Subtitle: Seasonal Affect Disorder in March

Today’s break in this year’s unending winter weather prompted me to take a nature walk.  I wanted to take advantage of this: 

Glenn Carlyn Park today

Glenn Carlyn Park today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before the weather once again turns to this:

My yard last week

My yard last week

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t a beautiful day, the sky was milky but it was warm which brought out all manner of creatures;  squirrels, joyriders, walking widows and kids. Lots and lots of kids. There were also lots and lots of birds, mostly robins.  I didn’t need my binoculars to watch them as they were confident enough to hop and peck around the mish-mash of natural material on the ground. Apparently they gathered, discussed and decided we walkers were no threat. I  thought I was there in the park to bird watch but it turned out I was actually there to contemplate, write and look for signs of spring. It appears, we’re not the only creatures sticking our “necks” out on hope and optimism:

IMG_2570

Anyhoo….Today’s weather reminded me of a poem I wrote a few years ago titled:

Spring’s Deception

Do you feel the sun waking warmer in the morning?
It’s gentler when rising every day.
It spends time a little longer now
Chasing the winter blues away.

Did you notice the air has changed its’ smell?
It’s including a trace of the earth.
It’s teasing with that aroma of promise
Suggesting of green and rebirth.

There are days when the chill is obstinate
Then spring’s certainty seems a cold deception.
But March winds will blow the clouds from here
In time for the sun’s scheduled reception.

  

Winter Meditation: Tribes-Trying to Feel Connected

IMG_2285I wrote in my last post about how we cling to the tendency to divide into tribes and what I image a world wide tribe would look like. It was an optimistic post bordering on naive.  It’s a subject that’s important to me because I was brought up without a sense of being part of a specific population so I think a lot about who and how people form social groups.

I want to begin by talking about the positive aspects of the way I grew up. I never felt I was forced to have an alliance to any group, clan, or other homogeneous body and there’s a certain freedom in that. I always felt removed from the bubble of ethnocentricity. That can be beneficial. As Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation explains in the discussion of his  Second Stage of Spiritual Development,

“At Stage Two, your concern is to look good outside. Your concern with pleasing the neighborhood, the village, your religion, or your kind of folks becomes such a way of life that you get very practiced at hiding or disguising any contrary evidence. That’s why it is so dangerous… Your whole identity becomes defending your external behavior as more moral than other people, and defending your family, your community, your race, your church or temple or mosque, your nation as superior to others.”

So I was spared that kind of “tribal thinking” and that’s a good thing. I’m more apt to interpret the clan affiliation of individuals in a global context. It also allowed me to be more objective about human behavior. I could observe it without feeling too invested to be objective. I think the reason I studied journalism was to learn how to write social commentary that was as unbiased as possible. I’m glad and grateful for that.

The downside was that kind of “otherness” made for a sometimes lonely, always complicated  upbringing and personhood. It’s taken me up to this, the third trimester of my life, to internalize that humans are social beings and I’ve come to truly believe that we’re all connected in The One. But I was brought up divorced from the cultural group that I would naturally have been a part of, the African American community, so my socialization within it was cut off. I was disconnected and because of the way American society was when I was growing up, I couldn’t feel part of any white social group. Those groups saw me as part of the separate black world. On the other hand, I had a parent who told me that I wasn’t part of that community so it was hard for me to know where my place actually was. Eventually, I came to feel that my place was totally “outside”. My saving grace was that I’m naturally an introvert and need a lot of solitude anyway so isolation wasn’t completely intolerable to me. But still we all have an intrinsic need to feel connected to others. My feeling of being an outsider is also why its been hard for me to practice compassion (I posted about this in Back To The Bow) and conversely seeking connection is what’s made it so important to me.

My mother, may her soul rest in peace, I understand her rationale, I absolutely do. She grew up in a time when institutional racism wasn’t even questioned and she had the desire and the intelligence to do so much. She wanted to break out of the confines that were dictated by racism but felt as if she couldn’t in the life she was born to, so she ran. She ran from the south, from the memory of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction and the Great Migration. She had to reinvent herself down to the cellular level to excise all those memories. She was wasn’t unique. In his book How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston chronicled the phenomenon in other African Americans and even said at one point,  “..lots of black people have had the desire to escape their blackness.” But my mother went so much further than that. She was an African American Jake Gatsby. She reinvented where she was born. She reinvented her spirituality. She changed whatever she felt she needed to in order to mitigate the consequences of being black. I’ve written here before about the distance that put between my nuclear family and my traditional culture. (Conflict In Commemoration) There was an absence of things like a black church and trips down south for me to see ancestral homes or visit gravesites. My mother was trying to live up to her potential and by the sixties when things started to change she had hope that her children would not have to be afflicted with the limitations that she felt had hemmed her in. That’s why she didn’t want us to be defined by African American culture, which to her reflected those limitations.

There were of course, a lot of flaws in her thinking. One was that she assumed we would want the life she wanted.  I’ve come to understand as a parent that you can’t assume that about your kids.  The biggest flaw however was that she didn’t realize we might feel alienated in the larger society by not being able to relate to a specific culture. She grew up in an all African American community so I don’t think she ever understood what it was like not have that relationship. She could always relate because try as she might, she was never fully unyoked  from the culture. But she needed to see it as an intellectual exercise and not feel it as an emotional condition.

My mother did the best she could and she thought she was doing right by us. Unfortunately, it was a life fraught with challenges to our identities that the three of us found hard to get through to varying degrees. So that’s another one of the reason I had to come south.  I’ve been fortunate enough to form a strong sense of self that includes but is not exclusive to my African American heritage. Yet I still want to embrace the missing and difficult parts of our past that my mother felt she had to escape. Every time I walk around in Old Town Alexandria on ground where “contraband” slaves once lived during the Civil war, my history is finally personal. I can plot the place at Arlington National Cemetery that was once the Freeman’s Village. I drive around the VA countryside contemplating what my ancestors thought of the weather, the soil and the work. In those ways I create a link to people, place and time; a sense of sharing in a legacy. I didn’t experience the kind of intimacy with my familial history in New England the way I do here. I have a richer perception of my identity now that includes pain and sorrow. It leads me to feel sympathy for other people who are facing similar struggles and compassion for those of us, not just black folks, who live with the challenging aspects of our shared American story.  It allows me to feel part of something larger than myself.

String Theory

Wikimedia Commons

What music are you listening to today?

I was listening to The Goat Rodeo Sessions during my walk this morning. I really love that CD and I’ve written about it here before. A quartet of players make magic by strumming, plucking and stringing us along. The ringleader is Yo-Yo Ma.

Wikimedia Commons

Wu Man was one of Yo-Yo Ma’s ensemble members on the incredible Silk Road Project. She is a virtuoso pipa player who wrote and recorded a solo piece called Dancing that I listen to frequently. When I close my eyes and listen I can see people from many different cultures…dancing together. I see Polynesian warrior dancers, S. African Zulu dancers and Australian aboriginal dancers. I see American western barn dancers in addition to Chinese folk and Japanese dancers. And in the middle of the them is Ms. Wu playing the pipa, the beautiful Chinese string instrument. I thought about the images that Dancing evokes when I read this quote from Yo Yo Ma:

“. . .Nothing great was ever produced in isolation.” Ma says his study of history at Harvard University led him to realize that Eastern and Western cultures are not self-contained, but have mixed since at least the time of Alexander the Great. “Even something as basic as our Western major and minor keys may have originally come from the amazingly complex modes of classical Persian music…”And there’s a continual tradition in the West of incorporating music from other parts of the world.” The pattern continues with instruments, too, he said. “The guitar and the sitar are obviously related — even linguistically. The oud moves west from Persia to become the lute; it moves east to become the pipa. And a European hears an erhu and says it’s purely Chinese, a Chinese violin, but in Chinese the word ‘erhu’ means ‘two-stringed foreign instrument,’ ” Ma said.”  (AP 4/9/07)

Isn’t that a wonderful observation? Culture is fluid, so why do we remain committed to the confines of the concept of “tribes”? We can draw lines in the sand and make claims in the name of “our people” but all it takes is losing ourselves in something as universal as music to see the truth of human connectedness. I can ponder that truth as quantum physics or I can think about it in philosophical terms but what I really like to do is close my eyes and listen to the strings. 

Wrap It Up

webclipart.about.com

NEW YEARS.  It’s the time we use to mark the passing of the old and the beginning of the new. I don’t go in much for traditional rituals so I do my year-end assessment a little differently. First, I don’t think of a year as being “gone”. I like to think I bring every precious, previous minute into the one I’m living right now. In that way time is never “lost”. Secondly, I don’t make resolutions. I feel that’s a sucker’s game and I try not to set myself up for failure. What I like to do instead is reflect on the best lessons I’ve learned in the past year. I have no doubt that the best lesson I learned in 2013 was disciplined anger.

Last August I wrote about a conversation we had in my church group about anger. We were considering whether as Christians we can ever accept anger as justified. It took place a few days before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and I admit, I had righteous anger on my mind. I was loud and adamant in my opinion. I blogged about it and even made a video to bring home my point. In the post I said, “I think anger and a thirst for justice are at the forefront of movements for equality and non-violence is not so much a belief system as it is a political strategy.” Well, I was wrong. I made a mistake by framing the question in foot-stamping emotional terms. I was childish and churlish. I didn’t take the opportunity to reflect maturely in a deeper spiritual way. Then a wise friend of mine sent me a link (http://www.inc.com/hitendra-wadhwa/great-leadership-how-martin-luther-king-jr-wrestled-with-anger.html) to an article about Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. (Thanks Janie!) Here’s the quote from it that was the eye opener I needed, 

“…the words of another great leader, the one who taught Martin Luther King, Jr. his signature technique of peaceful struggle, Mahatma Gandhi. “I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world.”

Wow, “heat conserved, “peaceful struggle”. I guess that’s why Martin Luther King could admit he was angry that his home had been bombed and still move forward; he learned the lesson. How spiritually well grounded does a person have to be to transform anger into a positive power, including the power to understand “the other” and practice courtesy? And how mature does a person have to be to then use that energetic power as a tool for positive action? I had to sit with that and be honest enough to say I was lacking. And I’m still working on it because I realize the lesson doesn’t just apply to social justice. I had to look at the behavior in my personal life and admit I have a pattern of seeing my anger as justified. As we all know, it’s easy to be an ass when you feel righteous. I’m very good at rationalizing my opinion as fact in order to feel superior or feel I have “won”. Even knowing that, I have to remind myself of the power of disciplined anger constantly because I forget so often. (Sorry to the apartment management and the daughter who gave me the gift certificate for Christmas.)

There are other lessons I learned in 2013 but that’s the best one. I’ll take it and the others, along with the cumulative moments of my life gratefully into the time to come. I hope you look at the days past, realize the good and go forward wishing for the best.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

My (Partial) Gratitude List

Kat:

I just returned from an 18 hour stay in Boston. I was there for the beautiful funeral of a good friend who greatly enriched my life. It was a profound juxtaposition to the dinner the night before with my cherished family. I gave thanks for all of it which reminded me of my gratitude list. I obviously need to add to it (Nyla’s face!) but I’ll reblog it for now.

Originally posted on Stop Along The Way:

GloryThe Divine One’s Love
The Divine One’s mercy
Love
The love in my heart 
My kids
Olivia
The memory of Bill
Memories in general
The roof over my head
Constant affirmation of my sensibility: it really is The One
Absurdist humor
Humor in general
Music, always and forever
The music of my roots
The big one: hot water on demand
London
Things that grow in the ground
I saw Barack Obama elected president
My health
My health insurance 
My safety
Each new day
I don’t go hungry
Good food, of course
The ability to say, “I don’t know”
My kids grew up safely
The sky
The ocean
Songbirds
Nature in general
My sibs
My friends
My cousins
Freedom from want
The human body heals itself 
The fact that thoughts are private
The human voice
The ability to read
The ability to write
I don’t have fertility issues anymore
I’m not…

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NaNoWriMo….Nope.

There is only one week left of NaNoWriMo. Are you one of the brave writers taking on the challenge? I don’t do well under pressure so although I’ve known about the annual writing  contest held each November for a while, I haven’t thought to participate… until this year.

I started my first novel last June. I ‘d actually been kicking around the idea for a few years. Membership in my writer’s group helped immeasurably in giving me the confidence to tackle it. I was energized and organized but proceeding slowly so in October I brilliantly decided that I would take advantage of National Novel Writing Month to move the novel along. One of my biggest problems when writing is fine editing too early in the process. I’ll go back and rewrite the first paragraph three times before I complete a page. The result of this habit has been many unfinished pieces. I told myself that I wouldn’t hold strictly to the rules, that I just wanted to get as close to 50,000 words as possible without stress outside of my own standards of discipline. I figured if I concentrated on the word count I’d get down all the fabulous story ideas that have been sitting in my head (and outlined in my notes) without the impulse to perfect every word already on the page.

Do you want to know what happened? I hit a wall at 20,000 words, that’s what. All of a sudden I didn’t know what I was doing or what the story was about, no matter what my notes said. My characters stepped off the pages and said to me, “C’mon now, this is long but it isn’t good. We don’t believe what we’re saying because you’re not being real about what all of this means. Slow down, dig deep and tell the truth.” That really made me mad! I spent a whole week pouting (not writing) because my goal had been thwarted.  But I also spent the time thinking. And I started examining two very important truths about myself. First, that my novel isn’t really fiction. Like many other authors, by telling this tale I’m trying to exorcise a pain born from my own life experience. Second, that I have a unique voice that doesn’t sound like Proust or Morrison but its distinctive tone makes me a good writer anyway. Then I had to review basics like character development and plot lines. It was an unhurried process that was both a relief and a revelation.

And what is the outcome of all of this? A MUCH better draft of the novel, that’s what. Yeah, I had to throw out thousands of words and allot extra time to sit and really listen to that voice in my head but it was worth it. It turns out that trying to get as much of the story down as possible prompted me up to the next level of writing. Now the words that flow aren’t forced or stilted. The lives of my characters will be as layered as they need to be and the themes that are so important to me will be natural and honest. I’m sure there are writers who will end this month with cohesive works made up of the requisite number of well-crafted words. I won’t be one of them. I should reach 50,000 words by next June and that’s fine by me.

The Conflict in Commemoration

Slave and Free States before the Civil War. Wikimedia

This coming November 19th marks the anniversary of the Gettysburg address and last July was the anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg. Here in the southern U.S. it’s kind of a big deal. There were battle re-enactments in the summer and there will be a whole “Dedication Day” at the Gettysburg National Military Park on Tuesday.  Actually, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of several significant Civil War events. I mentioned this to a couple of friends of mine in Boston. Both had basically the same reaction, “And you still want to live in the south?” These friends are northeast liberals for whom the Civil War is a symbol of other people’s misguided ideas, other people’s shame and other people’s loss. (Sometimes it feels to me like every person I know who lives in Cambridge, Mass claims to have a house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad.) They seem to feel as though the facts of the Civil War don’t have anything to do with them. Here in the south I’ve seen people gaze on Confederate graves with sincere reverence for those who lost their lives. I think some of my friends up north would say there is no honor to recognize or commemorate. It’s interesting to me that both points of view can exist at the same time without a synthesis.

I freely (irony intended) admit that I’m as liberal as they come but I see the Civil War not as either/or but rather a both/and situation. And I think the difference in perspectives about the Civil War epitomizes the sad, oversimplified divisions played out in our national politics now. Instead of the gray and the blue it’s the red and blue. Why can’t we face both the repugnance and the importance of the War together? Maybe what we should do as a nation on this 150th anniversary is reflect on the both/and of the war:

-the US split apart and then was knitted back together through the leadership of one of the most effective presidents elected by its people.
-it was the most deadly conflict in US history and resulted in the constitutional end to the institution of slavery.

In an interview for CNN, “Mike Litterst of the National Park Service said interpretations at federal Civil War battlefields have evolved in the past 25 years. Besides telling the story of the battles and the homefront, exhibits increasingly stress the importance of the conflict to civil rights and the role of African-Americans, thousands of whom served in the Union Army.” (Thousands at Gettysburg for 150th… )

Personally, the Civil war represents the missing and mysterious parts of my family history.  I come from an African American family that chose to forget the fact of slavery, the Civil War and the legacy of both. It was too painful for them to think about because it didn’t allow them to believe that they could live equally in the U.S. They swept any knowledge of ancestors and relatives with connections to the south and slavery under the rug and began our family story with their lives in the north. Maybe by living here in the South and being present at events that commemorate the Civil War I can exorcise the ghosts of my family’s shame. I can reframe, as the National Park Service seeks to do, the way in which we look at our history into a both/and. We were enslaved in the south under a horrible institution and endured. We fully participated in the struggle of divergent interests and with slavery behind us we decided our fate by looking forward to a different place and time. Yes, I feel much more comfortable with the totality of both/and.

 Dedication Day at the Gettysburg National Military Park is November 19th. The ceremony “will observe the 150th Anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The event takes place in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery,”. There will also be a graveside salute to the U.S. Colored Troops.  For more information visit the website, Gettysburg Dedication Day