Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lessons from Saddleback

Last August, our San Francisco community bid us farewell as we made our way south, behind what they called the Orange Curtain.  We moved to Orange County when my husband joined the faculty at the University of California at Irvine. In making this move, we chose to say yes to Southern California: yes to the new landscape, jobs, schools, daily rhythm, politics, neighbors.  Adapt or die, we thought.  We readily chose to adapt, genuinely eager for something new.

For the last eight months, upon waking, I've opened our bedroom curtains to palm trees and bougainvillaea, and the sunrise over Saddleback Mountain, reflected in our neighbor's east-facing windows. In the flats below Saddleback sits Pastor Rick Warren's famed evangelical Christian church of the same name.  Pastor Rick is renown for his influential teachings on living a purpose-driven life, and on building a purpose-driven church.  He is credited with mobilizing thousands on the Christian right through both his message and his methods.  Some progressive social movement organizers consider Pastor Rick's books required reading for understanding how conservatives have managed to organize themselves so well.

Last Sunday, I drove east with my mother and a friend to attend services at Saddleback Church.  We toured the enormous campus, weaving in and out of the Sunday school classrooms--five of which are dedicated to the three year olds alone--as a sense of scale slowly sank in.  Greeters explained all of the ways community members can lean on Saddleback, not only for spiritual guidance, but for legal assistance, financial counseling, and every kind of support group imaginable, from addiction recovery to infertility.  The handout read, "We're better together."

in the risers at Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California
As we settled into the risers, the empty seats filled around us.  Young couples in shorts and polo shirts, groups of single women in jeans rolled up with heels, families with hoodied teenagers lingering behind.  On the stage, a Christian rock band visiting from London pounded out a baseline that reverberated through the crowd a refrain I cannot shake.  My voice joined the 4,000 others in the room, in what felt to me not unlike an evening of kirtan in my more familiar haunts.  Blessed be the name of the Lord. 

I hope to say more later, when my kids are not tugging me into Sunday morning play. For now, suffice it to say that I left Saddleback with a profound sense of longing for my disparate communities of progressive social change makers to have an infrastructure that could provide any semblance of that kind of stability and extended family.  I left with a feeling of rolling up my sleeves: what would it take to make a secular church?  What would it take to allow ourselves to dwell together in awe of the infinite, to take care of each other when we get sick, to study together the ancient texts, and drive each other to the voting booths?  I join the chorus in saying with humility that we have a lot to learn.

What would truly supportive community look like in your life?  What would it take to create that?  Does it depend always on a charismatic leader and common faith?  If not, what is the glue?  What are your dreams for community interdependence?  I welcome your comments and musings here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Water's Fine

For me, time divided in two twelve years ago.  BT and AT: before my partner Terence Freitas was kidnapped and murdered in Colombia, and after.  My friendships, projects, and interests from BT that weren't somehow swept along into AT dropped away.  I, myself, was caught in the current of grief and political action, and for many years, my main goal was keeping my head above water.  When I made it to the shore, there was, of course, no path back to BT, and the uncharted traverse between the two worlds often daunted me.

Terence Unity Freitas and Colombian indigenous U'wa leader Berito Cobaria in 1997, protesting LA-based Occidental Petroleum's oil drilling project on U'wa land
This summer, I've begun tentatively wading in the shallows of another river.  It is a river of words.  I finally, after years of being stuck about it, started to engage online.  I've been watching the words flow across my news feed, wall, reader, blogs.  The fantastic torrent of ideas and self-expression motivate me to action, and often to emotion.  I have cast forth my own musings into this tumble every so often, but always with trepidation.  I peer underneath the rocks lining the muddy shore for evidence of similar caution weighing down the words of others, and marvel in curiosity at how little there seems to be.

By writing these missives, reaching out for your friendship, commenting on what you post, and acting on it when inspired, I am belatedly learning to read the waters it seems the whole world became accustomed to navigating at some point AT.  At some point when I couldn't fathom pouring any more of myself into the public domain.  When I finally had something to say again, I scrambled to find the modern way to write it across the sky, and made this blog to broadcast it.  But I still didn't get the engagement part; I left the hundreds of emailed comments unanswered, building no community out of all those words.  I learned from that experiment that it doesn't suit the swimmer in me to keep wading in the shallows.

Last week I started responding to friend requests from people with whom I went to high school.  In so doing, I learned two important things:

1) our twentieth class reunion is this month, and

2) the traverse between AT and BT is not that scary.

My older son pulling our kayak back to shore
I passed on our tenth reunion, when the murders were so fresh that I had not a drop of small talk in me.  I cringed at the thought of my words dropping like heavy stones, sucking us into awkward silence.  But it's different now, twelve years out, and finding you again in these waters has helped me see that.  BT/AT, it's all me.  I'm back.  I've posted our shiniest family pictures, and I know that is what I am seeing of yours.  But that's okay.  Out here mid-stream, I can also see there is a lot more going on.  We are all vacillating between treading and surrendering to the flow.  In the end, the water's fine. 

How has time divided in two for you?  
How do you bridge the gap between before and after?  

I welcome your comments here on these pages.  I will respond. 

Thursday, June 30, 2011

How to do a seed circle

Twenty years ago a teacher shared with me this tool for staying open.  It's called a seed circle.  Some of you have asked how to do one. Here's how and why.

When you have an idea you are trying to plant, a seed circle allows a group of friends to help the idea take root in your mind and body.  Though its origins remain a mystery to me, I have since gathered seed circles all over the place.  To mark a graduation, to celebrate a new year, to help a friend find meaningful work, to pass through grief, to prepare for birth.  To ease any transition, really.  Like moving away.

Efe children from the Ituri rainforest in the Congo,
playing Osani, another circle game about love.
It is a simple ceremony.  It goes like this:

1.  Gather a group of trusty friends.

2.  Sit in a circle in a quiet room or comfortable outdoor spot (once we were on a sloping hill under the shade of a live oak dropping leaves that prickled, not so easy).  Don't worry, you don't have to sit with your feet touching as these children are.  But do bring a similar spirit of common purpose.

3.  Do whatever you usually do to get settled in as a group (centering, check in, setting expectations for the gathering, etc.)

4.  Choose one person to be the focus of the circle.  We'll call this person the seeker. Here, the seeker is a woman, but seed circles are for men, too.

5.  Invite the seeker to share from her heart about the idea she wants to take root.  She may seek to look at a  situation differently, or to be free of a certain worry.  She may seek closure on one phase of her life, or help staying open to what comes next.  She may be winding through grief, or preparing for birth--of a baby or a project.  She may not know the outcome she seeks when she begins talking, but as she talks, it is likely some themes will emerge.  

The seed we crafted during my seed circle last month
6.   As the seeker talks, the rest of the circle listens without giving input.  The circle listens with full confidence that the seeker already has inside her the answers she needs.  This quality of listening is characterized by inner stillness, eye contact, self-possession.

7.  When it seems the seeker has spoken her mind, friends are invited to ask clarifying questions, and to state back to the seeker what they heard her say.  The seeker replies, and in this process, everyone in the circle begins to distill the central message, or seed.  This seed is made of words.  It can be one word, or a phrase.  In one seed circle out on the Colorado Plateau in my early twenties, when I was preparing to go back to college after a semester backpacking, the seed my circle came up with was, "You are wise, and you are changing."  In preparation for the birth of my second child, the seed was, "I am the river. Trust the river."  You find it together, and the seeker tells the circle when the seed is right.

8.  With the seed in mind, someone from the circle sets the word or phrase to a melody.  The circle picks up the melody, singing the seed softly over and over again.

9.  While the circle is getting the song down, the seeker lays down in the center of the circle, usually on her tummy.  At an appointed time, beginning all at once, the singing friends begin massaging the message/seed into the seeker's body.  This happens for a good spell.  Maybe 5-10 minutes.  It feels long for the singing friends, but it feels short for the seeker.

10.   When the massaging is drawing to a close, the friends rest their hands in stillness on the seeker's body, and sing the song three more times.  Then stillness and silence.

11.   The friends lift their hands and move back to form a circle, allowing the seeker to rest in the center.

12.  Usually the seeker takes a few moments there, and then rejoins the circle.

Beads my friends offered during the last seed circle
13.  If your group has gathered just to honor this one friend, then take some time to allow the seeker to talk if she wants to.  Sometimes the friends offer the seeker a token to help her remember the seed, like a bead.  If your group has gathered to allow any interested friend become the seeker, it is time to move on to the next person.  Begin again at step 5 above.

14.  After every seeker has gone into the center, open the circle back up in whatever way your group sees fit (a song, a round of appreciations, a check-out, the sound of a bell, whatever works to shift the energy from the center to the outside world).

15.  We often plan extra time for hanging out afterward, usually with something sweet to eat!

Have you done a seed circle?  What would you add to this description?  What other tools like this do you use for staying open to change? 

If you gather a seed circle, let me know how it goes! If you'd like help with it, let me know that, too.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How do you stay open to change?

How do you stay open to change?

When we landed back in San Francisco five years ago, we knew it wouldn't be long before our careers took us somewhere else. I alighted in the city with an air of almost leaving. The work I chose, the friendships I began, the garden I grew: in each realm I had one foot out the door. Then I had a baby. And another. And before I knew it, I was weaving relationships of delight and interdependence with a whole new community of mothers. We leaned on each other for everything, from matters mundane ("how do you nurse on the bus?") to existential ("will I ever think a coherent thought again?"). I opened myself up in service of this community, playing a role among peers that I relish: that of gathering the circle.

Babies too young to move around, letting their mamas meet.
The one on the right is mine.
We'd meet in our livingroom, or another mama's basement. At first, with babies too young to move around, we'd steal ten minutes for sitting meditation, or walking in silence. We'd discuss a reading, or our lives. We called ourselves the Mindful Mamas, an appellation to which we all aspired. When the babes grew boisterous and mobile, we handed them off to our partners so that we could continue to find a thread of stillness in our group. We'd meet once a month, or twice if one of us needed extra support.  Some spun off into a childcare co-op.  Others into a writing group.  And others into easy friendships that have endured.

How do you stay open to change?
from my soul collage: the one who witnesses 
Now we really are leaving San Francisco.  What began for me as a transitory stop has become home.  My gaze travels south to Orange County, scanning for clues about our new home: where will we live? who will teach my children? where will I find meaningful work? how will I gather my community around me?  I am working hard to stay open to these changes.

For me, staying open requires staying supple, keeping the what ifs moving through the body, so that fear doesn't lodge.  I am dreaming big about living with deep purpose in Orange County, and training my mind to stay open to that dream as an actual possibility.  I find it a tricky and beautiful inner process.  I am always learning new tools for staying open.  So I am curious to know: how do you stay open to change?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Green in Orange

We are moving to Orange County. I feel like a pioneer, venturing forth from San Francisco, the territory ahead uncharted. Will we have to build our own compost bin if the city doesn’t collect food scraps? Will the neighborhood association let us keep a chicken coop? How far will we have to bike to find wild places for the kids to get muddy? Can Colorado River water compare to that of the Tuolumne? There are answers to these questions. But the one that burns: will there be room there for all of me? What about these parts:

Will there be room for all of me?
My 2011 New Year's soul collage
I'm looking for the green in Orange. Excited for that adventure. At the same time, I'm standing like the new girl at the edge of the playground, tracing a circle with the toe of my shoe. Will there be a place for me?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

As We Poured the Ashes in the River Ganga

For the last half century, social change worker Fran Peavey articulated, taught, and practiced what she called ‘heart politics’ in myriad social and environmental movements worldwide. Using the tools of listening, strategic questioning, reflection, and engagement, an effort employing heart politics works on a human scale to effect sustained social transformation, valuing connection across difference, power with instead of power over, and accountability through community.

In Heart Politics Revisited, Fran wrote, “Heart politics. . . is about making a deep connection with the life found in a specific place, culture, or area of land. Since the connection is with life, it is inconceivable to think in terms of organizing to kill, to punish, or destroy.” She died in San Francisco in October, 2011. She was my teacher.


Upon her death, Fran wanted her ashes poured one half into the Snake River in Idaho near her home town, and the other half into the Ganga River at Varanasi, the river to whose health she devoted the latter third of her life.

“My body is so large,” she’d say, “there shouldn’t be any problem dividing up the ashes.” To carry out the India wish, a small group of friends and collaborators from the United States and Australia met in Varanasi a few months after her death. We gathered at Tulsi Ghat, the complex of buildings ancient and modern that comprise the home of Dr. Veer Bahdra Mishra, the beloved Mahant of the Sankat Mochan Temple and his many endeavors, including the office of the Swatcha Ganga (Clean Ganges) Campaign office and water testing laboratory.

When Fran became wheelchair-bound, returning to Varanasi seemed impossible. The roads were a labyrinth of muddy lanes, and those that were paved were more often than not potholed and uneven. At the small air terminal in Varanasi the airbuses unload down a flight of stairs directly onto the tarmac. Nothing about this place spelled accessibility. But Peaveyji, as they call her here, came anyway. To accommodate her new wheels at Tulsi Ghat, Mahantji converted the ground floor of the guesthouse that sits atop the steep ghat into Fran’s new bedroom. He had ramps paved over the two small sets of steps connecting her new room to the Swatcha Ganga office across the courtyard. This room became known as Peavey Palace. Peavey Palace is one large rectangle with high ceilings, a platform bed at one end, and a sofa set neatly covered in new soft pink upholstery at the other. When you open the matching pink drapes, a wall of windows opens up high above the Ganga River.

On the day of the ceremony, we gathered in Peavey Palace. Catherine Porter showed up with the zip locked ashes sealed inside an old Assam tea tin. Sue Lennox scrolled through the photos on her laptop to find one of Fran for Mishraji, one of the directors of Swatcha Ganga, to print for the dinner we would later have in Fran’s honor. Michelle Walker and I retrieved the round earthen pot and plastic bag full of flower petals that had been set aside for the ceremony. One by one we trickled in, removing shoes at the door, and nestling in to the overstuffed pink sofas. And then we waited. Sitting by Fran’s bed months earlier in San Francisco, in the days before death, her friend Barbara Hazard wrote about the waiting in a poem that we read again now:

The Waiting Room

You have been summoned
but they have not yet
opened the door
nor even given you the time
of your appointment
and so you wait.

You cannot hurry this appointment;
you tap your fingers
in the narrow waiting room
that is now your life.

You make phone calls,
you stroke your dog,
you eat a peach
slice by slice.

We are waiting with you
but when they finally call you
you must enter by yourself.

You are ready. Everything
you needed to do is done.
Now your life is bare
of all but the essentials:
the people you love,
the dog who loves you,
a few loud shirts,
and some summer peaches.

Here in Peavey Palace, where we now waited, we opened the lid to the earthen vessel. Inside we found incense sticks and a muslin cloth. We were ready to take the next step in caring for our friend. We spread the cloth on the coffee table, used the lid to balance the weight of the completely round bottom, and opened up the tea tin. Linda Hess, the friend who originally directed Fran to Mahantji in the late 1970's, Sue, and Catherine poured Fran’s grey and grainy ashes from the ziplock into the earthen pot. As they poured, we sang:

Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you.
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you.

We were making up the ceremony as we went along. We were sitting, waiting for the pujari, Mahantji’s in-house Hindu priest, to lead us in the traditional prayers, but we also found an ease in the collective task of calling sacredness into the circle we were creating ourselves. Mahantji joined us in Peavey Palace. Linda, a Kabir scholar, reminded us of the fifteenth century poet’s song that Chanulalji, Mahantji’s music teacher, sang the night before at the temple. The song told of life being like water in an earthen pot. Eventually the water seeps through the clay, just as the luster of our youth seeps through our bodies, and is gone.

When the pujari arrived, we filed part way down the ghat steps to the Sanscrit school, an open air alcove over looking the Ganga. The midday sun reflecting on the river created a soft white light as it bounced off the baby blue walls and ceiling of the interior. We wove around the young scholars gathered in groups of three or four hovering over low tables in their studies. As they chanted their lessons, we gathered around a red plastic patio chair where Ramchander, the boatman of Tulsi Ghat set Fran’s ashes. The pujari, clouded in the burning incense, completed his prayers and showed us our way down the ghat steps. We carried the earthen vessel wrapped in the muslin cloth, to the boat. From the banks of the Ganga, we waved back up to the pipal tree, in the shade of which Mahantji sat with his ailing knees to watch us in the river.
Ramchander brought us to the center of the river just upstream of Mahantji’s view. The pujari then recited in Sanskrit the Shaanti Paatha, or Peace Prayer:

There is peace in the heavens. Peace in the atmosphere. Peace reigns on earth. There is coolness in the water. Healing in the herbs. The trees are giving us peace. There is harmony in the planets and the stars and perfection in eternal knowledge. Everything in the universe is peaceful. Peace pervades everywhere, at all times. May that peace flow through me.

As we drifted back down past Tulsi Ghat, Catherine, Linda, and Sue poured Fran’s ashes over the side of the boat, into Mother Ganga. Upon the instruction of Dr. Sundd, another Swatcha Ganga director, Catherine then released the vessel itself, along with the flower petals and muslin cloth. The River Ganga would transform each of these elements back into river material as they traveled downstream toward Calcutta.

When the ashes poured in, Fran went home. I felt her slip into the waters, a final toodle-do wave as she said goodbye. I felt her gaze turn to her journey ahead, and the burden of work left unfinished lift. I felt the mantle pass. “It’s yours as much as it ever was mine,” she seemed to say. “Go.” I was flooded with gratitude. A river dolphin, rare these days, arched out of the water just downstream from the us, catching the eye of several of us in its greeting. Sue later said, “Fran’s taught us well. Her final resting place is in our hearts.”

Fran had urged all of us to think like water:

“I want to be so like water that I can fit into any vessel, flow anywhere, move with the grade, not only in my own way. Think like water! Fluid. Not limited by ideology, concepts; fresh in every moment.

I wish to think and act like water–powerfully working with other drops of water to wear away resistance drop by drop. Wear away the stones on which poverty and suffering rest. Always looking for the deepest way to flow, and to allow the world to flow through me. Cleaning, sparkling, bubbling. Think like water!”

Our task complete, Ramchander turned the boat toward Tulsi Ghat. As the boat approached the shore, Sue and I stood arm in arm facing downstream, and sang Fran home:

The river is flowing.
It’s flowing and growing.
The river is flowing down to the sea.
Mother, carry me.
Your child I will always be.
Mother, carry me down to the sea.

Angela Baker pointed to the sky. The eagle that had perched high above the river during our journey now took flight. We sang for Fran, but we also sang for ourselves, in recognition of our own journeys home. The song attests to a devotion, not to our beloved friend and teacher, but rather to the Mother, the universal mother, the earth, the river, any of these symbols of our fundamental interconnectedness with all life. We held this devotion in common with Fran.

The devotion seems to rest latent inside, swirling to the surface from deep below when one is soft enough to surrender to it. This circle song invites the surrender. And with it comes an unstoppable joy, followed by an easy yearning to be of service. With surrender, it becomes easier to get out of the way, so that my vessel–this body, mind, spirit–can do its job. Birthing mothers use this same song to prepare for the passage of their babies into the world. Birth and death, birth and death. Both demand this same surrender. Out on the River Ganga yesterday it was easy to remember that the life we live in between birth and death is no different: maintaining the softness to surrender is life’s work. Without it, work becomes truncated, cut from the source. With it, service instead flows from that deepest source. Words and actions become fit for offering back up to the river, to be churned back in to the cycle of life as the water carries all down to the sea.

As we ascended the steep stone steps back to Tulsi Ghat, Sue went to sit with Mahantji. He told her that, as he watched, his tears kept coming. He reflected that he saw in our culture something to learn. He observed that we were making community whereever we were, that our devotion to our friend brought us all the way here to say goodbye to her in Gangaji. He saw us embody the devotion taught in the Hindu tradition of bhakti. He was moved by the way we cared for our friend. The affirmation spreads like warmth, deep around our circle.

The sun is rising red over the River Ganga. The glistening orange water is flowing north at a clip. The wind is still. I am standing on my hotel room veranda. Sunrise is when the devoted from throughout Varanasi pad their way down to the banks to wash for the day, and give their thanks to the Mother Ganga. The thousands of men, women, and children lining this western curve of the River as the sun crests were preceded by thousands and thousands of others, lips moving with the same whispered prayers, palms joined, wrists touching forehead in the same ancient gesture, generations offering a continuously sustained prayer of gratitude for life, and daily embodiment of devotion to the source of it. We don’t not have the centuries of this tradition to buoy our actions in the same way those born into this path do. Instead, we are making our way by walking. Tapping whatever access we each carry to the source, we drew upon the same stillness, the same joy, to honor our friend, her work in the world, and ours. Here on the banks of the Ganges, our efforts have been seen, our prayers heard, and offered up.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Parting Song

Kiran puts his face next to my face, eyelash to eyelash, and asks, Mama, why are you crying? In these times, I have no words for my child. I tried my hand at it once. I said, I am crying because some men poked a hole deep in the earth to get us some oil for our car, but they messed up. And now the blood of the earth is spilling into the ocean, making it chokey for the fish and birds who live there. At this, Sunil, my husband, shot me a glance. Kiran knows that worms die when they dry up on asphalt, and that a bee will die if left stuck in the pool. But what does he know of death?

Years ago, the day after I bought my decades-old Mercedes wagon, I mailed a note to Stanley, the older gentleman who sold it to me. I told him why I bought it. He hadn’t been aware that, in certain pockets of the Bay Area, old diesel wagons were fetching double their value. He hadn’t heard of biodiesel, the fuel made from vegetable oil, that can power the car, much less that Rudolf Diesel himself first made his engine to run on it.

With the note to Stanley I included a picture of Terence Unity Freitas. Terence was a young human rights and environmental activist from Los Angeles who worked in solidarity with the Colombian indigenous U’wa community, which has long resisted oil exploitation. I met Terence the week I moved back to the United States from the Philippines, a few years after college. There, I worked with the Tagbanua indigenous community that was facing Shell’s proposed natural gas pipeline through their ancestral fishing waters. I wanted Terence to help me think about how to deal with Shell, a company that, in the wake of the hanging of Nigerian poet Ken Saro Wiwa, was notoriously thug-like in its dealings with local community resistance. The conversation tumbled into the evening and the next day, and then continued uninterrupted for the next several months. Our work and our hearts aligned.

The following winter, I was unpacking Terence’s boxes in our new apartment in Brooklyn when he called from Colombia. The cultural exchange he had facilitated between U’wa leaders and two prominent Native American women leaders was wrapping up, and he looked forward to being home. It was the last time I talked to Terence.

On their way to the airport, while exiting the indigenous land then-coveted by Occidental Petroleum, Terence, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Lahe'ena'e Gay were kidnapped. Eight days later, their bullet-ridden bodies, hands tied, were found just across the Venezuelan border. Although the FARC took responsibility, eventually bumbling its way through an apology (oops, we didn’t mean to kill them), no justice has yet been brought. No story has yet emerged clearly enough to hold those truly responsible to account. Pulling the trigger is one thing. Organizing the crime quite another.

But my note to Stanley was not about that. It was about me. It was about those of us who are perhaps the most culpable. Those of us who have allowed the thugs the power they have. I am less concerned about the thugs skirting the pipelines’ contours through the jungle than about those coursing the halls of Congress to ensure the pipelines’ passage. Those of us who continue to rely on cars to make our everyday lives work have given those thugs their power. It’s market-driven, they say. We take the risks the market demands. We will drill in the depths of a far away civil war. If that’s too messy for you, sure, we can drill closer to home. We can drill right here just off the coast. It’s deep, but what the heck.

Terence was shot ten times with a veintidos. A few years ago I shot a .22 at some tin cans just to know the feeling of that kind of power. I braced myself on the hood of the old, 12 mpg Suburban we drove up the mountain for the gun play. The kick didn’t knock me over. I was underwhelmed. I told Stanley that in the years since Terence’s murder, filling a gas tank had felt like murder, as close as I come to murder. My hand on the trigger, I pumped the blood of the earth, as the U’wa say, right into my car.

During those years, lying still in the evening, I would imagine my spine unzipping down my back, and my blood pouring out into that same earth, soaking it as Terence’s blood soaked the rain-drenched cow field of his execution. This exercise brought me an unexpected and sickening calm. I did it when I needed to relax. I found it allowed me to lie still, to get quiet enough to hear beyond my thinking. When I finally decided I didn’t want to walk around so depleted, I stopped unzipping my spine. And that’s when I bought Stanley’s car.

Filling my tank with vegetable oil did not feel like murder. Of course, as we know, the vegetable oil arrives to us, usually, after several prior incarnations–as matter that grew in fields tilled by machines driven by dino-diesel, as oil processed in factories powered by coal, and transported to consumers in good old American trucks, only some of which, now, are themselves belching the smell of popcorn. My goddaughter used to call it my car that runs on the oil that doesn’t hurt the earth. The simplistic rendition I had conveyed to her young ears didn’t tell the whole story, but at least there was a kernel of wholesomeness in it. Which was more than I could say for any story I could tell of big oil.

I am finding now, with my own children, there are stories that need to be told, and others that should wait. Kiran studies the picture I recently hung in his room. He asks why my friend is climbing that tree, and how his hands are holding on. I look at Terence through Kiran’s eyes. I tell him that Terence just really loved to climb trees, and that he climbed so many trees that his hands got strong and could hold on tight. Kiran is perfecting this skill, too, in the cherry trees lining Golden Gate Park, where he wedges himself up as high as he can on his own power and, gripping a bough, swings himself down when his tiny hands give, which is almost immediately. This is an easy story to tell.

Harder to explain is the story behind my tears when Kiran rounds the corner and finds me weeping. Since the BP disaster began in mid-April, a familiar foreboding and agitation have shown up again, my mind edgy and occupied, my heart tethered to the far away sea being smothered, much in the same way I used to orient south after Terence was killed, my inner gaze arching over the southern horizon to the land that took him. As then, my furtive search for an answer bumps up against the stunningly immutable truth that nothing can change what has already happened. Nothing I say can put the blood back into the earth. No court of law or Congressional hearing can put the blood back in to Terence’s broken body, or the thousands like Terence whose lives have been taken in these oil wars.

My prayer, as a mother, is that my sons’ hands grow strong with the experience of knowing and loving the forest, or the seas, that they climb as many trees and waves as it takes for them to develop an abiding allegiance to their defense. But as proud as I would be to have sons who act in the world with as much integrity as did Terence, my deeper prayer is, of course, that they never know the face of death he was shown. Murder resisting a pipeline’s advance into sacred lands. They don’t need to hear this story now. The unmitigated flow from a broken pipeline sounding the death knell of entire ecosystems. It is my inclination to let them in on it. But, recognizing the agitated ache in my voice as out of place, Sunil skillfully redirects the boys, who, by now, have begun sending life rafts down to hoist all remaining stuffed animals floating out there in the poisoned sea up into the safety of the deck of the living room couch. Kiran and Julian are satisfied for now, and Sunil has spared them the anxiety that surely would have flowed from any greater comprehension of loss.

As they play, I am left to face the harder questions Kiran and his generation will ask us later: what were we thinking driving a car everyday? With everything we knew? From whence came the audacity to think we could go on living as nuclear family units, one after another, across city and state, each family not even sharing a washing machine with the family right next door? How could we have lived all those years in California and not have demanded solar panels? Why weren’t we up in arms, or at least up in Sacramento when the electric car got taken away the first time? You mean you were an activist and then you, what, just quit?

His tenacity at age three suggests he will not be satisfied with our answers. It will not be enough to tell him that we took the bus to work, and only used the car to drive him to nursery school and get groceries. It will not be enough to remind him that we cultivated our backyard so that we grew at least some of our food, or that we bought used and re-purposed as much of our stuff as we could. I will have no satisfactory explanation for why we stopped using biodiesel in our old tank of a car for the three years after the kids were born, when we were too exhausted and overwhelmed to set up our lives in a way that would make the biodiesel easier to procure. Or for why I stopped working with communities resisting big oil after law school. Instead, I will have to rely on a compassion I cannot reasonably expect him to have, given that we have knowingly, in full light of day, damned his future so.

In fanciful moments of delusion, I imagine that if their future gets really bleak because of what we’ve done to the planet, at least we have friends with land in Montana. At least they could go hole up there, and just work the land, and live sheltered from it all. The imaginary bubble of class privilege and mobility in which I encase my children’s future in these moments readily bursts upon contact with even the slightest edge of consciousness. Sure, they could go back to the land, along with the rest of the global south migrating north to cooler climes. We should have learned the sky has no borders with acid rain in Appalachia, or the loss of ozone in Australia. The sky spreads its burden, as does the sea.

In another fanciful moment last week, I was heartened to hear the Coast Guard admiral in charge of cleaning up BP’s mess estimate that even if the flow of oil stops in August, it will likely take all autumn to clean it up. He spoke as if to brace the nation for a long clean up. To my eager ears, I was quietly relieved to imagine, even for that one moment, that the experts anticipate they will actually be able to get it all cleaned up, and before the holidays, to boot. The spin worked on me, as it was crafted to do. Only later, when sitting in the dark nursing Julian, did I allow the rest of the admiral’s statement to penetrate: he said, it will likely take all autumn, or much, much longer than that. Earlier in the day, I heard what I wanted to hear. I soothed the agitation I am otherwise carrying with the reassurance that the efforts to contain our error will somehow, ultimately, work; that an expert at the site sees a way forward. I took momentary refuge in the illusion that someone else is going to take care of it.

I think the response Kiran and his generation will come to know is that of course no one else is going to take care of it. It is a lesson we would do well to heed now. We have to take care of it. The thugs in the jungle who kill are a problem. The thugs in suits who kill are also a problem. But the real problem is that we pay them to do it. Until we stop, we will continue to drive this killing machine. Unseating vested interests and revamping legislation to better regulate the killing is imperative. But our more central task is to ensure that the throne of entitlement upon which most of us perch gives way. We cannot afford our car. We cannot afford our bi-coastal families. We cannot afford our organic pears from Chile. We cannot afford our day jobs. Our children cannot afford them. When will we get that?

When I was in high school, every so often we would call together a council of all beings. We would meet in the Rappahanok hills. After spending some time walking the forest, we each returned to the circle donning the mantle of an animal we felt needed a chance to speak to us humans. In a council of all beings, at the beginning of the circle, the animals often ranted about the changes we needed to make to ensure the healthy future of the planet. But as the sharing deepened, at least one animal, usually a large sea creature who had seen it all before, would take a different approach. The octopus or humpback would say: stop your fretting. Quiet your mind. If you want the agitation to give way to real peace, stay put in one place for a really long time. Grow to love that place and to know its lifeblood. Arrange your life so as to inflict the least harm, which includes going beyond your life to prevent the harm of others. Do this in community with those you find around you. And don’t leave anybody out. None of us.

I am trying to hear what the manatees are saying now. If we met in a council, I don’t know if I would be able to meet their gaze. I am squirming in my seat. I am not hearing properly the full message. Quiet your mind, they say. It is not as simple as cleaning up the mess BP has made. It is not even as simple as cleaning up the mess you make in your everyday first world life. The work you have now, and have always had, is to live the story your children will tell. They will walk with integrity when you show them how. Draw your actions up from the oldest well of compassion to be sure you are carried on a deeper current than that of the shame and anger pooling on the surface. Act now, but only in a sacred way, so that your life cannot separate from your action, so that you can no longer put your action down when your life gets in the way. Allow sometimes your action to be stillness. So that you can hear beyond your thoughts. Your bloodletting will not prevent ours: draw toward stillness not from your despair but from your strength. Listen from the stillness. Hear in the stillness our parting song. And make our song your own.