Tethered Hearts

“My heart is tethered to yours.”

These words were spoken at a wedding I attended last weekend. Spoken during a toast from a brother to the groom. “You are more than a brother and more than a friend,” he said. “I feel as if my heart is tethered to yours.”

What could feel more like home than this?

At the root of the American mythology of independence is the idea of the self-made person, the go-it-alone trailblazer: pioneers and mavericks. Tethered to no one and no thing.

Yet our constitution is based on the idea of civic responsibility. While we untethered ourselves from the mother country, we chose to create a set of laws that tether us, and our actions, to each other. How else could we ensure general welfare and domestic tranquility unless every citizen participates in this responsibility?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The assumption in this preamble is clear. Like it or not, we are tethered to each other.

Depending on the dictionary, tethered means to be connected, fastened, bound, or confined.

“If you love something set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” Cheesy wisdom from the ‘70s. Except that nothing is ever ours. Ownership is an illusion. But connection is not. Connection is real.

Physics tells us we share atoms. In fact, the breath you just took and exhaled will eventually end up, at some moment in time, in my lungs and in the lungs of every other person on earth. Your breath is my breath. My breath is yours.

More than that, quantum physics tells us that nothing is solid. Each of us, and everything around us, is energy. Energy has no boundaries. Boundaries are an illusion.

Buddhism teaches that the Self—as a separate and autonomous being—does not exist. Instead, we are each part of everything else in a world that is interdependent. We co-exist. We are tethered to each other and to all things.

To be tethered comes with responsibility.

When I was younger, in my 20’s and married, I had this very strong, almost visceral sense that I could float away. I needed another person (my spouse) to hold onto my string, like a balloon, to ground me. To tether me to the earth somehow. To keep me from floating up and away. This wasn’t a romantic notion. The possibility felt very dangerous and real.

My father had recently died. So many friends were dying or sick. My immediate family was small and spread across the country. Marriage provided a tethering I needed.

Roots are entangled balloon strings. Roots keep us from blowing away, from being too easily pulled up and destroyed.

In the early twentieth century, new homesteaders in the Great Plains dug up the native prairie grass to plant crops. Rows and rows of seasonal harvests created a short-lived breadbasket, replacing an estimated 35 million acres of native grasses.

In celebration of this perceived bounty, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote the musical Oklahoma!, in which the title song exclaimed,

Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain
And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.

But then the rain didn’t come. Drought came instead. Crops failed. Without the roots of native plants to hold the soil together, the soil turned to dust. And the dust took to the sky when the winds came. And the damage, terror, and pain of dust storms rocked the entire country for well over a decade, even when the rain returned.

We know we belong to the land, And the land we belong to is grand!

Have you ever tried pulling up grass? Or transplanting one plant out of a pot with many? Untangling roots is virtually impossible. If you’re not careful, if you damage a root system, you damage future life. We did that in the 1930’s. We’re still doing that today.

Roots are our home. Roots keep us grounded. Roots are a sense of community and belonging. To be tethered is to have roots. To be tethered is to know home.

A few years back, The Untethered Soul was a New York Times bestseller, with a cover featuring a beautiful horse running on a beach. The image evokes the idea of freedom, calm, and even a self-contained wildness. The general focus of the book is the idea that habitual thoughts and emotions hold us captive. If we can untether ourselves from these thoughts and emotions, we will be joyfully liberated from sorrow and discomfort. We will be free.

But sorrow and discomfort are not always pathologies. To be free of all our painful memories and uncomfortable emotions would be much like ripping up the native grasslands of our soul. We would dry out, become hollow, and wind storms of burnt possibilities would stir like tornados in our empty spaces. Because you can’t remove sorrow without also removing joy. As Kahil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, joy and sorrow are inseparable.

In the 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carey and Kate Winslet play a couple in a long-term tumultuous relationship. At a point of exasperation and deep heartbreak, they each undergo a medical procedure to erase the other from their memory. Afterwards, they meet through a chance encounter and fall in love all over again. When they discover their past, they hesitate. Neither has changed – they will certainly experience the same challenges afresh. And then… they realize they are already tethered to each other. To part again would only cause them sorrow. And there is still so much joy to be had.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” – Kahil Gibran, The Prophet

“Do you promise to love, cherish, and respect each other? To care for each other in the joys and sorrows of life, whether in good fortune or in adversity, and to share the responsibility for the growth and enrichment of your life together?”

May we always say I do. In our families, our friendships, our marriage, our communities, and in the world at large, say I do.

To be tethered is to be connected, fastened, bound, or confined.

To be tethered is to be home.

💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞 💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞 💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞💞

Photos are of Girl with Balloon by the artist Bansky. This artwork first appeared as graffiti in London and later was sold at auction for $1.4 million, after which it immediately began to shred through the frame and then stopped due to a malfunction. The partly shredded work sold last week at a new auction for $25.4 million.

The History of the U.S. and Home

“Wherever we went, the soldiers came to kill us, And it was all our own country. It was ours already when the Wasichus made the treaty with Red Cloud, that said it would be ours is long as grass should grow and water flow. That was only eight winters before, and they were chasing us now because we remembered and they forgot.”
― Black Elk

Here in the U.S., what we call home was stolen from others. Our ancestors were immigrants. The people who lived here – possibly as many as 112 million – welcomed them, taught them skills, and shared their food. Yes, they said, this is home. It can be your home too.

In exchange, they were killed, deceived, rounded up, and moved like cattle.

That’s a grim way to start a post but today is a good time to acknowledge the truth.

Today we celebrate the beginning of the greatest genocide the world has ever known. We elevate a man whose actions were considered ruthless even in his own time and make him the hero of an outdated American mythology where white Europeans are ordained by God to have dominion over the earth and all animals and people living on the earth.


We honor the indigenous people of North America. We remember the women, children, and men—sometimes complete bands—that  were slaughtered, along with the wisdom and potential that went with them. We celebrate the resiliency of those who survived. We recognize the 574 tribes of Native Americans in the United States today.

Oklahoma has the second largest population of American Indians in the country and is home to 39 tribes, only five of which are indigenous to this state. The other thirty-four tribes were forced to leave their native lands and relocate here between 1814 and 1824 under the command of Andrew Jackson.

Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and the face featured on our $20 bill, was pretty darn awful when it came to American Indians. Mostly he is known for the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced eastern tribes to move west, resulting in the Trail of Tears. There’s a lot that can be said about Jackson but the truth is that everything he did was sanctioned by the government. Treaties which stripped tribes of their lands. Military assaults that resulted in more than 25 million acres being taken from tribes and transferred to white cotton farmers.

It wasn’t enough to share this home with those who already lived here. We wanted it all to ourselves. We were civilized. We were superior.

In 1823, the Supreme Court declared Indians could live on land within the United States but could not own those lands. In other words, the “right of discovery” by white Europeans and their descendants was superior to the “right of occupancy” of those who already lived there.


Oklahoma was supposed to be the answer. Native Americans were moved here to what was called “Indian Territory” because no one thought the U.S. would grow west of the Mississippi. But then gold and oil were discovered and even the rugged rocky land of Oklahoma, originally reserved for Native Americans, became highly favored. So the reservations were largely cut up into allotments that allowed white settlers to stake a claim.

The Land Rush of 1889 resulted in approximately 50,000 people swarming Oklahoma on opening day. And those who crept into the territory early and hid in the night only to stake claim first thing in the morning, essentially stealing a leg up on others, were called Sooners. A designation that was derogatory but eventually became a point of pride.

We are a nation that is proud to have stolen homes. Proud to have broken treaties. Proud to declare ourselves better and more deserving than those who lived here before us. And anyone who comes after us.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As James Baldwin said,

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

After over 30 years of planning, funding, and defunding, the First Americans Museum has finally opened in Oklahoma City. This 175,000 square foot building sits on 40 acres of land and recognizes the 39 tribes of this state. The deputy director of the museum, Shoshana Wasserman, said, “It’s almost like this project had to go through the same historical trauma that our tribes did.”

In the early 1900s, countless Native American objects were removed from Oklahoma and placed in museums. Objects sacred to tribes and used for ceremonies were treated as curios. Some even removed from graves. Can you imagine? Really, can you imagine?

Thousands of those objects were brought to Washington DC, where they sat in storage for over a century and were never displayed. Now, more than 100 of these sacred objects have come home to Oklahoma. Currently on display at the First American Museum, they will also be used during special events and celebrations as originally intended when each piece was created so long ago.

It’s not my place to speak about the relationship between Native peoples and home. To even attempt to would be insulting.

All I know is this:

It’s way past time that we, as a country, acknowledge our past. It’s time to correct the lies we’ve been telling for over 400 years.

Before any of us called this place home, these lands were already home to tens of millions of others.

Today we remember. Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

These photos were taken in August, 1998, in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,
where the Wounded Knee Massacre happened on December 29, 1890. The second and last photos are mine.
The first photo was taken with my camera by the third child.

Disturbing Tranquility

Three weeks ago I woke up to a loud sound, like a car engine revving. No, not that. What then, was that persistent loud noise? OMG… is it… could it be? Really? Yes. It was 6:25 am and someone was using a leaf blower.

I sat up in bed and peered through the blinds but saw nothing. I waited. It didn’t stop. I went to the front door. Nope, not a neighbor. I grabbed my keys and, in only a t-shirt and boy shorts that I had slept in and with no shoes on my feet, I jumped in my car. Down the block and around the corner is a restaurant. Sure enough, there was a landscaping truck. No grass mind you, nothing to mow, but a man standing in the street blowing dirt and leaves away from the curb. At 6:30 in the morning.

I stood in front of him and waved my arms frantically until he finally looked up. Even then, it took a few seconds longer for him to turn off the machine and take a plug out of his left ear. “It’s 6:30 in the morning!” I said. “Are you crazy? This is a residential neighborhood. I live a block over and you woke me up. It’s 6:30 IN THE MORNING! Stop!! You CANNOT do this at 6:30 in the morning!”

He said nothing. Just took a small notebook out of his pocket and wrote something. “Do you need my name?” I asked. “My phone number? I’m happy to talk to your boss if you like.” He just stared at me. I stared back. Then I got in my car and went home.

Two weeks later, last Monday, it happened again, at 7:15 am.

Living in a city can mean frequent, even continuous, bombardment by noise … cars, trains, buses, pedestrians, and even ambulance sirens all tend to blend into the background. But leaf blowers are always jarring. As jarring as jackhammers.

A friend was visiting from Idaho when we heard the blower at 7:15am. Two days later, we were strolling around the gorgeous gardens of the Philbrook Museum’s 25 acres of land, enjoying the flowers, outdoor sculptures, and generally basking in peacefulness when suddenly a loud engine jolted our serenity. There it was again. Neighbors on the other side of the museum gardens were using a leaf blower. Disappointed, we walked back to the museum.

Maybe you’ve heard of forest bathing. A concept coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in the early 1980s, which has become increasingly popular as more and more of us live in urban spaces. The idea is simple: take a break and walk among trees. Bathe in silence. When you spend time in nature, you increase your well-being. Scientific studies have actually proven this.

Cities have parks for exactly this reason. Even hundreds of years ago when towns were being built, people knew that if you lived in a city, you needed parks for leisure: a place to stroll, to relax, to get away from the bustle and noise of urban life.

This is why in the 1880s, Minneapolis planned its city to have a park every six blocks. A whopping 98% of residents live within half a mile of a park. Horace Cleveland, the landscape architect of Minneapolis’ park system told the newly-formed park board:

“Look forward for a century, to the time when the city has a population of a million, and think what will be their wants. They will have wealth enough to purchase all that money can buy, but all their wealth cannot purchase a lost opportunity, or restore natural features of grandeur and beauty, which would then possess priceless value.”

Enjoying tranquility in nature is priceless. Wealth has brought us leaf blowers. A machine to do what a simple broom can do and without all the noise.

I’ve lived in cities with great parks. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Balboa Park in San Diego, and Lincoln Park in Chicago along with the lakefront and plenty of forest preserves on the city’s west side. Amazingly, Golden Gate Park has been closed to cars on Sundays for over fifty years. I love that. And I really loved that when I lived there.

Here in Tulsa, my two favorite parks are Woodward Park with its various gardens, and the new, award-winning Gathering Place. Typically, my little dog Mazie and I visit Woodward on Sunday mornings before the crowds arrive and the Gathering Place on Wednesdays, the only day that dogs are allowed.

So it happened that one Wednesday last spring, we were strolling through the kid’s playground area and, as we passed the zipline, I smelled gas. And, along with the delighted squeals of children playing, I heard music. Not live music but jazz, coming from where I couldn’t be sure.

This new, amazing park, was using a gasoline-powered generator to pipe music into the children’s play area. In addition to the health hazards and environmental damage, my mind screamed with the following thoughts:

  1. WHY?? First and foremost, WHY?? What is the purpose, the goal, the outcome expectation of having music in the children’s area? While I give them credit for playing jazz (certainly one of my favorite genres), again, WHY any music AT ALL??
  2. This is a park, for heaven’s sake. This isn’t a coffee house. Parks are designed to be tranquil and soothing for adults, while interesting and fun for kids. Music piped in through speakers is conducive to a theme park such as Disneyland maybe, but not a city park. And I suspect the designers of the Gathering Place believed this as well, which is why there are no electrical outlets for musical equipment in that area.
  3. A gasoline-powered generator? Really? In the children’s area? Who decided this was okay??

So I wrote an email to the powers that be and… the generator was moved. Though, I was told anonymously, there is always the possibility it will be used elsewhere. And sure enough, two weeks ago I found it along a walking path and above a children’s playground.

Every home with a lawn is a miniature park. Green trees and grass are the standard measure of tranquility for our homes. Our own plot of land, which requires far too much in precious water resources and constant care. Wealth moved us away from push mowers to gasoline-powered lawnmowers that are loud. But for many of us, the sound of lawnmowers seems synonymous with Saturdays.

And now we have even louder machines to blow around grass clippings. Blow them where? Into the street.

Tab Addams recently wrote a very thorough article on the My Pro Yard website in which they state, “most commonly-bought leaf blowing machines … can result in ear injury within 2 to 5 minutes of operating the unit. Moreover, the sound can travel for [approximately half a mile] with a metric of at least 55 decibels.” (bold emphasis is my own)

Yet there are actually people who find the sound of leaf blowers relaxing. Over 1,000 people have liked a YouTube video, 3 hours of Leaf Blower Sounds, which was produced from a subscriber’s request.

I associate home with quiet, which is common for many white Anglo-Saxon protestants of my age. No loud noises or raised voices. Music playing softly on the radio. (Unless, of course, you’re dancing or getting pumped up to clean!)

Then I married an Italian. Family gatherings were always loud and chaotic. My mother-in-law once responded to my distress by saying, “You know what your problem is? Your house was too quiet when you were young. Me, I would vacuum when my babies were sleeping!” A roar of affirmations rose from her kids and the memory still makes me chuckle.

For some, home doesn’t feel like home if there isn’t a cacophony of sounds. Adults talking over children squealing. Multiple conversations happening simultaneously. The news or a sports game on the TV in the background, often not even watched. Others keep on talk radio. If you grew up in the city, the sound of traffic, of cars honking, trucks passing, delivery vans beeping, and buses steaming as they stop and start are all ambient noise that is familiar and even comforting.

My house in Picabo, Idaho was far away from all of that. A niece from Chicago came to stay with me once and couldn’t sleep – it was too quiet. She’d lie awake all night and then sleep during the day.

Too much silence, if you’re not accustomed to it, can be unsettling.

Still, we need a certain amount of tranquility. Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce stress and benefit both our mental and physical health. Nature helps us relax.

One autumn many years ago, I went camping with a small circle of friends. It was a quick trip so Peggy suggested a place about an hour away from the city. All afternoon we marveled at how lovely the spot was and how convenient, saying we’d certainly have to come back again.

That evening, settled around the campfire, Peggy said, “Isn’t it amazing that we are so close to the highway and we can’t hear a thing?” For a moment we were quiet. We listened. And then, we heard the traffic. We could really hear the highway! We all burst out laughing. Well, of course! We were in a suburb of Chicago, not actually in the country.

But at least, thank goodness, nothing but the wind was blowing around leaves.

Thoughts to muse on:

Where do YOU find tranquility in nature? Is it your backyard, a favorite park, along the beach, or in a forest preserve? While fishing? Hiking? Walking your dog?

Can you feel the difference in yourself after spending time in the tranquil outdoors?

What sounds do you find most jarring – what noises destroy your serenity?

Potato Soup

I was chomping on carrots the other day – and not the baby carrots neatly trimmed to uniform size and packaged in plastic – but long irregular carrots that are slim on one end and grow to an inch thickness at the top where the greens have been sliced off. Normally I shred these for salad and give the slim ends to my pup, but in an effort to curb my appetite for cookies, I grabbed a few of these to chomp on instead.

Halfway through the second one, I realized my mouth was tired. Chewing was hard work. It wasn’t my teeth that hurt – my teeth are fine. But my jaw was exhausted.

A memory filled me with shame and remorse. If only I had understood the fatigue of chewing thirty years ago.

In 1990, my father was 56 years old – only about a year older than I am now – and I had returned to Chicago to take care of him during the last months of his life.

Every morning I prepared my father breakfast, something soft and light. Mostly he enjoyed grapefruit, sliced, with each segment carefully cut from the membrane, topped with just a bit of honey. Other times, he ate yogurt or a soft-boiled egg. Together we would drink gunpowder tea and discuss the activities for the day. What calls needed to be made, appointments to be had, errands to run, people to visit, and more. Then I would make lunch. Often in the afternoons, we took a nap. Finally, I would prepare dinner and when my stepmom returned from the office, we would eat together and share the events or our days. Then I was free to enjoy the evening on my own.

This worked well. I’ve always enjoyed cooking. Nothing fancy really, with the exception of Coq Au Vin, which honestly is pretty easy. It was my father who had taught me years earlier how to dress up Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup with canned tuna fish. Though I had certainly progressed beyond that, I still cooked fairly simple meals.

This day, I decided to make potato cheddar soup. I LOVED this recipe. Potatoes, cheese, onion, and milk – no bacon. I don’t remember exactly and sadly I no longer have the recipe. But it was easy and filled with flavor. Hugely satisfying comfort food. Cooked correctly, the potatoes were soft enough to melt in your mouth.

I was excited to share this with my father. The weather was turning cooler and soup felt warm and nurturing. My father had once regularly enjoyed seven course meals paired with wines at every course. He would return home five pounds heavier and the next morning after visiting the bathroom, be back at his normal weight. But now food was about comfort and sustenance, that’s all.

I prepared the soup with anticipation. It had been a while since I had made it and, perhaps, I was looking forward to it more than he was. Finally on the stove simmering, I left to run an errand.

When I returned and checked on the soup, I let out a shriek. “What the hell happened to the potatoes?” I screamed. In my absence, my father had pureed it. Using one of those long-nosed hand blenders, he had buzzed away until it was a cream. I was bereft. I was angry. “You destroyed it,” I wailed.

This man used to cook the most mouth-watering Beef Bourguignon. Anytime there was a turkey, he turned the carcass into a magnificent soup filled with fresh vegetables. Sure, he also ate Campbell’s, but never without adding to it and making it better. Same with macaroni and cheese. Poor food dressed up. My father knew how to cook.

So he pureed my potato soup. He knew what he was doing. He knew creamed soup would be yummy and it would also be easier for him to eat.

I understand that now. Chewing can be exhausting.

If anyone has a really great potato cheese soup recipe they can share, I’d appreciate that.

In the meantime, I’ll stick to cookies.

Photo is not mine. I pulled it from Pillsbury.com

When Place is a Verb

I don’t listen to music much on the radio anymore. Firstly, I hate commercials. They’re annoying as heck. Secondly, so much of the music today sounds the same. And that’s annoying too.

When I do want to listen to music, I pop in a CD. Yup, I still have those. Just wait – they’ll make a comeback. LPs did and they’re a whole heck of a lot larger. My car still has a CD player and I have one in my apartment as well. Course, I downsized and got rid of a bunch a few years back when I moved. Downloaded them onto my Mac, and along with years of buying music from iTunes, I accumulated a library of nearly 6,000 songs. (How can that be? But the collection does span widely across genres.) And those playlists that we now all make? I burn them to CDs.

Anyway, I did happen to flip on the radio the other day and I heard a song that struck me: Country Again by Thomas Rhett.

He talks about fishing and hunting and cracking open beers. Sitting by a fire under the moonlight. Driving a Silverado truck and wearing cowboy boots. All of this is country to him. He says he loves him some California but it sure ain’t Tennessee. All of which has me thinking…

Nashville is a pretty big city. But ok, I get what he means.

Certainly these things are a contrast to modern living, as he eludes to in the song: too much time on the phone, too many things on your plate, running around and not being present to nature and friends.

But having lived in a rural town for fourteen years and knowing a fair share of country folk, I’d say most of them are guilty of modern living too.

And I wouldn’t say fishing and hunting and fires and beers are the only ways to “be country.” Lord knows there are enough city folks who have rifles and drink beer.

I bought my first pair of Nocona cowboy boots in 1985 when I was living in San Francisco. Bought my second pair in 1990 when I was living in Chicago. I wore the heck out of those boots and many more since. But even when I lived in rural Idaho, the boots didn’t make me country.

I have a friend who was born and raised in Alaska. Got his M.B.A. at Harvard. He still hunts and fishes but he drinks more fine wine than beer. As far as I know, he’s never owned a truck. Behind one of his homes (not the one in the city), runs a creek and next to it is a regularly used bonfire ring. Is he country?

It’s interesting to refer to one’s self as a place.

Place is not a verb. And I get that in this song it’s an adjective. Still, would you ever say, It’s good to be city? It’s good to be New York? No. Maybe part of my problem with the lyrics, as catchy as they may be, is the grammar. You know those commercials I referred to earlier? Yeah, same thing. Even the electronic signs on the highway now tell me to “Drive Safe” instead of Drive Safely.

Pet peeves and grammar aside…

I’m pretty sure what Thomas Rhett is talking about is roots. Getting back to our primary nature. The person we really are, the things we love to do, the way we prefer to show up in the world.

For various reasons, we have a tendency to “try on” personalities. Sometimes to fit in, other times to find our true selves. As kids, maybe it was punk or goth or brainiac or slacker. As adults, maybe we traded in our sneakers for leather loafers. Our shorts for skirts and our t-shirts for ties.

There was a brief time when I wore gym shoes a lot. Ankle Reeboks, to be exact. Remember those – the ones that had two velcro straps at the ankle and came in red and black as well as white? Yeah, I had pair in each color. Good Lord, I shake my head to think of it. Truth is, I hate wearing athletic shoes. I have never been a jock, even if I have shoulders that make me look like a swimmer. And while yoga has been a staple of my life for decades, I don’t like wearing yoga clothes either. The casual messy look or “I just came from the gym” isn’t me.

Shortly after I moved back to Chicago from San Francisco, I was wearing loose black pants cuffed around the ankle, a black t-shirt, and black gladiator sandals in a suburban Chicago bar when a woman said to me, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I laughed. I grew up in Chicago. And honestly, I don’t think anyone in San Francisco would think I was from there either.

Three years ago when I started working in Oklahoma – first as a college administrator and then as a museum fundraiser – I was so grateful to wear suits again. I love suits, with nice shoes to match. I love blazers. I like clothing that says now I’m working.

This probably goes back to my childhood. Our roots always go back to childhood, yes?

We had a dress code in school: no jeans in grades up to 8th and if you had beltloops in your pants, you had to wear a belt. Even in high school, no shirts with any writing. Every  Sunday, even during hot and humid Michigan summers out in the country or during blizzards of snow and cold in the city, we dressed up for church. For Wednesday night services too. I didn’t wear pants to church until I was maybe fifteen. And now, while church is no longer my thing, when I do go, I still dress out of respect.

Crowds and traffic and noise, freeways, fast food, and shopping malls are abhorrent to me. I prefer dark silent nights punctuated by an occasional owl hooting or a coyote howling. I love the sound of car wheels on gravel. I’m most at home in a landscape filled with trees and rivers and streams, with wide-open fields, tractors, and barns. There’s no smell sweeter than fresh-cut hay. I like the sound of screen doors banging. My favorite clothes (when not working) are blue jeans and boots. Does that make me country?

What does it mean to be a place?

My current collection of boots, with the first pair I bought in 1985 on the far right. The photo above is the black Noconas I bought in Chicago and resoled four times over 16 years before having to admit they were shot.

What do you think? Can you relate to this Thomas Rhett song?

Are you country? Are you some other place?

The Children are Watching

I’ve been working for the United States Census Bureau this summer, interviewing home occupants for the American Housing Survey.

Occasionally, I get a person who is rude and shuts the door on me. One guy threatened to call the police, which actually is funny because I’m not soliciting – I’m with the government – and the police would tell him as much. Another said he was calling his lawyer but then ended up making me coffee. I seem to have success with folks who previously said no to another field rep. Maybe because I’m nice. Because I’m genuinely grateful for their participation. Because I really do believe that every person makes a difference. Bottom line, I enjoy this job.

Last week I was in Edmond, a suburb of Oklahoma City. While this is not where I’d want to live (for a variety of reasons), my encounters have been mostly good. I’ve seen the occasional Trump flag and many “Stand Up for America” lawn signs, which I suspect means something different to those homeowners than it does to me. I’ve also seen a number of “In this house we believe… black lives matter, science is real, love is love, etc.” lawn signs. These always make me happy. Then, yesterday morning I saw this:

I took this photo from a distance, deliberately obscuring it a bit to soften the blow. And then I watched a man drive up, park in the carport, and walk into the house with a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old. The man was probably in his 30’s.

This language, this anger, this hate. This is what that young boy is exposed to daily. Admittedly, I’ve been known to drop the F-bomb, though always for emphasis, for color, and always as an adjective. And when around children, I curb my tongue. Most responsible adults do. But to use this as a verb! That’s another thing entirely. As a verb, it is violent.

What makes a person hang a flag like this? Pro-Trump flags are one thing, but this – this is something altogether different.

This flag hurts. This flag is intended to hurt. This flag is violent.

We are already so divided. How do we come together, how do we even have a conversation when one side speaks in such language? How do we talk to someone carrying a gun in a crowd or ripping a face mask off a teacher? How are we to react to someone who screams about their rights while ignoring the rights of others?

I keep thinking about the 2001 documentary Promises  that looked at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes and lives of children – Israeli, Palestinian, and Jewish. Seven children filmed over four years who decide to meet and try to understand the other’s experience. It’s a powerful film, won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar.

Did these children affect a change in the conflict? Perhaps not. But certainly, a change happened within each of them. They are part of a generation that is changing the world. The generation that doesn’t care about gender constraints or who one loves or marries. The generation that does care about the environment and social justice.

But the little boy that I saw walk under that awful flag and into the house with the man who probably hung it… is he part of that generation? Or is he a new generation, one that will swing us backward, away from liberation, justice, and freedom? Away from love, respect, and kindness. Maybe. Maybe not.

Soon after seeing that disturbing flag, I turned a corner and saw this.

Clearly a response to the Covid19 pandemic, reminding me of the many Andra’ Tutto Bene (everything will be alright) signs throughout Italy during the Covid lockdown last spring.

Hope & Love. #AloneTogether.  If only this hashtag had caught on in the States as much as Andre Tutto Bene had in Italy.

Children are watching. They are always watching. They are sponges. They take in everything. They mimic adults – their parents first, yes, but also others.

May we each be careful with our words. Thoughtful in the things we write and in the things we say. Conscious of our actions. May we be patient, gentle, and kind, while firm in our boundaries. Love is strength. Love trumps hate. We must live in love.  As the garage door says, Hope & Love. Always have hope. Believe in love.

Because . . .

the children are watching all of us. Even when we are divided, we are still a large village raising our young.

Contemplating Suicide

On most days, Mazie and I walk along the Tulsa fairgrounds – on the sidewalk outside the western gate. At a certain point, there is a shallow ravine, a drainage ditch overflowing with tall grass. And every time we walk along this, I think of her. Lily.

I met her dad on Easter morning. He had just driven in from Colorado, pulling a trailer. Said his wife and daughter were only a short distance behind. They were renting the house across from my neighbor, John, while they looked for land to buy. A place to create a new home.

He asked me about the neighborhood. Said his wife and daughter liked to walk every day. We chatted a while and he was animated. A few hours later, I came back with freshly baked brownies. For him and his family. After that, I never saw him again. I never met Lily.

Ten weeks later, John texted me the news.

Turns out, John never saw much of this new neighbor either. They have a nice front porch with a table and chairs but never use it. The wife ventured over a few times to comment on John’s garden. His lilies were especially beautiful this year. So white. “My daughter’s name,” she said.

Lily was young and recently divorced. A few times, John said, she strummed her guitar on the porch, sitting in the chairs where her parents never sat. And sometimes he saw Lily and her mother walking. But that was it.

Then came the night with the police and the TV crew. The shoes sitting under a tree and a trail of money leading down to the ravine. No note, but she clearly wanted to be found.

My heart breaks for her parents. To lose a daughter like that. In a new place, isolated and alone.

I can’t imagine their grief.  But I can almost – just almost – imagine Lily’s.

What makes a person take their own life? And please, don’t tell me mental illness cuz honestly, I think that’s bullshit. That answer is too neat, too tidy, devoid of complexity. Depression, yes. A pain inside the chest, a darkness that never lifts, a problem that doesn’t go away, the insurmountable effort of facing another day, yes. All these things, yes. Depression is debilitating. But when we reduce all suicide to mental illness, we are lying. Every death has a story. Too often, we don’t know the story. In truth, we never know all of it.

I don’t know why the mother of my eighth-grade classmate took her life that summer. Or why Pam took hers, just weeks after having dinner in our home. A friend later did her biorhythms chart and apparently that fateful day they had been low. Did that make a difference?

Jack had AIDS. He was in great shape, buff and still healthy, but, he said, he couldn’t bear the thought of becoming weak or dying slowly. He sent a letter to his friends explaining everything and included a photo of him smiling. Then he laid down in bed and made sure that was it. For months he had planned and none of us knew.

Avi wrote a ten-page letter after it was revealed he had done something bad. Children were involved. Maybe charges would be pressed. He didn’t wait to find out. He took the tram up to the Sandia Mountains and as the sun was setting, one shot echoed. He was a warm, deep, and philosophical soul. Was he always tortured and we didn’t know? He was only twenty-seven years old.

Pam, Jack, Avi – these weren’t mental illness. And their deaths weren’t a response to bullying.

Is suicide the opposite of home or an attempt to try and find it? Feeling so far away from comfort, from peace, from a sense of safety, the endless aching, the despair. Perhaps convinced you are a burden, a mistake, and don’t deserve to be loved, to belong, to feel safe. At least in the moment knowing you are so far from it.

The truth is, there have been times when I was ready to die. To cease being alive. I don’t mean to alarm you. But maybe you’ve felt this way too?

The first time, I was grieving the death of my father. My chest felt blown apart, like swiss cheese or the way spoiled milk curdles in coffee. How easy it would be, I thought, to let the car drift, to hit the concrete median on the highway. I didn’t want to kill myself, only … I didn’t want to go on living.

Two other times, I was deep in depression. Most recently, last winter. Existential angst. Triggered, perhaps, by friends dying. Perhaps emotional fatigue. Every day took so much effort. Every day required a long nap. There’s a point when pain is numbing and in the numbness is an ache. Friends said, yes, yes, we are all hurting, and I couldn’t disagree. Pandemic and politics, we are all so exhausted. So of course, I couldn’t tell you this. I wasn’t looking for pity, or affirmations, or love. What I wanted was to close my eyes, to feel nothing, to forget.

The other time, the depression came on quickly – the swift and unforeseen swing from manic activity, years of working in HIV. I was inconsolable. I would let only my sister near me. The cliff, I said, I’m hanging by my nails from a cliff and the soil is crumbling. Clods of dirt are falling around me. It would be so easy to just let go.

And before all of this, when I was a teenager, I had a religious conviction that told me this life meant nothing. It was only the stepping stone to bliss. I wasn’t depressed, I was ready for the hereafter.

In all these times, I never considered taking my life. A desire for relief, to cease living, is not the same as contemplating suicide. I have often thought if I had a terminal illness, I wouldn’t fight it. What would you call that? Acupuncturists have told me repeatedly that I have low kidney chi, the life force energy. I was born with only a little, which, they say, explains my persistent childhood illness and my miscarriages. I don’t have enough blood. I have so very little energy. But you’d never suspect that if you knew me.

When my mom refused kidney dialysis because she also had pancreatic cancer, the hospital chaplain told me that was suicide. I told him he was wrong. Her decision was courageous. Her decision was faith. “I had a long conversation with my Lord,” she said. She was ready to go home.

I’m not sure what I’m saying.  I’m just wondering …

What does it mean to cause one’s own death?

Eating meat causes heart disease, but many of us still eat it. Over-eating and lack of exercise. Fast food and alcohol. Come on, the list goes on and on: the things we know we shouldn’t do and the things we do anyway. The things we should do and avoid.

What about not wearing a mask during a pandemic? Not getting the vaccine?

Is the right to die a civil liberty?

You can drink yourself to death but don’t drive when you’re drinking. Killing yourself shouldn’t cause another person harm. Same with smoking. You can do it at home but not in public places.

Where do we draw the line? What constitutes suicide?

Our actions have caused wildfires and flooding. We’ve changed the weather and we’re dying from the heat. Our copious consumption has depleted forests and oceans and polluted our air everywhere. The artic ice sheets are melting. Our passiveness allows corporations to poison our children. No clean drinking water in Detroit? That’s old news. Another oil spill? Old news too. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a report that is damming and well, again, we do nothing.  

Every day we are killing ourselves. We are complicit in the killing of others. The pain is overwhelming.

And then we see Afghans clamoring to leave their country in order to not die in their homes. Haitians carrying on after a catastrophic earthquake followed by Hurricane Grace. Who named that storm anyway? Was it meant to be ironic?

Then I consider the hero’s journey, which requires a transformation, a death of one life for another. At the beginning of each journey, our loved ones plea, “don’t go!” fearing for our lives. We leave anyway knowing we are already dying. We can stay and die slowly or leave. Death happens either way. Living – really living – is a perpetual act of suicide.

Every day we are dying. We must die to one life in order to live more fully in another.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”  – Seneca the Younger

Living and dying are one and the same. The yin and the yang. “To make an end is to make a beginning.”  How can we say that one person is living and another is dying?  That one is courageous and the other is not? Who are we to determine this? Who among us is living so fully and not complicit in death that they can throw the first stone? Do we package suicide as a sin, or as a result of bullying or mental illness so we don’t have to see ourselves in it?

Living and dying, it seems to me, both take courage.

Either way, courage brings us home.

What do you think?

Before & After We Marry, Part 1

Friends have asked me to officiate at their wedding in a few months. Which has me thinking again about something that is never covered in wedding planning or marriage counseling.

Actually, it’s never really discussed anywhere.

In movies, it’s portrayed as cold feet in funny scenes that typically end with realizing it wasn’t the idea of marriage that caused hesitancy but rather, marrying the wrong person. The message is always this: when you marry the right person, the only thing you feel is bliss.

And that’s hogwash.[i]

Though, to be fair, the excitement of the wedding can so overshadow all other emotions that they don’t reveal themselves until after the ceremony. Until you’re deep into the marriage. And then – especially then – the feelings get buried because, well, now you’re married. There’s a general sense that it’s too late to deal with these emotions. You’re supposed to be happily married – and if you feel anything else, then there’s something wrong with you.

This is hogwash too. Whatever we try to hide or suppress will always manifest in another way. We have to acknowledge our fears and hesitancies to keep them from over-powering us later in ways we don’t expect.

This happened to me when I turned twenty. I was living in San Francisco with roommates, far away from my parents, working several jobs, going to school, in a serious relationship, leading an important committee at church – and – I was the only one who knew my father was HIV positive. Without realizing it—or realizing it fully—I began speaking in a baby voice. A LOT. Kinda like the voice you use with dogs. Completely out of character for me. Yet, I did it all the time. Finally, after a few months, my boyfriend couldn’t take it anymore and called me out. I had some rationale for it until, with deeper probing, I realized I was freaked out about turning twenty. I already was so responsible, so mature, and such an adult. I never acted like a teenager. I never did stupid or risky things. And I wasn’t about to then. But turning twenty meant I was no longer a teenager. If I did do something stupid or if I wanted to do something dumb, I could no longer blame it on being a kid.

Getting married is similar.

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” – Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard

This didn’t happen when I got married. Partly because I had been very clear and vocal about what I expected from a marriage commitment. Though in retrospect, this was heavily influenced by the impending death of my father. It was easily a decade before I realized my expectations were an attempt to not leave behind a part of myself when my father died. Essentially, my hope was that my beloved would become a replacement for my father. Like I said, it took years before I figured this out. But I do believe that having had these serious and thoughtful conversations around expectations before we married—even without understanding the complexes under which I was operating that motivated my expectations—did help us profoundly when our marriage hit the rocks.

The thing is, after a wedding, you are really never the same. There’s no going back to who you once were. There will always be the time before you were married and the time after. Marriage is a defining line in our lives. Once we marry, a part of us is gone forever.

Maybe all you’ve ever wanted is to be married. To find that special someone, the one who completes you. To wear a ring on your hand, to be called spouse, to know that you belong to another. Maybe you have always been in relationship, for as long as you can remember, and autonomy is the last thing you desire. Maybe your life as a single person has been less than happy and you’re ready for a new identity.

But if we look at current statistics, many of us are choosing to marry later in life. We’ve been or content as single people. We have our own money, our own friends, our own property. We buy what we want and do what we want, when we want. We have a lifetime of stories, a lifetime of being ourselves.

If you’re completely honest, there are probably some parts of your autonomy that you’re going to miss. I can’t tell you what those things are – only you know. But they may have something to do with what I just mentioned.

For women, there’s also the question of your name. Will you keep your “maiden” name or take your husband’s? Yes, I put maiden in quotes because it’s an outdated concept. More and more of us are far from being maids when we marry. We’ve been out of our parent’s house for quite some time. Yet when we marry, the question of our name always comes up. It doesn’t matter how old we are, how established in our career we are, or how long we’ve been together. There is still a cultural expectation that women take their husband’s name.[ii]  If a woman decides to keep her name – the name which has defined her for decades – it will always be a question that is asked. Assumptions will be made.

All I’m saying, far less eloquently than Anatole France, is that even as we embrace our new beginning with joy, anticipation, and full-hearted celebration, it helps to recognize what we leave behind.

Marriage isn’t a fairy tale. It takes work. To make it the best it can be—and the best we can be as spouses—we need to think about, and talk about, what marriage really means to each of us. What we look forward to and what we will miss. Don’t assume your betrothed feels the same. And don’t confuse fears with desires or intentions. Be honest. Listen. Be compassionate. Honor all your feelings. Because if you don’t, I guarantee, they’ll bite you in the butt eventually.

[i] Sometimes only a good old-fashioned word will do. Hogwash. In the 15th century, this meant kitchen waste fed to domesticated animals, such as pigs; slop. By the 17th century, it also meant cheap bad wine; swill. Today it is associated with anything ridiculous: nonsense, balderdash. Balderdash! There’s another fun word! I encourage you to use hogwash or balderdash in conversation today. Just for the fun of it.

[ii] A study by Dr. Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer published in Gender Issues Journal in 2017, found that more than 70% of adults think women should change their surname when they marry men and 50% believe they should be required by law to do so. The most common reason given by folks who believe this is a belief that women should prioritize their marriage and family ahead of themselves.

What do you think?

In Before & After We Marry, Part 2, we’ll look at what it means to be a married couple and how all of this relates to home.

Seniors Leaving Home

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My friend asks me, “Is there anything you want?”

We are clearing out her mother’s home, where she lived for thirty-five years, half of that with her husband before he died. The day I arrived (flying in from Tulsa), is the day her mother left. Put on a plane, first-class, to Seattle, where a one-bedroom apartment was waiting for her in an assisted care facility.

Her mother, eighty-six years old, had been resistant to leave. Resistant to give up driving. Fearful of losing her independence. Yet clearly suffering from memory loss. The cupboards, refrigerators, and garage are all testament to shopping for what she didn’t need: endless jugs of juice, rolls of paper towels, and frozen meat.

Add that to a lifetime of things. Some of it sold, some given away, and much of it tossed. Little white tags that only sometimes represent the financial value. $150 for a rug, $1 for a vase. And what of the china? Who will take the china? Does anyone use china anymore, except those of us old enough to have inherited it?

I hear Helga’s voice on the speakerphone. She’s packing, she says, she can’t stay. She’s leaving tomorrow. “But you just got there, mommie. You’ve only been there two days.”

“I can’t afford this hotel.”

“It’s not a hotel.”

“It’s not?”

“No, mommie, you live there now.”

“How long will I stay?”

“You live there now.”

What a blessing that she likes the place. She likes the art on her walls, painted by her husband, deceased for eighteen years. Or is it eighteen days?

When my friend Teresa was moved into memory care after a lifetime in the same home where six children were born and raised, it was the same. Oh yes, the place was nice. Her bed, her quilt, the photos on the walls. But, she said, she had to leave. She had to get home to Bellevue for Joe. Joe was coming home, she said, and she needed to be there.

Except that Joe had been gone for fifteen years. She never forgot that when she lived at home. She forgot many things, but never that. There, in the house they shared for over fifty years, her husband was still with her, all around her, on the streets and in the town. But here in this new place, he wasn’t. She needed to go home for Joe.

In the end, it’s easy to let go of things. We think we want them—they’re familiar, efficient, old. But we shed these things easily, unless the people we love are inside them, like genies. Rub the arm of the old couch enough and your deceased spouse will appear. Drink tea in your mother’s favorite cup and she joins you at the table. Hold a book that was once your father’s and you can hear him tell you again of its importance.

My sister and I cleaned out the home of our great aunt when she moved to assisted living in her 90s. She had lived in the same house for seventy years. Aside from the stacks of scratch paper accumulated from decades of never throwing out a card or an empty envelope and the rolls of rubber bands that could substitute for balls if only they would bounce, her house was filled with so much history. Letters and photographs and souvenirs from traveling. Genealogy charts, and correspondence from every branch of the family going back to the previous century. Records of another era in time.

It was hard for me to let go of those things. I wanted it all. To comb through it, devour it, treasure every morsel. To honor the lives associated with each memento. But my aunt had no problem letting go. She was pleased with our delight and moved on. She relished her new adventure: a life in a new city, released from so much responsibility, the keeper of family history. Now she was the treasure, and we treated her as such.

Tucked in a closet we found the framed college diplomas of my friend and her sister. Large diplomas, large frames. Neither daughter had lived in this house and yet there they were, ready to be hung. Obviously moved from their parent’s previous residence on the other side of the country, almost four decades ago. Neither daughter knew what to do with them now. In the end, they were kept. Shipped to the sister and packed for my friend.

We expect our parents to hold onto our childhoods for us, to bear the burden of storing the special artifacts of our youth. Not that we ever really want these things again. The things we want, we’ve already taken. But files of our kindergarten art and grade school report cards, trophies from intramural teams, and the sticky faded albums of photos remind us of who we once were: new little people filled with possibility.

When our mothers keep these things, we are affirmed that we are special. We were loved and treasured.

We need to relieve our elders of carrying these reminders. We are the elders now. It’s up to us to keep the stuff or let it go.

Our parents may be more willing to move on than we know.

We fret over their loss of memory yet it doesn’t seem to bother them as much as it does us. They have all the memories they need. Forgetting to take their pills is the least of their worries. What they desire is to be young again and free, the way they remember themselves to be. And most material things only weigh them down.

In the time they have left, may we give them the peace of their own memories, whatever those may be. In whatever ways we can, may we help them shed the shell, the weight, the things they no longer need.

My great aunt Ella at 99 years of age. She lived until 100 and a half. And the home she lived in for over seventy years.

What about you? Have you had to place a parent or beloved elder in assisted care? Have you had to sort through their lifetime of things and decide what to keep and what to give away? How was that for you? How was it for them?

Peter Rabbit, Imagination, and Our Sensory Love of Home

Today is the birthday of Beatrix Potter, whose beautifully illustrated stories of small animals found in gardens and woods made her one of the best-selling children’s authors of all time. She is, of course, most famously known for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her very first book, but this is just one of the many books she authored, all drawing from her imagination and experiences as a child.

It’s hard to say if Beatrix’s childhood was unusual. Born during the Victorian Age when well-to-do families (such as hers) always had a governess who raised the children in separate quarters away from their parents, her young years were spent largely alone. But time alone is not necessarily lonely if we have our imagination to keep us company.

Beatrix’s governess was a young woman from the Scottish Highlands who believed in witches and fairies. Alone together for six years (before her brother was born), they shared their own apartments on the third floor of the family house in London, leaving only for walks in the park, to say goodnight to her parents, or on special occasions. Think of it: her primary influence as a young child was a woman who told tales of magic and wonder.

When her brother was born, he joined them in the third-floor nursery and together the two children acquired a menagerie of small animals including frogs, lizards, newts, salamanders, a snake, a tortoise, and a dormouse. She continued to spend all her time in the third-floor apartments until she was well into her teen years, with her younger brother and governess as her sole companions.

But in the summer, when Beatrix was between the ages of five and fifteen, the family vacationed in Perthshire, Scotland with family and friends and Beatrix was set loose to enjoy the magic of the outdoors. Here, the children played in the woods and along the wide beaches by the river while the adults fished for salmon and hunted deer.

Scotland was a treasure trove for her young imagination: a wild and enchanting place in a big wide world so vastly different from her London home. In Scotland, the stories of her governess, Aesop’s Fables, and all the fairy tales came to life. In this landscape, Beatrix found her greatest inspiration for her own stories.

In her thirty’s, Beatrix self-published her first book based on a story and illustrations she had created for her former governess’s children. She went on to publish 23 books in all, the profit from which made her quite wealthy.

When she was 37, she purchased a working farm in the English Lake District. As time went on, she purchased more farms, all with the intent to keep the land from being developed. When she passed in 1943, she left over 4,000 acres of land, including fourteen farms and many herds of cattle and sheep, to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Today that land is still preserved and home to an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population of Herdwick sheep.

With so much of her childhood spent in her imagination and in camaraderie with animals, as well as the most special times of her youth spent in nature, it is not surprising she chose to spend her adult life in the Lake District, purchasing working farms, raising sheep, and preserving land. The sensory experiences of her childhood had been imprinted on her and would forever feel like home.

The solitary circumstances of Potter’s childhood proved to be fertile ground for connecting with nature and creating magical relationships with animals. Her senses were nurtured and heightened by exploring uninhabited spaces and befriending small creatures. The energy of these places and beings ignited her imagination and became the fuel for her work, art, and passions throughout her long life.

Our senses are our first connection to home and they are never so acute as they are in childhood. Taste, smell, vision, hearing, and touch are all brand new and vivid. Each sense is super-charged. As the years go on, we tend to favor one or two senses more than others. As children, however, we use all our senses to learn something new and to understand the world around us.

A child senses a place. As children, our extrasensory perception is as strong as our other senses, telling us things not found in the other senses alone. Children experience their environment on a gut level and cannot easily articulate this knowing, yet this knowing becomes imprinted deep within our cells.

Memories of scents, sounds, and tastes return us to our childhoods and evoke a strong emotional bond. As a child, attachment to home begins with the senses. As adults, when our senses are triggered by the same—or similar—stimuli of our childhood, our attachment to that place is reinforced.

Imagination, even if it is not as strong or vivid as Beatrix Potter’s, can be the glue that binds us to our childhood home. Never is our ability to create mental images and scenarios stronger than it is in childhood. This imagination is a result of wonder and innocence, an innocence that is only available to us as children. As our childhood innocence is lost, so too is our wonder of the simplest things. John O’Donohue writes:

Childhood is an absolute treasure house of imagination. It is the forest of first encounters to which we can never again return. . . .  Never again do we experience so directly and powerfully the surprise and the fresh tang of novelty. The forest of childhood is also the territory where our dreams, imagination, and images were first seeded. So much happened to us there under the canopy of innocence. It was only later that we could notice that the shadows were present too. The memory of childhood is so rich that it takes a lifetime to unpack. Again and again, we remember certain scenes, not always the most dramatic, and gradually come to a kind of self-understanding.

O’Donohue, John. Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Yearning to Belong. New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999. Page 33

Over and over again we can be transported back to childhood, reminded of something we thought was forgotten or which has never left our memory only to understand it anew. And with each memory, we come to understand ourselves better, as if looking outside of ourselves at another. When we embrace those memories as reflections of ourselves and integrate them into our adult understanding, we are often able to find our way home.

Today, may you celebrate the spark of Beatrix Potter that still lives inside you: the child you once were and the child you may not have been for as long as you would have liked. This child is still there, filled with imagination who delights with wonder and giggles with joy at the smallest of things. May that child be with you today. See with those eyes. Listen to that voice.

And if a bunny crosses your path, talk to it. Who knows? It just might be Peter.

Original drawing by Beatrix Potter for The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Belonging, Part 2: my Story

My own story of belonging is both different from and similar to Brené’s.

Sure, school was sometimes a challenge. In the early years because I knew Santa Claus was based on the historical St. Nick, and, I suppose, because I felt obliged to tell the other kids. I thought they would thank me. They didn’t.

That same quirk in my personality is probably why classmates started calling me Professor in 5th grade.

By then, my parents had divorced and 5th grade meant a new school on the opposite side of Chicago. The first week was rough. I didn’t fit in. The kids made fun of me. So, after crying my eyes out at the end of each day, I figured I really only had one option: use my oddity as an advantage. If I couldn’t be like the others, I might as well really stand out.

In this regard, my father was my role model. He enjoyed standing out. He wore bow ties and a clerical collar. He skipped down the street holding my hand. He read poetry while waiting at doctor’s offices and would recite it from memory. He was a little guy with a big personality. He was filled with trivia that was actually interesting and not inane. People mostly loved my dad. They enjoyed his oddness, his booming laugh, and his penchant for turning conversations into an amusing and enlightening exchange. Being like him was a good thing.

The only place this worked against me was at home. By the time I was a teenager, my mother and sister would often say, “You’re so much like your father.” I knew that wasn’t a compliment. And it’s probably, in part, what drew me closer to him. He was an oddball and so was I. We understood each other.

But like Brené, my sense of security was a little turned inside out when my parents fought and divorced. I aligned myself with my father while living with my mother. I knew they both loved me but had a sneaking suspicion that my mother loved me conditionally, while my father loved me no matter what. Since my father was an extrovert and his world seemed larger than my mother’s, it took decades before I understood that I had sacrificed my individuality for the safety of being like him. Being like him assured me that I belonged.

It wasn’t until my father died of AIDS in 1990, that I truly felt I belonged somewhere outside of with my father. And yet, my father was the catalyst. Now I was part of a community of people with HIV, their caregivers, and friends. We were all on the front lines: whether in our homes, in community agencies, or in hospitals. We were bonded by our battle, connected in our grief. Mainstream society shunned us. We were outcasts. But together, we were family. With each other, we belonged.

The friends I made during those years are still some of my dearest friends today. We are our own minyan. Almost 30 years later, we are still a special kind of family.

That’s the thing with family – there is always a bond. Even when estranged, family is an identity we can’t shake. Family is our origin story. Every other story of our lives builds on this one. No biography is complete without it.

And then, if we’re lucky, we have several families. The one we grew up with, the ones we created, and the ones in which we were adopted.

As I’ve said before, I loved the Wood River Valley in Idaho and I loved my home in Picabo. But I never felt like I fit in with the people there. I didn’t dress like them and I didn’t share their interests. If it wasn’t for my boyfriend at the time and his mother and family who accepted me, I probably would have left long before I did. Because of them, I’ll always have a home there. But being loved by people doesn’t always mean you belong to a place.

At a certain point in my adult life – I can’t remember exactly when – my sister told me that I was using my identity as an outsider as a crutch. This revelation was a shock and I didn’t want to believe her. But she was right. The coping mechanism I had learned as a kid was hurting me as an adult. I didn’t need to be the oddball. I didn’t need to be so unique.

So I went through a phase of wearing pearl earrings and neutral colors. That wasn’t me either. The point wasn’t to blend in but rather to stop making myself stand out.

The truth is, I can be a bit of a chameleon. I know a little about a lot of things, enough to hold conversations with a diverse population. And it’s been said that Pisces always have a large closet. That’s me. Clothes for every occasion and every aspect of my personality.

I’m not a people pleaser and I don’t need people to like me, but I have always wanted others to feel at ease. So I would adapt myself. But that, in itself, was damaging. I lost my boundaries.

I’ve finally learned that I don’t need to make myself small. For some folks, I’m just too much. Too enthusiastic, too idealistic, too outspoken, too smart, too emotional. They want me to tone it down. Decades of professional evaluations where I was praised for my work but then told I needed to not be so ….  so. . . me.  I’m done with that. I’m done with others projecting their insecurities and complexes onto me.

I like who I am. And I am not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s okay. My dog likes me. I’m no longer a replica of my father, but I’m still unique. And in other ways, quite boring.

Today I am clear that the people with whom I belong are the ones that accept me as I am.

But the first long step to understanding this had to come from within. I had to discern my identity versus who I wanted to be or who others expected me to be. I had to separate my past and reevaluate my origin story and release my fabrications of what that story meant and what I expected from my family. I had to clarify what I wanted from relationships: romantic, friends, and colleagues. I had to create boundaries of acceptable behavior in order for me to stop changing colors and adapting to others.

And now I’m never quite sure if I belong anywhere. Except that I have family. Several families. And friends who love me.

Robert Frost wrote, “Home is where you go and they have to take you in.” Ultimately, this is where I belong: with those who will always take me in because they love me, because in one way or another, we are family.

My Community Response family (serving people with HIV) in 1993, with my siblings in 1986, and with my father in 1983 (on Halloween).


Listen for free!

We all have a need to belong.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belonging is smack in the middle of the pyramid, right there with love. This is not to say the two are synonymous. You can certainly feel loved (by your family, a special someone, or a group) and simultaneously feel like you don’t quite fit. Yet feeling loved and feeling like you belong are key components to home, to feeling at home.

Brené Brown has spent her career researching belonging and vulnerability. In Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging, she discusses these topics in depth and reveals one personal experience that she feels is the origin of her life-long sense of not belonging anywhere, to any particular group. In this memory, she was only thirteen years old and failed to get picked as a Bearkadette (a kind of cheerleader) at her new school. Now, Brené had wanted this dearly, if not desperately, and the whole family was waiting for the news. When she didn’t make the team, her parents said nothing, nothing at all. She deduced, “They were ashamed of me and for me. My dad had been captain of the football team. My mom had been head of her drill team. I was nothing. My parents, especially my father, valued being cool and fitting in above all else. I was not cool. I didn’t fit in. And now, for the first time, I didn’t belong to my family either.”

It’s worth noting that at the time of this incident, Brené’s parents were fighting terribly, trying to save their marriage. Their own sense of security was in jeopardy. When a parent is hurting emotionally, it can be extremely challenging to respond to their child’s needs. Her parents were doing their best. At that moment, however, they were unable to respond compassionately to their child’s disappointment and this severely impacted her.

As a result, she never again tried out for anything. Instead, she “got really good at fitting in by doing whatever it took to feel like I was wanted and a part of something.” She also began acting out in ways that were harmful to herself. As a young child dealing with uncertainty and with parents who were unable to attend to her emotional needs at that time, she did what she could —all that she could—to manage some control over her situation.

Maslow notes that safety is the most basic need for children, far stronger than the need for independence and growth. A healthy child in pre-teen and teen years is learning to differentiate themselves from others and trying new things. But if a child doesn’t feel safe, their emotional growth will suffer. They will try to make themselves safe and, in doing so, their world will shrink instead of expand.

Brené’s story is a common example of a child surrendering their childhood in an effort to attend to the needs that the parents are unable to meet. Maslow writes, “The primal choice, the fork in the road, then, is between others’ and one’s own self. If the only way to maintain the self is to lose others, then the ordinary child will give up the self. . . If adults force this choice [upon the child, either directly or indirectly] … the child must choose safety even at the cost of giving up self and growth.”[i]

Brené discovered her way of fabricating safety in the midst of domestic chaos was to rely on research and data. As the oldest of four siblings, she was the one the others turned to when their parents were fighting. She would use her “newly formed fitting-in superpowers to identify what had led to the fighting, so [she] could concoct elaborate interventions to ‘make things better.”

Without a parent or another adult to soothe her fears and allow her to express the reasonable reaction of vulnerability, she steeled herself with new skills in an attempt to control her environment. By recognizing patterns of behavior in others, she learned to become a chameleon, which avoided any conflict. The result, as Maslow would have foretold, is that she surrendered herself for the sake of safety. She became lost—a stranger to herself. This led to years of destructive behavior until she met the man who would later become her husband. His acceptance of her, in all her human messiness, provided her emotional safety and shelter. His unselfish love—an unconditional love—assisted in developing her sense of worth and claiming her own voice and vulnerability, which has fueled her professional research and been shared with millions of people who can readily relate.

While this was not the ideal experience, by any means, her parents had always attended to her primary needs of shelter, safety, love and esteem. Only in the midst of marital strife that was occurring simultaneously with their daughter’s awkward time of adolescence — amplified by moving to a new school again — did they fall short enough to impact Brené’s trajectory into adulthood. Yet, she still played an important role in the family structure (being the one her siblings turned to), and, from years of experience before this incident, she also knew that her parents loved her. So while it wasn’t the kind of belonging that she hoped for – a need for belonging certainly amplified by her age of wanting to fit in at a new school – there was still a strong sense of worth and value that she added to her family unit.

Many of us can relate to Brené’s experience. Our parents are never perfect. They are regular people dealing with adult problems. As we were growing up, it’s pretty much inevitable that there would be a time when we felt our parents didn’t respond to us the way we would have liked. The bigger factor is whether this was the norm or an exception. Did our parents consistently provide for all or most of our needs?

When we are young, it is the responsibility of our parents to provide us with home – and that means the first four levels listed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and shelter, safety, love, a sense of belonging, and self-worth.

When one primary need is not met, we are often handicapped in having other subsequent needs met.

Children who are homeless or who experience food and/or housing insecurity, are unable to feel completely safe. Children who do have a home and enough food to eat but fear their own safety due to violence or abuse inside the home often struggle with feeling loved and valuing their worth.

However, research shows that our needs may not require fulfillment in the order Maslow describes. It’s possible for a child to feel loved, or to feel safe within the protection of parental love, even when physiological needs (such as housing and food) are not consistently met. Yet housing, food, and safety are the first things, the most basic things, we expect from home.

And – we also expect home to be the place where we experience love and belonging. Ideally, we receive this from our parents. But sometimes we don’t. Sometimes our parents are not equipped to provide us with the love we need – the love that leads to a sense of belonging – because they, themselves, are hurting and lacking. This is often how we find home elsewhere: in AA, in church, or in any other community that shares our interests. The TV series, Pose, (three seasons on FX and Netflix), is a great example of finding and creating home outside of our family of origin.

We all need a home that is safe, a place where we are loved, a place where we belong. This home contains our family, whether biological or chosen. Here, with them, we are not alone. We may argue, disagree, and fight, yet we are cared for, we are protected, we feel loved. How often I’ve heard someone say their family is crazy and then added, “but they’re my kind of crazy.” Or even simply, “but they’re my family.”

Home is not always a physical place but a place of the heart. Home is where we belong.

Where is your home of the heart? Where do you belong? Is it with your family of origin? In a community? With people you have chosen? And even within that family or community, have there been times when you felt like the others didn’t get you, where you didn’t fit in?

My friend, Ruth Frost, refers to families we choose as “families of the heart.” You can find her new book, Home with Heart: Turning Living Spaces into Loving Places at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.

[i] Maslow, Abraham H. Towards a Psychology of Being, Third Edition. John Wiley & Sons, 1999., p 61.

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