Remembering Our Ancestors, January 12, 2015

Jan. 12, 2015 has been selected as Remembering Our Ancestors Day, as the trial of Wayland Gray, goes to court resulting from an effort to use sacred tribal lands in ceremony. Their efforts have been framed as activist, terrorism, vandalism, and attempted arson, with absolutely no evidence or effort apparent in published commentary acknowledging the validity of cultural spiritual claims or actions.  The story can be read here.

John Trudell has been sharing a series of poems he has entitled, “Coyote Logics,” as the date of the trial approaches, and I took up his call to remember our ancestors.

It crosses my mind how easily this could become just another day commemorated virtually with Facebook posts and tweets asking us to #rememberourancestors.  What would it take for me to make a significant and impactful effort to remember –before I even begin to focus on my ancestors– how easy it is to FORGET.

How to remember the Ancestors… that is the question.  How to bring them back together, re-member them.  Locate them in the here and now. In our own lives and bodies. it comes to me that I must find the space and time to listen, to see, to notice, to re-member.

It is a heavy and beautiful task of love.

Like so many other spiritual aspects of life, this began before I was conscious that it was what I was doing.

Phase 1 was the clearing of 5000 items from my home last fall. This was followed by Phase 2, when I experienced the gradual shock of the disarray that this clearing of my material possessions created in my home and inner world.  I became aware of how much more I have, and how I’d like to live the life to enjoy what I already have. I became aware of how much of what I have is not material, and is rooted in who I was born to be, my ancestry, my history, my culture.  I reconnected with old friends and relatives from whom my academic life had distanced me for decades. Phase 3 has been the gradual discovery of space, both inner and outer, that gives me room to breathe, to move, to rediscover, along with my old relationships, old ways I was taught by my elders–old ways that give me comfort. And in this comfort, I re-member them, in my own life, in my body.

Throughout all of these, I have ventured into the beautiful abandonment of childhood thinking and adolescent and young adult approaches to opportunity. I have come to recognize the way maturity and being an elder are not structurally, interactively or socially, encouraged. And yet, as a woman in my fifties, seeing the horizon of the sunset more clearly than the sunrise sometimes,  that is increasingly where my gifts are now. What I have to give comes from the life I’ve lived, not only from the new things that I “can do.”  I am not concerned about a “bucket list,” as if life is running out.  I am concerned less with kicking the bucket than filling it for others who might be thirsty for whatever lessons the Creator put on my path in my life to learn.

The transition of this year for me is about the discovery of the springtime of elder life, the opening to sunrises on days full of the life I’ve lived and rich with inspiration. I see the folly in cultural work trajectories that set up career paths that do not allow one to live a human life of seasons, with attention to the winds of natural change. Those who have chosen me as their mentor honor me, but they honor my ancestors, too.

Tomorrow is a day for remembering our ancestors, but rather than limiting it to one day here and there with commercialized ritual and time-intensive artistic displays for fickle audiences, I realize it’s the way I live and work every day of my life that honors, and therefore, re-members my Ancestors. For they live in me. Every act I take, every word I speak, and thought I nurture, is drawing on the DNA that is their legacy inside me.

The meaning I create for this, the narratives I spin or repeat…these are less important than what I’m actually DOING. It is far better to abandon the building of an edifice to which one committed when under a cultural trance than to be bound in captivity by one’s own collaboration with that which binds. It is worthless to be able to cite Butler, Fanon, Foucault, Marx, Moraga, Anzaldúa, Jesus. Buddha, Kristeva, Fox, King, and others, while one’s body and resources are used to live a life in contradiction to what is championed.

I’ve “said” such things before. But the body-self is speaking now. And it is the voice of joy expressed through the beauty of a life well-lived, love acknowledged and undenied, and confidence in the power of what is bigger than my ideas or CV to see me through the life I live…WITH my Ancestors.

Smart Learning When the World Around Me is Not a “Fit”

This blog is never really going to be finished–there’s so much more that I could add.  So I”ll likely revise and continue this as the months and years go on.  But for now, I’m sharing my initial reflections, having been stimulated to thought by the Forbes article I’m sharing below.

I personally have had the hardest lesson about how to be a ‘smart learner’ in my experience with what is commonly held to be “teamwork” or “collaboration.” I think it might be interesting to consider how one can maintain his/her cultural and spiritual values when working in an environment or culture that is at odds with it. For me, the challenge has not been so much in keeping my own values clear, but in resisting the obvious need to let go of a belief that I could ever be fully seen or embraced as part of the dominant culture and values system which permeates the field I work in. I have a lot of skills which I’ve come to recognize have served to ‘hide’ my difference, and so routinely, over the years since my latter years in college, I’ve had to do major “re-boots” of the way I was spending my time. With an absence of cultural mentors and elders in y field who share my background, there really has been no source of learning to recognize what was happening but my own reflection and observation over the years. Now, as I move into my elder years, and as my energies are filtering into a more permanent pattern of dedication and commitment, it is painfully apparent how very little “fit” there is culturally between the field in which I obtained my degree and have worked, and my worldview. It has been my interest and dedication to learning about the topics within that field that has sustained me–but my ideological and epistemological colleagues have existed in the humanities, in ethnic studies, in theatre, dance, and the arts.

So what I would venture to say is the first aspect of smart learning for me, as a heterosexual Chicana in the field of human communication is to realize that I am a visitor, no matter how long I have been in the field, and that the notions of collaboration and teamwork, of group dialogue and creativity, initiative and recognition, are aspects of my work that must be nurtured and fostered outside of my field. Except for a few instances, working with some rather outstanding individuals, the majority of “opportunity” in my field invites me to assimilate and reflect norms for human relationships and social routine that distance me from myself if I do not have a ‘second’ or ‘third’ life where I can be replenished and restored on a routine basis. Over time, this is exhausting.

The second thing I would say that I’ve learned as part of ‘smart learning’ is that the work to which I dedicate myself should be work that replenishes me, rather than work that requires me to perform an adapted anglo-American socio-cultural self for the majority of my interactions. So, my work with the Four Seasons of Ethnography, Art as Meditation, Mindful Heresy, and Self-Reflection as Method….all of these are concepts and domains in my work that I can continue to work with regardless of who is, or isn’t, collaborating with me.

Third, I think that one of the most vital aspects of smart learning for me, given that these are the conditions of my professional employment, is the nurturing of a spiritual life that allows me to continue to value the human spirit, and to recognize it, especially when present in cultural bodies and routines that are harsh and difficult for me, despite the years of experience I have with them. To be a smart learner, I have to see that I can learn from everyone, that even the least supportive and culturally sensitive of my colleagues has something of value to offer with his/her presence. But that does not mean that I can, should, or will, ever become part of that culture. As much as I can come to understand it, it is still not the way I see the world when left to my own reflexes.

Fourth, as a smart learner, I rest. And I don’t lie to myself. Because in many respects, I’ve come to learn that being a smart learner is like being a spiritual warrior. And that’s what makes my life, even when the most challenging, absolutely beautiful—and why I love learning, and value my life.

Everybody wants to be smarter. Unfortunately, not all of us will get there. There is a distinct line between smart learners and those who just learn. The former become…

Defying My Own Foolish Self-Defeating Rules

Rosa Parks, Image from the Southern Poverty Law Center
Rosa Parks, Image from the Southern Poverty Law Center

Well, my mind is made up.
No more convention papers, and not writing anything just to try to get it accepted somewhere, or because I think I must. When I think of the amount of time and words I’ve wasted through my job, producing excessive verbage for the sake of “being a part of the field,” I am wearied. My grandfather told me never to write unless I had something to say. I guess that is why I find more pleasure writing on Facebook sometimes than writing the majority of things that I must write for work. That sort of writing prevents me from working on what I really want to write, what I really need to write, what I really MUST write.

I write on Facebook because I can do so between those other mundane times of writing-for-work. It’s telling that I need to express myself after writing that somehow  feels as if it leads to compressing, not expressing, myself. And with major writing projects that are long-delayed, the large blocks of time I need in order to arrive and stay in the appropriate frame of mind are lacking.

So what is my solution? I suppose that it is to radically alter the underlying ethos for the way I have largely engaged my work and my life for a very long time–since getting my degrees. My work in the university has somehow worked together with the obligation I have so often felt to sacrifice my own desires and needs if someone else needed or wanted something from me. If I am hired to do something, it adds another layer of obligation. And if it’s a profession, as is my career, there is almost no portion of my life that is not “someone else’s. Whether it is my job, my students, my family, or my community, I was raised that it all comes first, because I was the first–first-born, that is.

I was fortunate to have grandparents and aunts and uncles and teachers as a child who gave me ample opportunity to express myself, my father and mother nurtured my love of the arts and learning, and travel. But I learned through religion and culture that despite these things, it was others who mattered more, and that to believe this was virtuous.

It’s amazing that I’ve written much at all, given this compunction in my life. I have many unfinished works that have been interrupted by putting myself second, third, or beyond. Add to that some challenges with memory and attention, and before you know it, it is only the need or person knocking on my door, texting my phone, or sending an email with a request, that will get my dutiful return to the page.

Yesterday, I listened to Cherrie L. Moraga speak about writing, and about our work as artists, performers, activists, teachers… She spoke (as she writes) as if reaching with a penetrating awareness into my core. And she stirred in me a pain that I must feel in order to return to my writing as my first love, not my work for hire, or servitude.

I bear the brunt of the responsibility for the way I’ve wasted my time. I must believe that this extended period of distracted incubation has its own purposes. And I must forgive myself and realize that the horse isn’t going to come back to me; no, I fell off (or jumped off) and just didn’t get back on. And so now, as I learned from my grandfather, I have to go out and find it, in the field somewhere…and that only happens by doing it.

It feels incredibly uncomfortable to dedicate myself to my own work. I can almost feel myself cringe, as if waiting for someone to scold me or tell me to “get back to work” or demand that I do something for them. I don’t have the time to spend another year of my life trying to learn how to ‘say no.’ I need to learn to feel comfortable doing and getting what I personally want, rather than accumulating a lifetime of memories and items that were somehow given to me as my dutiful clutter.

So I’m going to take that lonely and difficult trek out to get my horse, and I’m going to caress its face, and feel the strong muscles just the way I was taught as a child. Because a horse is like us, my grandfather told me. And it acts like we do, will do what we tell it to do, even when we aren’t aware we’re doing it. And my horse has become barn sour, leaving me out in the middle of nowhere. It’s time for me to unlearn some really bad habits, and to feel the discomfort of unlearning. And to write and learn to be selfish. Because no matter how much I do for others, if I’m not writing, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing for others.

I’ve got to make my mind up that it’s more important than anything else in my life right now. Because it is. Even before I knew how to write, I wanted to spend all my time writing. And when I have written from that place within my body that has no doubts, it has always been something that has helped others. I can’t put it off any longer. Someone else can be on that committee, and if anyone’s upset I don’t show up…well, they’ll get over it. There. I’ve said it.

Autumn Lungs and the Heresy of Admitting Delayed Grief

autumn leaves 2We live in a society that for all its industry in medications for mood disorders, amusement parks and bars that advertise the ‘good times’ going on all around us, and the deluge of feel good Facebook posters and quotes from Louise Hay entrepreneurs, we are not very good at dealing with our sadness and grief.  In fact, “get over it,” might be the unofficial mantra of our society when it comes to lingering or resurfacing wounds and grief that have not healed.  Get thee to a therapist!  Or to some other fee-for-service outlet for thy sadness…for we do not wish to see the evidence of our human nature.  Not in this country that is rooted in the distortion of ‘pursuit of happiness.’  For many, the right to pursue happiness is interpreted (and perhaps socially enforced) as being  happy.

I believe that it’s possible to be happy even in the midst of deep grief and tragedy, but it’s not your smiling-face brand of happiness or ‘sweet sister’ high tea chattering and giggling that is apt to confront many women in U.S. culture as evidence of ‘happiness.’ And if we wish to find the type of deep and abiding happiness that is the result of cultivating gratitude and healing in our lives, it requires that the dark side of our emotions and lives be acknowledged and felt–not necessarily dwelling in them, but learning to open our minds to the good nature of paying attention to how they feel, why we’re grieving, and what it is about life that our experience is asking us to acknowledge–good or bad.

Since culture and society are not on our side when it comes to letting these emotions surface and share their wisdom with us, it is often our bodies that will be our greatest allies.  And for me, at least right now, my attention is going to the lessons that my lungs are urging me to heed.

Because it’s autumn, and…my lungs are talking to me again.

They’ve been calling out for a long time.
Not continuously, but when they ‘speak out,’
it’s hard to ignore.

In the fall–in late September and in October–is when these afflictions have visited me. Coughs, laryngitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, ‘whooping cough,’ anaphylaxis, and now…what appears to be asthma.

Chinese medicine is pretty clear on the somatic aspects of these ailments, and their recurrence at the same time of the year, no matter where I am living, if it’s north or south of the equator, desert or wooded…is kind of hard for me to ignore. The lungs speak up. According to Chinese healing wisdom, it’s about grief. Straightforward, but not so simple.autumn leaves 1

In the 1990’s, I was blessed with the opportunity to be part of a group of indigenous healers who worked in the world of recovery. We worked with recovery from addictions, trauma, battering, and most significantly, delayed grief. Through the work we did with our mentor and teacher, Dr. Jane Middleton-Moz, we were trained to work with individuals healing from the injuries stemming not only from the typical 12-step maladies, but from the injuries of witnessing and experiencing the horrors of history, even through those events we did not personally experience, but which become part of our subjective and experiential memory. These were the traumas of our loved ones, our people, our land, our DNA, which we might collectively and symbolically experience just as powerfully as if we’d lived through them. Complicated by the mixtures of emotions and attempts to make sense of things over which we are vulnerable because of the actual or narrative absence of power to change or affect histories, these things live on, very often unconsciously. Yet they affect and have impacts on our experience of the world, of current events, on our personalities, our relationships, and our health, to name a few areas.

And along with these experiences and the worlds we have created and inhabited, shaped by these traumas of life and memory (some would say life and memory are perhaps the same thing?), there is the grief. There is grief for what we have lost, for the people, opportunities, experiences, homes, possessions, lives, languages, relationships… And in a large proportion of trauma-related scenarios, this grief was often not acknowledged (by others, or the self), and equally, not expressed except through the ways our lives come to reflect the pain, the anger, the fear, the silence of worlds shaped through trauma.

Trauma is a natural part of our lives, and if properly processed through any variety of supportive and healthy approaches to integrating our disrupted sense of reality and sensibility, it can help us to exist in life as it is. But when trauma is repressed, suppressed, denied, or ignored and silenced, sometimes through formal narration and imposition of the realities we must heed and live, the ways it can affect us are like a frightened cat–we can’t really be quite sure what it will do, or why–much less how to treat it.

I learned from Jane that the best way to approach a trauma, or a surge of grief, even when we aren’t quite sure where it’s coming from, is to “turn into the skid.” She worked with us for days, in the luxury of safe space together, where we ate and rested and “did our work” with others wanting to help their people by helping ourselves to be whole. As a Chicana woman of Spanish and Native American ancestry, my Lipan Apache, Tarahumara, and Comanche roots were largely repressed by the Texan experience. But thanks to my grandparents, I had learned to listen to the earth. What I learned with Jane and the brave Native leaders in NANACOA was that the wisdom of our Creator can, and will, heal me…and most often through the simple attention to creation. Just as we can’t control a storm but must respond to it to survive, what is stirring within me requires prepared wisdom and the ability to ‘turn into the skid’ so I can make it through. For my people.

There have been numerous losses in my life over the last several years, but if my body’s responses over my lifetime are telling me anything, it’s that whatever has happened in the last few years is in addition to grief I’ve held unexpressed since childhood. And it takes a lot of energy to hold things in check when we are trying to keep even ourselves from knowing what’s going on. And my personality is a bit like the land my ancestors and I have known as home for centuries–like a desert, where you need to learn to pay attention to the subtle signs of the seasons.  That desert-like subtlety is coupled with the drama of the way nature wakes us up in the desert–with flash floods, dramatic dust storms, scorching sun, and icy indigo night cold.  The desert expects its compatriots to know how to read the signs.desert autumn 1

My LifeWork with the Four Seasons this autumn is to harvest, not accomplishments or achievements, but to harvest my grief that I might be able to make it through the winter, unimpeded by disruptive shadows. So when I breathe, I am not attempting to catch my breath from losses that I’ve never acknowledged, but breathing fully in gratitude for surviving and thriving through my life. We are all such amazing, strong, beautiful creatures, and I will cling to the beauty of life as I welcome the spiritual help I seek on this path. No more asthma, whooping cough, pneumonia or bronchitis, okay? My precious lungs, I’d like to let you do your work, and I’m giving my ego permission to let you do just that.  I hope that others will, too.

And if when you sincerely wish to express your grief, you are met with a litany of happiness platitudes that feel like a bitter attack on your soul’s work, there’s nothing wrong with you.  No matter how well-intentioned, the new orthodoxy of happiness can not help us be happy if we cannot learn to understand the full scope of life’s experience.

Find an outlet that can help you, and if you need some starters, I’ll be posting some of the books and approaches that have helped me over the years on a separate blog page by October 1.  Until then, feel free to write if you’d like to be in touch.

In the Company of Creation

I sense that there will be a day when these photos will be the evidence of a major transition in our society that is accompanied by an absence of sound response and discourse. 

I once saw myself as having many children in my lifetime, with motherhood a beloved outlet for my gifts, skills and talents. My body and life had other responses to those visions. But I ponder how I would feel if I had children and grandchildren growing to live in this society that is emerging and devolving around us. 

I spoke with my mother of these things last night, and we thought of the young people in our lives and the passions they express,  with little said of any responsibility for others,  for caring about or loving their neighbors,  for taking time to comprehend and appreciate the delicate interdependence that creates the necessities of a good and secure,  happy, and serene life. 

We continue to give to others, and we wake up temporarily in the face of tragedy and crisis,  disasters and horrors that befall even the most different from us.  But rapidly the discourse springs back like a rubber band pulled to its limits, snapping us into an awareness of the of xenophobia, prejudice,  entitlement,  threats of violence,  and fearful claims of superiority over anything we don’t understand,  that have become the basis for identity. 

When our elected leaders begin to pride themselves in disrupting our government,  privileging corporations,  empowering those who are killing nature and destroying the earth,  we are not in good hands.  When the brightest of our young believe they are thinking critically to believe what makes them feel superior or right with no evidence or sound logic,  we have a very shaky future.

We do not have a clean history,  despite the narratives of  Independence,  victory, heroism,  and freedom we have been encouraged to cherish.  And the very sordid ideals that we have hidden away,  denied,  and failed to formally decry and denounce with collective vehemence–bigotry, racism,  class idolatry,  ridiculing of knowledge,  and fear of our bodies and nature–these ideals are beginning to burst out in mighty force.  They are like weeds we never worked to eliminate from the garden of what sustains us. And we can no longer tell the difference,  and have begin to poison ourselves off the fruits of our neglected gardens.  We now plant the weeds and eliminate the food.

My mother and I talked of the absence of prayer that soothes and moves us to care… How spirituality is devoid and religion has become medieval at its core.

We aren’t going to “win” regardless of which “side” we think we’re on,  or who we blame, or who we want to punish. It’s easier to go with the flow of a river washing over us.  We transform ourselves into mouthpieces for scripts and hold back our heartfelt concerns.  We don’t connect except out of desire to be on the right “team. ”

That game isn’t working.  That game hasn’t worked.  That game doesn’t work. 

So when I see these images and hear the abominable claims and logic around us,  I’m going to try to respond from the part of me that can still feel love and that knows how people wake up when they learn of their own beauty and potential with others.  I can’t accept an invitation to stir up ugliness inside me,  even when ugliness is being spewed in my direction or injustice spun around me.

I have to learn to be a heretic to this orthodoxy of madness around us.  A mindful heretic,  aware that I’ve chosen a lonely trail,  but only if I am longing for false companionship.  There is a world of creation out there supporting a logic of interdependent life and death,  and it is beautiful,  and it is my world,  my community.  We can be part of it, too.

Looking into the Obsidian Mirror

Yesterday, as I worked on my novel, I had a breakthrough as I realized that I was holding back the intensity of how I felt the characters would actually be experiencing things. I was keeping secrets for them. After several hours of writing and revising, I felt the difference in every part of my body, felt as if I had just opened a door to a room that I decorated when I wrote Maria Speaks, but never went back to spend time in.

I had the same kind of feeling when I spent some time looking at the images in one of Vicente Romero’s paintings that I’d posted on Facebook, the one I felt the most drawn to. romero-vanity-2I realized that I have an antique vanity and embroidered cloths and crystal vases, and that I haven’t created the room I want even though I have acquired everything I would want to have in that room. The themes of the five journeys that I tapped into when writing Maria Speaks were valid, but I seemed to have forgotten that I ended the book by asking myself, “now what?”

It is now ten years since Maria Speaks was released, and I am humbled by the awareness of how self-awareness and personal growth is not the product of an industry of self-help workshops and memorized memes. It is both out of my control and the product of commitment to seeing myself in the mirror over and over again until I see what I have not been seeing. Not like Narcissus, in love with the reflection, or the evil queen in Snow White seeking self-confirming images and messages, but like what I imagine the black obsidian smoking mirror to show me, in the tradition of Tezcatlipoca, the god with no definite image, who sacrificed of himself to create his people in the Aztec tradition… what I see in this mirror are the sacrifices that I’ve made in order to be “of the people,” and how they have often very much come to cloud not only my capacity to see myself as I am, but in time, to cloud how I actually spend my time, express myself, and script myself to *be* in this world.

Today, I am awakened, with the new moon in the month of May–the month of the mother, but also the month of Tezcatlipoca, the month of transition between spring and summer, the month leading to the summer solstice and traditional times of the heaviest of labor. This idea that summer is my ‘time off,’ is out of synch with nature, out of synch with even my own conceptions of how I use the four seasons to guide my work.


So, as I rededicate myself to the labor of completing my novel by summer solstice, I also rededicate myself to seeing the reflection in the obsidian mirror, to creating the life space I yearn for, and shedding the sacrificial life scripts that do not create new life but only put it in boxes. It is never too late to learn again, to become renewed.

It’s a Day for the Dogs

It’s a day for the dogs.

Zonked-out dogs lying all around me after an hour of active vigilance, guarding and protecting me from the invaders. A neighbor banging on my door tells me he has been chasing a man who broke into a house blocks away, just moments earlier. “He’s in your yard!” The burglar was just seen jumping the fence into the yard of the home I’m house-sitting, with police and helicopters in hot pursuit.

With police at the front door, their cars up and down the street, I decide to enjoy my cup of coffee that I’d left sitting on the kitchen counter, after securing the doggie door so the dogs wouldn’t get caught in the fray. Just stay indoors, keep the dogs inside. I hear the amplified voice from the helicopter telling people to stay in their homes. The police are working on it.

The Phoenix K9 support did the job. One of the dogs found the guy, who jumped the fence here, into the neighbor’s yard. “Took a bite out of him, did his job,” the officer told me just moments ago. He assures me all is safe now, big smile on his face, proud of the brave dog.

Shaken a bit, the tears in my eyes right now are less about what has just transpired than about the desire to have trusting and positive relationships that work with our law enforcement officers. I know we are feeble and flawed as humans, but we are at our best when we work together and community holds us in a safe space.


Inviting the Pain of Compassion

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything.And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”-Andrew Boyd,Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe.

When reading this quote by Andrew Boyd, it came to me that starting with the world’s worst horrors might not be exactly where I needed to start if I really wanted to be honest about my challenges with compassion. I cannot help but think how most of the instances that call me to welcome and maintain compassion, infusing my life, actions and words with its influence,are by and large here-and-now, everyday encounters in the mundane and unremarkable exchanges in our lives.

Yet, even in these encounters, compassion is not comfortable, and our animal nature, or ego, will quickly motivate us away from staying present in kindness and love big enough to hold each other in compassion. I am the worst at this when I am feeling vulnerable, or when I’ve overcommitted to an itinerary or identity or principle of some sort that I don’t want to open up to hold an embrace of another’s call for my presence. That which I experience in the heart of my prayer, in the depths of silence in my meditations, is bigger than that, and the journey to embody and surrender to my awareness is the longest one I’ve ever taken. And upon this journey, I find that the ways in which I have been raised and educated, my experiences in relationships and workplace, and my traumas, errors, losses, and desires, all compete with this simple move to compassion.

As the eldest of my generation in my family, as a female, raised as culturally Mexican as a child in Texas, and Catholic, like many of my friends and relatives, I learned that I needed to sacrifice at every turn for others. I learned that I shouldn’t upset others, and that if I did, I needed to give of myself to make it better,and that it was appropriate to feel guilty, and later seek penance for my actions. This system of thought and relationship can work in the best of circumstances, but we rarely if ever live in a world of sustained “best circumstances,” and so it becomes an internalized effort to mediate guilt in the absence of sacramental absolution or reinforcement of the denial of one’s experience or feelings. As a child, I felt this very powerfully, and I have even said that my insistence of writing the word NO all over the house and in our photo albums, on our walls and furniture, was the magical realism of truths present even as they were being hidden through proper, and sometimes improper, upbringing and education.

I’ve come to learn that it is art, nature, and spiritual practice that are the training grounds for compassion. Not a workshop or book, although they offer food for thought, but deeply personal everyday practice experiencing the exquisite nature of beauty just beyond reach in art…so much so that it can transfix us, move us to tears, obsess us and make us lose all sense of time. Sitting in nature and simply sensing it, feeling it, letting its sounds penetrate our being, its images imprint themselves on our ancient souls, reconnecting us–this can calm our ego and minds without much effort, with no thought required. Or a beloved spiritual practice that is religious in its very essence, re-uniting us with an experience of the ttranscendentand bigger than all, passion so deep that we can bring it to com-passion.

Each summer I find myself remembering these things as the madness of all the activity of the university slows, the heat invites me inward, the sweat reminds me to release what I hadn’t realized I was clutching. And it is the toiling of the summer that can bring a fall harvest bountiful enough to celebrate and feast, yet have enough to make it through that rough winter to begin dreaming again of a possible re-birth in spring.

We don’t have that experience as vividly here in Phoenix, Arizona, but the template of the Four Seasons has guided my life for over twenty years now, and I am truly grateful for the cyclical nature of each year, for it is merciful to this slowly learning human being. We are such fragile and delicate beings, so worthy of compassion, and I strive to be capable of it, as well.

Phoenix, Arizona
May 24, 2014

The Silent Shadow of False Solidarity

For the last several years, I’ve felt a gradually increasing malaise. I told myself that it could be because I’m growing older, and the experience of losing friends and relatives has become far more frequent.  I remember my grandmother Fina, my “Mama Fina,” telling me about how awful she found it to be 90 years old.  “Ya no hay nadie…todos se han muerto…”  In my 50’s, I think I’ve begun to understand a little better what it was she was saying to me.  When I was in my 30’s, I could only try to empathize with her.  Certainly, this could help explain the frequently low mood I was beginning to experience?

I had also taken on a graduate advising responsibility at work that was, as my friends and colleagues often reminded me, INSANE.  Nine advisees, co-directing a few of them, but directing most of their comprehensive exams and dissertations, as well as dealing with the challenges of recalcitrant and stubborn delays and refusals to work up to par, emotional outbursts, and the realization that my own creative work was taking a beating…  Surely this could also be part of it?

Or was it that I lived in Arizona?  It’s too hot for most of the year, and the heat gets harder to handle with every year I live here.  Sheriff Joe and “Juana la Bruja,” our governor, and the Tea Party, radically conservative and anti-immigrant political movements in the state create a rather dismal environment for this place to ever feel like a welcoming home to me.  That could be it, right?

My brain injury has become more difficult to deal with as I age, as well.  Compensating for the left hemisphere brain injury from my experience of having been run down by a student driver at Rutgers, when I was just one year into my first faculty job after getting my Ph.D., has always been an extra cognitive burden for me.  And when that 2″x4″ wooden beam fell on my head in 2002, I developed symptoms of serious post-traumatic stress disorder, blacking out random experiences, history, and sometimes days in my life.  Trying to be a professor with a working brain at a Research I University while compensating for these things even led me to my third neuropsychological evaluation in Fall of 2012.  Learning to adapt to publicly facing the reality of my “invisible” cognitive disability has to have added something to my challenges in mood and motivation.

My house was becoming a wreck, along with my finances and personal records, class syllabi and schedule of appointments and activities…  I felt like my life was like a minefield of unexpected surprises, largely brought on by the problems with my sequential memory, experience of time, and depersonalization from my brain injury.  I could change my name, religion, lifestyle, and not feel it one bit!  Surely all of these things were cumulatively responsible for this demise in my ability to feel joy at a deep, sustained level.

I worked on these things like a machine.  Clearing my house and my agenda, adapting my yoga and meditation to a home practice to add time to my schedule, getting my students done and graduated, using a paper-and-pen calendar to help with my memory…  but the “funk” that accompanied me was deeper than all these things could touch.  So I began the deeper, more serious, shadow work that has been my “go-to” form of self-therapy when most troubled.

Here’s how it works when I do this:  Come up with a list of the people who are affecting me the most powerfully at an emotional level, and in a way that is obsessive in its ability to take up my mental activity. Make sure that I focus on the emotions that are at the core of the problem(s) I’m trying to solve.  Then, begin to sift through what those people are actually DO-ing, SAY-ing, or BE-ing that irritates or obsesses me.  Next, explore how these things are somehow being denied, hidden, or otherwise possibly repressed in my own expression of who I am in my everyday life.

When I did this, what was it that was triggering me?  People who espoused “what a great place it is that we work,” or “how much we respect each other’s work,” or “the difference our work is making in the world,” just to get started.  But it was all about my work life–all about how it feels to work in the place I call my “job” for so many days and hours of every year.  And what I came to realize is that my real misery and agony was at work–not the work that I actually DO, but the experience of BEING a part of the particular workplace that I call my job, attempting to be a part of that “team” of smiling, faculty-meeting-attending folks with the litanies of “aren’t we a great bunch of people with such lucky lives,” habitually joking with the same one-liners one can hear in almost any university faculty office or meeting. What triggered me was the expressions and expectations that we are supposed to love being with each other, feel grateful for each other, and express how proud we are of each other’s work, despite underlying realities that are understood to be inappropriate if expressed.

I came to see that what I was repressing was my sincere unhappiness and distrust of my colleagues and work environment, responding to the well-learned awareness that “collegiality” is a valued behavior, and my knowledge that as a discipline of scholars in human communication, in general, we do not express what we are really having a problem with.  Instead, we express that we are “doing well,” “making a difference,” and that we are “so fortunate” and “blessed” and “lucky” to work with such wonderful, talented people.  That works, if and when it’s true.  And for most of my career, despite the routine problems of organizational politics, I have indeed felt this way.  But something changed during the last few years.  And that is what I had to figure out.  Because it was killing me–and at some level, I knew that if my mood continued as it was, that in fact, whatever this was, was doing great harm to me. My blood pressure was high, I had frequent insomnia, and I was wasting increasing amounts of time avoiding this plaguing emotional distress.

What was I keeping secret? What was I hiding in obedience to this culture of what I was coming to experience as harshly false solidarity?  What was I internalizing, at the cost of my own health and well-being, and ultimately the quality of my work and relationships, for the sake of the orthodox culture of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication…my workplace?

I figured it out.  And how I knew that I had figured it out is that when I’ve done shadow work over the last 30 years, there’s a bit of ‘magic’ that happens when one accurately identifies the shadow:  the obsessive and intense emotional state lifts.  And if one can embrace that shadow, by taking action to bring it out of the dark, as publicly as possible, and changing the patterns and practices that have created it, it stays away.  I’m working on the embrace of this shadow right now.

Several years ago, I became aware that there was a body of research about to be launched in my school that was so unlike anything I’d heard of in my field, that it sounded like science fiction.  It was a SECRET.  But I found out from someone who was distressed by it, and as a loyal part of this academic culture I’ve worked in for over 30 years, I voiced how awful I thought it was, but never said a word about it publicly, except for one attempt to ask about it while we were undergoing a departmental review.  The responses by the officials present at the time made it clear that the discussion was over before it began.  That was a couple of years ago.

But I can’t do that anymore.  When I learned that “colleagues” were about to conduct research , funded by the U.S. military, under the guise of the study of “narrative,” but which was strategically aimed at the ultimate creation of a transcranial device that could be used to manipulate an individual’s capacity to participate in communication as someone culturally shaped to be and think as s/he was– by shutting off the brain’s responses to religious and cultural narratives that are important to the person whose brain is targeted… When I asked the director of the project, when said research was presented in  a faculty meeting with no mention of these aspects of the research proposed, if perhaps they wouldn’t be utilizing some of the technology the same military funding source developed earlier, it was met with a delay, then an attempt at smiling/laughing, and ultimately abject denial…  When colleagues refuse to work with a student who has taken courageous steps to reveal the nature of this work… and When we’ve begun working as a faculty to improve the culture and climate of our workplace by ‘learning about what we all do,’ and yet we are never asked why the culture and climate is problematic in the first place…  These things are the things that were teaching me, telling me, and perhaps others, how to keep our mouths shut.  These are the techniques used to keep people “in their place,” to encourage what I, and others in various areas of work* call a facade of false solidarity.

As I write this, I am aware of the anxiety that people will read this and “get mad.” Or that it will be ignored but talked about behind closed doors.  That I could get called in to “talk” about what I have written, and be asked why I couldn’t have approached this in a more ‘civil’ fashion.  I am afraid of losing friends who were probably never friends.  I am aware that I am planning when I will resign, retire, or otherwise change my work.  But I do not feel a dark shadow of despair within me, projecting itself onto every aspect of my life in an effort to avoid identifying what it is that has actually made me ill and unhappy for the last three years.

I find it morally repugnant that I, along with others, have had to pretend that this work was not planned within our school, and that our colleagues would not, or could not, reveal the truth about the research on which they were ultimately collaborating, and helping to obfuscate. I find it painful to synchronistically encounter a woman at a community event who was an unwitting research subject in the studies conducted by the project housed in our school–and to learn that she was moved to emotional agony and lay in tears inside an MRI machine, believing that the research “was going to help someone.” I hate that by association with my workplace, I was “supposed” to keep my mouth shut and encourage her to continue to doubt her gut feeling that what she had experienced was wrong.

But I’m not smiling from the shadows anymore, and I’m certainly not ashamed or obediently maintaining my silence, or pretending that I respect the work of my colleagues–or worse, that I somehow support it by narrating a fiction of false solidarity.

*TwitterFeminists,and many more sources

Simple Gifts, Simple Purpose, Simple Strengths

Irises by Van Gogh
Irises, by Vincent Van Gogh

I attended a morning mini-retreat yesterday morning,  at the Casa (Franciscan Renewal Center, in Scottsdale, Arizona),and the theme was the lives of “Three Gifted & Misunderstood Men.”  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, and Theilhard de Chardin, S.J.

(Quotes from Theilhard de Chardin, S.J. )

The retreat started with an invitation for us to listen to Don McLean’s beautiful song, “Vincent,” and we were reminded that Don McLean was only 26  years old when he wrote those beautiful lyrics. Throughout the retreat we were struck by the young age of both Van Gogh and Mozart when they were in the depths of their creative work.  Both died in their 30’s.  young_teilhardTheilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit theologian and geologist with a passion for the earth, was silenced and sent to China for 20 years to study the earth–all the while writing what he would not be able to share until after he died.


There were parallels and differences between these three men, but all of them accomplished what they did in spite of the lives they lived that for most of us would have led us to abandon our efforts and surrender to the norms we were being pushed to accept and live.  Their works were known during their lives, but not to the extent to which they would fill our lives with wonder and awe.W_a_mozart

(Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor on youtube– it is wise to lower volume to avoid the sound of the ad, then raise it to hear the music.)

While I write this,  I notice the large white puffy clouds floating across such a beautiful blue sky, the cool air entering my patio door with the crisp moistness from last night’s blessed desert rain…and I hear the multitude of birds in a chorus of nature.  The seeds I planted two weeks ago are showing their tiny little green sprouts through the muddy soil. My dogs are curled up, napping, and occasionally opening their eyes to gaze outside before exhaling in lazy comfort.

We were asked to consider what we learned from reflecting on these three men’s lives, and this is what I’m choosing to print on a card I will carry in my journal, to center me, before I allow myself to get carried away by the events of my life or the mad flurry of thought in my mind:

1) If we pay attention to the simple things that give us great joy and by which we are driven from some ‘internal’ source to continue doing or enjoying, regardless of the circumstances of our lives, those are gifts of grace that can sustain us throughout life.
2) The things we create and do in our lives are not meant for us, but for others. What we receive from all that we create is the gift of fulfilling our purpose.
3) The voices and efforts of others to stifle us, ridicule us, silence us, banish us, and otherwise hurt us in ways to stop the flow of life’s gifts in us, couldn’t stop these individuals from continuing their life’s work. If I immerse myself in my creative gifts, I am protected from domination by others, even if my life is full of their influence.
4) All of them were grateful, not for material goods, titles, or privilege, but for the wonders of nature, their capacity to love, their connection to God, regardless of how other ‘people of God’ attempted to stop them. They responded with their gifts, not with hate.

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