If I should die, before WE wake…

If you have managed to avoid seriously contemplating your own mortality in the midst of a global pandemic, well, good for you, I guess…? I’m a philosopher and, as such, contemplation of my own mortality is a thing I’ve done for years. Our collective “situation” has merely made my interrogation of the topic somewhat more urgent, however. Here are some of my reflections:

  1. We are all temporary, individually. This is not a new idea and I’m certainly not claiming the insight as original to me. What has become clearer to me through this time in relative isolation is a more visceral understanding of the concept. My life is a blip on the radar screen of space & time and I’ve been compelled to reflect upon my impact which is, admittedly, difficult to assess from a purely individual perspective. One thing is abundantly obvious to me, however- my life’s meaning is found in my relationships to and influence on others.
  2. Our actions have significant impact on other people and our entire living environment. Again, this is not an original concept but one that is important to examine and evaluate. I have spent most of my adult life committed to causes in pursuit of peace and justice. I started out focusing on finding personal peace. Dysfunction and trauma in my childhood led to certain distortions of my thinking and behavior that did not serve me or those around me well. Therapy, motherhood, studying social sciences and philosophy, and focusing my career toward service to and with others led me to a broader perspective and I realized that my talents, knowledge, and experiences have made me a valuable resource to others who’ve suffered similar pain and trauma. Hurt people hurt the world AND healed people heal the world.
  3. Our cultural stories shape our worldview and impact everything we do. Once I moved beyond the focus on myself as an individual, I was able to more accurately recognize the narratives that shape our human societies and how we perpetuate stories that are harmful to ourselves, each other, and the entire world of Life. In the United States, our cultural stories have been particularly harmful due to the normalization of exploitation, alienation, and abuse of power that are inherent to our nation’s formation, expansion, and hegemony around the globe. Most notably, our economic system, subsidized market capitalism or crony capitalism, goes largely unquestioned in the public discourse and, when it is interrogated, those seeking to expand our understanding of what an economy is actually for (the ability of people to make a sustainable living) are marginalized and attacked personally so their ideas won’t be seriously considered. We, as a people, are the most militaristic, materialistic, and narcissistic society in human history and we’ve exported our way of life to other “developed and developing” countries, while imposing the worst impacts of our lifestyles on those who’ve maintained much less harmful ways of living. The remaining indigenous/First People in the world represent fewer than 5% of our global population, despite the success of their cultures for many millennia prior to the development of modern civilization. We have almost wiped out our most effective models for how to live in harmony, integrated with the natural world! We must learn from their stories and their success.
  4. We rationalize harm to others and the planet as necessary for “growth & progress.” I’ve written more extensively on the Myth of Perpetual Growth in Flattening the Pyramids and invite you to read my longer-form thoughts on the subject there. I’m confident that you likely understand the idea since it is apparent in every news report, every discussion of economics, and every social studies class we took as kids. Growth is the standard for progress in our culture and the more the better! Even while acknowledging that unchecked growth is akin to a social and ecological cancer that depletes life-sustaining resources in service of making wealthy people wealthier, we continue to accept the measurement of GDP and the direction of Wall Street numbers as primary indicators of how we’re doing as a society. We must re-frame this narrative and bring attention to alternative ways of being and living in our world- especially those of indigenous tribes and other folks who have successfully maintained or restored ecological balance. Eco-villages, intentional communities, and worker-owned cooperative businesses are some modern forms of sustainable socioeconomic models.
  5. Once “awakened” to our true nature as inter-dependent, inter-connected members of the universal Web of Life, it is impossible to return to complacency and mindless participation in systems of harm. As my worldview has expanded to include caring for all living species of our fragile planet, I have found it increasingly intolerable to go through the motions of living in ways that ignore my negative impacts as an individual and the collective damage our culture has wrought. Though I appreciate technology as a means of communication and connection, especially in this time when we are unable to gather in person, I am painfully aware that more and “better” technologies will not save us from impending extinction. We will not outsmart biological pathogens released through our unchecked destruction of wild spaces, we will not artificially increase the carrying capacity of the Earth, and we will not escape to another planet once our only home has been rendered uninhabitable. “Green Tech” will not help us if we don’t abandon the death cult of “growth at all costs.”
  6. Humanity’s time is very short unless we shift rapidly & collectively toward true sustainability. Despite my seemingly negative outlook on our situation, I am actually optimistic about the potential of our culture to shift, especially in light of the fact that we’ve (largely) accepted our relative powerlessness in the face of the current global pandemic and stopped many of our harmful practices out of necessity. There are more crises coming and there will be no return to our prior “normal.” This is a scary but hopeful place to be. This is a place that allows us to imagine new possibilities and make decisions with the future of all generations in mind. True sustainability requires us to understand ourselves and our relationships within a different, but not entirely new, cultural framework. We have great examples and, I believe, deep longing for other ways of being and living- ways that celebrate the best of who we are as humans- loving, connected, joyous, caretakers of life.

If I should die before our species wakes up to our true nature and makes its way toward the world we want, I’ll leave knowing I’ve said my piece.

Will you say yours?

Earth Day 50 Rant

It’s the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day and, as much as I’d prefer to celebrate all the progress we’d like to think we’ve made, there is overwhelming evidence that many of the “Green Solutions” we’ve been sold are also devastating our natural world.

Biomass, solar & wind energy, in particular, are extremely problematic due to the rare earth minerals and other toxic materials required to manufacture the components, the inevitable obsolescence of the technology within a short time-frame, the massive destruction of forests to fuel incinerators, and the terrible pollution created throughout the process.

Recycling is a sham promoted by chemical companies who have gotten rich on both the creation of plastics and the export/commodification of the waste products. As a result, the chemicals from the burning, discarding, and degradation of plastics are ubiquitous in our soil, our oceans, our air, and our bodies.

We have been overshooting the planet’s carrying capacity for decades and seem hell bent on continuing destructive patterns of consumption, even while under quarantine. While there are signs that the planet can heal quickly when we actually stop doing some of our daily activities like driving, the pollution production machine is still chugging along outside of our view, driven by the “developed” world’s never-ending need for MORE.

We still use language that frames any culture or society that operates with reverence for the natural world and concern for the well-being of future generations as “primitive” or “backwards.” I suggest that our society has become so focused on power and possessions that we are literally decimating the entire biosphere for short-term pleasures. I believe that virtually all people are well-intentioned (at least in their own minds) but I ask, in all earnestness, what kind of culture elevates excessive consumption at the expense of all life on Earth?

Perhaps we are the ones who have it backwards? I suggest we have much to learn from people, indigenous folks, especially, who have clung to ways of living that promote real sustainability, spiritual connection to ourselves and each other, and true justice for all living things.

Conflict, Hope, and Healing

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

-Augustine of Hippo

After a few days of reflection in which there was no communication between us, my father and I had a long conversation yesterday. We were both calm and open and we expressed mutual interest in understanding one another more deeply. The result was remarkable! We talked for over 2 hours over the course of two separate calls and discussed many different aspects of our lives and our relationship.

I am feeling really good about the progress we’re making, with an understanding that it is a process we will need to continue to nurture. But we are on the same page for the first time and I’m so grateful. I am leaving the original post up (Flattening the Pyramids-Part 7) because I think it’s important to see how conflict may be transformative and can lead to greater connection and understanding within relationships. It can feel impossible, especially when there are long-standing issues, traumas, and complications affecting our interactions with loved ones, but being honest & vulnerable really does make a difference and often does lead to genuine reconciliation and healing.

Today, I’m considering the possibilities for repairing other relationships in my life, including with my step-mother, Suzann. In the conflict resolution model I teach and practice with my students, the first part of the process includes determining the extent to which the relationship one has with the other party is valued or necessary. Based on that determination, one may choose to proceed through the steps of resolving the conflict or may decide to let it go because there is no meaningful consequence. For my students, many of the conflicts they experience are with strangers or acquaintances (bumping into them, giving them looks, or commenting on social media posts) and don’t necessarily warrant much attention because their interactions with those people is limited or non-existent beyond the moment.

The conflict resolution process steps (once it’s determined to be warranted) are as follows:

  1. Focus on the relationship
  2. Identify shared goals
  3. Ask questions that look for change
  4. Act on agreements/hold self & each other accountable

In the case of my relationship with Suzann, so much of it over the last 30 years has been defined by her being married to my father, without much interaction even within that context, that I’m not sure it makes much difference if we resolve the issues that have come up over the past week or so. I’m open to the possibility, however, that there is value in seeking a resolution and will continue to think about it. Since there were hurt feelings and harsh words exchanged between us- mostly motivated by defensiveness for and about our respective relationships with Dad- it’s likely that we will communicate again and I’ll need to be mindful of the process I’ve learned, taught, and integrated into my relationship practice.

Noam Chomsky on the US COVID-19 Response

I encourage folks to watch and think about the important insights provided by one of the world’s foremost thinkers in this recent clip from Democracy Now!

Flattening the Pyramids (Part 7)

Note: As in previous posts, it makes more sense to start at Part 1 for greater understanding of the overall context. All content is based on my perspective as an adult remembering and reflecting upon my childhood experiences. Any commentary on what may have been the thoughts of experiences other parties involved is, admittedly, conjecture, on my part. In addition to my original writing, I’ve included text and social media exchanges that resulted from informing/asking my father about posting this excerpt since they serve to illustrate the dynamics of our relationship.

During my early adolescence, several major events occurred that impacted my relationships and personal sense of security. I won’t spend too much time delving into these but will attempt to explain how I understand their effects, individually and collectively, through my adult lens. They are key plot points in my life story and may resonate with some readers in a way that may help them heal from their own trauma.

When I was still in elementary school, my biological father (no longer referred to as “Daddy Michael” by this point but just, “Dad”) established a relationship with my stepfather’s sister, Suzann, who was 16 years his junior.  For a kid who already felt strange, trying to wrap my head around the bizarre turn of events that turned my “aunt” into my stepmother, was virtually impossible. My father, though in our lives on occasional weekends, was pretty much estranged from my sisters and me. Dad provided the down payment for our new house from an inheritance he’d received and made arrangements with Mom and Ken to live with us for a limited period of time while looking for a new place. I don’t remember being aware of the relationship between them until after they moved in but I later learned they had been “together” for a while prior to her graduation from high school. He was her date for her senior prom and a framed picture from that event was always displayed in their living space once the relationship was public.

I remember looking at that picture often- my father in a tuxedo, long beard and hair graying at the temples and Suzann, a 17-year-old high school student, with thick glasses and the feathered hairstyle so common to girls in the late 70s. He was thirty-three years old in that photograph. Adding to the confusion was the relationship I had known with her prior to their romance. She was our “Aunt Suzann,“ the youngest of Ken’s four sisters, whom we had known since we were toddlers. She babysat for us when we were little and was more like a peer than our older aunts.

Initially, I thought she was fun and cool- a teenager who taught us racy songs and helped us put on silly shows in our childhood bedroom. Once she and Dad were a couple, though, her role became more parental and our relationship definitely changed. I no longer trusted her and wondered if her attention toward my sisters and me was just an act of manipulation, designed to get her closer to our father. As an adult, I no longer see Suzann as the primary actor in the situation, recognizing that she was too young to have a rational understanding of what was going on. I can relate to the idea that she may just have been seeking love and security- someone to protect her.

To this day, it is challenging to have any substantive conversation with anyone in the family about the nature of their relationship and, it seems, there is a good deal of denial on the part of everyone involved that their union originated in a really fucked up way. Removing any of the family connections, this is a clear case of an adult male engaging in a wholly-inappropriate romantic & sexual relationship with a much-younger woman. Since they have now been together for nearly 40 years, most of the family seems to rationalize their union as having been “good” because they’ve maintained it for so long but I still have issues with it.

A couple of years ago, I wrote my father a letter that included my feelings about their relationship and its impacts on me and my sense of connection with him. In it, I explained that it feels to me like virtually all of his parental instincts were directed at raising Suzann, rather than his three biological children. Emotionally, financially, and physically he has always provided for her, while my sisters and I have, predominantly, been treated as an unwanted and unwelcome burden. Perhaps this characterization is too harsh and my feelings are unfairly distorting his intentions. Whether or not this is the case, the observable fact of the matter is that my father has chosen to live in a way that has had demonstrable, adverse impacts on his children and his relationship with his wife is a core element of his lifestyle.

While I am certain he has a tremendous amount of guilt about his life choices- guilt he has expressed in moments of vulnerability and stress- it has not significantly changed his behavior and it’s highly likely that he will go to his grave without meaningful attempts to reconcile with us, despite my attempts to facilitate such a reconciliation. I have made peace with it, to the extent that I accept my limitations in altering anyone else’s perceptions or behaviors. My father is a product of his own thoughts, actions, and experiences and is not obligated to change. I have the right to think and feel the way that I do and know that it is probable that my thoughts and feelings will continue to evolve over time. I’m fairly certain, however, that I will continue to recognize how profoundly dysfunctional this situation has been and how it has shaped my understanding of interpersonal relationships throughout my life.

It is clear to me now, that I have been repeating a pattern in my own love life that involves being attracted to and involving myself with men who are fundamentally insecure and emotionally distant. Men who judge me as “not enough” or “too much” and are rarely able to appreciate me or see me as a peer and partner. Men who seek control over me because they haven’t healed from their own painful childhood experiences. This was the case in my 20-year relationship with my ex-husband and each of three long-term relationships I’ve had since separating from him in 2012 and subsequently divorcing. It’s not very surprising that I would have normalized power imbalances in romantic relationships since that’s what I was used to and had observed my entire life. Normalizing dysfunction, however, only breeds more dysfunction. As I’ve sought to repair and restore my sense of self as a whole, healthy, and valuable person with authentic connections and significant gifts to share, my “dad stuff” keeps coming up.

In my most recent conversation with my father, I called to thank him for sending me some money to help get me through this pandemic & quarantine period. Money has also been a dominant theme in our relationship which I’ll get into more later. I asked him if he’s had a chance to read any of my blog posts, to which he replied that he’s not sure how to navigate through the site but that he’d read “some of it.” I explained that I was planning to post my reflections on my relationship with him and my thoughts and feelings related to his relationship with Suzann. I wanted to get his permission before I posted so it wouldn’t be a surprise. He said I could do whatever I want but went on to say he didn’t understand what the big deal is. Everything had “worked out” with them and us. Why did I feel the need to dredge up past issues and write about them publicly?

This led to an increasingly hostile exchange in which I tried to explain why it is important for me to process my past experiences in a way that may assist others in processing theirs and allow us to have a more substantive understanding of each other. He became defensive and angry when I spoke of feeling neglected and unwanted as a kid and how I think our current relationship is superficial and imbalanced, which led to an abrupt end to the conversation. He texted a short time later saying he did the best he could and evidently doesn’t have whatever it is I want. He ended the text with “I love you.”

I replied in text:

All I want (all I ever wanted) is for you to listen and try to understand my perspective. I don’t expect you to like all of what I have to say but it is important for me to say it so we can have an honest relationship. I can’t do superficial bullshit anymore. I don’t want to have to pretend that I am completely over everything that happened to me as a kid and the subsequent impacts – especially when there’s zero accountability on your part. I feel like you still see/treat me like the teenager who made a string of “bad choices” without acknowledging that my behavior was significantly impacted by circumstances beyond my control- including your parenting choices. At the same time, I get the sense that you want me to completely understand your choices based on the circumstances you were dealing with as an adult and a parent. It may be hard to hear but the truth is that none of the 4 of you were adequately prepared for parenthood and that had significant impacts on all three of us girls. I was, and still am, the most intellectually and emotionally sensitive of the three of us and I think that has prompted me to do more work on myself and invest differently in my own healing. I am a survivor, not a victim. I will be honest with you, even when it’s hard. If you aren’t able to deal with it, that’s your choice. Love is a verb, Dad. It’s in the doing.

Later that evening, his wife posted the following publicly on Facebook:

“Life is full of trauma. We are all products of parents doing their best. If you want to blame today on episodes from 30 years ago, you might be a major part of the problem. Life isn’t full of hand outs. But it is full of opportunity.”

Several of her friends responded, without having any sense of the context, affirming her statements. I was angry and indignant at her hypocrisy. She has literally enjoyed a lifetime of hand outs and has made hundreds of references to the mistakes of her parents over the years and how they affected her. I posted the following comment:

“Since this post is a very thinly veiled reference to my attempt to have a genuine conversation with my father about my healing process and desire for an honest relationship, perhaps you should consider not making it about you…?”

She replied, “trauma makes us or breaks us”

I commented, “I find that sentiment meaningless.”

Then she wrote this:

“Let’s not make this public. I know at this time that your father had at least as much or more trauma and is still healing. Good intentions are never good enough for some. It’s not about me but the stress of a very anxious human I have loved for more than 40 years. His health and immune system is my main concern. If wanting his sanity and good health is selfish, then so be it.”

I said, “Sure. Let’s not make this public.” with an eye-rolling emoji.

The next day, I wrote the following text to my father:

I’m sure Suzann told you about or showed you our Facebook exchange from last night. It’s abundantly clear that what I’ve been trying to express to you is not being interpreted as intended. I’d like to be clear that I have done and continue to do a lot of personal growth work and I’m very happy with the person I am. And I know that the vocation I’ve dedicated myself to has real and lasting value. It’s the personal healing work I’ve done that has allowed me to be honest with myself about my own unhealthy patterns in relationships and to repair the emotional and psychological damage I sustained in childhood. I had no power or personal agency except in rebellion and other attention-seeking behaviors- which seem to remain the focus of your perception of me. Being honest with you about how I experienced my childhood is about my own integrity NOT about blaming you for my life not being what I want today. I am very much at peace with the life I’ve built and who I’ve become. I am a survivor, educator, artist, & healer. I have had beautiful, deep relationships with hundreds of people of all ages from all walks of life. I feel pain around our relationship because I feel emotional distance and unresolved conflict between us. It’s not about right or wrong, good or bad. Those binaries are harmful and prevent real communication. This COVID situation, the recent deaths of two of my program alumni, and my current work in therapy have brought up a lot of stuff for me. As your daughter, I want to be able to talk with you about my memories & feelings without having them minimized, deflected, compared, intellectualized, or rationalized. I have a right to my story & to express it honestly. I am very sorry and empathize deeply that you didn’t have an emotionally satisfying relationship with your parents. That sucks. I get it. That’s why I’m so insistent that our relationship not be superficial, transactional, or power-imbalanced. I’ve been asking you to reflect on what you’d like our relationship to be. If it needs to be comfortable for you at all times, that’s pretty unrealistic, given our history. I need you to decide whether or not you are willing to work through your discomfort in order to know me for who I am now and build from there. I am not the insecure and depressed teenager who didn’t do the “right” things because I was so fucked up from the harm that was done to me. I am a grown woman who has accomplished remarkable things. I’ve founded programs and [an] organization to empower & educate teenagers and I’ve been deeply engaged in social, environmental, and political change movements for over 20 years. I’ve raised a wonderful kid of my own and helped raise hundreds of other people’s kids. I’ve consistently shown up for friends and family when they’ve needed me. I do really hard things and stretch myself everyday. I don’t give up on myself or other people. I’m worth really knowing. I’m worth listening to. I forgive you for all the things you did and didn’t do in the past. But I will not accept the status quo in our relationship moving forward. That’s where I am with our relationship. It’s up to you whether you can accept me as I am or not.

It’s a long one. I know. I think I’ve been trying to say the same things in ever more explicit ways to get through the wall of misunderstanding. About six hours later, I received this text from Dad:

“I’ve been unable to respond. Lots of deleted messages. Call me tomorrow if you want. I will try to listen to whatever you have to say. I am truly sorry for your trauma. I will do my best to listen with an empathic ear.”

I replied the next day:

Hey. Thank you for that. I think it may be best to take a break from talking and just sit with things as they are for a bit. I hope you understand that I only raised the issue of my past trauma in the context of writing about my experiences and my healing and wanting to make sure you were fully informed before I publish any details that involve you and Suzann. The conflict emerged when we both became defensive and emotionally reactive. I have a therapist to listen to my reflections on my trauma. I’d like you to accept that I experienced those things and they affected me but it’s more important to me that we are able to have authentic communication in our relationship now. I just want you to see and hear me as I am today & try not to dismiss my ideas as naive or my feelings as immature because of our history and the power dynamic between us.

And that’s were we left it, for now. I am confident that I am not the only one who has struggled to be seen and understood by a parent and I am sharing this in order to let others in similar situations know that you are not alone. Power plays out in all of our relationships, to some degree, and I think there’s value in naming it. As Mr. Rogers said, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”

I welcome your thoughts in the comments or feel free to send me a message through email or contact form.

Dreams from Quarantine

I fall asleep on the couch

each night while trying

to watch some escapist film

meant to help me

lay down

the weight of this infected world

which was heavy enough before

we released Coronavirus from the wild

like a tiger we thought we could tame

with loved ones I know and

those I don’t

burdened and broken

through

no

fault

of

their

own

oppressed and exploited

striving and hustling

inventing new ways to survive

despite the hoarding of power

and paper products

by the privileged few who seem

to have no dreams

of a world in balance

of a people connected

within and without to

the great and glorious

Web of Life

I wonder if we may all awaken

from this nightmare

to the Truth of our human being

not separate

not special

entwined and enmeshed

loving and loved

caretakers of Life

this is my deepest wish

my fondest hope

my waking dream

from quarantine

An Open Letter to Young People

Believe it or not, you are loved.

Most adults truly and sincerely love children and youth and want what is best for you. The trouble is, many adults have been convinced that material things are more important than a safe, healthy, and nurturing environment in our individual houses and our collective home, Planet Earth.

We have been deluded by manufactured messages of possession and power. Our delusions have produced structures of harm that impact everyone but especially you, our most valued and vulnerable members of the human family.

I am deeply sorry for all of the pain we’ve imposed on you- all of the uncertainty and anxiety, the hopelessness and despair. I, and a lot of other “grown-ups,” are committed to working with you to make the world better- to make humanity better. To creating a future that works for you and future generations.

We can do it, you know. Every dark period in human history has been followed by a massive re-awakening of our brilliance, creativity, and sense of connection. Our big, beautiful brains are capable of producing so many amazing ideas!

I’ve witnessed the power of young people- co-creating transcendent art from thin air, collaborating in solidarity, motivated by shared pain, humor, and imagination. You are pure possibility. You are powerful.

I cannot promise that life will ever get easy. There are many challenges ahead but I will say this:

You are stronger than you think. We need your strength.

You are smarter than you know. We need your ideas.

You are not alone. We need one another.

You are loved.

ad vitam

My back is bent
aching from strain
so heavy
this load
My legs are strong
moving toward
purpose
so driven
this soul
My arms are open
stretching ever
outward
so urgent
this ache
My heart is torn
threatening to break
so exquisite
this love
My mind is clear
holding on
to truth
so brilliant
this light
My dreams are vividly
creating worlds of
the possible
from pure
imagined
peace
no regard
for limitations
or laments for
what
never
was
My essence connects
with the power
and promise
of that which the spirit knows
yet the body denies
My life is now

(not) long ago

(not) long ago 
my great-great grandmother 
great-great aunts and uncles 
multitudes of unknown cousins 
my ancestors 
targeted 
oppressed 
encamped 

(not) long ago 
your great-great grandfather 
great-great aunts and uncles 
multitudes of unnamed cousins 
your ancestors 
targeted 
oppressed 
enslaved 

(not) long ago 
our indigenous relatives 
native aunts and uncles 
multitudes of unseen cousins 
our ancestors 
targeted 
oppressed 
exterminated 

(not) long from now 
our great-great grandchildren 
great-great nieces and nephews 
multitudes of unborn cousins 
our progeny 
targeted? 
oppressed? 
endangered? 
extinct? 

or 

free… 

My Days

I spend my days thinking.  

Observing.  

Listening.  

Talking.  

Reading.  

Watching. 

And thinking some more. 

What is going on? 

Who is to blame? 

What can I do? 

Where will this lead? 

What does it all mean? 

I spend my days worried. 

Angry. 

Sad. 

Emboldened. 

Righteous. 

Inspired. 

And worried some more. 

How will we survive? 

When will we learn? 

Where are the leaders? 

Why don’t we change? 

Is there any hope? 

I spend my days loving. 

Smiling. 

Hugging. 

Caring. 

Connecting. 

Healing. 

And loving some more. 

Is love enough? 

Is LOVE enough? 

At the end of my days 

Let it be said I lived as though 

The answer is YES 

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