A wedding to remind us what matters

This weekend I went to a wedding that broke my heart apart and made it sing.

I don’t think I ever,

  • Laughed, cried and cheered so much at a wedding.
  • Been so engulfed in a supportive community.
  • Witnessed a pre-wedding, theatre-worthy performance with songs, story, and poetry celebrating two individual journeys and the magic of their meeting.
  • Felt a collective joy that risked blowing out the walls of the ceremony hall.
  • Cried that marriage could have ever been denied a couple who loved so deeply.

Ten years ago, this wedding wouldn’t have been possible. If anyone has any lingering doubts about the validity of gay marriage, I dare them to witness the story of these two men. Through their honesty, their commitment, and their bravery in not giving up on love in the face of society’s homophobia, they honored and sanctified the act of marriage.

Throughout their ceremony, I kept squeezing my husband’s hand. Their vows renewed mine.

How ironic, I thought, that we can learn the beauty of marriage from those who once would have been denied the right to it.

Yet that’s what the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and those who did not grow up entitled to what we take for granted, can do for us. They open our eyes to beauty and privilege we don’t see any more. Entitlement numbs us to life (I know; I grew up in a community where entitlement was assumed.)

With privilege, we despair of everything that doesn’t work and forget what does.

In witnessing:

  • Two wonderful men take their vows, I see the power of marriage.
  • An immigrant take an oath, I understand the power of citizenship.
  • A refugee join our community after risking life to escape a troubled land, I’m struck by the power of home.
  • An older African-American woman voting for the first time, I remember that voting matters.
  • A Down-syndrome man standing at the altar at church, I sense our equality as beings.
  • An unemployed twenty-four-year old land a first job, I get the power of work.
  • A woman step forward and say “Me too,” I’m moved by the power of voice.
  • A woman dying in a hospice bed, I feel the sacredness of life.

All of these people offer gifts that shake my world out of its complacency. I say “Black lives matter,” and become more present to why every life matters. I welcome immigrants, not just for their sake, but because they have much to teach us about what matters in this country today.

We need to listen to those at the margins. They can be our potent teachers.

Just as my two beloved friends can remind me of why, thirty years ago, I took vows of marriage to the man I love so much today.

A question to guide your birthday

I’m writing this on my birthday, pausing to reflect on what it is to grow older.

I’m not yet ready to share my age, which is odd because I believe in claiming your age. At Ignite Seattle this past May, I closed my talk by inviting audience members, in one super-charged burst of enthusiasm, to shout out their ages.

Yet today, I’m not above feeling the stigma of aging in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with its elders.

That stigma is like the haze floating in our Northwest skies. It’s everywhere, intensifying the red fire of the setting sun, but you can’t see the source: the fires raging in California and Oregon. The stigma of aging penetrates our social atmosphere, showing itself on birthday cards of big-bellied older people on the ski slope joking, “It’s all downhill now.”

“It’s all downhill now…” Is that the story of elderhood? Where are the enlivening images of aging? The role models of elderhood?

I’ll share one example later.

Our story about aging is so out of sync with the world, neither heroic, redemptive, or interesting. Can you imagine going to a movie where the message was: “You grow older, you start to lose who you’ve been, people ignore you or too overtly care for you, and then you die?.”  Even popcorn sales wouldn’t save it at our local theatre.

Young people are concerned about aging, too.

For the sake of those who are younger, we need a better story about growing old.

At Ignite Seattle after delivering my talk about the promise of aging, I was approached by a thirty-year-old woman who said:

“I really loved your talk. I wish my friends could have heard it, especially that part about claiming your age. You wouldn’t believe what’s happening. My friends are giving themselves memorial-parties for their thirtieth birthdays. Everyone dresses in black to mourn that the best is over. I know one girl who is totally freaked out about turning twenty-one.”

She needs inspiration about the power of aging–not some cool photo of a dude climbing Kilimanjaro at eighty-five. I huff and puff climbing up the road in front of my house! We need stories that recognize the physical, even mental, limitations that can come with age, yet leave us with a sense of dignity, new respect for aging, and the hope that we’ll have access to a different, wiser, kind of power.

Do we even have elders? 

In Stephen Jenkinson’s provocative new book, “Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in Troubled TImes,” he argues that we have no place for elderhood in our culture. Jenkinson, featured in the movie Griefwalker, rattled the world of end-of-life care with his thoughts about death, learned in his years working in what he calls the “death trade.”

Now he’s taking on aging and elderhood.

“Something in the fabric of life in North America inveighs severely against limit and ambivalence and not firing on all cylinders all the time, and this something is being driven to panic by the daily news and in the panic, you’ll find the refusal to age. This something robs age of elderhood. No one would seem to benefit from the theft and it isn’t likely that anyone would vote for it, but there is a general willingness to forgo aging, and to live without the elderhood that could have come with it. … Agedness is at best a prolonged, unextinguishable middle age…”

An elder, for him, is someone who knows the reality of death, failure, and limit. But the issues aren’t just about aging. Our failure to accept the idea of limits affects more than our relationship with the elderly. It’s at the source of an environmental crisis that stems, in part, from our failure to accept that there are limits to growth, limits to what our planet can tolerate, and limits to sustainability,

If the youth were to speak

This spring, the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida gave us straight talk about gun control. Their courage was the only silver lining after another godforsaken tragedy.

I imagined what they might say about the lack of elderhood in our culture. I doubt they would mince their words:

“You adults need to give us a better image of elder wisdom than we have today. You can’t just leave huge messes for us and then lock yourself away into comfortable communities with people just like you or retire to leisure villages and distance yourself from the problems of the world.

We understand that you may not have your old energy and may need to adjust what you can do. But here’s the deal: you have to stop running from the pain of knowing that the environmental, economic and social problems created on your watch aren’t like to be fixed while you’re still here. That’s going to hurt and you’ll just have to deal with it.

So don’t turn your backs on us. We need your wisdom. Grow up and become elders.”

An example of eldering

Where do we look for elders? I don’t know.

Not necessarily in elder circles, or crone gatherings, although a few might be there. I can’t tell you who an elder is, but I can recognize someone who seems worthy of the name: my friend-colleague-mentor of many years, Anne Stadler.

At 87, Anne is still going strong, although she has to be selective with how she spends her time and mindful to take care of herself. (You can listen to Eric Liu’s interview of her here.)

For over fifty years, as a mother, TV producer, community developer, educator, and peacemaker, Anne’s been a fierce advocate for the possibility of what Martin Luther King called The Beloved Community. She has stood up for social justice, for giving voice to those whose voices have not been heard, for encouraging participation, and fostering collaboration.

She teaches and models how to trust the wisdom that can emerge when we listen for the spirit within ourselves, within our groups, and within our communities.

Whether she’s supporting the peoples and waters of the Salish Sea or helping to bring Story Bridge to the world, Anne brings deep intuition, soul, and commitment to everything she does. Her commitment to always doing her own inner work strengthens her actions.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of people she has mentored and still does.

When I was a fledgling faculty member in a university, struggling to realize my dream of creating a new graduate program in leadership and management, Anne gave me the hand I needed to summit a steep and rocky slope. She blessed me with her network of connections and helped me assemble a remarkable crew of advisors to guide what we were creating. She supported me to trust myself and to trust the emergent wisdom within my group of advisors as we sat together and contemplated what this new program really needed to be. She helped mid-wife its birth.

I call Anne a true elder not just in recognition of her community contributions, her mentoring, or her wisdom. It’s because, throughout her life, she’s had the courage to ask one question and then follow the call:

“What am I being called to do?”

That’s the question we all need to ask.

I bet Anne will be asking that question for the rest of her life, even if the answer is: “Be still and do nothing.”

Being willing to ask that question, and then listen deeply, lies at the root of elderhood.

By asking, listening, and waiting, we find our individual answers. The Anne Stadlers of the world are to be treasured, not copied. They show us what vibrancy and commitment can look like at any age, and serve as the role models we need for elderhood as we age.

In honor of Anne, and on my birthday, I ask myself the big question once again:

“What am I being called to do?”

Oh, and by the way, I just turned 67.

Does your work make you better?

In her stunning collection of essays (highly recommended) This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett offers us this simple, yet profound question about marriage she received from her friend, Edra. Quoting Ann:

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked…I had no idea what she was talking about. “Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” she said, running down her list. “Does he make you better?” 

That last question could be applied to many things in life–including our work.

We need a new word for “work”

I’ve been struggling this week to find a more uplifting word to replace the word “work.” In writing a book on thriving in the 3rd Act of life, I’m asserting that engaging in creative work is one of the keys to staying vital.  But “creative work” could mean working a job, making art, serving your family or community, creating a business, fixing a car, or ???  In wanting to stay open to so many creative possibilities, I figured that I’d better define what the heck I mean by work.

I checked the dictionary’s synonyms for work and found: labor, toil, drudgery, and exertion–not an uplifting array. Is work really synonymous with  “ugh?” (As in “It’s Monday and I have to (ugh) go to work.”)

No wonder people want to leave “work.” Who wouldn’t given the negative overtones?

A more positive way to look at work

What if you could engage in an endeavor where:

  • you applied devotion and discipline and showed up regularly.
  • your creative juices flowed freely.
  • you experienced a sense of wonder, curiosity, and continual learning.
  • you felt a sense of rightness, as if you were doing something that was truly yours to do.
  • you felt a sense of purpose and passion.
  • you might be paid or not.

What would you call that?

The way to know what qualifies as a right endeavor might be by asking a question like the one Edra asked Ann Patchett.

“Does it make you better?”

Not richer, more successful or likely to show up in Time Magazine’s top 100 People of the Year. Just better. You know what I mean.

“Are you more vital, alive, compassionate towards others, a more fulfilled human being?” “Do you feel like your being is expanded as a result of your engagement?”

Another word choice could be your “creative practice.” It comes with less baggage. (I’d love to know if you have a better alternative!)

The nature of a creative practice

You know you have a creative practice when you feel like it has you.

There’s a bit of a master-devotee feeling in it, combined with the above-mentioned devotion and discipline, When I was studying photography during my year as a college student in Paris, I couldn’t wait to get into the darkroom to see what miracles could happen next. My accredited “work” for the year was studying French and passing a number of courses, but my real work-as-practice was allowing myself to explore photography and cinema with eyes of wonder.

I can still remember that cool, blue-lit darkroom, where the shallow troughs of water and chemicals bubbled. We students spoke in subdued voices as we awaited our turns to print our films, swooshing our papers through their chemical baths, while holding our breaths to see what would emerge.

I’d leave the studio in wonder, my eyes captivated by the Art Nouveau curves of the Parisian Metro signs; my curiosity piqued to study the faces of subway riders, my time on the trains absorbed in dreaming of what I would shoot next.

Today’s practice

My work-as-creative-practice these days is writing, although I hesitate to say that because I still love any chance to teach leadership storytelling and coach my clients. But the master who calls me to attend is intangible, not measured by money or external rewards, rather elusive about what she or he wants from me, and very demanding.

I’ve learned that in showing up for work, I will be challenged, altered, and rewarded if only by the satisfaction of launching a few ideas that someone else might read. As a result, I walk in the world differently.

Heeding the master

Years ago, when I was in a period of high obsession in the garden, I had a similar sense of commitment to a master with whom I was in regular dialogue. The rules were similar: show up consistently, maintain a sense of curiosity and wonder, structure my life to support my endeavor, and wait for orders.

When I’d garden in those days, a world opened up for me. I’d spend hours on my knees getting to know my garden by weeding, digging and pruning before it would start to “tell me” what it wanted next. Then I’d enter an altered space where I followed the orders I was hearing: remove this hellebore, transplant that Japanese maple, trim the lower branch, pave the path with logs, etc. I only left when night descended and I couldn’t see to work.

Similarly, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I needed devotion and discipline to work on my research while managing a full-time job. At first, I felt like I was slogging uphill, but as the project continued, a voice started emerging from the pages, talking back to me, and encouraging my work. Its directions weren’t as assertive as my garden’s, but I was in dialogue with a force and my work was to listen.

I smile to myself when I hear people complaining about the process of completing a doctorate, knowing that mine was a delight. Hard work, of course, but a practice that “made me better.”

What’s your practice?

Am I’m crazy? I’d love to hear from some of you who know what it is to surrender to a creative practice. If you have a better word for work-that-allows-you-to-thrive, please let me know.

What is your creative practice and…does it make you better?

When to invite your heart to think (or, How I got a dog last weekend)

 

Have you ever been wracked by a decision in which your head and your heart seemed at odds? Perhaps a good friend told you to “follow your heart,” offering a nourishing counterweight to ruthless reasonableness in a world that can feel heartlessly over-analytic.

The heart is a treasured advisor, but sometimes its impulses come with a shadow.

It may be deliciously fun to run away for a weekend on a whim, but certain decisions we make, like a marriage or an adoption, trigger lifetime consequences. Following your heart has sparked great romances, but has also led people into marriages doomed to failure, resulted in financial decisions that precipitated ruin, and encouraged people to listen to their basest emotions heightened by manipulative hatred, leading to some of the world’s worst genocides.

Your heart, unquestioned, can lead to fairy tales where you can be swept away by the happy ending and never ask who had to clean up after Cinderella’s ball.

When it comes to big decisions, I believe “Think with your heart” beats “Follow your heart.” Listen deeply to your heart, and then bring what you learn into a dance with reason.

A heart that can think

It appears your heart has its own ways of thinking, physiologically. Researchers at the Heartmath Institute are exploring (very cool stuff) how the heart is more than a mechanical blood-pumping machine. According to their studies, the heart is the body’s largest organ of perception. The heart actually sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. The heart tells your brain what to do even as your brain sends direction signals to your heart.

Since your heart does its own version of thinking, it shouldn’t be too much to occasionally ask it to join forces with facts and reasoning, especially in service to a good cause.

This weekend I needed my heart and my reason to think together…

Anatomy of a decision

Can you imagine a gentle dog in need, helpless, hurting, and abandoned, without wanting to help? I can’t.

Last Friday, an email alert was sent out by the regional English Springer Spaniel Rescue America association (ESRA) informing members that a stray Springer, picked up in Seattle, was in bad shape and needed to be taken out of the Seattle Animal Shelter–asap. Traumatized already, he was doing poorly at the shelter. ESRA was working with the Shelter and they needed someone to pick up the dog and foster him until he could be checked out by a vet, and possibly adopted.

“I wish I could,” I thought, as I read the email. I knew that taking in a dog made no sense for my husband and me. We had already held a “Can we have a dog?” discussion over the New Years holidays. and reason, in the form of “no-dog-for-now,” won out.

But as I read about this gentle dog, named “Riley” at the Shelter, I felt heartsick. Why would anyone abandon such a dog?

My husband Steve, who understands my love of Springers, brought me back to reality. “Where will you ever find the time to take care of this dog?” and “Won’t he traumatize our old cat, Barry?”

Right. With his words, I lurched out of my sentimental, “Honey, can’t we do this” nostalgia and considered the realities. No, a dog didn’t make sense.

But as I described Riley’s conditions to Steve. I started crying…

The morning after

Sleeping on our decision, I woke up the next morning to the light of reason. I e-mailed the association and wrote “If you have another option take it. We’re too worried about our elderly cat.”

Decision made. Crisis averted. Except that by afternoon, I was still thinking about “Riley.” I e-mailed asking for some news about him (my downfall) and learned that he had been rescued from the shelter by a very kind, dog-savvy couple. But one of their dogs was attacking Riley so their home wasn’t working out. He still needed a foster home.

Dang.

Sunday morning

My husband and I reviewed the facts: Riley was mostly blind and deaf, very arthritic and geriatric. Maybe even senile. There could be other problems. Not your picture-perfect pet.

The clock was ticking. Action was needed, for Riley’s sake.

I looked at my husband, who didn’t say no, and called the folks who had pulled him out of the shelter to arrange a pick-up. They graciously drove him to our ferry dock, gave us a generous goody bag of treats for him, and then said a teary goodbye to Riley.

Then, with Riley panting like a steam engine with bad breath in the back of our car, we sailed back to the island.

Fairy tales don’t always come true

My husband and I reviewed the facts: Riley was mostly blind and deaf, very arthritic and geriatric. Maybe even senile. There could be other problems. Not your picture-perfect pet.

The clock was ticking. Action was needed, for Riley’s sake.

I looked at my husband, who didn’t say no, and called the folks who had pulled him out of the shelter to arrange a pick-up. They graciously drove him to our ferry dock, gave us a generous goody bag of treats for him, and even left us with a doggy mattress. With tears, they said goodbye to Riley.

Then, with Riley panting like a steam engine with bad breath in the back of our car, we sailed back to the island.

Fairy tales don’t always come true

In the heart-warming fairy tale version of the story I imagined, Riley would recognize me as his person, collapse into my arms, and start wagging his tail.

It wasn’t like that.

Riley has had trauma and needs time to trust. He is slow to cuddle and I’m not sure if his very arthritic tail will ever wag. It doesn’t matter. Every day he seems perkier and warms to us more.

In another fairy tale, doctors would find a fix for his more severe problems and Riley would rebound and have several good years ahead.

In the real world, we don’t know what will happen to him. The vet may decide that a “hospice” program of comfort care is what he should get, or that it would be kinder to euthanize him. (Ouch!)

In a fairy tale, my husband would fall in love with the little guy as soon as he saw him.

That one came true.

Why did we do it?

As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote,

“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Our hearts may point us towards action, with an unseen logic, but then our actions depend upon working with the reality we encounter. Riley is changing our home life with his many needs.

As we plot his future care, we’ll need good facts, data, and solid thinking. Reason will be our friend, along with ESRA and our local vet.

What happens to Riley can’t be based on sentiment, but it can be informed by love.

Why did we do it?

As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote,

“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Our hearts may point us towards action, with an unseen logic, but then our actions depend upon working with the reality we encounter. Riley is changing our home life with his many needs.

As we plot his future care, we’ll need good facts, data, and solid thinking. Reason will be our friend, along with ESRA and our local vet.

What happens to Riley can’t be based on sentiment, but it can be informed by love.

Does fostering a dog really matter?

Some would argue that in this world of so much extreme need, fostering a dog does nothing for the world’s problems.

But who knows?

Maybe anything helps that opens our hearts to love.

Our minds show us how to navigate the world and act. Our hearts? They open and break. And anyone who has loved an animal knows they can be heart-breakers.

But if Leonard Cohen (R.I.P.) is right, the cracks in our hearts will allow more light to get in to make the world, even in its darkness, a little brighter.

 

Three words that can change your life (they’re not what you think)

 

 

If I asked you for the three most powerful words you’d use to change a situation, what would you offer? Maybe:

  • I love you.
  • I forgive you.
  • I trust you.
  • I am OK.
  • I am worthy.

Yep. These are magic words that change lives. I want to offer you three more

Just stop it.

Imagine a time when your mind was wracked with a grievance, you were feeling bitter, resentful or besieged, and your mind was racing overtime trying to rationalize what just happened or plot your vengeance.

Or, think of a time when you felt like you were out of control and you wanted someone to change (think family, close friend or spouse, for starters) and they wouldn’t, no matter what you did or said.

Situations like these trigger my got-to-be-in-control impulse and send my brain into overdrive. I rationalize. I judge. I think about getting even.

While this is going on, I also try to think my way into a better place. I try to practice compassion and try to see the situation in a new light. I know the power of forgiveness–which, trust me, is hard work!

But often I just end up spinning in my own thoughts. You know, hamster-in-mind syndrome.

An urgent situation

On the eve of my mother’s memorial service, old fault lines in family relationships surfaced. I felt pierced and offended.

I pulled out everything I knew might help:

  • Have compassion for myself.
  • Have compassion for the other person.
  • Breathe, in a deep, relaxing way.
  • Listen to my body, and notice where the hurt lives.
  • Vent constructively to a safe friend.
  • Dance my heart out at a Zumba class.

All of this helped, a little. Still, as we approached the hour of Mom’s memorial, I knew I had to do something different. So, in the nick of time, I tried these words, directing them strongly at my brain:

Just stop it.

“I know you have a lot of good ideas, and insights. I know you are struggling between compassion and judgment, and I’m sure you want to forgive yourself and the other person. However, we are out of time and you need to stop thinking about this–effective IMMEDIATELY. You’re on a track going nowhere. And you’re the only one who can stop it.

Delete file NOW. 

Fortunately, I was taking a walk with my compassionate husband. I greatly recommend walking or moving when you use this technique. Walking or exercising naturally help soften the grip of your thoughts, plus they can give you a time frame for action. I told myself:

“At the end of this walk, I want things to be different.”

Normally, I don’t believe in will-power, or mind over matter, but the stakes were really high,

Adding a prayer

I also used prayer. I don’t know what your relationship with prayer is, but sometimes I need help dealing with stuff that seems beyond my control, where the only thing I can really change is me.

Finding my prayer brings me to humility, where I don’t have to be the strongest person on the block, or even capable of changing myself. Prayer brings me back into myself.

Without going religious on you, I’m all for praying to whatever gives you strength, as long as prayer reminds you of the good person you really are, and does not judge or do harm to others. Really, why not?

The good news is that those three words WORKED.

My mind calmed down, I went into the memorial, and then, as I heard healing words spoken about my mother, something deeper in me shifted and I knew that the change I had wanted had stuck.

We can’t control others. We can work on ourselves. Make your mind your friend.

Other applications

The applications for these words are many. You can use them to give instruction to your inner critic. Or, when doubt really builds up. Or, when your mind is in a tizz after listening to yet another terrible spate of news. Action in the future may be needed. But first, keep your mind from spinning.

For those of us who are strong thinkers, sometimes we just need to stop the action. I don’t have to always figure out the situation, rationalize or work with it.

I just need to pull the plug and reboot my brain.

Speak these three words to yourself in a pinch. Use them like a life preserver, with compassion and necessary severity, even as you find your own way of forgiving and letting go.

Just stop it.

 

 

Let’s Swap the Ladder of Opportunity for an Open Circle

The Fourth of July in the United States. Flags fly, parties happen and fireworks explode as we celebrate the right to freedom, to independence, and the opportunity to live lives full of dignity and promise.

I’ll wave a flag to that as long as freedom and independence are something we all share.

But this year has me quaking, so I wonder:

What small step can we take to ensure that freedom and independence aren’t just for the privileged?

I just returned from a remarkable and much-savored trip to France. As someone who lived in Paris nearly fifty years ago, I noticed many changes. For starters, my French boyfriend of so many years ago has four grown children, a loving wife, darling grandchildren, and a few wrinkles. (Alas, mon cher, we have gotten older!)

Of course, the change is bigger than that. The Eiffel Tower still pierces the horizon, the Arc de Triomphe royally welcomes visitors, and buildings like the Louvre or Notre Dame continue to move us with their grandeur. But the colors and voices of the Parisians themselves have changed. Near the apartment where my husband and I stayed, groups of tall, dark-skinned men, wearing long robes and skull caps, clustered in the streets. Visiting a near-in suburb, we drove through a small city full of restaurants and other businesses opened by Turkish immigrants.

Women in hijabs or African robes caught my eye far more often than did tall, elegant, white, fashion icons (my old image of the stylish Parisian woman).

One scene stands out. I was walking up a flight of stairs in the Paris Metro (you’d think the Metro planners created a parcourse workout given the number of stairs they installed) when I saw a small African woman struggling to lift her overstuffed cart of belongings. Wrapped in a colorful pink kanga (traditional cloth) and sporting a black jersey cap, she seemed both out of place and obviously at home. Of course, I helped her. On the next set of stairs a swarthy-looking young man did the same. On the third set, an older Chinese woman shared the load. Welcome to the new Paris.

In the US, we’re changing as well, even when we’re not clear about the direction.

Our two competing narratives

In a recent article in 3rd Act Magazine, Dr. Charles Johnson described two narratives he sees competing in America today. The first, the one we learned in school, is about America as the land of opportunity, the beacon to the world, the bright city on the hill where all people are created equal.

The second is one of prejudice and intolerance where justice isn’t available to all. This narrative holds our legacy of slavery, patriarchy, and racism. We fear the other and build walls to keep him or her out. Arlie Russell Hochschild offered the following image to describe the anger brewing in America in her book, Strangers in their Own Land:

“You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill.  Just over the brow of this hill is the American dream. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian and predominately male. Many in the back of the line are people of color–poor, young, and old…

…Then look. You see people cutting in line ahead of you. Who are they? Some are black. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers–where will it end?”*

*Thanks to a review by Jo Shilling in 3rd Act Magazine.

I don’t like people who cut in front of me, either, and it angers me. But I don’t want opportunity to be divvied out in a line based on a hierarchy of privilege.

Why don’t we stop waiting in line or competing with others to climb the ladder of opportunity and form a circle instead?

The power of a circle

When we stand in a circle, we see each other as fellow parts in a whole. We feel a sense of oneness rather than otherness. We listen to each other and share stories.

Circles, though, can serve to close people out, so perhaps a better metaphor is the open circle in which a gap in its circumference encourages new participants to join and allows others to leave.

In an open circle, we can experience both interdependence and independence.

Listen for the stories

Netflix recently released “Nanette,” a stand-up comedy special by the comedienne Hannah Gadsby. I watched it to laugh but left with tears as well.

Gadsby, originally from Tasmania, welcomes us to her show with her understated, gender-inspired, down-under sense of humor. She shares peeks into her quirky, introverted life.

 

Early in the show, this acclaimed comedienne announces that she wants to give up comedy. She’s tired of the self-deprecating humor that’s part of her fame. She’s tired of turning shame into jokes.

She continues on, zigging between humor and reflection, life as a lesbian and art history, until she reaches the end of her show. Then the mood shifts and her passion flairs with dead-serious intent as she tells us what she wants more than laughs:

“I want my story to be heard.”

For the last ten minutes of the piece, she stands before us, spellbindingly vulnerable and searingly honest. She shares what it’s like to be marginalized, turned into “the other”, and violated emotionally and physically. She offers no victim-drama or cheap laughs. She’s a woman on fire, not willing to sacrifice her story to achieve either laughter or common anger.

She just wants her story out.

“What I would have done,” she says regretfully, “to hear a story like mine… to feel less alone, to feel connected.”

She speaks directly to those in her audience who know what it’s like to feel marginalized or shamed.

“Your resilience is your humanity.” “To yield and not break, that is incredible strength.”

With the power of a woman who has found herself, she declares,

“There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

We see her standing tall, like a mama-bear who refuses to wait at the back of the line of privilege. She’ll crash the line and bring others with her.

Gadsby gives us no answers, but at the end of her show offers us a gift that can heal us more than comedy: our stories.

“Laughter is NOT our medicine,” she asserts.

“Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.”

We need the sweetness and the medicine to deal with today’s world.

Returning home

It was difficult for me to return to this country after listening to a stream of tragic news throughout June, news most Europeans I met found incomprehensible. Flying home, I wondered what I could do, where I could give. I’m still looking.

But I know that there’s a step we can all take, no matter what our courses of action may be: we can open up our circles and listen to the stories.

We can listen to how the story of freedom is spoken by our newest immigrants and the many who live outside of this country’s big promise of opportunity. We can bear witness.

Maybe, in opening our circles and honoring the stories of those who have been marginalized, we can take the wall of privilege down a notch.

Let’s create a new interdependence story, while honoring the freedom of all.

 

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