Prayer Flags

 

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Last weekend while my husband and I were preparing dinner, the subject of writing came up. He said, “I miss your Lofty Minded posts.”  Then I told him that in the past year I’ve started lots of posts but have decided against publishing them. A look through my saved files shows 32 blog posts I’ve started and abandoned since the last time I posted. I’m not sure what to make of this, only that I’ve had a hard time processing all that’s going on in the world, and it’s affected my writing.

Each time I’ve almost posted, I’ve changed my mind. Sometimes because what I was trying to say came across as too angry, or hasty, or cynical. Other times the posts felt pointless, either because the subject matter was already being covered better by a hundred other writers, or because while putting my thoughts out there might get a few amens and yeses, in the end it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.

I think my dilemma is that I’m expecting too much of my writing. I’m expecting it to give answers. I’m expecting it to come to obvious conclusions. I’m expecting it to make some kind of difference.

While it should have been obvious ages ago, I’m just now figuring out that my writing isn’t supposed to do any of those things. My writing is just meant to be me, here in my world, talking to you in yours.

***

In my world it’s cold today.

It’s cold but it’s calm and bright. When you stand at just the right angle and turn your face directly toward the sun on days like this, you can feel a little heat.

And so I found myself out there this afternoon, chasing the sun. I wandered around our five acres without a destination or a purpose other than to just be here, now. It’s become something of a medicine for me, this kind of wandering around familiar ground. I revisit the same places and each time I’m an explorer. Each time I come across something I hadn’t expected to see. Maybe a squirrel squirreling away her winter stash, or a lanky birch tree hidden among the spruce. It’s small scale exploration, but exploration just the same.  

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When I was out there restoring myself, I visited the chicken coop. Not to offer food or to check for eggs, but to watch them go about their chicken lives. I watched them cluck and peck at each other while I put the pieces of this essay together in my head, then I walked down the hill through the wild roses to the island of tall trees in the meadow. This fall I found a corvid’s nest in one of the spruces there, and a secret hideaway in the alders that looked like it might have been a bear’s home.

Then I cut through the tall grass to the area below our fire pit where the nettles are thick. In early summer, when they were just inches high, we collected buckets of them to save for winter.

***

Now it’s winter and in the evenings we light candles and we sip mint tea infused with those springtime nettles. I have it in my mind that whatever goodness is hidden in their dried leaves will work on us throughout the winter, give us some edge to help us through.

In the mornings we pull on wool socks and sweaters and stoke the fire in the wood stove. We drink creamy coffee with afghans draped over our laps while we read the morning news and wait for the house to warm up. We lean into the comforts of winter because to fight it would be pointless and because at the height of summer it never gets truly dark and for months at a time there are no stars or planets to be seen and the milky way is something we nearly forget until one night it’s back and we remember that it was never really gone.

***

I remember my first winter in Alaska.

We lived further north than we live now, deep inside a shaded valley where the sun didn’t rise above the mountains for two months. My husband worked the swing shift and sometimes, when the snow wasn’t too deep, I’d walk with my baby on my back from our house to the trails that led to the Eagle River. I was never comfortable walking through the woods like that, alone and in the near-dark, but I’d go anyhow. Along the way I’d remind myself that the bears were asleep, that it was unlikely I’d run into a person who’d want to do me harm, that if we started to get too cold I could turn back toward home.

I’d walk in spite of the fear because I knew I’d go nuts if I stayed cooped up all the time. I’d go out in the cold and dark so that I could come home again, back to the heat and the light.

***

Now it’s late and the house is quiet except for its usual hums and the crackling of the fire. My husband has gone to bed and I’m at my keyboard again.  

I hesitate to tell you that I’m sad, but it’s true. It’s easier to say that I’m worried.

I worry about the big picture things. I worry about our planet being controlled by power hungry billionaires. I worry about our government being run by an administration that lacks a moral compass. I worry about justice. I worry that we’re becoming a country that accepts mass shootings as a byproduct of freedom. I worry about the decline of honey bees and about giant copper mines in salmon country. I worry about the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels, and the acidity of the ocean.

This year I’ve wondered how to write about these things. I’ve wondered if I should even bother.

Now I’m setting myself and my writing free from the responsibility of holding back the impending avalanche. Instead I’m sending it out there to flap in the wind like a prayer flag.  No expectations, no answers, no obvious conclusions. Just words in the air, free from the burden of having to change anything. 

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Worthy of Protection

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The idea of taking a break from social media first came to me a couple of weeks ago in Zion National Park. Actually I’ve thought about it on several occasions, but it hit me with some urgency on that one particular day.

My sister knew of a place away from the crowds where we could see petroglyphs, and as I stood in front of the panel she’d led us to, trying to decipher the meaning behind the images so painstakingly carved into the sandstone, I tried to summon the real-life person who once stood exactly where I was standing. What was their motive for carving images into the wall? Were they making art or were they telling a story? (Or both?) Were they leaving news for others who might be passing by, or did they just feel like creating something?

Most of the images were straight forward, your standard deer or snake or human. Others were more fantastical. One image looked like a human lightning bolt. Several seemed purposefully out of proportion. A few even looked a little otherworldly with their cone shaped heads. In addition to the human and animal figures, there were lots of spirals and squiggly lines. I’m no expert at deciphering the meaning behind the images left on rocks hundreds of years ago, but still I tried. What were they saying?

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I am not a Luddite. I do not intend to eschew technology. But being there, in front of that panel of images, I had an intense desire to experience an uncluttered mind, one that I imagined the original petroglyph artists to have had. No electricity, no diesel engines, no radio, no television, no internet, no social media. This is not to say that the people of that age didn’t have in-depth or complicated thoughts, but they did not have the constant barrage of information coming at them the way we do now. What was it like to not have that kind of input, that kind of noise? I’d like to know.

Then on Ash Wednesday, a poet friend posted on her blog that she was giving up Facebook for Lent. I’ve always respected the tradition of Lent and I’ve participated on occasion. In the food department I’ve gone through times of not eating meat or sugar or dairy. I usually came away from the experience having a better understanding of my body and my cravings.

My friend’s blog post inspired me, and I saw it as an opportunity to de-clutter my mind. After a couple of hours of stewing it over, I decided to give it a go. I cut myself off, without a post or statement of any kind making my intentions known. I just walked away.

This year Lent lasts for 46 days. I’m on day 17 as I write this. Do I miss social media? Yes, I miss certain aspects of it. My town is experiencing a bit of a political shakeup and I’m sure I’m missing some interesting dialog about it. I’m sure there have been wonderful poems/articles/photos/opinions/memes/stories/jokes/videos/rants that I’ve missed. I’m sure there have been opportunities for personal connection that have passed me by, like congratulating a friend on some success or offering a bit of moral support. I also miss the glimpses into the day-to-day lives of my friends and family.

Just like when I’ve given up sugar in the past, the first few days were the hardest. I had to resist my compulsion to go to Twitter when I had a few minutes to spare. I had to put aside thoughts of posting things. (Oh wow, what a beautiful sunset. I should take a photo and post it!) (I am outraged/enlightened/delighted by the article I just read. I should repost it on Facebook!) I hadn’t realized just how much of my thought space had been consumed by thinking about checking and posting my social media accounts. After a few days the compulsions began to diminish.

Without spending my time scrolling or falling prey to the endless reading of articles and online conversations, I began to have more time. Instead of spending twenty minutes here and there throughout my day on Twitter or Facebook, I’m filling that time with more focused reading and writing. I’m cooking more and listening to music and stretching. I’ve even picked up my long-neglected instruments a couple of times.

I’m still reading the news every day, and trying to stay politically informed and engaged, but I’m not so consumed. Reading and responding to everyone else’s outrage on social media is fun and a bit cathartic from time to time, but it might have been giving me the false sense that I was doing something meaningful. Now I’m acting more and talking about it less.

The biggest benefit I’m experiencing is the overall reduction of noise. Not the literal noise, but the thought-noise that had crept into my mind, the chatter I was hearing in response to all the conversations I scrolled past and read every day. I’ve made some space in my brain and I’ve been better able to focus on writing and reading. I’ve been sleeping soundly. I don’t feel quite as hurried.

It seems like humans, at least most of us, are wired for connection. We’re not meant to feel alone. Social media is a way for us to reach out to others and a way to be heard. I’m not giving it up forever. But this break has opened my eyes to the ways I’d taken it too far.

It’s been nearly three weeks since I stood in front of the petroglyphs in Zion National Park and I’m still thinking about the minds of the people who created them. What would it feel like to be alive without any exposure to media, to not know what is going on in countries halfway around the world? More specifically, I wonder if their uncluttered minds had room for spiritual connections that our modern, media-focused culture has managed to squeeze out. There really is no knowing, but by removing myself from social media for a while I’ve created the tiniest bit of space in which to ponder these questions. It’s a small space, but it seems important, the way wilderness is important, and worthy of protection.

 

 

What I Can Do

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I cannot change the world alone, but I can vote. I can call. I can write. I can use my voice, even when it feels like nobody is listening.

When it feels like nobody is listening, I can give something of myself. I can give money to causes I care about. I can be attentive to the needs of those in my community. I can offer rides to those without a vehicle. I can offer food and time. I can care for animals and people who aren’t capable or responsible for caring for me in return. I can appreciate the hard work of others and lift them up for their efforts. I can be a person who offers. I can be a person who sometimes accepts what is offered.

I can make an effort to become fearless. I can stick up for people and speak against injustice. When all the chatter around me is pushing fear, I can choose not to succumb to it. I can set aside my insecurities and push myself to try new things. I can acknowledge the power I have over my own life and I can look for ways to help those who do not have that same kind of power. I can look to courageous people for inspiration, and I can follow their example.

When I feel disgusted by the influence that money has over our politicians and our government, I can consume less. I can practice contentment. I can feel grateful for all that I have. I can go for long walks. I can grow food. I can buy less cheap stuff. I can reign in my wanting. I can drive less. I can take care of the things I own. I can spend my money carefully, deliberately and at establishments that will be thoughtful with their earnings. I can decide not to live a harried life. I can get rid of clutter. I can cultivate an attitude of abundance—there is enough for me and my own, and there is enough for you and yours. I can call out the greed in myself when I feel it creeping in.

I can be careful about the kind of information I allow into my life. I can follow reliable news sources. I can read nonfiction for information, fiction for enlightenment, poetry for transcendence. I can watch fewer shows on Netflix. I can close my browser. I can surround myself with thoughtful and wise people. When I don’t understand something, I can ask questions. I can try to distinguish between news that is important and news that is meant to distract.

For perspective, I can look at the stars, the mountains, the ocean, the vast expanses of land, and remember that I am part of a system that is larger than myself, larger than humankind, larger than what I am capable of imagining. I can remember that the cycle of time in which I am now living is barely a blip. When I begin to feel overwhelmed I can breathe. Really breathe.

When the world feels like an ugly place, when all the news seems bad, I can console myself with music. I can reread the same poem a dozen times in one sitting. I can appreciate the baker, the cashier, the man who plows and sands my driveway, the patron at the library who opens the door for the mother whose hands are full. I can watch the sun rise over the mountains. I can examine a piece of art and imagine how the artist got lost in its creation. I can step outside and feel the cool air on my skin. I can warm myself by the woodstove.

When people don’t see things the way I do, I can honor their lives and their experiences. I can practice empathy and compassion. I can choose to be kind even when their politics are not in line with my own. I can listen. I can work on being patient. If I begin to think I’m smarter or better or superior in any way, I can stop myself and assess my insecurities.

When reconciliation seems impossible, when it feels like the destiny of humanity is division, I can take responsibility for my own missteps. I can learn to challenge my own thinking. I can ask myself why I believe what I believe. When I’m wrong, I can admit that I’m wrong. When I’ve offended someone or perpetuated division, I can apologize for my actions. I can stop surrounding myself with only like-minded people.

When the checks and balances I once thought would protect our rights seem to be slipping away, when the values of our elected officials seem skewed toward profits over people, when the principles of democracy are undermined by the powerful, I can add my small, individual efforts to those of the millions of citizens who are summoning their strength and creativity and commitment. I can be a part of the incredible reshuffling of priorities that’s going on right now. I can know that I’m not alone. My actions are not disappearing into a void. They’re culminating and taking shape and they will make a difference.

 

Capturing a Place

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Vermillion Cliffs and the Moon

I’m in Page, Arizona for a few days visiting my sister. Yesterday I borrowed her car while she was at work so I could visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. As usual I took my camera to document the day.

When I stopped for fuel and snacks before heading out of town I didn’t take a photo of the wiry, over-tanned, tattooed, man in the convenience store who cut in line and was yelling at his wife from the check-out counter while she was trying to choose a cold drink. I didn’t take a picture of the way he berated her, another customer and the store employee who was trying so very hard to maintain a standard of good customer service. I didn’t take a photo of him climbing into his enormous, expensive white pickup truck while wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, though the image of him will probably stay with me for a while.

As I drove south on highway 89, I didn’t stop to take a photo of the dead cow on the side of the road even though there was a part of me that wanted to. It was black and white and bloated. Its legs faced the sky. I considered stopping on my way back, but by then the dead animal had been removed.

I didn’t take a photo of the numerous roadside stands made of corrugated metal and wood where Navajo men and women sell handmade jewelry, pottery and tapestries. I wanted to stop and look at their wares but I’m not much of a shopper. So I just drove past, enjoyed what I could see from 70mph, and hoped some folks were stopping to make it worth the vendors’ time and effort to be there on the side of the highway in the heat and the wind. One of these stands had a stunning mural of a Navajo girl with a sheep painted on one side. I wish I’d stopped to take a photo of that. Maybe I’ll get another chance.

I didn’t take a photo of the white crosses decorated with flowers that I passed from time to time. Some were in clumps of three or four. Some were alone. I didn’t stop, but I imagined families stopping to remember their loved ones near the place where they’d passed from one realm to another. Each time I passed one of the crosses I checked the speedometer, and usually I slowed down a little.

I didn’t take photos of the Lutheran church with its giant, well-tended playground, or the Bible Church right next door with its measly, outdated swing set and metal slide. I know that parents don’t decide which church to attend based on the quality of the playground equipment, but surely if the children of that community were given a choice, they’d choose to be Lutheran.

There was no way to take a photograph of the disappointment I felt in myself when I realized I’d missed the turnoff to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and was nearing the entrance to the South Rim. The disappointment was so great that I didn’t even bother to snap a photo of the view of the Canyon from the first stop inside the national park. Instead, I took a quick look, got back in the car, and backtracked three hours in order to get to the North Rim with enough daylight to enjoy it.

Once I found the turnoff that I’d missed earlier in the day, I didn’t take a photo of a house that was carved out of and built next to a giant boulder near the roadside establishment called Cliff Dwellers. Further along I didn’t stop to document each sign that marked another 1000’ rise in elevation as I drove up into the Kaibab National Forest. There I passed the evidence of old forest fires and the stark remains of blackened ponderosa with young, yellowing aspen trees growing beneath them.

I would have liked very much to take a picture of the buffalo I saw at about 8000’ in a meadow that reminded me of Rabbit Ears Pass outside of Steamboat Colorado, but a woman was walking dangerously close to the animal with her own camera. I had dreamed of a buffalo the night before, but in my dream it was standing alone in a meadow. It wasn’t being stalked by a tourist.

After six hours of driving, when I finally reached the North Rim and got out of my car, I wandered around for a bit. Before I ever went to a viewing deck or got a look at the Grand Canyon, I enjoyed watching the people. They were all ages, from all over, and all of them seemed pleased to be there. At one point a Japanese family piled out of the car beside me and while most of them didn’t look directly at me, the grandmother flashed me a tremendous smile. It was a photo-worthy smile that restored a bit of the hope for humanity that I’d lost earlier in the day at the convenience store.

It was strange to be in such a remarkable place without a travel companion. I found myself wanting to share my experience with someone. I wasn’t sad, but somehow the experience felt incomplete. I did take some pictures, but the light was all wrong, and photos—at least the ones I take—are often inadequate at capturing depth and height and scale. So I took a few less-than-stellar shots of the canyon and lots of photos of trees. Now I have lots of images of trees to help me remember my trip to the Grand Canyon.

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A tree at the Grand Canyon
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Another interesting tree with the Grand Canyon behind it.

On my way back to Page from the North Rim, the low-angle sun reflected off of the Vermillion Cliffs in the distance. A near-full moon rose above them. I stopped several times and tried to get the perfect shot. Some photos turned out all right considering I don’t have the equipment, the drive, or the patience of a professional. But some things are beyond one-dimensional capture. Photographic images are no substitute for the way a warm desert breeze carries the scent of juniper and sage and sand. The way it carries the song of crickets and the rustling of rabbit brush and tumble weed.

At one point when I was facing east, trying so hard to capture the evening, I stopped and looked at the shadow of myself, long and lean on the dry ground before me. It seemed silly to be so determined to remember a moment in time so completely, but it’s what I wanted to do. I wanted it all—the sounds, the smell, the temperature, the feel of the wind on my skin, the taste of dirt on my tongue. I wanted to hold on to the image of me there in the expanse of desert with the setting sun at my back and the lit-up cliffs ahead. I wanted to capture the space around me and the moon and the brightest stars that were just beginning to show themselves. I was greedy in my desire to keep hold of this place because it is the kind of place I am from. This high Western desert is my baseline and whether I mean for it to or not, it holds the standards by which I judge everywhere else.

Turns out I was trying to capture a place that I’ve been carrying with me all along.

Freak Out

 

When I was an adolescent, I attended church camp most summers. Each year it was a week of being in close proximity to a couple hundred other hormonally charged Christian kids where we had daily bible studies, morning and evening church services and ample opportunities to get our lives back on track with God. Away from all of our worldly influences, we were shown just how terrible the world was, and how important it was for us, as Christians, to stay as separate from it as possible.

One summer, after returning home from church camp, I took a hammer to my record collection. No good Christian should listen to, much less own, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” so I set up my record-destruction operation on a cement slab in my mom’s driveway and pounded away on my small stack of vinyl. I don’t remember everything I destroyed that day, but in addition to AC/DC it included albums by Queen, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

I didn’t feel good about destroying my records, at least not for long, but something I’d heard at camp made me think that listening to certain things was wrong, that the wrong kind of music would taint me, and that something about me was bad if I liked certain kinds of music. Better to remove it from my life altogether than be temped to listen to it. That’s the message I got.

I didn’t wreck all of my records. I kept Chic’s “C’est Chic” because even though going to dances was not acceptable in one of my two homes, I spent hours making up dance routines in the basement of my mom’s house to the song “Le Freak” because it was, quite simply, the best dance song in the universe. I was pretty sure God wouldn’t mind my dancing as long as I didn’t do it in public and as long as I didn’t make my moves too sexy.

I also kept Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” album. “The Logical Song” spoke to me and I listened to it over and over again. For this middle school girl who lived two different lives in two different households, who couldn’t yet articulate all the questions stewing inside my brain, it was nice to know that other people felt lost sometimes. I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…

            Whoever preached the sermon that inspired me to clean up my record collection did understand one thing about music. It’s powerful. Even though it can be logical, mathematical and scientific, it has the ability to go beyond those things. It has the ability to work its way into you on a much deeper level. At least that’s true for me.

In high school, after my boyfriend of two years left me broken-hearted, I wore out my cassette of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” by rewinding it too much. Alone in my room, I wallowed in my pain listening to “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” about a million times.

My musical obsessions have changed over the years. In fact, they change from week to week or month to month. One thing stays the same though: I find a piece of music that speaks to me, that touches me at some deep level, and I listen to it so many times that I suspect other people would think that I’m insane if they knew the extent of it.

In June of 2014 I discovered Jason Isbell’s album “Southeastern.” In my car to and from work each day, I played the song “Elephant” again and again and I swore that I’d learn to write songs, that I’d be happy never writing anything ever again if I could just write one song that was as good as that song.

After my dad died in 2007, I heard Martha Scanlan’s version of the old hymn “Ten Thousand Charms” and listening to it helped me mourn not just the loss of my dad but also the loss and isolation I felt over no longer believing the same religious teachings of my youth. Listening to the song helped me articulate that I was mourning more than just my dad.

Currently I can’t seem to get enough of Kurt Vile’s two most recent albums “Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze” and “b’lieve I’m goin’ down.” For whatever reason, they are meeting me where I’m at at this point in my life.

I won’t even get into my obsession with old-time fiddle and banjo music for this blog post. But one life-changing, serendipitous musical encounter started one day when my children were small and I was listening to NPR while driving them to town for a swimming lesson. The show on the radio featured a segment about a music festival being held in North Carolina. I heard clawhammer banjo being played and I immediately started crying. Not just crying, but had-to-pull-the-car-over-and-collect-myself crying. I have no explanation for it, but before that moment I’d never experienced a sound searing itself right into my soul. Remarkably, I met one of my dearest friends that week at those swimming lessons. Her name is Kate and she is one of the finest old-time banjo players that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and I’ve met a few. Soon after that I picked up a fiddle for the first time.

The thing with music is that what speaks to me isn’t necessarily what speaks to another person. Some people might hear a fiddle tune in a minor key and to them it sounds like nothing more than old-fashioned screeching. I, on the other hand, might hear a tune and feel compelled to listen to it hundreds of times and then play it hundreds of times. I don’t have a great explanation as to why music is so personal. Maybe it has to do with genetics. Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe there is something that goes way back to the core of our being, something that on some level still defies explanation.

It’s this unknown, hard-to-understand aspect of music that gives me the ability to respect genres that don’t necessarily resonate with me. In this life we’re always on the lookout for something that connects us to our people, our spirit, ourselves. We’re longing for something that makes us feel alive and engaged. What does that for one person will not necessarily be the thing that does it for someone else.

The rock and roll albums I busted to smithereens in my youth might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have had questionable lyrics, but they weren’t doing me any harm. I can think of plenty of things that did hurt me when I was a kid, and music isn’t one of them. The same is true of the rap music at the Tenana Valley State Fair last weekend that was so rudely interrupted. The performers might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have been rapping about serious issues, but they weren’t hurting anyone.

Those responsible for freaking out at the Tanana Valley State Fair last weekend did not get away with their decision to interrupt the music and kick the performers out of the venue. They’ve been sufficiently shamed through newspaper op-eds and comments and have ironically given the rap duo more attention than they ever expected. But I wonder what kind of message the censors sent to those few people in the audience who perhaps related more to the music of Starbuks and Bishop Slice than the other more “acceptable” acts. Censorship is tricky that way. Besides the blatant messages it sends, there are many more that are subtle: You don’t fit our ideal of what it means to be Alaskan. You are different and therefore unwelcome. Something must be wrong with you if this is the kind of music you enjoy.

            All of those messages are similar to the ones I heard when I was a kid at church camp in the early 1980s. Thankfully, the music spoke to me louder than those messages. And for all those Alaskan kids who love rap, or punk or electronica or any kind of genre that might scare the socks off of those who manage the Tanana Valley State Fair, I say turn up the volume. You’re as Alaskan as any of the rest of us.

 

Unwinding

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Orlando. I went to bed in one world and woke into another. Or maybe that’s not quite right, maybe that’s too dramatic. I went to bed in a world that is violent, that has always been violent and I woke to a world that will continue to be violent. There are violent people who have access to tools that allow them to act on their violent tendencies in a way that is out of balance to their own rage. This is not new. So I guess I went to bed in the same world that I woke up in, but maybe something shifted. With each tragedy there is the hope that something has shifted.

Was the Orlando shooter’s rage so much greater than the sum of the all the human emotion that was contained in the lives of the 49 people that he killed? No. Was it greater than the sum of their potential to love and create and expand and grow and flourish in a world that needed them? No. His rage was tiny in comparison to what his victims had to offer. And yet he had a tool that allowed his rage to quash that which was so much greater than his rage. Because he had a tool that allowed him to do so, the shooter, for three hours, acted out his twisted version of reality that told him that his rage was more important than anything else. It was not.

I want to believe that love is the answer. I want to believe that goodness will prevail. I want to believe that there is a way to solve this never-ending problem of violent people acting violently with tools that are disproportionately more powerful than their actual rage. I love life and I love people and I love so much about this world, but I admit that I feel helpless when it comes to solving this problem.

When I try to imagine the world going forward, I can’t picture it without thinking of unwinding a great spiral. The spiral of human history. At the tip of the spiral there are the weapons of war. In the last century we’ve created weapons strong enough to wipe out all of humankind and weapons powerful enough for one misguided soul to take out the lives of fifty others. And we’ve convinced ourselves that our strength lies in our weapons. It does not. To believe our strength is determined by the strength of our weapons is a colossal failure of imagination. It’s like saying that for all of the traits that humankind possesses, our ability to out-arm ourselves against our neighbors is the greatest. I don’t know how to begin unwinding this part of the spiral, but it seems like a good place to start.

Further into the spiral is the notion of sin. There are acts that harm other human beings and there are acts that do not. We need to unwind the notion that who we love, how we love, how we express our love for this life is in any way sinful if it does not harm another human. It’s a simple concept but one that seems to have us caught up in a frenzy of ridiculous bickering. Love between people is not a sin. Period. Stop calling it a sin and if your religion tells you it’s a sin, well then that’s the next thing on the spiral that needs unwinding.

Spirituality, seeking, looking for ways to live a meaningful and engaged life—those are all good things. But when rules and laws and outdated scriptures tell you that there is just one way to live a life and yet you look around and you see thousands of good people living lives that are in no way harmful to your own, it’s time to reassess the value of your religion. It may be time to let it go, or let it evolve into something else. If your religion is telling you to separate yourself from this world that you were born into, rather than be a part of its creation, you might want to consider the logic of that. It’s interesting how religious people embrace innovation and advancement in medicine, in transportation, in technology, but for many there is a stubborn refusal to innovate a religion that is outdated. At one time, burning whale blubber for light made sense. Now it does not.

There are so many layers of unwinding that I imagine, but the hope would be to unwind right down the the core of human suffering. To find the single notion, the single lie that we’ve built the rest of the spiral around, which I suspect is the idea of separation.

We are all human. Religious or atheist, gay or straight. No matter our sex or our gender or our height. No matter our IQ or our income. No matter our nation of origin or the color of our skin. We have the same capacity for goodness or badness or rage or awe. We all have the capacity to create and love. We all depend upon this one Earth for our existence.

Of course this spiral that I imagine is too big for any one person to unwind. We can’t go back in time and even so, history was not less violent than the present. So what do we do? I don’t know. I don’t claim to even begin to know. But can we see the world for what it is and decide to engage here and now with what we’ve got, mistakes and all? Can we cut through the spiral to that core of our common existence? Can we start to think more ambitiously about how to love each other and this world? Can we? Will we? How do we begin?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open Heart

I have spent the past week getting reacquainted with my heart. I’ve cried. I’ve played a few of my favorite songs over and over again. I’ve taken my fiddle out of its case and played the modal, soulful tunes that I love best.

All of this tending to my heart came about after I learned of a friend’s death last Wednesday. Trevor Stuart was a fiddle teacher of mine, and his passing was unexpected and sudden.

I wasn’t especially close to Trevor. Aside from his twin brother Travis, I’d never met his family. I hadn’t seen him for several years. I only knew a little of what was going on in his life by his occasional Facebook posts. And so this sorrow I feel over his death is something of a nostalgic sorrow. It’s not the true, deep sorrow that his family must be feeling. But it is sorrow nonetheless. He died too soon.

I met Trevor and Travis at Alaska Fiddle Camp almost a decade ago. They came from North Carolina to teach old time fiddle and banjo. I felt at home with them right away. They were funny, sincere, open and kind. Of all of those traits, it was their openness that stuck with me. They were open to friendship and they weren’t interested in proving that they were accomplished musicians or important in any way. They were just there to play music and have a good time. It was also apparent that they loved music, and not just the kind they were there to teach. When they had the time, they’d sit in on the Irish fiddle and bodhran classes. Late into the night they’d sing country songs, 80s pop songs, whatever. Music was more to them than a genre or a style. It was bigger than that.

One thing that always stood out about Trevor’s teaching style was that he taught tunes rather than technique. He seemed to know that the tunes would mean something different to every fiddle player, and so he didn’t try to get his students to play the tunes exactly as he played them. He didn’t insist on teaching them precisely the way he’d learned them from some old recording. He trusted that the tunes were living things and that variation, interpretation and evolution were part of the nature of old time music. He loved the music and what it could do. He trusted that the tunes would be just fine once he passed them along.

His own old time fiddle playing was as soulful as any that I’ve heard. He must have worked hard to master the technicalities of playing, and thank goodness he did, because his mastery allowed the heart of his playing to shine through.

And I suppose that is why I’ve been so deeply saddened by his passing. Trevor had heart. It came through in how he treated people and in how he played music. My own life was enhanced by the music he taught and played and by the kindness he and Travis brought with them from North Carolina to Alaska. I know I’m only one of hundreds who feel that way. And I, like so many others, assumed that we’d see him again someday.

As humans, our capacity to love is so great, but often we forget this. We squander our energy for love on things that matter so little.  We get caught up in sounding smart, in trying to be important, in trying to acquire status or material possessions. We forget that we are meant for so much more in this life.

Trevor’s unexpected passing won’t change the course of my life the way that it will his family’s. But it has done something. Over the past week I’ve felt my heart wedging open. It feels like it’s coming out of a deep, long sleep. It feels vulnerable and awake. It feels like it’s beating along to some tune that I haven’t yet learned how to play.

 

 

*Thank you to David Bragger for the wonderful recording of Trevor and Travis. David’s work is exceptional. To learn more about it go to The Old-Time Tiki Parlour.