Fire in the Earth

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FireintheEarth

There is very little I still hold from my days of Feri (or Faery) study and practice. That stage of my life was rich in drama and wonder, and I was blessed with a circle of close friends engaged in the same pursuits. We kept each other on our toes, exploring all sorts of things we would have never considered before, from the practical to the wildly esoteric. Yet most of what I learned I do not use in my own practice or my teaching. I left Feri behind some years ago but managed to keep my friends, no small feat.

Feri was part of the flowering of Bay Area mysticism, a movement that heated up in the 1960s and 70s, fusing science and faith, ancient myth and modern discovery, Eastern and Western philosophy, into something new. The flowering took on all forms of expression: literature, poetry, psychology, art, film, environmentalism, education, spirituality, medicine, social activism, theoretical physics, and so much more.

As a child of this whole movement more than any one particular strand, maybe I was destined to part ways with both organized and disorganized religion and form my own understanding of spirituality, magic, and leadership. Central to my effort over the past couple years has been a re-thinking of the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and how they relate to the cardinal compass points of North, East, South and West. My personal practice is rooted in this new, evolving model, and it informs everything I do.

This is where I find myself drawn to one Feri gem: the simple phrase Fire in the Earth. For my purposes, I have taken the phrase out of its original context and placed it in the South. I think of it as a refinement of the traditional associations with Fire—creativity, sex, passion, expression, ecstasy—because my goal is effectiveness in the world.

It has never made sense to me that Fire is in the South while our bodies are associated with Earth in the North. Not to make this a commentary on Pagans and physical health, but I think the split does lead to both a lack of physical vibrancy and a tendency toward ungrounded, unsustainable magic. Fire in the Earth challenges us to develop the spirit within our bodies, creating a magnetic, vibrant health that supports our will and prevents us from overextending ourselves.

To me, magnetism is the key. It is different from mere charisma, which wears off because it is an affect, not a core state. Magnetism is a fiery physical presence that both generates energy and draws like energy to it—a much better condition if we are truly interested in manifesting our goals, or succeeding at any creative expression. It is the opposite of fire run amok, and the walking wounded teaching others to reach for ecstasy without first cultivating the strength to handle it.

What does this re-alignment mean in practical terms? It means building a container to match the energy you want to pour through it, giving that fire a wide hearth in which to burn brightly. It means creating the steel in your spine that is only forged through white heat. And most of all it means acknowledging that there is no “pure” fire, no source of light and heat separate from that which moves within us. The force that drives the flower does so only through the green fuse.

Fire in the Earth. We sit at the edge of our own caldera every day. The question is, what are we doing with it?

9th Annual Brigid Poetry Festival

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Brigiddoll

It is time once again to pull out your journals, those scraps of paper and backs of envelopes where you have jotted down verse throughout the year—you know you have—and offer it up to the Goddess Brigid, patron saint of Ireland. Brigid loves poetry, excels at smithcraft, is an accomplished healer, and midwife, and in my experience also appreciates a fine whiskey on her Feast Day.

Which is tomorrow. Or as I prefer to think of it, the entire weekend.

This Silent Poetry Festival has been going on since 2006, and has become a wonderful, international event, with people posting poems in honor of Brigid on their blogs, Facebook, Twitters, Tumblrs, and other such devices.

If you would like to join in, here’s what to do:

  1. Post a poem either on your blog or on our Facebook page. (Yes, I know it says 2011 but just ignore that, Facebook won’t let me change it.)
  2. Share your link either here in the comments section or on that aforementioned page.
  3. Take some time in the coming week to dim the lights, pour your favorite libation, and read some of the poetry offered up to Brigid.
  4. Sleep deeply, wake refreshed.

That’s it! Extra credit for posting children’s poems, photos of gatherings to read poetry aloud, and other mirth to celebrate the return of the light. Please help spread the word, so others may partake as well. (And if anyone can help me credit the photo above I would appreciate it.)

Here is a poem I have been inspired by lately. It is a prayer of Ludwig van Beethoven, after he realized that his deafness was incurable.

Beethoven’s Prayer

Oh God give me strength to be victorious
over myself, for nothing may chain me to
this life. O guide my spirit, O raise me
from these dark depths, that my soul,
transported through Your wisdom, may
fearlessly struggle upward in fiery flight.
For You alone understand and can inspire me.
—Ludwig van Beethoven

May the light return for all of us this year.

Real World Ethics

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My ongoing examination of leadership and community dynamics in this blog dovetails nicely with teaching ethics classes at Cherry Hill Seminary. I never imagined teaching an ethics course, but was asked to step in mid-semester four years ago when a faculty change left the Boundaries and Ethics class without a professor.

That year I played catch-up, learning the material while teaching it and facilitating class discussions. As an educator this is never a comfortable position to be in, but I found that I loved the topic and kept studying after the class was over. Since then I have taught the class twice, each time making minor improvements in the curriculum. Now I think I am ready to do a full-scale revamping of the course.

But first we need a good basic text.

The course needs to bridge historical and modern Pagan thought on ethics, and present methodologies for making ethical decisions in chaplaincy, pastoral, and community settings. I want my students to start with their personal (both observed and first-hand) experiences with Pagan leadership, community and group dynamics, filter it through a study of ethical criteria and guidelines developed by various religious and secular organizations, and come up with a code of conduct for themselves going forward in their private and professional lives.

Make an Ethical Difference

I have been scouring the market for books to use the next time I teach the course, and am happy to report that we have a new front-runner! Mark Pastin’s new book Making an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action is a great introduction to thinking ethically in difficult situations.

Pastin, CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, draws on his experience as advisor to corporations and NGOs worldwide to shape the book, starting each chapter with a new dilemma and using it to illustrate how to think about similar situations. Make an Ethical Difference presents five tools for sharpening your ethical sense:

  1. Read the Ground Rules
  2. Reason Backward to Find the Interests
  3. Face the Facts 
  4. Stand in the Shoes
  5. The Global Benefit Approach

While these are excellent practices for making our own ethical choices, applying them to a situation with multiple parties involved is much trickier. Fortunately, Pastin has what he calls “The Convergence Process,” designed “to increase the alignment of the ethics eyes of those directly involved in a situation requiring action.” In other words, getting people to share outlooks and be willing to change their views—including your own. It is a powerful approach involving transparency and great communication skills.

A book like this is the perfect guide to keep nearby when the inevitable occurs and humans get into conflicts. I will be referring to it myself in the months to come, taking Pastin’s tools for a test drive in my current ethics class and out in the real world as well.

Meanwhile, does anybody have other favorite ethics texts to recommend?

Three Times a Wood Passes for Rain

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That is the line I woke up with a few weeks ago. Three times a wood passes for rain. It gripped me and I rushed to write it down before it vanished. As I wrote, there spilled out from behind it a whole dream that was just as poetic and mysterious. In the final scene, I am sitting on the lawn of my parent’s house, next to my mother’s casket.

I think about the dream a lot, but only now do I have the first idea what that opening line means. And that is because I went to Jenya’s memorial on Sunday.

drive up from seattle to vancouver

Jenya Bohr was an aikido buddy of mine, but our deeper bond came from his role as high school teacher to my son Bowen and nephew Alex. Jenya helped Bowen graduate when he only wanted to take junior college classes. And he helped Alex graduate by putting up with way more than he should have. But being an effective teacher to Alex meant propping him up, being in turns cajoling and reassuring, overlooking his massive academic failures, and constantly believing in the good he had inside him. Jenya excelled at that.

This Samhain was the third anniversary of Alex’s death, and I managed to get through it without too much extra heartache. But on Sunday I found myself crying with several of Alex’s old teachers at the memorial, not just for Jenya but for Alex. One teacher told me she’d had a dream the night before Jenya died that she went to visit and he was dead, smiling with his eyes wide open. Her immediate thought was, “I have to tell Alex!” which woke her up, because she remembered Alex is already dead and therefore Jenya must be, too.

Alex’s death flipped a switch in me. I grew up with a highly developed instinct for managing unpredictable behavior. Being the family harmonizer, the “responsible one,” became second nature to me, so I recreated my starring role early on by marrying a borderline personality and having kids young. I had enough energy for all of that, then Alex joined us and it all got turned up to eleven, all the time.

While raising three children, then four with Alex, then five the next year as his sister Rose came to live with us too, I clung to aikido like a mast in a storm. It was what I did to find my center, and to breathe and move from there in relation to others, even multiple attackers. Aikido absolutely got me through those years, re-patterning me so that I no longer tolerated anyone who kept trying to knock me off-center, unless it was an actual teenager under my care. And once the teenagers started moving out there was no more organizing principle for the marriage, so it too went away.

There is the normal pace of healing when we change the habits of a lifetime, and then there is the turbo-charged version. Alex’s death brought me to an unbearable rawness, as I faced once and for all the limits of my power and responsibility. I began setting new standards for relationships of all kinds, and held to them no matter the consequences. Internally, I ruthlessly weeded out old emotional patterns that kept me off-center, losing 35 pounds in the process. As a result, I am happier and healthier now than I have ever been. 

In my dream, there is an implication that after the third time something changes. The woods do not pass for rain. What is seen is fully revealed. There is also a vein of premonition through the dream, as my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s registers in that stark final image. May her current quality of life continue for a long time.

Three years have passed since Alex’s death, since the turbo-charged period of change began that led me to this place. Yet it is never a far walk back to the grief, despair and loneliness that his death also ushered in. Jenya’s memorial reminded me of this fact. I walked through those woods again, and came out the other side. And today it is raining for the first time all season.

Fame, Community and Commerce

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One night over twenty years ago I stood outside Urban Stonehenge, a large pink house on Potrero Hill, talking to my friend Rose as people streamed in through the front gate. It was a big monthly San Francisco party known as the anarchist community coffeehouse, and I’d driven down from Sonoma County to see friends and play at the open mike.

Rose and I greeted people as they came in and many of them, seeing my guitar nearby, asked expectantly if I was going to sing. At one point I commented to Rose how awkward the attention made me feel. She said, in her matter-of-fact way, “Don’t be. Just accept the fact that you’re a minor celebrity in a minor subculture.”

Until that moment I had not thought much about fame in terms of our circle of friends. Rose’s comment helped give me some perspective, and from then on I started paying attention to who stood out from the crowd, why, and how they handled it.

Commerce in the Community

Fame is different from leadership, yet in our celebrity culture we often conflate them. We assume that people who are famous are better at something than the rest of us, or have great ideas that others should follow. While this is often true, the larger a community grows the more likely you are to find people who achieve celebrity without the weight of actual leadership ability.

I have written before about what happens when narcissism and charisma infect community leadership. That post was in some ways the product of my observations over the past twenty years of spiritual communities in general. To make it a little more concrete, I want to focus here on two different leadership paradigms I have found.

For many years, the prevailing business model in the women’s spirituality and self-help movement had been to write a good book, then go on the workshop circuit and teach that material to grow your audience, while developing material for a second book. These books presented a positive vision of personal empowerment, yet among the author personalities there was a degree of competition that often belied their egalitarian message. 

Their zero-sum-game attitude was easy to miss when the economy and especially publishing was doing well. But as money started to tighten up, people with name recognition were faced with hard choices and not all of them made good ones. Those who could not control their egos tended to flame out and disappear, while others found steady income through teaching or sought out new markets in which to spread their message.

In the early 2000s I studied dreamwork with Rev. Jeremy Taylor, eventually becoming the first graduate of his Marin Institute for Projective Dreamwork. For something as non-mainstream as interpreting dreams, Jeremy had a refreshing viewpoint on competition and fame. He stated explicitly more than once that the more competent dreamworkers there were out in the world, the more the public would be educated about dreams and ultimately the more opportunities there would be for all dreamworkers.

Having come up against the winner-take-all mentality in self-help circles himself, he knew the only way to counter it was to set a different tone early on with his own students. I was deeply grateful that someone so well-known would live his principles to such a degree, and actively work to change the culture of celebrity from within.

Studying with Jeremy gave me the language to voice what had been bothering me about fame and community ever since that coffeehouse incident. It continues to inform my work today with authors, most of whom hope to bring their message of wisdom or spirituality to a larger audience.

“Leave more value than you capture.”

This quote from tech CEO Tim O’Reilly should guide all of our efforts to create a stream of commerce from our community involvement. A subculture that becomes an exclusive feeding ground for one or two high-profile members will end up desiccated and unable to thrive. And thriving culture is what supports all the arts and insures a growing audience for everyone.

The publishing industry is in such a shambles today that the only way authors can get ahead is to collaborate, sharing insights and best practices, and joining forces to find and create new audiences for all our work. The relationship between spirituality and commerce has never been easy, but at least we now have a guideline by which to judge those in our midst who end up being leaders and achieving fame. We can ask how much value they create and leave on the table for others. How are they generous, and to what effect? And is our community richer or poorer for their presence in it?

Redefining Luck

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It has been eight years this month since I left the family home I’d made in Sebastopol and moved out to the coast. With little money, a fledgling career, and two daughters still to support, it was a leap of faith greater in magnitude than any I had yet tried to pull off in my life.

The past eight years have been marked by significant losses and hard-won gains. My business crashed in the downturn and I scrambled to build a new one. My father, nephew, and several friends died. As hard as I worked, progress was always slower than I hoped on many fronts.

And yet, I have had tremendous luck. Not the kind of luck that means my worries are over, not the luck that prevents me from having to make hard choices more than once. But a slender thread of luck and serendipity is all we need sometimes to affirm that we are on the right path, doing what we’re supposed to be doing, no matter the risk.

Golden Gate Bridge 75th AnniversarySometimes it’s the small pieces of luck that feel the best, like approaching the Golden Gate Bridge on its 75th Anniversary just as the sun sets behind it. Or catching the most beautiful moonrise by virtue of getting home late after a hard day.

One of the first things I needed in my new life was to rebuild my wardrobe for where I was going, not where I’d been. I had no money for clothes, but sometimes I’d have a sudden urge to visit one or another of my favorite stores. Invariably, the one thing I really needed would be there, in the perfect color and size, at a super cheap price.

Other times my luck was larger and more harrowing, for instance when I had no work for several weeks at a stretch. I was doing everything I could to generate more work, so I took my unwanted time off as a nudge from the Universe to sit down and write that book. Each time, I had just long enough to finish the project before work started flowing in again.

And then there were numerous instances when bad stuff happened in mild ways, or things broke but the damage was minor. At every turn there was something that tested my faith and resolve, and unfailingly the answer came back: Yes. You are on the right path. Keep going.

You don’t pass this kind of luck by. You thank it, accept it, be grateful for it. Gratitude increases both the size and frequency of luck, helping you stay healthy and live longer in the process. It is absolutely my magical tool of choice.

In his memoir, Robert Johnson names this kind of luck “slender threads,” “the mysterious forces that guide us and shape who we are.”

The possibility of the slender threads operating at all times is so staggering that most of us can’t bear it…Life is not meaningless, it is overflowing with meaning, pattern, and connections.

Serendipity, synchronicity, luck, fortune, fate. Call it what you will; it will answer.

I still have grand ideas of the kind of luck I want, and I continually shoot for them. Maybe soon one of those big plays will succeed in a flash of light. Meanwhile, a million little moments of luck glitter on the path all around me, lighting my way down the road no matter what.

The Obligatory Grateful Dead Post

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After eight years of blogging I am finally correcting a major oversight. I can’t very well be a late-Boomer Bay Area native and not write at least once about the Grateful Dead; it just isn’t done. So here goes.

The Grateful Dead were once as ubiquitous as tie-dye on Telegraph Ave. They played constantly, both locally and on tour, and their New Years Eve shows at the Oakland Auditorium were legendary. As a teenager I was too much of a musical snob to pay them much attention. Their music seemed rambling, disjointed, and not very interesting. But once in college I thought maybe I was missing out on something big—if not musically then at least culturally.

Dropping acid and seeing the Dead is what passed for a rite of passage in some circles. I had lost track of the number of friends who returned wide-eyed from what they termed a transformative experience at a Dead show. So in spite of the fact that I didn’t particularly like the Dead or want to try acid, I figured I should go to a show while I was still young and impressionable enough to “get it.”

The summer I turned 18 provided a fantastic opportunity. I was living in Berkeley, and saw on a telephone pole (a.k.a. the “internet”) a notice for a Green Tortoise bus trip to Alaska. The Tortoise was infamous, a company that converted old buses into funky touring vehicles. Outfitted with two drivers, a few seats in the front and a giant platform bed in the back, the Green Tortoise drove big, wild groups of people up and down the coast, across the country, and on other special trips.

This particular summer of 1980 they’d decided to go to Alaska for one reason only: the Dead were playing Anchorage on the Summer Solstice! How great would it be to drive a random bunch of freaks through Canada and the Yukon and descend on Anchorage for the show, while the sun never sets? Add to that visits to the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and the majestic Denali, and it was hardly an adventure I could let pass me by. I spent the rest of my scholarship money on a bus ticket and a backpack, and I was in.

Anne on the Green Tortoise, June 1980I didn’t know anyone else going on the trip, but that did not deter me in the least. I have never had a problem striking off on my own into unfamiliar places, making friends along the way. Unfortunately, it proved harder to do on this trip than I had imagined.

Three girls my age from Texas were my first disappointment. They wore makeup every day, didn’t read, and clearly were only interested in male companionship. A 33-year-old French Canadian playboy dealer who listened to Bruce Cockburn hooked up with one of the girls, causing a couple nights of great embarrassment for a grandmother traveling with her cute 9-year-old grandson. There were also a few older single men and women on the bus, an ex-felon or two, and a couple certifiable nuts.

I did make some friends, but there was no real easy bonding on this trip. When a guy wearing a poncho and cowboy hat and nothing else comes to breakfast with his bullwhip and starts yelling at people for no apparent reason, it sets up a tension within the group that is hard to overcome.

We stayed one night near Mt. St. Helens, where every surface in the campground was covered with a layer of ash from its recent eruption. Crossing the border into Canada took a while because of someone’s arrest record. But eventually they let us all through and we were off to the Yukon, where the road was still dirt in some places. I never imagined getting tired of seeing beautiful forests dotted with occasional deep blue lakes, but on this trip I learned that it was possible. The beauty and the distances were astonishing.

When we got to Anchorage, our first order of business was to find tickets to the show. Outside the auditorium was the usual phalanx of Deadheads from all over, sitting in line or playing frisbee on the lawns. As we went into the show our resident dealer doled out the acid, and I was on my way. It was now or never. I would either “get” this band or be doomed to the sidelines forever.

What I remember most about the concert was the bad sound. It was like a high school PA system cranked up past the boiling point. Relax, I told myself, just let the music wash over you. I knew how to do this, it wasn’t like I’d never been to a rock concert before. But the tinny treble, mushy bass and incoherent lyrics just went on and on, and didn’t do the band’s sloppy playing any favors. If there was a transformation going on here, it wasn’t into anything good.

My second strongest memory was the people. Beautiful people my age with wide-open faces who stared at total strangers like me as if we were newly discovered best friends. They danced up to me smiling, then whirled away when I didn’t meet their gaze with the same intensity of surrender. My big revelation that night was that this was not my tribe, though at the time it just felt like sadness and possibly failure.

I kept my revelation to myself and let loneliness wash over me. If I were back home I would have somewhere to go. Here in Anchorage I waited out the rest of the show on the sidelines, and walked back to the bus with the rest of the Tortoise travelers in the night’s continuous dawn.

The trip was life-changing for other reasons. I met a woman who studied herbalism with Rosemary Gladstar in Sebastopol. This was the first time I’d heard about Sebastopol, then a ranching town with a small enclave of hippies and herbalists. Eight years later I told my mother-in-law about the town, and shortly afterward moved there with my young family.

One Tortoise friend I stayed in touch with for a few years was Louie X. Heinrich. We were driving in his car across the Bay Bridge when John Lennon was shot, and shared our grief as his music played on the radio. Louie gave me a place to stay when I left Big Sur and settled in Santa Cruz, and our friendship included a funny ongoing game about being aliens and the general strangeness of humanity.

Louie died way too young, at 39, a fact I just learned while writing this piece. He never quite found his tribe, while I was lucky enough to fall into a great one in Santa Cruz by the time I turned 21.

As I write this in a Mendocino café, “Ship of Fools” just came on the radio. How fitting. The Dead as a phenomenon deeply affected an entire generation. But the shadow of all that openness and saucer-eyed belonging was an alienation and self-destructive urge that caused so many to lose their way.

I did not have the language and discernment at 18 to verbalize what I felt, but at least some innate stubbornness held me back from the lure of that experience. And I discovered Bruce Cockburn at the same time, which overall was a very good outcome. I wish I could say that Louie had the same good outcome, after suffering so much hardship early in life. I don’t know how he died, but wherever he is I’ll bet it’s a much better place.

Louie X Heinrich

The Art of Community

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It was a running joke in the old Reclaiming Collective that “The Future of the Collective” would always be an item on our meeting agenda, and we would always run out of time before addressing it. The joke lasted for years, and provided a refreshing bit of honesty about our ambivalence toward maturing as an organization and community. 

We were an action-oriented group, always organizing the next ritual or set of classes, and many of us worked together in other direct action groups as well. So there was some measure of pride in saying that we were too busy doing things to sit back and wonder why we were doing them, or where it all might lead. That was fine for slower-moving, less radical organizations, but not for us. It just wasn’t in our DNA.

Living in the moment, moving by the tides and dealing with only what is immediate and unavoidable is a great way to test yourself, learn new things, and form bonds of kinship. But while some of those bonds may stand the test of time, most dissolve as quickly as the moments that produced them. Reclaiming proved to be far better at creating moments than building anything meaningful or lasting, but it did teach me a whole lot about what community really means.

Community is who shows up. If you are going through a tough time and have been brought to your knees, who calls to check in? Who comes over to help? Who can you count on through thick and thin? That’s your community, like it or not.

When I went through my own hell realm a few years ago, what made it all the more painful was noticing who responded to my calls for help. Many people I assumed were my close-in community were nowhere to be found, while others I hadn’t considered inner circle ended up there because they wanted me to count on them, no matter what.

I took the lesson, and completely re-arranged my notion of who my community really was. The process has also made me acutely aware of where I put my energy. Where does my heart lie? Who is family to me? That is who I show up for.

My friend (and former neighbor) Peter Laufer wrote of our town:

A town’s character is influenced by its physical location and its architecture. But its mythology and sense of self develops as events occur.

The art of community is building that mythology through the repetition of physical actions that improve the group’s overall health and goodwill. It turns out that community has very little to do with a shared worldview, the number of meetings attended, or the intention with which it formed in the first place.

Moments are fun, and can be meaningful, but showing up is the sinew that makes a community somewhere you want to stay for the long term, maybe a lifetime. There is an art to that, yes, but it is also a practice. And for that, you don’t need an agenda item.

Before the Wind Comes Up

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Spring comes early to the North Coast, and with it comes the wind. There are very few days in the Spring when the air is still, and many more when the house is buffeted all day by wave after wave of cold, thundering marine air.

Some nights the wind picks up around 4 am, loud enough to wake me up. I can feel it testing the give of the glass panes on my window, like a crazed tympanist tuning a drum. Even though I am well-protected and warm, I reach for a pillow to protect my head from the blasts.

This is a wind that works on all levels—the exterior and the deeply interior. Some days I have only to look at the wind blowing outside to feel it at work in my own mind, tearing loose what is hastily nailed down and forcing the trees to anchor their roots even deeper.

This morning I looked out through windows glazed with a season’s worth of salt spray and saw the treetops motionless against the sky. Throwing on a light sweater, I took the dog outside for an early walk in the sweet light of May Day. It was a morning when everything seems possible.

Even when still, the wind is a palpable presence here. It danced in a slow-moving swirl around me, full of energy but relaxed, letting the dew hang on the tips of the tall grass until it ended up on Vince’s fur, or slowly steamed away in the sun.

On other walks I have felt halfway around the folly of my clothes choice. I prefer to think of dressing as giving instructions to the elements on how to behave, the result being that I am frequently mad at myself for not dressing warmer. But today, even with just a t-shirt and thin sweater on, I was never cold.

That in itself seemed like a hopeful sign that something new was possible, was in fact presenting itself right there in that moment. And it felt like if I just walked one more circuit in that perfect balance of cold and warm, I would fall into synch with it too. The door that had formed from Winter’s blasts and then blew itself open in the Spring would be there, and I would have the eyes to see it and step through.

Usually my reverie gets punctured in some way before I return to my house and get to work. But today nothing has interrupted the flow of that golden energy. In fact, as the day matures toward afternoon the treetops still hover in disbelief, waving quietly to themselves and letting the sun penetrate their innermost branches.

In this morning of grace I felt inspired to write. Miraculously, the day has cooperated, and this blog of my heart that I have left unattended for too long finally has a new entry. I feel whole again.

It is still a time of stripping away in this country. Too many people are struggling too hard, far too much of the time. But something new and wonderful is most surely rising up, with all the force of Spring and a gale wind behind it. If you step outside, maybe you can feel it too.

When the Past Comes Back to Save Us

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Memory is an odd thing: slippery as a fish, shapeshifting and disappearing with the flick of its tail. We call our memories ours as though we had some dominion over them. But nobody knows why memories surface when they do, after decades of absence.

In his final years, my grandfather was tormented by a rhyme from his schooldays that he could only remember part of. It was a verse listing the presidents, and each time we visited he would recite what he knew: “Washington, Adams and Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe. Adams again, then…”

He begged my father to look it up for him, ask a librarian, do something to ease his mind by recalling the rest of the verse. Each time my father promised he would, though I could tell by the look on his face that he would not. He never did.

The past can haunt us, but it can also come back to save us.

It was the Spring of 2008 when out of the blue I remembered my first piano recital, in 1967. I was five years old, the youngest student and therefore first on the program. Our recital was held at the Chapel of the Chimes in downtown Oakland, with its beautiful Julia Morgan architecture.

The room seemed cavernous to me, and my family sat on a pew several rows back. I remember feeling confident about my piece, and calm about playing it in front of everybody. When my name was called, without hesitation I walked up to the front and sat down, played my piece, took a bow, and returned to my seat. That was that.

What I remembered most in the Spring of 2008 was how matter-of-fact that performance had felt. There was no moment of hesitation, none of the agony and nerves of later recitals and performances. I had no idea why the memory had surfaced, but used it as an opportunity to reflect on my current life of public speaking and teaching. Did I ever feel so calm and confident about performing now? Would I ever find my way back to that simplicity?

When a memory from the distant past revisits us, we turn it over in our minds for a few hours or days and then it recedes again. This memory did not. For weeks it kept returning, as I planned workshops, traveled and taught. Then, that Summer Solstice, my father died.

His death was quite sudden, and took us all by surprise. I was about to fly to Portland and teach, so needed to coordinate with my family to make sure his service was scheduled for right after I returned. That’s when I learned that his funeral would be held at the Chapel of the Chimes.

I had always intended to speak at his funeral, to honor what an important figure he was in my life. Now I learned that neither my sisters nor my mother wanted to. I would be the only one of us to speak, and therefore first on the program.

How could I possibly rise from my seat and proclaim that my father was dead? Because if I spoke about him in the past tense he surely would be gone, and therefore his return would be impossible. In that extreme, surreal state of grief, writing his obituary and then his eulogy, flying and planning and teaching and returning to speak again, returning to the scene of my earliest memory of public performance, seated now in the front row of a room that seemed so very small, that memory saved me.

By some miracle the words had come that I wanted to say. I wrote them down. I felt calm, sitting next to my mother waiting for the service to start. When it was my turn I got up, went to the lectern, said my piece, thanked the crowd, and sat back down again. It was done.

That simplicity had returned in the moment I needed it most. Unmoored by grief, there was no part of me left to be nervous or insecure. There was just this piece, the delivery of it, making people laugh and cry, and then the long drive home, wondering all the way what had just happened, how I had been so lucky to have a memory come like a lifeboat and carry me through rapids that I hadn’t even known were going to be there.