Acquiring fire

If you can’t start from scratch, how do you fix a broken system? How do you shift into new practices? How do rediscover a part of you that seemed lost?

These questions echoed in the back of my mind while moving through two seemingly disparate experiences last week. It started with the Arrabon conference, a time of discussing racial and socioeconomic reconciliation when it comes to faith communities as well as the community entire. A firemaking workshop followed (held by Owlcraft Healing Ways/Blue Heron), which was a time of, frankly, learning how much I don’t know, how easy it is to ignore what your intuition knows (and how challenging that makes your life), and that I am perhaps a bit more out of touch with Nature than I realized.

How do you rediscover a part of you that seemed lost – that part of you that knows we are all connected, even when your monkey mind dwells in fear that it’s not so?

I don’t know the answers, at least not out of any place of logic, but what I have realized is that “acquiring fire” is not quite it. It’s not all about brusquely seeking out that fiery energy.

What do I mean by this? The instructors of this workshop said it best – you don’t “make” fire. You invite fire to come and be with you. And this posture informs not only the lay you set up, but also the way you do so. The climate, weather, and environment inform what of the Earth’s offerings you use.

After that, all you’re really doing is creating space.

So to me, more than anything else, the act of making and tending a fire is about awareness. What materials have you been given? How can you use them to create a hospitable place for warmth and light?

What’s interesting is, the same could be said about the topic of “race, class, and the kingdom of God” that was the focus of the conference. Reconciliation is less about making an inner fire that bids one to fight injustice and more about, instead, creating space within you for that fire to catch – because the fire already exists.

It is about creating space for warmth and light to radiate from a new way of relating to people. A new way that is, actually, an old way that already exists.

And perhaps this fire is a different kind of fire than one would expect. Perhaps it is the kind that does push against injustice, yes, but from a place of understanding exactly what tools are needed to do so – the tools of narrative, of cultural context, of frameworks that are not your own. The tools of experiences from people who have already learned about this over and over again.

It is a fire that comes from a place of desiring to see the world and other people (who are not so “other,” of course) in a better way.

That’s really the only way to make these changes: a mindset of generosity. Be generous with yourself, forgive yourself for the past, and be willing to receive new experiences. Be generous with others, and what you perceive their intentions to be; be willing to make space for them and their reality in your own reality.

This seems simple but it is not always easy. For me, it is a process – a journey. But it is a journey that will be well worth making, I am certain. No matter how bruised my knuckles get while trying to strike flint with steel; no matter how bruised my heart gets in trying to strike up hard conversations.

There is a thread of love and light that draws us back to who we were, the world that once was, and I am starting to feel it draw near. Can you?

Where we go from here

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It has taken me a week to process the Women’s March. Yes, in this high-speed world I remain impossibly slow. But in this case, and from my big picture perspective of a culture on the edge of change for the better (and it is), I think that’s not a bad thing.

I had my hesitations about being part of what promised to be a big moment. But most of them stemmed, I admit, from what-ifs – worries that, even if they were valid, should simply not have been entertained.

Every what-if was a strain of one disease: fear.

There was the initial concern, related to my experience at Richmond’s March on Monument (my first such march since college), that it would be too overwhelming to handle. (Overwhelming, the Washington one certainly was.)

There was the sense that something scary or violent could happen. (Though it didn’t, there had been violence in DC the day before; the spectre was all too real.)

And then there was the worry that maybe it wouldn’t mean quite what I thought it would. That it would ring insincere, or hollow, somehow.

The latter proved to be entirely wrong, and that, I think, speaks volumes.

Here are two truths about, at least, my own experience.

img_0136First: it was incomprehensibly encouraging and eye-opening. It was the togetherness that made it so. Moments of despair over others’ suffering leads me, as it does so many of us, to feel utterly alone. This protest proved that this is not so: we are not alone. None of us is alone. No matter the struggle, no matter the suffering. It cannot be said enough.

When we feel alone, many of us (myself included) continue to isolate ourselves, for – of course – fear of others knowing how strong we are not. But there is another story we can choose to tell ourselves. That story is: when we feel alone, we decide that the medicine is love and understanding. We come alongside one another to prove that you don’t have to be alone. Then we get to stand in a shared strength that says: your sadness, confusion, and grief are mine, too. No matter what the issue at hand is. Even if there is no issue at all.

Which brings me to the second truth: the march was very physically (and at times, emotionally) uncomfortable.

I live in a highly walkable city that’s not very densely populated, in a life that rarely requires driving a car or using mass transit. Never before have I stood on a metro train so tightly packed as those we rode this weekend, or in a crowd with as little space to move. It is difficult to describe how little, but imagine being able to stand without putting weight on your feet, and you’ll get a vague idea.

Panic was my first instinct. There was so much heat and so little air. There were so many people. A disaster could be imminent, with so many people. The thought of how do I get away floated through my mind.

But then I remembered: of course. This is the point. And I, for one, have some work to do when it comes to getting this kind of uncomfortable.

Too many people – too many women – have had to live this way, in systems and structures and even families packed so tight that they can barely breathe or be. Too many people – women and men alike – have been wrongfully kept in quarters like this before, too – be it on a slave ship or concentration camp – with no choice but to keep going until they could no longer.

In short: on Saturday in DC, we were all exposed to some very extreme empathy, if we so chose to let the experience affect us.

There were, unfortunately, a few individuals nearby who were not ready to do that. There were complaints. There was a palpable dismay. It was disheartening, for a few moments. But I understand them; I do. I was there not so long ago.

But the thing is, there are costs to comfort. And to this woman, it is too late to continue to be afraid of getting uncomfortable. There are too many people who will suffer otherwise.

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contrary to what the picture shows, we are actually the ones (pl) we have been waiting for. but anyway.

And frankly, more intense than the discomfort – more beautiful, and more freeing – is this sense of pride that I carry with me as I return to my regularly scheduled life. It’s strange, that this pride is so foreign and new. It feels as odd a fit as a style of overcoat I’ve never worn before. But this sense is that I am proud to be a woman.

It’s unreal. What if we were all so joyous? What if we decided that we are proud of each other?

Maybe this is where we go from here.

A sense of place

We moved a few weeks ago. Moving, to me, is exciting – in spite of the obvious stress I let it breed. Moving, to me, is yet another chance to start over. Even moving a half-mile offered this feeling of newness, this electric sense of change. Even if, as they say, no matter where you go, there you are.

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Walking through my new neighborhood lately has left me with a new perspective on this. What I mean is: there has been a constant thread in my life of wanting to be somewhere other than I am. I’ve dreamt of it, been thrilled to anticipate it. You could call it wanderlust, or a rabid desire to reclaim a wasted youth, or anything else that is probably is.

Problem is, occasionally this has even happened while living somewhere gorgeous, unreal, and enviable. Even there, somehow I allow the sense of new, of now, of appreciation to slip away.

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To an extent, this is simply the way of familiarity. The Pinterest-led desire to find the next shiny new spot, and the Instagram-soaked sense of wanderlust, are deceptive. It is easy to want to see an entire city or town through the eyes a single snapshot tends to lend. But as you know, if you’ve even once been a tourist or encountered one, snapshots are only windows – mere second-long slices of yearlong realities.

But there’s a way of looking at an old city with new eyes. Richmond, with its old age and new, youthful pulse, has its own personality, but is also a kindred spirit to many other blossoming places in this country. (Both Portlands, for sure.) The houses hearken to another time, I think as I walk down Ellwood Avenue, but there is activity that brings us all to this time, and there is promise, and potential.img_0710

There is an open vegetable garden nearby. It’s part of a local community gardening initiative, and people – neighbors, really – maintain its plots year-round. It reminds me that beauty can be found in what is so usual if one only chooses to look.

Richmond is, maybe, teaching me to see all things as they are, and to see the city in its many different colors, in both its beauty and ugliness and history and present and what’s-next. Maybe it is similar to Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, and Louisville, Kentucky, and so on.

But maybe it is also uniquely itself, and I can appreciate and bask in that for now.

All this is to say – thanks for being you, Richmond.

Moments

Sunlight, summer mornings, sunsets. Some things have to be savored.

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A bluebird flies low across the street, so bold. Someone at the coffee shop shoulders the heft of a crate before the boy working there drops it. The sun rises over the sea and you drift through the quiet, deep in a happy cocktail of serenity and awe.

Cliches exist for better or for worse, but let it not be said they have no raison d’être. In my case, during these dog days I have been inhaling-exhaling the truth that God is in the details.

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Every day has its trajectory. But the moments built into each one sprout up both gently and starkly: those are the studded light on the surface. Within the blur, the edges on leaves and the dappled sunlight and the gleam on the water’s edge seem sharper, or brighter, or more beautiful; everything slows down and comes into focus.

IMG_20160724_134623409What does it mean, though, to say that God is in the details?

To me, it is to believe in the power of His still small voice.

We look for signs – for loud sirens to draw us to the “right” place, or to some magic rock of stability. At least, this is my tendency. I see fog settling over the morning and wonder if it’s an omen, a warning to seek shelter from a something wicked that just may come. But in reality, it’s as simple as this: I am seeking a reason to worry or to be afraid. Maybe that is our human tendency: hard-wired to seek protection at any cost.

Today, while casually flipping through the lower-numbered radio stations, I landed on a short treatise – probably a PSA – on turning to Jesus during tough times.

“In the world we will have trouble. But He has overcome the world. Seeking the Lord makes those hardships – and there will be hardships – just a little easier to bear.”

A comfort? Of course not. My poor sweet monkey-mind immediately screeched out, “Oh, come on! So what’s going to happen to me now?” Me me me me me. It was all about me and my secure future. Where is my secure future? What ill shall befall us now?

But then my heart remembered: there are troubles in this world every day. Of course. They are there in ways big and small. What matters is whether or not the still small voice of truth, love, and a sound mind are acknowledged, or ignored.

Historically, I am not great at this acknowledgement. Historically, what charges me towards action is the emotional – the theatrical – the gigantic and bombastic. Historically, this seems to be a very normal human thing. Hamilton isn’t smashing all sorts of records and barriers for nothing, right? Didn’t reality singing shows take over America one fateful day in 2002?

Here’s the thing, though: the oak grows from a small acorn. These big, enormous triumphs all started as a small seed of hope.

(Where’s a good Totoro gif when you need one?)

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Summer is ending, but let us hold it in open hands as a series of quiet moments. This is so different from clinging to that sweeping, crashing wave of emotion from school-free days past. Those are gone from my life, but then again they still breathe into it sometimes, with the cool sigh of an evening breeze, with the electric pulse of an outdoor concert, with time spent drifting down the river or settling into a shared laugh.

Moments: as they are savored, they somehow grow bigger and riper with meaning. And maybe that’s the detail to remember.

The creative spirit

Or: write on, Psalmists.

About a month ago, I went to see The 1975 play in Charlottesville. They, while not of the mainstream-radio set Stateside (yet…), have cultivated an impressively dedicated following. I can’t help but think that it’s not only because of their copious output and obvious talent/hard work combo, but also because of their utter sincerity. In their performance, and in their lyrics, it’s impossible to ignore. To me that is something beautiful – something to be proud of.

Sincerity. Complete emotional honesty. It’s what so many of us seem to be craving lately.

It’s why I love The 1975 unabashedly. It’s also one of the many reasons why Julien Baker and her echoic power have drawn me in. The poet with a guitar that rings out like a harp, her simultaneous rejoice and complain – her sincere, raw music is a gift to this world.

Music. Stories. Sincerity. Crying out in verse, reaching out to others in melodies, letting one’s spirit be free as it reveals itself between the notes of a song or the lines of a page. These are spiritual acts.

But of course it is, you think. You might think, for example, of the Psalms, of the Song of Solomon – then of Paradise Lost – or of Emily Dickinson’s plaintive queries to the Almighty. My mind goes to a gorgeous book of poetry called Bucolics a friend gave to me: pastoral verses that invoke the relief of nature, that send the writer’s wonderings to the God he calls Boss. Serious, curious, sweet. It’s refreshing.

I think this idea was re-awoken in me, though, by a sermon I heard on generosity. (Not the kind you’re thinking of, probably. Bear with me here~)

What I mean is: generosity is a spiritual act, too. To give what you’ve been given back to others, or to the one who gave it, is to share the light that is love. It is a way of making the impossible suddenly so possible. Of course it’s true in a financial context, but it’s also true relationally, and definitely artistically.

Isn’t this one of the reasons why we create in the first place? Are not our painted, composed, concocted works offerings in themselves?

I am trying to tease out what this looks like in my own life. But I wonder what it could look like in yours. I wonder what it would be like to have more and more people turn to this form of offering and of connection.

So until these questions are answered, I’ll probably just have Julien Baker on repeat. She just casts that kind of spell.

Zen in the city

It’s been awhile, but not without good reason. I.e., sometimes – most times – you’ve got to do your growing away from the world of Interweb. Over the past few months, I’ve started full-time work, began exploring the potential for a(/another) new career path, gone to a concert, planned a vacation, and tried, countless times, to sleep in this noisy humidity. Did I mention ruing the day I left California?

Richmond’s not bad. I’m being unfair/mostly kidding. But my favorite places tend to be the quieter ones. The North Shore of O’ahu, for the most out-there example: I absolutely adore the country towns there. Not everything about them, but the beating heart of the entire area. It is a small, but sufficient haven; a home that is quiet, but calming.

Richmond, as I said, is not bad, and it’s not the Big City, but it is also not the country, and by no means is it quiet (she wrote, waiting for the next siren to whistle by).

There’s a beauty to this cacophony, of course. Music pouring from car windows and balconies; dogs barking; the racetrack abuzz – it’s a bizarre symphony of sorts, but it is uniquely ours. And it’s exciting that there is so much possibility living here.

But then there are moments when the noise mellows out, and if one pays attention, there are pockets of serenity to be found. And this individual revels in such spaces.

(That, or one could live with jaw clenched ad infinitum. It’s up to the individual, I suppose.)

I’m spoiled to have to take just a few steps to get to this first destination: the VMFA Sculpture Garden.

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Whoever designed this area deserves a hug. It remains gentle and traps no chatter even when people are about, not unlike a park or bigger green space. That joyful echo of laughter and footsteps… swoon.

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I am writing, in fact, from this very location, cool blissful breeze rustling the grasses, leaves, flowers, edges of water. With the art just in sight, it’s soothing. Wouldn’t miss it.

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You can’t talk about peaceful places without mentioning the trails at Dogwood Dell and the Pumphouse ParkSomehow I always end up drawn back here, to the grassy expanse by the amphitheater and the short yet winding trails. You could lose hours wandering here.

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ah.. cliched, but truly a sight for sore eyes

Then, on a more spiritual level, there’s Richmond Hill: a longtime spiritual haven and monastic spot for those committed to praying over the city.

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I can think of no better place than this. High in Church Hill, its sweeping views of the streets, buildings, and river below keep it utterly engaged with Richmond’s heart. And its garden (notice a trend, eh?) is a relaxing place to sit, read, or pray.

Rest is important. Real rest is hard to find space for. There are so many demands on our time, energy, headspace. And that’s part of why environment matters: it’s an all-natural way of compartmentalizing between busyness and rest. There’s a reason we have happy hour and pau hana; there’s a reason we have a day of rest between workweeks. Because sometimes, just one step is all it takes to move you from stress-laden to chill.

I personally tend to have a hard time taking that first step. But these places are such an encouragement. How about you – where can you find such encouragement in the space around you?

How to get free: step one is to run

I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.

Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?

Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.

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Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.

For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.

It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?

No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.

Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top.  There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.

The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.

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It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.

The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.

I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.

Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:

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  • Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
  • Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
  • Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.

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  • Bryan Park (pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
  • Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!

And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post: