Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Pain Free

IMG_3098Sitting by the fire looking out over the snowy March landscape outside my window, I think of Emily Dickinson, a writer who perfected her craft as she dealt with health challenges throughout most all of her short life. My destiny has been the opposite. In uncompromising good health until a few weeks ago, I have avoided having to perform creative activities, or the simple tasks of daily living while being sick or in ill health.

A bout of the flu here, an allergic reaction there, mostly I’ve been blessed with opportunities to put my whole self into whatever projects and goals attracted my fancy. Like most people, I’ve been unrealistic at times, creating stress and strain by demanding more of myself than is possible for a single human being. Perhaps we identify our limits by pushing past them on occasion. Perhaps we stretch our capabilities by using the second wind that appears after the first one dissipates.

In my 30s I got good at pushing myself beyond my limits and then with the help of artistic practices, learning how to heal into a place of ease and balance. Later on, there was the juggling act of family roles and professional goals, self-care practices to stay healthy while supporting family members going through their own health challenges.

My initiation into the world of ill health began with sixteen days of excruciating headache pain. I became engrossed in symptom relief; hot showers and cold compresses, Advil, essential oils and naps while we hunted for medical professionals who could get to the bottom of it all and return me to the world of the well. Occasionally, there were short opportunities for normalcy, to teach a class or attend a dance concert, but life as I had known it seemed long ago and far away.

Finally, dramatically, I got to the right professionals, got the correct diagnosis and most importantly, the potential disaster of losing my eyesight was averted. Gratitude for that as I live into my new role as a patient in recovery.IMG_3099

My father always said, there’s a bit of poison in every medicine, and the miracle drugs western medicine has developed are no exception. The challenge now is managing both the short term and long-term side effects of the medication that is keeping me pain free.

My view of what’s realistic and doable under my present circumstances demands constant discernment. I must be cautious and careful, mindful of what energy is from the medicine and what energy is truly my own. Slowly, carefully, I’m returning to the physical practices that have kept me healthy in the past; a half a yoga class here, 45 minutes of Zumba there. Health challenges are always a reminder of our fragility but also of the gifts of a good night’s sleep, the love and support of friends, and gratitude for the opportunity to move pain free throughout our world, for however long that is possible.

 

It Matters HOW We Talk About The Issues

tweetybirdFeels worse to me than fingernails on a chalkboard, the way the current public discourse is being conducted. As a parent and family therapist I’ve long known the power of healthy communication and how central it is to the health of a family. Now I’m learning how healthy communication is central to the health of a nation as well.

In healthy families there are ground rules and people get called out when they don’t follow them. Speaking for oneself is critical, along with listening carefully to others to be sure you understand what they’re trying to say. It’s off limits to repeat something that someone else said in confidence (that’s gossip), and name-calling and telling a lie are definite fouls. They destroy the trust that all healthy relationships are based on. 

Since these errors and others have been running rampant in our country, we all seem to be learning the power of unhealthy communication, especially when it’s repeated via the megaphone of blogs and media outlets. This is why I was delighted to linger in my driveway the other day to hear Brooke Gladstone interview

cognitive linguist, George Layoff during the NPR show “On The Media.” He analyzed Trump’s use of language in his Tweets, labeling 5 types of miscommunication or what I would call “fouls” or “distortions.” http://will.illinois.edu/news/story/a-taxonomy-of-trump-tweets

  • Pre-emptive Framing – Putting the idea out there first so that people will more likely accept your take on a subject. His example – “the Democratic National Committee were embarrassed because they lost big.” Fact checking, the truth is – the election was the closest in modern times.
  • Diversion – Get people talking about something else rather than the issue. This happened the day the lawsuit involving Trump University was settled.
  • Trial Balloon – Put an idea out there and see how people react. This has been around a long time but usually someone on the team does it so it’s easier to walk back if the reaction to the idea is not a good one.
  • Deflection – Attack the messenger instead of responding to the message. “Meryl Streep is overrated.”
  • Bad news – Even in 140 characters it’s possible to have all four errors in the same tweet.

My three children introduced me to some of these “slight of mind games,” Mostly good kids, there were occasions when they attempted to manipulate the truth, and their parents, for their own gains. We of course would call them on it, and the maturation process helped them develop healthier ways of getting what they wanted.

Dr. Lakoff recommended that the media call out the errors and not just repeat them, thus aiding and abetting the misinformation Trump is hoping to spread. He advised members of the media to do what good parents do in families, tell the truth, report the errors in the tweets, and call out what kind of errors they are.

ImprovJam2My recommendation – Trust the structure of Improv’s “Yes And.”    Last Sunday afternoon, my improv troupe Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and guests artists played with the tough stuff inherent in these tough times. In the presence of respectful witnesses we used the tools and techniques of InterPlay to express our reactions and concerns though movement, voice, and story. The outcome – fun, and a strengthened resolve to move forward through community collaboration and connection.  

Happy Merry Us

happy-holidaysWhen I googled “Holiday Stress” this morning, I got 7 million, 500 thousand items. Top picks were articles and blogs attempting to help people manage their holiday stress. As an expert on dealing with tough stuff, I feel obliged to jump into the fray of suggestions for surviving and thriving this holiday season.

Let’s first look at the stress we create for ourselves.

  • What about the big deal hassles over the proper way to wish a friend a happy winter holiday? In an effort to be inclusive of all citizens, the White House has sent Happy Holiday cards for the past 8 years. Some Christians take that as an insult, as a “war on Christmas.” Some Jewish people have their own issues on greetings at the holidays. Coming out of my health club yesterday I overheard a couple of Jewish women ridiculing a non-Jewish woman’s mispronunciation of Hanukkah, or Chanukan. (For those who don’t know, to pronounce either word correctly, a soft guttural clearing of the throat needs to precede the H or C.) And this matters why?
  • How come we expect our holiday season to always and continuously, be happy? This unrealistic obligation pumps pressure into all our activities; In searching for just the right gifts, planning decorations and menu items we’ve seen in magazines, addressing holiday cards to business contacts that reflect our brands, and writing an annual letter to friends and family recounting all the happy successes of the past year.

Meanwhile in the real word – life continues as usual – people get sick, family members disagree, loved ones die, accidents happen, and bad weather delays travel plans. Instead of blaming ourselves, one another, or the gods, for this unexpected bad timing –

How about…

1) Lowering our expectations, it’s just a fleeting season of the year

2) Calling on helpers, both seen and unseen, while reaching out to help others

3) Saying yes to whatever cannot be avoided and asking ourselves “what good can come from this?

4) Continuing the radical self care practices that have kept us sane and healthy throughout the rest of the year  

5) Honoring those no longer with us by sharing stories of when they were here, or giving a gift in their name to a charity or cause they believed in

6) Connecting with previous experiences of peace, joy and love and bringing them into the present moments of this particular holiday season.

Allow me to wish you a blessed holiday season and a peaceful,  joy-filled New Year.

 

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

A Visit to Who We Used To Be

img_2724While visiting relatives in Boston this past weekend we toured the Presidential Library of John R. Kennedy, our 35th president. This experience confirmed an important truth I learned from two of my African American girl friends, from their culture – Sankofa. It means sometimes it’s necessary to go back in order to go forward. For my sister and I, reliving the inspiring political conversations that took place before we were old enough to vote, proved to be a balm to our troubled souls.

The goal of the library with its 5 million pages of personal, congressional, and presidential papers, 500,000 photographs and 12,000 reels of sound recording, is to promote greater understanding of American politics, the process of governing, and the importance of public service.

In the 60s politics wasn’t a dirty word as it has become in present time. It’s been difficult to watch lately, as people believe a candidate when he declares what he alone will accomplish. This widespread gullibility demonstrates profound ignorance of the process of governing in a democracy. Let’s hear it for amping up high school civics classes. But It’s that last goal – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that ignited our hearts. It took us back to a day when serving one’s country and the greater good were what we young people aspired to.

The sections on the initiations of space travel to the moon, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the nuclear test ban treaty, the civil rights legislation – left us in awe of all that was accomplished in three short years. Of what’s possible when our country is united behind an articulate, inspiring servant leader.

President Kennedy had his own version of Sankofa when he said, “We celebrate the past to awaken the future.” As this past election process has been teaching us, when we do not stay true to the wisdom of our better angels, our collective demons take over our public and private lives.

What’s a patriotic citizen to do? I was especially inspired by Kennedy’s response when asked by the press if he was enjoying serving as president. He said that he agreed with the ancient Greek definition of happiness, which was “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” My sister and I decided we needed to revisit more historical  that inspire us to do that.

The Cost of Our Current Conveniences

kinzua-damHere just before Thanksgiving, a national holiday that encourages gratitude for the gifts of plenty most citizens enjoy, I’m reminded of the First Peoples who lived here before European refugees, settlers, and immigrants arrived.

This past fall representatives of over 300 tribes have been gathering in prayerful demonstrations in North Dakota at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Their aim is to prevent an oil pipeline from crossing their land, threatening their water and the sanctity of their sacred lands. My grade school images of the first Thanksgiving where white and native peoples supposedly sat down together did not foretell the environmental racism that still continues 300 years since.  

All this and the fact that I now have a granddaughter who is Native American has caused me to look closely at where I stand and what I am willing to stand up for. The following piece is the result of what these experiences are making of me.

Floods No More

“Aren’t you afraid of flooding?” people ask

when they visit our home on the Allegheny River.

Floods can be monsters claiming everything you own and hold dear.

But our safety is insured by the Kinzua dam constructed upriver in 1965 on

Seneca tribal lands. 10,000 acres were flooded including ancestral burial grounds.

This broke the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty, signed by President George Washington.

The lake behind the dam is known as Lake Perfidy (treachery and betrayal).

Unaware of this cost, from the edge of our newly expanded deck

I’m convinced we have the best backyard in all of Pittsburgh.

That’s White Privilege.

 

Hard Times Demand Playful Dancing

rich-laverne-lynnTwo days after the election I awoke with muscle aches and a hint of a sinus infection I thought I was finished with. But my overwhelming sensation? A savoring, after-glow from the play-based ritual my improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and I created last night.

We gather for rehearsal most Thursday nights and our practice is to play with “what’s up?” Two days after the unexpected seismic election it wasn’t hard to find the theme strongly on our hearts and minds.

Using dance, song, story, and stillness, (the birthright practices of our ancestors, wherever they came from), we created a safe container and ways to express ourselves as individuals and as a group.

Here’s how it works –

  • Warm up together physically in order to get in our bodies and to create a sense of a group body. Especially necessary after highly charged experiences that may have shut down our breathing or caused us to exit our bodies.
  • Use an InterPlay improv form or “game” that allows us to hear from each person as they express in words and movements- “what’s up?” for them.
  • Play with a partner to mine our stories about the over-arching topic, elections and U.S politics. In the form, “I could tell about….” we take turns naming memories or images that come to mind.
  • Select forms that allow people’s stories to exist side-by-side, creating for the observer a sense of the larger group story.
  • Using shape and stillness, we dance on behalf of people not in the room who are particularly affected by this election. (Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, disappointed young women and old women who will not live to see a woman president.)  
  • Create a song to lift our spirits to a hopeful future – Last night the line we sang and played with was, “The farther back we pull the bow string, the farther goes the arrow.”

As Mr. Rogers reminded us, “Play is the work of children.” I’m fortunate to have adults in my life willing to join me in connecting with our child within. That’s where our fears, disappointments, dreams, and creative energy reside. Play turns out to be a secret path to accessing what we need to move forward, individually and collectively, into a joy-filled future, no matter the circumstances.

What Happens After the Election?

no-problem-can-be-solved-from-the-same-level-of-consciousness-that-created-it-albert-einsteinOur county’s going through a tough time. No matter which candidate you favor, or whether “none of the above,” is your preference, you would probably agree that the way forward looks bleak whoever wins next Tuesday. Bitterness is the residue of the quarrelsome public conversations that have left many of us feeling disrespected and discouraged. Parents and teachers are embarrassed that our children have witnessed grown-ups’ engaging in behavior we would not tolerate from them, – name-calling , bullying, attacking one another’s personalities. Whatever happened to the loyal opposition – respectful discussions between people who hold different points of view.

We like to feel that either the situation is hopeless but it isn’t serious or it’s serious but it isn’t hopeless. But when the situation feels both serious and hopeless, we fear for the survival of our democracy.

What is the way forward towards a resilient recovery, personally and as a nation? Since I’ve become a kind of expert in helping people get through tough stuff I plan to practice what I teach.

  • Keep an optimistic mindset, no matter the circumstances – Our right to vote was hard fought for by our ancestors and for many peoples around the globe, voting is still an allusive dream.
  • Give and get help. I’m walking my community on behalf of the candidates I support, every step a prayer that encourages and hopefully enables others who agree with me to cast their votes.
  • Take part in rituals that heal – Remembering what Einstein said that “no problem can be solved from the level of consciousness that created it,” on November 13th, I plan to join a national ceremonial Day of Healing and Reconciliation sponsored by the Meditation Museum in Washington DC. In the spirit of unity, forgiveness and solidarity there will be local events around the country.

Rituals are the way we heal. Join me in this national ritual that will allow us to step back for a broader perspective, identify our commonalities as human beings and come together in a container large enough to hold our differences. We owe this to our children and grandchildren coming after us. https://www.facebook.com/dayofhealingandreconciliation/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE

Let Me Read It To You

My then 20s something daughter said it best. “The main problem for my mother is that she has always been ahead of her time.” She supported this assertion with the statement that her mother had used what was then called “natural childbirth” when she was born. She added that her friends, who were just beginning to learn that taking drugs during labor might not be advisable, couldn’t believe her mother had acted on that so many years before.

Perhaps creative people have always had this problem but in the present era’s ubiquitous focus on branding, the timing and seeming appropriateness of an idea or project seems to have become even more critical. Being seen as a trendsetter is of value, but it’s not advisable to get too far ahead of where most of the herd are grazing. So recently I’ve been paying special attention not only to what’s emerging in my creative consciousness, but also to what’s happening in the larger culture, hoping for some possible connections during my lifetime.

Here’s the way my creative process works. Like most people, I get a lot of ideas, but every now and then, one idea won’t leave me alone. It continues to emerge and reemerge in spite of my efforts to question the advisability of acting upon it. Take for example the idea of writing a book. I wrote a book that I started with a co-author in 1985 and my version was finally published with me as the sole author in 1992. The process was so grueling that I told myself I would never write another book.

The idea to write another book came to me sometime in 2006, but it had to keep competing with the part of me that had taken that vow of “never writing another book.” I’m happy to say that the process of writing the second book was much more grace-filled and enjoyable than the first, but it did take, just as the first book had taken, seven years to become a reality. So perhaps our reticence to act on our inspirations exists to protect us from all the years of work that will be required to go from idea to reality.

Closet StudioSo here I am again, about to act on one of my ideas, to “ground my vision in reality, “as Anna Halrpin would say. Almost from the beginning of working on my second book I thought about the idea of creating an audio book version where I would read to my “readers”, making the book available for people to listen in their cars, or on their mp3 players while they worked out in their gym or garden. In the ensuing years, this idea has grown into a passionate desire.

Since Warrior Mother was published by She Writes Press in 2013, I’ve been Performing the Book, around the country and internationally, reading passages from the book while improvisational InterPlay performers respond with stories from their own lives. This idea, conceived as a way to get the word out about my book, has been most satisfying for me, and I believe for the participants who have performed or witnessed it.

All this practice in reading sections of my book out loud has given me the confidence to hire a sound engineer to help me create a sound studio in my closet and read and record the entire book for an Audio version of Warrior Mother.

Those inner voices of reticence and dissent have been making quite a ruckus lately as I prepare to act on what is now a burning desire. But all that became silenced this morning when I read Wyatt Mason’s article, Audio Books Read By the Author in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-audiobooks-read-by-the-author.html?_r=0

Mason begins by extolling the virtues of poets reading their own work but then he says, “I would extend Rilke’s idea beyond poetry to prose. Because in prose, the author’s voice is even more essential to making the text not only intelligible but also meaningful.”

As I enter my sound chamber/closet to begin production of my audio book tomorrow, I take this as encouragement from the universe that this project will be both timely and relevant, and serve the purposes for which I intend it. Stay Tuned.