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 a recent seed circle
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.

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?
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?

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.