speech bubble with a jumble of numbers inside

How do you measure the health of a community? I’ve said this before (actually over and over again for years now), and I’ll say it again: the fact that the media and the government insist on measuring the health of our country by the economic standards they arbitrarily set is ridiculous. Absurd. Irrelevant.

The daily or monthly reports on the stock market numbers, the numbers of jobs created, unemployment figures – all of these things are designed to create a picture of a country as a set of mathematical problems and people are not math problems. People are not even story problems. Communities are made of people who have needs that have nothing to do with the stock market and the number of hours of paid work they engage in. But for the folks who need data, who say that numbers are the way we understand what’s happening, let’s go on a little journey …

Imagine for a moment if the media started reporting the number of households who struggled with food insecurity in the last month and comparing it to the month before that and the month before that.

What if, instead of “jobs created,” they told us the number of folks who lost their housing in the last quarter? Or the number of persons who remain unhoused and for how long they’ve struggled with that?

Somewhere, there have to be figures that enumerate the scores of families and individuals who have unpaid medical debt and charts that show how much that debt has grown over the years and how it has impacted the other two measures of food insecurity and houselessness.

What if the media routinely talked about those numbers, over and over again, throughout the evening newscast, at the top of the hour on NPR, and in print for folks to see? Would it move politicians to address those issues more quickly and with more urgency? Because what politicians talk about now are jobs and the stock market, and these are things that don’t translate into healthy communities. We have seen for years that a rising stock market does not mean that everyone in this country is doing okay. There are scores of people in this country who do not have money invested in the stock market, who don’t have any disposable income to invest. We know that unemployment figures don’t show the kind of information we pretend they do. People are “underemployed” for a variety of reasons, and some folks don’t even show on unemployment figures because they’ve given up looking for work – either because they can’t afford to work (yes, it’s absurd that that is a reality, but it is), they don’t have the skills employers are seeking, they’re discriminated against, or they are not able to work for a variety of reasons.

Instead of talking about “the economy,” what if we talked about people and how their basic needs are increasingly not being met? Instead of doing a “homeless count” once a year in major cities, what if we looked at the reasons people lose housing and report on those numbers every single week?

Our priorities are reflected in the kind of information we choose to seek and compile and report. And the vicious cycle that is created here is that we continue to believe that these *should* be our priorities, so we focus on them to the exclusion of the things that might actually tell us about the health of our country. It’s not a panacea, but shifting the way we talk about and measure the health of our communities might give us more of a reason to start working on ensuring that more of us are supported and stable.

I’d like to think that maybe if the media were constantly reporting on the number of people in this country who have declared bankruptcy or lost their housing or carried crippling debt from medical bills, we might find enough politicians who were willing to overhaul the system in the face of insurance company lobbyists.

Perhaps if there were an accurate picture of the number of households with members who are consistently underfed, there would be political will to change the way we support folks with SNAP benefits.

What we focus on grows. We need to start focusing on people and their struggles to survive and the things we can do to help them, help humans, not “the economy.” There is no such thing as trickle-down, except in the realm of fairy tales and rain water.

For the last six months or so, I’ve watched with increasing discomfort as social media posts telling people to get vaccinated against Covid and vilifying people who are choosing not to vaccinate fill my feed. Some of them are brief and to the point “Wear your damn mask and get your shot!” and others are full-on rants about ignorant people or angry missives that are full of sarcasm and othering language. There are folks who post polls asking their followers and contacts whether or not they’ve been vaccinated and links to videos mocking the people who choose not to, and so far, I’ve mostly resisted commenting on any of them or posting anything I think might come off as me joining the fray. Frankly, it has meant that my social media use is vastly curtailed (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just sayin’…)

I have remained curious about my level of discomfort, trying to tease out where it hits me and why. While it’s easy for me to agree with the observations that part of our downfall is our lack of collective consciousness, it has still been difficult to reconcile the nastiness and othering that comes with “yelling” at people to get vaccinated for “the greater good.”

This morning as I walked on the beach, part of the puzzle seemed to come together in my head, thanks to a text exchange I had with a dear friend about the horrific scenes unfolding in Afghanistan.

She texted that she feels overwhelmed with all of the crises in the world and yet she also believes that it isn’t ok to “look away.” It is so hard to know what we can do to help the people who are suffering right now in ways we can’t even imagine. I talked to her about a group I’m involved with who has spent the last seven days lighting candles, raising money, and holding vigil for an Afghani couple who is trying to flee the country. Within that group, as things got worse and worse, we had the conversation about whether what we were doing was enough. Helping one family versus an entire nation. Given that, last night, that one couple managed to get on a plane to safety, it seems that we are helping, even in some small way. But, it turns out, that isn’t even really the point, and this is where the puzzle pieces began to fall into place.

What we have done in the last seven days is build community. We have forged relationships – not only among ourselves (a group of people that are scattered across the Western world), but with this Afghani couple and their family members. We have created a space where we come together in solidarity to try and alleviate some suffering. We have helped each other when it became hard to hold that space because it triggered our own trauma and fear and, it turns out, we gave this couple hope as they sat in a hot, jam-packed airport with gunfire and violence playing out outside, not knowing whether they would manage to get on a plane or be sent back to their homes.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other. There will never be laws or rules that teach us that we are safe with each other and that we matter to someone else. Those things don’t build relationship and they don’t cultivate safety in the way that human beings need to feel safe. We white folks like rules and power because it makes us feel safe, but that is an illusion. When we think we are in control of a situation, we tend to relax a bit, but only a bit, because there is always the chance that someone with more power will come along and knock us off kilter and take control.

When we build relationship, by truly creating spaces where we feel safe with one another, we create community and a sense of shared well-being. That is why the physicians who take the time to listen to each individual concern about vaccine risks and acknowledge the fears of their patients can often have an impact on their choices. Playing on someone’s fears can be an effective way to change their behavior short-term, but you risk another, bigger fear coming along to usurp that one you cultivated. And even if you can change someone’s behavior, you can’t change their values by scaring them or forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.

We all want to belong, to feel safe with others, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but you can’t mandate that. Focusing on enforcement rather than relationship is where we white Westerners have gone wrong for hundreds of years. The social media posts that mock or shame other people destroy the potential for connection, even as they rack up ‘likes’ from people who agree with them. Those likes can make you feel righteous, but they aren’t going to convince anyone to care about the collective. Caring about the collective comes from feeling as though you are an integral part of it, and that comes through kindness and curiosity and trust-building.

Fabric with the words "Absurd times call for Absurd Amounts of Love" embroidered on it

Brad Montague

I am so fortunate to be part of a group of people called the Conversation Collective. During the lockdown in 2020, the Charter for Compassion teamed up with Citizen Discourse to offer a weekly meditation and coming together of individuals from all over the world who wanted to just be together in a way that felt real and soothing and solid. I began to mark time in terms of the Thursday morning meetings and really look forward to seeing some of the same people every week and deepen my connection with them.

They have expanded the offering to twice a week and on Monday afternoon I joined the group anticipating yet another really wonderful discussion prompt and I wasn’t disappointed. Karen from Citizen Discourse asked us to take a few minutes to reflect on one or more of our most deeply held beliefs (in the style of the NPR program This I Believe) and then we broke into pairs on Zoom to share our thoughts with each other. I wasn’t going to write much, as I’ve written to this prompt before, but I pulled out a sheet of paper and thought I’d jot down a few thoughts to share with my partner. In the end, I surprised myself with what came forth:

I believe in the power of connection.

I believe in hugs as a transfer of energy and a way to show solidarity.

I believe we all know each other better than we think we do, and that when we focus our attention on love and relationship, we feel a deep resonance that is the only thing that really matters. 

I believe that fear drives us apart – away from each other and ourselves.

I believe trust leads to love and that we are safe in each other’s arms.

I believe we are more a part of the natural world than we will ever know, and when we do begin to know it, we feel safer than we ever thought we could. 

I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with and listen to two extraordinary people about our beliefs, and when the group came back together, I was reminded why this is such a special place. Because we focus on relationship and what is important to us, because we listen deeply and honor each other’s perspectives, because we allow the full range of emotions and reactions – anger, frustration, laughter, tears, joy – this is a place for humanity and solidarity and friendship. I’ve met people from Canada and Cape Town, Kentucky and California and Portugal and the UK, and I have deepened my belief that we know how to be together with peace and love and joy just as much as we know how to isolate ourselves in fear and anger. I am reminded every single week that choosing peace and love and joy is a gift to myself and others, and this is one simple way to do it.

We belong to each other, whether we opt to acknowledge that or not. We are designed to be together, to share our thoughts and feelings with each other. We get energy from one another and hold each other up. So despite all of the other cultural messages we get about fear and independence and not burdening others with our struggles, the natural state of us as beings is to belong, to seek out others and find ways to collaborate and cooperate and be in community. It is there that we can begin to feel secure and in harmony with our natural rhythms. I am so grateful for this and other collectives that are holding me, that have welcomed me, because they allow me to remember that I am not alone. I am never alone.

The Conversation Collective is open to anyone who wants to join. Click the link to find out more if you’re interested.

long, sandy beach with sandstone bluffs on the left side

there you are.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for ParentMap that included this sentiment. It was aimed at parents who were paralyzed by helping their adolescent choose the right school for them, but for the last few days, that phrase has been appearing in my head when things are quiet, this time for a very different reason.

Wherever you go, there you are

A few days ago, I woke up with a horrible thought: what if my youngest and her boyfriend decide to move back to Seattle from LA? Some of you know that their move to Los Angeles was what prompted me to start thinking about relocating away from Seattle – the notion that none of my kids would likely choose to (or be able to afford to) live in Seattle, and my absolute refusal to be a plane ride away from all of them. I didn’t uproot myself to follow them, but I did feel as though this new town was close enough to them and also had many of the characteristics I wanted in a new home that it was the right thing to do.

Best laid plans and all that….

It’s not unusual that I’d be taking some time to find my footing here. I want to create strong, foundational relationships and a community for myself that feels nurturing and vibrant and rooted in my values and passions and I know that will take time. And I also know it’s terribly unlikely that the kids will decide to leave LA for somewhere a plane-ride’s distance from me. But it got me thinking about where I am mentally and emotionally and my conclusion seems to be (at least the phrase that is emerging over and over again is):

wherever you go, there you are

This morning, the emergent wisdom that accompanied that phrase was that my work right now is to really get to know and like myself. Not just get comfortable in my own skin, but celebrate it, revel in it, make no apologies for it. My work is to become so clear on who I am that when I am complimented for it, I don’t shrink back or demur, I expand into it and embrace it.

So how does one go about learning to like themselves?

I don’t know, which is why I make a better writer than a lawyer. Lawyers are taught to never ask questions they don’t already know the answer to. Writers are the ones who ask all sorts of questions they don’t know the answers to. My friend Susan calls me a “seeker,” and she’s quite right. I always have more questions than answers and the good news is that I am very comfortable in that space.

If I figure out how to do this, you can be sure I’ll share. For now, I’ll sit in the sunshine watching the hummingbirds and chickadees feed and listen for guidance. Because here is where I am at the moment.

close up image of rocks and shells jumbled together on the beach

After a string of happy, peaceful days, days where I met new people, was invited to join them for outings, I was beginning to imagine that my life could be more like this in the months and years to come. It took almost no time at all to slip back into a familiar old place. That place where I cringe ever so slightly as a matter of course. Where I devote some portion of my thoughts to preparing for losing my footing again. Where I feel in my bones that I will somehow pay for this.

The other day I wrote in my journal a reminder that I don’t have to earn joy or peace. (News flash: either do you. None of us does.) Cognitively, I know that life isn’t a balance sheet. That we don’t have to come to some reckoning or accounting of the number of hours we suffered lined up against the number of joys we felt. I don’t have to justify feeling good. There is no amount of suffering I am required to endure in order to be qualified to experience happiness. I don’t have to pay dues for ease or satisfaction. These things don’t come at a cost. They just are. I am allowed to just experience them without apologizing or explaining or waiting for the other shoe to drop.

These things that rise up from my body in one way or another, the thoughts that prompt me to be wary of the times when I am happy, they are deep and powerful, hooked in to me in ways that require careful, deliberate handling. The admonitions that I am not allowed to laugh out loud, smile at the sight of a hummingbird in my backyard, wake with a sense of hope and gratitude unless I also acknowledge all of the suffering others are enduring and prepare for my own to come roaring back – those are ancient. They are messages from my parents, their parents, our culture. The idea that everything has a cost is a difficult one to ignore.

When I knew I was going to start a new life in a new place, I spent a great deal of time exploring notions of what I truly wanted. The kind of work I want to do, the people I want to surround myself with, the way I want to spend my time. I also thought about how I want to feel and move through the world. I wrote those things down and I practiced believing that I deserve them. I’ll say that again. I wrote those things down and I practiced believing that I deserve them. Because deserving is a loaded sentiment, but it doesn’t have to be. I can just deserve love and joy and care simply because I exist. I don’t have to work for it.

While I have become more comfortable with this idea, I still have to remind myself often that creating the life I want and giving myself permission to inhabit it are two different things. The other day I found myself with nothing on the calendar. At 2:00 in the afternoon, I had a moment of mild panic (yes, that’s a thing – at least for me) that I had nothing pressing to do. For a millisecond, I entertained the idea of grabbing the novel I was reading and lying down on my bed to read. I indulged the fantasy quickly – the dogs stretched out next to me beneath the ceiling fan that was slowly pulling the ocean air through the windows, the curtains billowing slightly, me propped up on pillows, deep in a good book. And then came a visceral recoiling and the voices in my head:

You can’t do that. Surely you could mop the kitchen floor instead. Or go find some weeds to pull. Or at the very least, go outside. It’s sunny and beautiful. Get some fresh air. Or get on the elliptical machine and exercise. Certainly you could find something productive to do instead of lying down with a book at 2pm!

My gut tightened. How irresponsible could I be to think it would be ok just to lie down with a book in the middle of the afternoon?

But here’s how I know I’m making progress; from some deep corner of my heart came another voice that said simply,

this is the life you wanted to create for yourself – a life of ease and rest. Why wouldn’t you lie down and read for a while? 

And so I did. And I’m fairly certain I fell asleep for a bit, too. And when I woke up, the dogs were nestled against my legs and the kitchen floor was still unmopped and I hadn’t burned any calories, but I was a little bit closer to believing that I deserve joy and peace in my life, however it shows up. The work of animating the knowledge I have deep within me takes presence and intention, and the more I practice the better it gets. Here’s to believing that we all deserve joy and happiness and ease, no matter what.

picture of a sandy beach with big rocks and a blue sky

I have been absent here for a long time, not because I don’t have things to write about, but because I have to wait for things to settle before I can write. In the last two months, I have completely turned my life upside-down, by selling my house in Seattle and moving closer to family in Southern California. During that time, I became an empty-nester for real – even spending a couple of intense weeks in LA helping my youngest and her boyfriend move into an airbnb and, later, an amazing apartment.

All of this has inspired grief, sadness, excitement, anticipation, curiosity, and fear – a lot of fear. I feel like I am a river that used to run clear and someone came in with a massive dredging machine and stirred up all the sediment at the bottom. The emotions are swirling and mixing and making the water cloudy and all I can do is notice and wait for it to settle so that I can have some clarity.

In the beginning of April, I was frustrated that my house wasn’t selling and that, although I had decided to move, I felt trapped in Seattle by circumstances. Several friends noted that I was not, in fact, trapped. I could go anytime I wanted to and leave the house empty – it would sell. It took a while, but I gradually began to believe them, over the protestations of my parents’ voices in my head

You can’t be irresponsible and just leave

You have obligations. What makes you think you can just drop everything and go?

You have to have another place to land all lined up before you leap from the foundation you’re on

I packed a huge suitcase, the rest of my daughter’s things, sold my little electric car, rented a van and took my two dogs and the pet tortoise on the road. I have never done a solo road trip before in my life. I was excited and also really really scared. As I sat in the driveway one last time, ready to drive away without knowing how long I’d be gone, I created a mantra that I hoped would calm my fears and ground me when I got panicky or unsure.

I am safe.

I am loved.

I have resources.

I deserve joy.

It worked. Every single time I started to freak out and worry, I put one hand on my heart and repeated those words to myself – sometimes over and over again until my breathing slowed and I felt calm again. Now, the simple act of speaking the first sentence settles me.

I am safe. This one reminds me to come back to my body. It helps me remember that I am not bleeding to death or in some mortal peril, no matter how scared I am. It zooms my vision out to the wider range of my life and lets me notice that my feet are touching the ground, I am breathing clean air, my vision is clear (well, with my glasses on), and in general, I am not in danger.

I am loved. This is a reminder that I am connected to something bigger. That there are people out there who are rooting for me, who are invested in my well-being, and who do really love me and consider me part of their family, chosen or otherwise. Often, conjuring up the image of just one of my beloveds is enough to make me smile spontaneously.

I have resources. If a tire goes flat, I have a cell phone to call for help. If I encounter horrible weather, I can pull over and wait it out inside the van. I have money for food and I know people along the route who I can call on for support. I have resources in the form of my life experience and wisdom. I know how to handle challenging situations and when to ask for assistance. I am not alone, no matter what my anxiety-spiraling brain tries to tell me.

I deserve joy. This one is key. It reminds me that this life is mine to live and if starting over in a different city will bring me joy, then I deserve to do that, no matter how hard it might be or how many years I spent in Seattle building a foundation. I deserve to pursue a life that feels expansive and purposeful and I don’t have to justify it (even to my dead parents in my head).

Oh, and the house? It sold the day after I packed up and left Seattle. I think it was the act of taking that leap of faith, of really committing to my own happiness and future that opened up the space in my old house for a new family to fall in love with it. The last month has been a whirlwind of packing and purging and moving and unpacking and as I write this, I am surrounded by half-emptied boxes of things and bubble wrap and a house with more dog beds than human beds, but I am planted in my new town and, more importantly, I have begun to really believe in my bones that I am safe, I am loved, I have resources, and I deserve joy.

You do, too.

XO,

Kari

Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5, 

and letting go.

Much of my personal work during the last four years of my life has followed the theme of letting go.

Watching my mother descend further and further into herself with Alzheimer’s, acknowledging that there wouldn’t be an opportunity to reconcile all of the questions I had and grieving as she stopped knowing who I was to her was a long, grueling process.

Mourning the end of my 23-year marriage and the loss of the person I’d considered my best friend for more than half of my life, moving to a new house and reimagining all of my plans for life after the girls moved out was unexpected and is still ongoing.

Moving my oldest daughter thousands of miles away to start college and beginning to understand that I don’t know most of what she does in any given day. Being prevented by the pandemic lockdown from helping her find her first apartment and her first car and from even traveling to share her 21st birthday with her was an exercise in equanimity and faith.

And now my youngest and her boyfriend are moving out to start their life and careers in Los Angeles and I’ve decided to uproot myself and leave Seattle. It has brought excitement and anticipation and many joyful hours as I dream of choosing just the right house in just the right neighborhood for me, slowly and deliberately filling it with things I love and that bring me peace, and strengthening my relationship with extended family who will live close by. But all of this letting go is also surfacing fear and anxiety and old thought patterns that can feel incredibly overwhelming.

Yesterday, I decided to steel myself and go down the rabbit hole.  I started by making a comprehensive list of all the things I am afraid of. A specific, honest, detailed list of the things that are rattling around in my head and sparking little fires I feel like I have to put out all day long.

The next sheet of paper was dedicated to exploring “what if.” What if those things do come to fruition? What if fear #1 actually happens? What do I do? How do I manage it? Taking the fears one by one allowed me to remember that I have resources, I have experience and wisdom, and I can make a plan to tackle each of the (highly unlikely) scenarios I am imagining in my head.

Then I pulled out a third piece of paper and made a list of my touchstones. I asked myself, what are the things that remain constant and supportive and solid in my life? Who are those people? What are the practices I can engage in? Where can I seek comfort that is real and available to me? Making that list was really wonderful and affirming, and reminded me that I have people in my life who love me and see me for who I am, and I know how to calm myself with nature, reading, yoga.

At the bottom of that same piece of paper, I made a list of “not-touchstones.” These are things that, at first glance, seem to be solid and real and supportive, but they’re transient. The first thing on that list is my house. The familiar surroundings feel safe and comforting. I know the sounds and how the light falls and which couch is most comfortable for watching tv. This house served a purpose, to be sure. It was everything the girls and I were looking for when we left our old home, where we lived with their father. We chose it together and we made it a place where their friends were welcomed with love and laughter. And we have squeezed all that we needed out of this lime. We used all the juice, and neither of my girls needs to be here anymore. They are off on their own grand adventures and so, while I might feel comfortable in this place because it is familiar, it will keep me small and feel incredibly lonely without them in it.

The next not-touchstone is wishing for my mom. Imagining what she would have said or done to support me isn’t helpful because even when she was alive, she couldn’t have done anything; she didn’t know who I was anymore. I can absolutely talk to her and feel her presence, but wishing that she was physically here and able to come help me pack and dream with me will only keep me stuck.


The third one is this city. I’ve lived here for nearly 30 years and it has been glorious. I know the suburbs and the city’s neighborhoods. I have favorite restaurants and grocery stores and places to walk. I can get around with ease and I understand the local politics. And yet, this lime is just a husk now, too. I have had a really wonderful life here in Seattle and also, there is nothing left for me here. Staying here because I know it, I understand it, and it’s safe would be the wrong choice.

Years ago, I created a meditation for my youngest daughter when it became clear that she really struggles with transitions and big change. This morning, I used it myself. I had asked her to imagine she is a hermit crab in a shell that is really tight and too small. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with that shell, she just outgrew it. The scary part about looking for a new shell when you’re a hermit crab, though, is that you have to leave the old one to go hunting for the new one, and that means your backside is all soft and vulnerable while you look. And being out in the world, exposed, feels really scary. It can also be sad to leave behind that old shell. You chose it for a reason – maybe it was really pretty or just the right shape, and you knew its every contour and swirl. But that doesn’t change the fact that it no longer fits you. It served its purpose, and it’s time to go find the next shell you can love. Saying goodbye to that old one is sad and frightening, but you know if you stay there, you’ll be uncomfortable and you won’t move like you can. Shell-hunting is a leap of faith. It requires trusting that the next one is out there and you’ll find it in time, and you’ll grow to love it just as much as you loved that old one you’re leaving behind.

I’m shell-hunting. And knowing that it’s time to leave this old lime husk behind (see, I told you I was mixing metaphors) doesn’t make it any less scary, but knowing there’s no more juice in it for me is helping me keep my eyes forward. Because the past is a not-touchstone, too. I can be grateful for it, for what I learned and the people and things that helped me along the way, and I can also know that part of the reason I love it so much is because it is the past. I have to believe that staying small is the wrong thing to do here. I have to take this leap of faith and trust and rely on my real touchstones.

So here’s the thing: I function really damn well until I don’t. And when I don’t, sometimes, it is so alien to me as an experience that it causes me to catastrophize. I mean, if I can’t manage my own life, there must be something seriously wrong, right?

What it really means is that I have a hard time understanding the context of everything that is going on in my life sometimes. I have a hard time really grasping that adding just one more thing might be too much. And that’s when my body steps in to kick me off the treadmill and shut that shit down.

This morning, I had a panic attack. I haven’t had one of those in 15 years or more, and I’ll be honest with you – I spent the first two hours trying to talk myself out of it and the next five hours getting an EKG, chest x-ray, blood and urine tests and talking to an array of absolutely lovely, caring, professional health care workers who confirmed for me that my heart is healthy and I am physically well and maybe I want to step back and look at what’s happening in my life and see where I can ask for help.

And my life is really wild right now. In the last three weeks, it has been moving at warp speed – my youngest and her boyfriend are moving out and leaving the state altogether, my oldest is feeling firmly settled in her life and has no plans to come back to the state to live,  I revised – well, really, mostly wrote – a new manuscript in the space of four days, and I am starting over – really starting over. I am selling my house and leaving Seattle – a town where I’ve lived for more than 25 years, selling my furniture and my car, and packing up to go find a house at the beach, closer to family. It’s a lot.

But here’s the kicker: my mom’s birthday is tomorrow. And it’s her first birthday since she died last June. And it’s really tearing me apart, but I don’t know how to explain it. To you or myself.

My mom had Alzheimer’s and, to be clear, I haven’t celebrated her birthday with her in five years at least. She didn’t know who I was or that it was her birthday. I couldn’t send her gifts because she didn’t read anymore, and clothes and slippers would just get stolen from her room in the memory care facility she lived in. Flowers made her sneeze. I would wake up, sing a quiet Happy Birthday to her in my room, light a candle for her, and tell her husband I was thinking of her, but I didn’t celebrate her birthday with her for years. And it’s not like I ever had any illusion I’d ever get the chance to again. But also, she died in June and I hadn’t seen her, held her hand or smiled at her or anything in over six months because of Covid restrictions. And tomorrow is her birthday.

I sat in the exam room this afternoon, hooked up to a heart monitor, stiff gown gapping open, practicing mindful breathing, wondering what the hell? I was pretty sure I’d had a panic attack, the stiffness and discomfort in my left shoulder blade laying there like a cast iron skillet, but why? I just finished writing a manuscript that the editor said he “can’t wait to publish.” My youngest and her boyfriend are launching their successful music careers after working their butts off in isolation in 2020. My oldest is happy and settled and has built a loving community for herself. I’m finally going to realize my dream of living at the beach. These are happy things!

But they are stressful. It is so easy for me to gloss over the reality that we’re doing all these things during a global pandemic, at a time when we’ve proven to our fellow citizens how little we really care about them when it comes down to choosing between ourselves and our money and our communities. Sitting with how much my heart hurts that we can’t manage to find ways to care for each other that are profound and meaningful and sustainable is something I do silently every day. It is the constant backdrop of every decision I make – how can I safely help the kids move? How can I make sure that the food we get at the food bank also gets distributed to mutual aid groups who need it? What happens if one of the kids gets Covid and I’m far away from them?

So here’s the thing: all of the situations and circumstances in my life are a lot without the events of the last year. They are overwhelming in and of themselves. But somehow, I fell prey to the notion that we all just need to keep going along to get along. That continuing to put one foot in front of the other is the thing to do, the only thing to do. But we have to stop and acknowledge the weight of it all, the grief and the loss and grapple with the unimaginable because the unimaginable is happening around us every single day, all day long. I’m not sure what that looks like, or how to build it in to my days, but after today, I know I have to figure something out.

And doing it on my mom’s birthday feels like a pretty fitting way to honor her.

 

image of a multicolored compass

Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some people begin their year with a specific word in mind that grounds them and serves as a compass of sorts. It’s not something I’ve ever done with any regularity, and I doubt I’d have been able to really intuit one in January that would have been accurate in any way, but now that we are nearly at the end of this year, I can look back and see that most everything I did and thought about and experienced this year boils down to relationship.

It seems odd, given that most of my time has been spent without the physical presence of loved ones and the work I have done is remote and facilitated by technology. Neither of those things seems particularly conducive to creating relationship, but I have learned more about the power of connection this year and focused on the qualities of relationship that are most impactful more than I ever have in my life. I have spent time deepening my relationship to myself and trying to rebalance the wisdom I receive from my head with the wisdom held in my body through meditation and a rage ritual. I have created connection with local communities to offer assistance and I have witnessed the awesome power of mutual aid groups. I have considered how so many of our public systems are failing us and begun to realize that the only way to counter those failings is through relationship.

I joined with others across the globe every day at the same time for 30 minutes for 100 days in a row to say a lovingkindness meditation for all beings. I didn’t know the vast majority of the others at the beginning of the 100 days, but since then, we have formed virtual support groups to help each other with everything from motivation to get off the couch and shower to grieving the loss of loved ones with humor and grace. I joined a weekly Zoom meeting hosted by Charter for Compassion and Citizen Discourse that also gathers people from across the globe. Every Thursday we journal for a few minutes, have individual conversations about things like ritual, legacy, and what community means, and come together as a group to deepen our relationship to compassion and humanity. I have met people with whom I share text messages and emails and our connection is no less real and tangible because it was formed online.

The most recent conversation we had was around our own personal compass – what drives us, where are we headed. And while each of the individuals on the call had a different perspective and way of answering that question, we agreed in the end that the common thread for us all was connection of some sort. And because our conversations often delve into the philosophical, we also explored the notion of a compass. It occurred to me that it is important to note that a compass is useless in a vacuum – meaning that it only works within the context of the electromagnetic pull of something bigger, something grounding (in this case, the Earth). And so while each of us may have our own compass, the principle on which it exists is that we are all connected to something larger that helps guide us. We can, of course, choose to stick that compass in our pocket and go off on our own path, but the quality of guidance is always present and available to us. And because it is available to each and every one of us, we are necessarily connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I say often that human beings are designed to be in relationship. Our biological systems work more efficiently when we are in trusted relationships and suffer in isolation. Students who have supportive relationships with their teachers learn better. Elders who are ill heal faster and have less pain when they are surrounded by loved ones. So while I mourn the lack of physical contact with my beloveds and desperately miss the coffee dates and hiking adventures with friends, I have also deepened my definition of what relationship is – relationship to myself and my physical body, relationship with my community, relationship with people I’ve never met in person – and come to understand the power of letting those connections evolve over time. I have explored what it means to have healthy boundaries that are temporary in order to repair harms and what it looks like to shift my definition of a mother-child relationship as my daughters become young adults and want a different kind of bond with me that is no less elemental or meaningful than it ever was – it’s just different.

While there is much to be sad about this year – the loss of my mother and the missed adventures I had planned and the cancelled book tour among them – I can look back on the last 12 months and see what I have gained in stretching my understanding of this most basic need for connection and community in my life. Like the grounding of the Earth to my compass, relationship and connection are always available to me so long as I recognize them as an elemental part of my existence. Here’s to unexpected lessons that help us all thrive. May 2021 bring more wisdom and insight to us all.

Picture of a tall, slender, lit Christmas tree in a living room

This time of year always means I think about capitalism more than I normally do. And this year has been one where I have been more acutely aware of capitalism than ever in my life, so you might imagine that my brain is pretty full right now.

I love this time of year because I often spend it poking through local shops for hours, hoping to find fun, quirky little things to tuck inside my kids’ Christmas stockings. For some reason, over the years, stockings have become my ‘thing,’ and it often means that the contents spill outside of the knitted socks and have to be carried to the girls with two hands. As a kid, our stockings were filled with walnuts and hazelnuts (that we took great delight in using the nutcracker to shell and then discarded shortly afterward), mandarin oranges, and, on a good year, an entire book of Life Savers rolls. I have strayed far from that tradition, to be sure.

Whether it was designed cleverly or just worked out that way, there is a reason capitalism has deep hooks in us that take effort to remove. But for me, the first step in that unhooking is an honest evaluation of how capitalism is antithetical to health and well-being.

Screen shot of the Cliffhanger game on The Price is Right

As a system, capitalism was sold to us as something sustainable, and it is ridiculous that we believed it. There is no way anything can grow and grow without ever hitting a wall – it will either consume all of the resources around it or collapse on itself or both, which is what I think we are experiencing right now. We are led to believe that the stock market can keep hitting higher highs, that businesses can increase their profits year over year, and that we can make more money every year if we just work hard enough. Like any system, growth can happen to a point, but there is nothing that can grow forever, and human beings weren’t designed to grow and grow and grow without rest.

Capitalism is the opposite of health and well-being because it forces us to value things that are external – more shoes and clothes, a bigger paycheck, a new car every few years. But external values are things over which we have no control – we could get downsized or fired tomorrow, those things we buy can fall apart quickly, the housing market can explode so that we’re not able to afford our home anymore. Capitalism taps into our basic human need for security, but it doesn’t provide it – in fact, it keeps us constantly searching and believing that we will never truly be secure unless we are earning more and spending more. Capitalism also taps into our basic human need for autonomy, but that, too, is an illusion. Sure, we get to make choices about where we work and live and the things we buy, but only to a point, because under this system, we are never truly in charge of our own lives – not if the things we value are external.

Capitalism is also something that keeps us in fear. It relies on workers being expendable and interchangeable, which means that we as workers are always competing with each other ever so slightly more than we are cooperating. And because fear is a barrier to relationship, it means that we can’t ever hope to truly build strong, sustainable networks or communities under capitalism. Capitalism is threatened by unions (read: relationship), and relies on workers believing that they need to constantly fight to do better, be more visible, climb over their co-workers. It sells us the illusion that it’s possible to continually make more money, achieve more success, get a better position, but the slots at the top narrow so rapidly that it’s impossible for that to be reality.

Capitalism gave us disposability because it relies on it. Single-use items mean that we are constantly needing to purchase replacements. It’s not an accident that Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone every single year, each with a slightly new set of features. That’s by design – businesses need us to want the newest thing in order to make their sales goals. Capitalism is just another one of the systems that has successfully adapted to center itself over time so that the most important thing is capitalism. It’s why we talk about “the economy” in every political debate, it’s why we fight to send our kids to a “good college” so they can get a “good job” that pays well enough for them to buy cars and homes and trips and clothes. It is why boards of directors are fearful of poor sales and offer dividends to shareholders. It is why wages are kept artificially low and we have no universal healthcare. Capitalism is so all-encompassing that non-profit organizations have bent to its rules, insurance companies are not in the business of taking care of people’s health but are vitally interested in their own profits, school systems have formed their curricula around the kinds of things that will ensure kids get into four-year colleges rather than focusing on learning skills and cultivating passions. There are many systems in this country that are powerful and broken, but capitalism is the one steering the ship, and we all just keep shoveling coal into the steam engine.

Two people walking together on a cobblestone path

Like all systems, I am reminded that the antidote to capitalism is relationship. When we can fight the urge to live in fear and build strong, connected communities, we can begin to release ourselves from the grip of capitalism. Capitalism is the reason so many people in the US are going hungry, and new systems (food banks) won’t fix it. If they could, they would have done so already. But relationship helps. The dozens of small, community-based mutual aid groups in my area alone that have mobilized to cook meals, deliver food, raise cash, and source items for people in need are combating food insecurity better and faster than bureaucracy ever could (even as they fight bureaucracy in order to do the work they do).

Building authentic relationships rooted in trust and love takes time, to be certain. It takes effort and a willingness to examine our fears and biases and tendency to see other people as competitors. We have to be willing to be a little bit afraid or at least a little uncomfortable, and forge ahead, knowing that relationship and community are what truly meet our basic human needs for safety, security, feeling valued, and having an impact. When we build communities whose values are intrinsic, we are necessarily reinforcing the belief that all of us are important, none of us is disposable, and that there is enough to go around so long as we cooperate. Living under capitalism means that millions of people go hungry while billions of pounds of food goes to waste. It means that business executives make and hoard more money than they could ever use while other people live on pennies a day. It means that workers spend dozens of hours a week doing jobs they hate because it is the only way they can feed their families and keep their health insurance.

Unions don’t threaten the health and well-being of companies or executives, they threaten to upset the imbalance of wealth between workers and executives. When the biggest argument against any sort of pay increase or new benefit for people is that it “costs too much,” we have become far too focused on money. If we are more concerned with the stock market rising or falling than we are about people living on the streets in cardboard boxes and the hours’ long lines at food banks, we have succumbed to the lure of capitalism to our detriment. It is true that money is necessary to survive, but only because we made it that way. It is possible to do things differently.

When we are in relationship with one another and really rooted in the values of community, dignity, respect, and safety for all of us, the values of capitalism begin to fall away. I don’t have to fear you or be in competition with you if I trust that our connection is about both of us being well and cared for. Systems like capitalism rely on hierarchies – someone has to be “in charge” and then there are layers of folks beneath that, all with an assigned ‘worth’ in the form of pay. Relationships suffer under hierarchies. If I think that I am more important or worthy than you, we will never have an equal, honest, loving relationship. But when we can build communities that acknowledge that we all have things to offer the group and that we all deserve to ask for support where and when we need it, there is no scarcity, there is trust, and there is safety.

Capitalism falls apart when we aren’t competing with each other for jobs, for goods and services. Capitalism falls apart when we acknowledge abundance. Communities thrive with a belief in abundance. The truth is, there is enough to go around, but we have built a world view that doesn’t acknowledge that. We have built economies that rely on scarcity to drive up the cost of goods so that those at the top of the hierarchy benefit, and when the cultural values are about having an abundance for yourself, the notion that any one of us could find ourselves rolling in piles of money or sitting in a house whose garage is full of more cars than we can drive is seductive. Even though the vast majority of us will never attain that, because we’ve been taught that that ideal is achievable if we just work hard enough, we hold out hope. But we all know people who work hard every day and are nowhere near owning their own home.

Capitalism is rooted in individualism, which means not only that we have to compete with each other, but that we feel as though our failures are our own and not the way the system is designed. We blame ourselves for not working hard enough, for not finding the right mentor, for not having the right college degree. We resolve to try harder, get more financially literate, get more connections on LinkedIn.

Ultimately, it is only in relationship where our most basic psychological needs are met. And in a world where the material goods are plenty, it is relationship that threatens capitalism the most. Talking to each other about our respective rates of pay, our experiences with toxic workplace culture, and our ideas for how to band together to create more support for all workers begins to erode the scarcity mentality. When we come together in relationship and our psychosocial needs are met, we might discover that buying more things isn’t really all that soothing after all. We might discover that the system is set up for the sake of the system and that it doesn’t really care about us or the environment. We begin to acknowledge that capitalism is designed to make us believe that there will never be enough, and we begin to realize that human beings can’t thrive in a system where we are forced to always strive for more and compete with each other more than we cooperate.

So while I will continue to carefully select gifts for my beloveds this time of year (and probably spend more money than I ought to), I will also do my part to build community, to strengthen relationships, and to help those around me acknowledge their worth outside of their employment or the size of their paycheck. I will fight against the tendency to value things that the system tells me I should value and I will put my energy toward dismantling this broken system that holds so many hostage and erodes our connections to each other.