Just remember to breathe

We knew what to expect, didn’t we? Donald Trump is a street brawler from Queens, turned Manhattan mobster, and he certainly acted the part in the first so-called presidential debate. It was, as everyone bemoaned on the morning after, a disgrace, a national embarrassment, a total sh*t-show.

Well, I have a bright idea. 

The media should stop enabling Trump’s bullying. If he can’t participate in a civilized exchange, fine! Let him and Biden each have their own 90-minute slot to discuss their vision for the country with a moderator (or a panel). 

Let Trump stand in the spotlight all by himself, and put his incoherent, racist, misogynist, arrogant, moronic self on full display. 

And then let Biden do the same. He may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but he looks like an angel next to the orange demon. We’ll take him!

I am straining to reach for a thread of positivity to catch hold of today. I’ve been awake for almost 12 hours, and I’m still straining. 

One thing I know is that for us human herd animals, emotions are contagious and self-reinforcing. One smile leads to another; but the same is true for frowns too. 

When we are constantly bombarded with negative emotions, via the media and each other, the negativity quickly builds into a vortex of toxic energy that whips over the entire psychic landscape like a tornado, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

We have to resist this! This is what Meg Wheatley means when she calls on us to become “warriors for the human spirit,” creating “islands of sanity and calm” in the midst of all the chaos of our time.

This morning I was distressed as I settled on to my yoga mat, in need of the able physical/mental/emotional massage of Jurian Hughes’ gentle yoga class. 

Come back to your breath, Jurian reminded the 80+ people who joined the virtual class. No matter how out of control things seem, one thing you can control is your breath.

And by the end of the hour of deep breathing and slow deliberate movement, I was calm again. Not happy; not buoyant; but calm and ready to face my day.

We can’t control what others do. We can make suggestions, and here’s mine: next time give each man his own stage, or at least turn off the damn microphone so they can only be heard one at a time! 

But on a day-to-day basis all we can do is to try to remain anchored in the present moment of our ordinary, physical lives, which for most of us continue on their own rhythms no matter what the clowns on stage are doing. 

Try not to let your active imagination trigger your fight-or-flight fear reflex over something that is happening far away, or that might happen in the uncertain future. 

When you resist the tornado of fear that threatens to send you spinning into panic or depression over something you can’t control, you are doing your part as a “warrior of the human spirit,” holding your positive vibration steady for everyone.

This matters. It matters for you, and it matters for everyone around you. It matters for the psychic energy of our whole human tribe, and by extension for the health and wellbeing of our entire Gaian web of life. 

For all of our sakes, please—remember to breathe.

In memory of RBG, we must stand up for justice

Moments after the NPR notification appeared on my phone—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died—my social media feeds also lit up with shock and distress. Dear Ruth, so beloved by so many! She tried so hard to stay alive until after the election, and she came close…dying on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

As is often the case with Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah has a serious tone to it. The day RBG died is the first of 10 days of introspection, culminating in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for one’s mistakes over the past year, along with a vow to do better in the coming year. 

Although I am not a practicing Jew, this ritual of taking stock of one’s transgressions at the start of the New Year seems like a wise one to me. I think many Americans are asking ourselves these days: how did it come to this? How did we let it come to this?

Well, my fellow Americans, it came to this because we were not paying close enough attention. We were not willing to rock the boat. We were not willing to give up our comforts. 

Justice Ginsburg was a shining example of a woman who paid attention. She repeatedly rocked the boat to stand up for her principles, and was beyond stoic in her willingness to sacrifice her personal comfort in order to serve her country. 

Imagine, at 87, after several battles with cancer, still working out at the gym to stay fit enough to keep going to work every day at an exhausting, demanding job. 

Gail Collins, in an admiring eulogy column, offered this summary of RBG’s trail-blazing legacy and her legendary grit:

“She came up as part of that first generation of women who proved they could mix families and careers, who stunned the authority figures in even the most demanding parts of their profession with their determination. While she was in law school at Harvard, her husband came down with testicular cancer. She went to his classes, brought him back notes, took care of their little girl … and made the law review.”

So many hard-working professional women today stand on the shoulders of women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thanks to her, the doors to power have been cracked open a little wider, allowing more women to step through more easily. 

But we still have a long way to go, and without RBG at the Supreme Court, or someone like her, America will continue its backslide towards what I can only call patriarchal fascism. 

Thanks to the social and economic devastation of the coronavirus, the wildfires and the hurricanes, coupled with the open train wreck of Republican “leadership” and the twin threats of militarized police forces and death-dealing vigilantism, Americans are finally paying attention. 

The Black Lives Matter movement showed that when people get angry enough to take to the streets en masse, change happens. 

No political tyrants have ever been able to withstand the will of the people when they refuse to go along with oppression. 

Americans above all should know this, coming from a country that proudly celebrates its birth in revolution. 

But revolution, or civil war, is always a tool of last resort. America has prospered as a law-abiding country, with good people like Justice Ginsburg working to bend the moral arc towards justice through the legal system. 

However, if the Republicans have their way, it is quite possible that RBG’s seat on the Supreme Court will be filled by someone who wants to bend the law towards oppression.

Americans have to pay attention, and refuse to let this happen. 

I still can’t understand how we all stood by and let Bush Jr. steal the election from Gore in 2000. 

How have we stood by while the Republicans gerrymandered the districts to give themselves the advantage in the state legislatures?

For that matter, how have we allowed the injustice of the Electoral College to stand for so long?

How have we stood by and allowed police brutality against people of color to continue with impunity?

How have we stood by and allowed women to be hobbled by the expectation that they will do unpaid housework and child care while also working jobs for which they are paid less than their male counterparts?

How have we stood by and allowed the corporate chieftains to throw the planet into the maw of industry, with the resulting extinction of millions of species?

How have we stood by and allowed America to thumb its nose at the rest of the world’s efforts to get a grip on climate disruption?

This long list could be much longer. The point is that in my lifetime, Americans have just stood by as our supposed shining city on the hill became ever more tarnished and corrupted. And now, in our networked, globalized human civilization, we are dragging the rest of the world down with us into the pits. 

Each of us bears some responsibility for the way things are now. And each of us has the power to act to make things better.

Of course, we all have to go vote. That goes without saying. 

But like so many Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, I find it hard to trust that we will have a just electoral process this year. 

And if the vote is stolen, if the election is rigged…then what? Are we going to stand by, like we did in 2000, and let the Supreme Court decide? Of course, that is why the Senate Republicans are suddenly slavering to appoint a Justice now, before the election.

How hard will they have to push Americans before a critical mass decides it’s time to stop standing by and letting the Republicans get away with the murder and mayhem they have inflicted on the country?

No one wants to see civil war erupt in the United States, and yet the conditions are ripe for it: a bitterly polarized citizenry, vast wealth disparity, and the powder keg potential of armed vigilantes and militarized police. 

The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg brings us closer to this nightmare vision. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one tossing and turning last night, unable to sleep. 

I have no words of comfort to offer. 

We are in a transition time and the contractions have started. The pain will be real, the suffering immense. We can only hope that our collective labor will bring a better world into being. 

This morning, I am grateful for the shining example of RBG, who never, ever, gave up. 

Be the prayer

This week has felt hard. It’s reminded me of being in a plane going through stiff turbulence, being bumped around, in possible danger, and without any way to control the outcome of the flight. You just have to hold on tight and pray that the plane is sturdy, the pilots know what they’re doing and all will be well. 

But in this case, we are in the midst of political and planetary upheavals that promise no smooth landing. 

I don’t have confidence in our pilots, a.k.a. world leaders, to carry us safely through the turbulence of climate disruption, pandemic, economic crisis and all the rest of it. 

I know that the rivets are loosening on our “plane,” a.k.a. our planet.

We are in for a rough ride.

All we can do is continue to hold on tight…and pray.

For me, prayer is not about appealing to some all-powerful higher being that can step in to save us. Rather, I think of prayer in the way Mary Oliver described it in her wonderful poem from happier times, “The Summer Day,” when she describes prayer as the act of paying attention to the beauty of the world around her. In this case, it’s a grasshopper she’s watching:

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

The grasshopper invites Oliver’s meditation on prayer:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, 

how to fall downinto the grass, 

how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed

how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

This is indeed the powerful pulsing question of our turbulent time, isn’t it? What are we going to do with the precious time we have left, before we are swept away into the maelstrom of suffering and death?

Glimmers. Photo by J. Browdy

Like Oliver, I believe that the other radiant Gaian beings with whom we share this planet have so much to teach us, if only we take the time to pay attention. 

The biggest difference between humans and other animals is in our vivid imaginations. We humans tell ourselves and each other stories all the time, and sometimes we get so caught up in the stories that they become our reality. 

For example, there I am up in the plane, imagining that any minute the turbulence is going to knock us out of the sky. We’re going to fall, flaming, to the ground! We’re all going to die! I start hyperventilating with terror, even though this is not what is actually happening…in point of fact, we are flying steadily on through the turbulence toward our destination, where, as the pilot has just informed us calmly, we’ll soon be landing.

There is no other animal that expends so much energy on worrying about imaginary future scenarios. Our Gaian relations model for us the equanimity that comes with living tranquilly in the present moment. 

We humans have the capacity to make ourselves sick, physically and mentally, with our neurotic imaginary anxieties.

To counter this tendency, we need to pray, in Mary Oliver’s sense: to ground ourselves in the calm of the natural world around us, and remember to breathe. 

This is probably not possible in the fire lands of the Pacific Coast of the USA right now. It’s not possible when one’s body has been invaded by the coronavirus. In such dire moments, any animal would be rightly terrified and suffering, as so many are at this very moment.

But you who are sitting in some quiet place reading these words…if you are still healthy and well-fed, able to breathe deep and listen to the birds chirping and the wind in the trees…your job is to ground yourself in that beauty and let yourself become not only a receiver but a transmitter for it. 

Send the beauty you inhale out into this turbulent suffering world. Let your attention to the beauty of what surrounds you be your prayer, for yourself and for others.

May our focused gratitude for this precious moment be a balm and a beacon of active hope in a world so desperately in need of the solace of prayer. 

Glory. Photo by J. Browdy

Labor Day 2020: Honoring the labor of birthing in a time of transition

This Labor Day, when I turn the word “labor” over in my mind, the image that comes to me insistently is that of a pregnant woman, laboring to give birth.  

Having been through it twice myself, I can attest that birth is the most miraculous form of labor. There is some kind of intense non-rational knowing that occurs in those final days of pregnancy, an impulsion to go with the mysterious, hormone-driven instinct that comes over a woman as she goes into labor and surrenders herself to the body’s wisdom. 

In my first pregnancy, this inner knowing was marred by the hospital system to which I surrendered my laboring self. I was summarily strapped onto a gurney, hooked up to a fetal monitor, given an epidural and then an episiotomy—all things I had said I did not want when I made up my birth plan with my woman obstetrician, who did not show that day, leaving me in the hands of a male colleague I’d never met. 

Although becoming a mother was the greatest joy of my life, that first experience of labor and delivery was terrible. The anesthesia given in advance of the episiotomy put my legs to sleep, which meant I was sent to the recovery ward  without my baby after the birth. I will never recover from the frantic misery of being separated from my baby in his first hour of life. Of course, he was frantic as well, and it took him weeks, if not months, to fully settle down from the violence of his entrance into the world. 

Therefore I was much more careful in my second pregnancy, making sure I had both a midwife and a birth doula in attendance, with a doctor to be called only if needed. 

I was on my feet or on my knees during the labor, the midwife loosening my birth canal with warm oils, the doula rubbing my back, both of them talking me through the contractions reassuringly. Within a remarkably short time, six hours from start to finish, my second baby came slithering peacefully into the air. He nestled in my arms and latched right on to my breast, looking up at me contentedly.

My two sons, c. 1998

So here I am on Labor Day 2020, more than 25 years after my first pregnancy and labor, thinking about the parallels between the everyday wonder of a woman giving birth, and the great shuddering contractions of this Gaian transition time, as we strain to give birth to a better world.

This Labor Day, as I celebrate all the women who have or will be giving birth, I also want to recognize the hard work all of us are doing as we strive, each in our own sphere, to bring to birth the new, better society that is gestating actively now in our dreams and visions. 

Whether we realize it or not, we are all in labor now. My two very different experiences of birth have taught me that we cannot do this work alone. We need to plan for it with care and make sure we have allies who understand how the hard work can be made easier in community, even if in the end we must fly solo. 

This Labor Day, let’s honor the work of birthing, literal and metaphorical, and offer each other what nourishment and support we can. 

If you are interested in exploring writing as a means of inquiry and discovery, check out my upcoming workshops, including the 9-month Birth Your Truest Story By Nourishing Your Most Tender Voice series, as well as the monthly drop-in Purposeful Memoir for a Thriving Future series.

I’ve got workshops in both series coming up Sept. 13 and 20, and you are most welcome to join! Find out more in my latest WRITING LIFE newsletter, here.

Happy Labor Day, everyone. 

Whatever your work is now, may your efforts bear good fruit.

%d bloggers like this: