it's working, except for the always present thought, "Someday, things will change."

One of my mantras is, "The definition of something good isn't that it lasts forever." But that's hard to believe when it comes to my children. I've never wanted something to last forever as much as I want these parenting moments to last. When Loretta chats my ear off on the way home from school, when Wyatt emotes over a math problem he's figured out, when both of them display their very astute senses of humor, when I hear piano and guitar practice while I'm doing the dishes.

If I move beyond nostalgia, what I get in touch with is sadness and grief. That things will change, that I will miss them, that something might happen to them or to me. Elizabeth Lesser talks about a meditation of "practicing dying:"

Given the nature of existence, you don’t have to wait until something big happens to practice dying. You can begin right now. You can carve out some alone-time in your day, close your eyes, and meditate on the fluid nature of your body, of time, and of life itself...Practicing dying means living as close to reality as we can in each moment.”

Living as close as we can to reality. The reality that life IS change and endings, that sometimes I feel all of that just saying goodbye to my kids in the morning. Standing in the driveway watching Loretta ride her bike down the street is practice for all the goodbyes ahead.

Being here in Palm Springs, surrounded by lots of senior citizens, brings up questions of legacy, of aliveness. It prompts a profound desire to pay attention to my life, to keep working for things I care about, to keep opening up to my soul's purpose and to the pain of the world, to leave a trail of love, connection, and tenderness. What I know for sure, though, is that those things won't come without the sadness, the full catastrophe of life. What a privilege to be in for all of it today, hopefully for tomorrow, maybe even longer.

Happiness in Winter

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Sometimes I'm S.A.D.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing. Some of us Washingtonians know it well. September is heaven. Half of October usually, too. We're so busy loving the fall colors that we give the first big storms a pass, and we're looking forward to Thanksgiving and getting cozy by the fire. December is generally miserable, but there are lots of artificial lights and sweets to go around. January 1 is tinged with "Fresh Start!" energy.

But. You guessed it. Janaury 2 the SADness can really set in. Especially when one stops to calculate that the sog and deep gray likely won't let up until July 5 (The July 4 parade will be rained out. Count on it.) February and March are the hardest. I can't count the number of people I've run into around town the last couple weeks who are fantasizing about moving to San Diego.

Some years are worse than others. I wish I could figure out a formula: If I just do _______, it will be easier. Bad news for you, reader. No formula. For some reason, this year, though just as wet and dreary, hasn't been so oppressive.

Here are some things making me happy this winter:

Organic Produce Box. For 3 or 4 years, we've been getting a Tuesday delivery from Dandelion Organics. They source from as many local purveyors as possible and, in the dead of winter, find other places to get the riot of color that fills those tubs every week. They even leave a treat for the dog. When I come home on Tuesday evenings and see that blue box on the porch, it feels like Merry Christmas. Or Happy Valentines Day. Or You're-Allowed-to-Take-Care-of-Yourself-and-Support-a-Sustainable-Local-Business Day.

My Kick-Ass Kids. Loretta (11) and Wyatt (almost 15) make me laugh every day. They spend a few hours every weekend cleaning the house and doing their laundry, which makes me very happy. (This idea that kids are just supposed to have fun makes me crazy. I count on them!) They are cheerful leaders on their basketball teams, kindhearted toward everyone in their orbits, and make sure I'm staying awake to the world and to my own life.

King-Sized Mattress. We just got one. In my informal poll, apparently we are the last married couple to discover this secret. *&$%!

Binge-Reading. A year ago, I decided I wasn't going to try to cram reading in around everything else. I was going to privilege it the way I make time for my marriage, my kids, my friends, my work. The library and I are very close right now. And my world keeps expanding.

A Little of This, a Little of That. You've heard me say, no doubt, that I can be such an all-or-nothing person. My eyes have been opened to all binaries I create and how they bring unhappiness and imbalance to my life. Truth bombs: I can go to a Barre class without becoming a devotee! I can make friends slowly without plunging to emotional depths immediately! I can make a mistake at work without wondering if I'm in the wrong profession!

Not giving He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named so much Power over Me. There are homeless people to shelter, my own class and privilege to understand and reckon with. There is electricity to be thankful for and local businesses to support. There are people all around me who need love, touch, connection, real-ness. I've got work to do.

Whatever part of the world you're in, whatever you're up to this Sunday afternoon, I hope happiness sneaks up on you. xo

Mantras for 2018

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I guess I really did go into hibernation.

And, as Emily reminded me during our phone call the other morning, resting means that our energy will come back. And boy, it's back.

I find myself inspired all over the place lately. I'm inspired by Elizabeth Lesser's book Marrow. One of the best memoirs I've ever read. I'm inspired by the Making Oprah podcast and hearing how Oprah set about the hard work of evolving over her lifetime even though she could have grown comfortable with success. I'm inspired by all the clients who've sat in my office this month and cried when they talked about wanting to do the right thing or be better leaders. I'm inspired by my sister and her husband in Seattle who are risking a new venture together. I'm inspired by my 14 year-old son, playing his first season of high school basketball, and how he's happily spent every varsity game on the bench, joking around with the other freshman who knows he won't get put in. I am still riled up about all the inequity and oppression having its heyday in our country and world, but it feels like my calling right now is to take actions, however small, that serve the Good in the universe.

I sat down on New Years Day to write in my journal, thinking I'd just jot down a few things. Because I'd had two weeks of sleep, reading, and letting my heart lead the way, I filled the pages. It's amazing what happens when we get quiet enough to hear ourselves again. Amazing what grows in the fertile soil of solitude and under-stimulation.

I wrote the following "rules" for 2018 in just a couple minutes, and I've been sinking into them more and more every day. Here they are, in an annotated version. What is it your heart wants to say to you in this new year?

DON'T SNAP OUT OF THE MOMENT by making jokes or giving advice. I've started to notice a pattern in myself. When shit gets real, when I feel vulnerable or like someone's seeing me a little too clearly, I've gotten skilled at making a joke or saying something that sounds wise. I miss out on so much when I do that! So I'm trying to let myself really see and be seen, shut my mouth sometimes, and let it be awkward if it wants to.

HIBERNATE to stay alive. See above.

MAKE MY OWN NEWS instead of being addicted to the despairing headlines. I went through my phase of over-consumption, my voyeuristic panics. The reality is that I can't immediately do anything about notifications from the decrepit halls of the White House. So instead, I volunteer at the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center. I'm helping raise money for a center that will serve homeless young adults. I'm trying to love my enemies.

BE AS AFFECTIONATE AS I WANT TO BE. Tone it down only if that's the more loving thing to do. I want to err on the side of connection. I have a habit of touching people when I talk to them, and I don't see that changing anytime soon unless it's clear I'm crossing a boundary. Life is TOO SHORT to withhold, too short to be skimpy on praise, to meter compliments, to cause anyone ever to wonder if I think they are a worthy human being.

GIVE TOTALLY AND FREELY no matter my history, future, or relationship with the recipient. I can be a pretty boundaried person, and some of those boundaries have served me well. But I don't need to have them up when they are not needed. I can trust myself to put them up if a situation or relationship calls for that. Otherwise? It's too much work to maintain them all the time. I don't need to be in intimate relationship with everyone in my life, but I certainly don't need to fear vulnerable moments that may or may not culminate in deeper connection in this life or the next.

DILIGENTLY MEET MY RESPONSIBILITIES so I can relax more and more often. It's not a big secret that most of us are more relaxed once we've taken care of business. Since I'm such an all-or-nothing person, I can tend to put off big things for fear that I won't do them perfectly. And that means my downtime isn't really downtime. I want that to change this year. I'm starting with some better systems for email and bookkeeping, and we will see where that leads.

WRITE SHITTY FIRST DRAFTS and get more comfortable with process. Brian Grazer, hit Hollywood Producer (Empire, Apollo 13) got his little movie Splash rejected OVER 1,000 times before it was made! My excuses for not writing or writing and not putting it out there seem pathetic. I'm not out to shame myself, but to care a little less about a grand reveal and work more on the process. Patience has never been my jam.

Happy 2018, folks. Permission granted to be present in our bodies, to open our hearts, to quiet our minds. And see what grows.

 

Advent 2017: Missives from Hibernation

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I've gotten a few nudges from some of you. "Are you going to post every day for Advent again this year?"

After much consideration, my answer is "No,"  though I'll post as the Spirit moves (which may be a lot). The word coming up for me this year is "hibernation." Taking a cue from winter's quiet, listening to what's inside of me, doing some service work, spending time with my growing-up-too fast kids, reading, putting off clients until January, sleeping in with my cute husband whenever possible.

From an Advent devotional called "All Creation Waits" by Gayle Boss, I read this today:

For us, as for our ancestors, the dark end of the year brings unrest. It is an end. It comes without our asking and makes plain how little of life’s course we control. This uncertainty, we don’t know how to mark. And so it marks us. We feel weighted, gloomy even, and we feel guilty because voices everywhere...sing out “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...December sadness is no reason for guilt. It is a sign of being wide awake in the world, awake enough to sense loss...there is a way to engage that sadness. That way is Advent.

How beautiful.

For the last several years, I've struggled with Seasonal Affective Disorder. In the Pacific Northwest, it's not only dark, but WET. The idea of hibernation is helping me go into this season intentionally, like the animals do, knowing that the darkness and silence can actually be my cue to be still, to wait, to conserve energy, feel whatever I feel.

I hope, in reading this, you give yourself the same permission if you need it. Permission to buy less. To eat less rich food. Permission to listen to music, read, take a fast from social media, say "no" to conversations or endeavors that keep you in life-sucking energy expenditures. And the "what for" isn't so we can just be happier human beings and feel less stress. It's all so we can really be in this world of ours, cherishing it and one another, not hiding from what's real. There are terrible things going down right this instant (especially if you're marginalized in any way) and the world needs our gifts. Our voices. Our outrage. So it follows that we really need to rest. I'll be here, too.

 

Thankgsiving and Sorrow

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Friends, as I write this I am perched in my living room letting my sister and Mom do all the work. I sprained my ankle this morning and spent all morning in the emergency room. I'm so relieved it wasn't a fracture (it sure FELT like one!), and I'm laughing that the universe is giving me a big fat lesson in RECEIVING today. Apparently Operation Hibernation is commencing with more vigor than I had anticipated.

There are countless things to be thankful for today and every day. But I've been teaching a class on White Privilege, too, and I'm also acutely aware this year of how this holiday came from subjugation. It usually doesn't happen to me very often that I feel only one thing. Despair comes with anger, happiness comes with wistfulness. Today, thanksgiving comes with sorrow, and I think there's wisdom in feeling it all. Emily and I are reading Miriam Greenspan's "Healing through the Dark Emotions," and Miriam would tell us there isn't a path to growth without going through fear, shame, and despair.

I woke up thinking about all that this morning, and here's a very unedited poem about waking to rain and reality. I'm thankful for all the Native Americans that have survived, and this poem is for them. I'm sorry.

Thanksgiving and Sorrow

Looks like the long Thanksgiving walk I imagined is doomed
unless we want to get soaked and track mud through the house
I spent all day cleaning.

For all our preparations--grocery store runs, baking pies,
setting tables and sending emails--
we are still at the mercy of this earth
and whatever deluge or gift it is hiding.

The first Thanksgiving wasn't a sweet, inclusive feast
with candlelit expressions of gratitude
or the peacemaking we love to imagine.

The Pilgrims gave thanks
after they'd massacred Indians,
raised bloody glasses to conquest, wealth, domination.

Lord, I am ashamed to come from them.

Help me make room at my table
for the storms and the rain, for the stories
I want to forget.

Help me make room for the outrage and heartbreak
that's mine to steward,
for the thanksgiving that will come
only when we've set a place for everyone,
when we've surveyed the damage
and called it our own,
when we know that saying prayers
will never be enough.

Amen.