Ashes – A Poem

Photo by Andy LeSavage

I grab the damp sponge to wipe up the black soot that has blown in on my window sills
I stop in mid-reach
Whose lives have arrived with the thick smoke from 50 miles away

This fine dust
Made of the ordinary and the treasured heirloom
Tomorrow’s to-do list
An aged letter from an ancestor
The walls of a home
A favorite book
A favorite person suddenly cremated at 1 a.m.

I close the windows to minimize the thick smoke creeping into the house
I stare again at the ash and put down the sponge
Instead I wipe away tears for the thousands of neighbors who have arrived in the wind

Donations to help the Sonoma County community recover from the fires can be made through North Bay Fire Relief, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union and the Press Democrat, or through the Resilience Fund of Community Foundation Sonoma County.

Total Solar Eclipse in Oregon

Wonder. Awe. That was the experience of watching the solar eclipse. Words rarely fail me but this one is a challenge to describe.

My sister, our friend and I took in this extraordinary event from the deck of my sister’s house overlooking the forest. We stared through our eclipse glasses at an image of a diminishing orange orb surrounded by absolute blackness, and alternated with taking the glasses off to watch the changing light around us. We wondered what behavior we’d see from the birds that ignored us during their repeated trips to the feeders—hairy woodpeckers, hummingbirds, juncos, red-breasted nuthatches, Steller’s jays, chestnut-backed chickadees.


Red-breasted nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatch


Hairy woodpecker


Steller’s jay


Chestnut-backed chickadee

In the beginning, there was no obvious change in the landscape. But what a show unfolded above us, as the curve of the moon’s shadow began to make its way across the face of the sun, a barely visible spot that we watched gradually reach totality in a little more than an hour. The image reminded me of a harvest moon with its amber color through my glasses. Except the expanding crescent shape looked nothing like the moon.

The temperature dropped and a breeze picked up. The shadows around us grew longer. We were astonished as all around us, countless crescent shapes of light shone on the wood grain of the deck, juxtaposed against the shadows of the leaves.


A chair made of simple beige and gold lined fabric became the sun’s canvas for a work of art.

The light continued to fade. It was unlike any light we had ever seen, not at all like dusk. The birds fell silent.

Then… the lines! Shadow bands raced across the ground. And the light suddenly vanished.

We took off our eclipse glasses and stared at the dark image and the corona shining around it, listening to essentially the whole town of Corvallis cheering along with us. How could we not?

As the moon’s shadow moved, a bright flash like a strobe pierced the sky as the first sunlight returned. Over a bit more than an hour, we watched the sun come back. The birds sang again and eventually the crescent shapes disappeared.

It left us breathless. We agreed there really are no words to genuinely describe the experience. Everyone who shared it that I’ve spoken with has said the same. Millions of people on our small planet twirling in the universe, unified in amazement.

Watch a 30-second timelapse video of the eclipse in Corvallis, from the Washington Post/Reuters.

Let the Beauty We Love Be What We Do

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. – Rumi, 13th century

I stopped when the coyote and I met eyes, I descending the Marin Headlands trail and she standing a couple hundred yards away down the hill. For the next few minutes we meandered in the same direction across the landscape, with me stopping to let her move on unhurried before we would cross paths again. When I started my car to head home, she emerged once more. I cut the engine and watched as she spotted a gopher, got into position, pounced, stuck her nose in the hole when she missed, and eventually moved off.

It’s easy to forget how much beauty surrounds me when my mind spirals downward. I recommit myself to draw inspiration from nature and continue working on bettering both myself and the world that I’m a part of.

This photo of a coyote was taken by Len Blumin and is shared here with permission. You can see more of his stunning wildlife photography at his Flickr photostream.

Outer and Inner Journeys for Change

gg-bridge-wristband-smallAs an activist, there were many options for events in my community that responded to the installation of the president, coinciding with others across the planet where people were standing up for a kind and just world. I planned my day to begin with public action and to close with private reflection.

My friend Neal and I capitalized on the publicity that comes from being atop a global icon—the Golden Gate Bridge. A group called Bridge Together Golden Gate organized a human chain emphasizing love and compassion over hate and fear. With a permit for a peaceful demonstration, thousands of us came to join hands along the walkway. We draped ourselves in purple, a color symbolizing opposition to bullying.

peaceful-patriot-on-gg-bridge-1-20-17-smallA peaceful patriot

As evidenced by the many tourists who flock to the bridge with their daydreams of warm, sunny California and end up shivering even on sunny days, the Golden Gate Bridge is rarely a place for a balmy stroll. It’s the edge of the continent. You have to be committed to head out on the span and stand around for a couple hours when it’s 50 degrees during one of the rainiest Januarys on record. So it was impressive that 3,500 people showed up.

I bundled up in longjohns, a fleece jacket, two hats, and raingear. Over all that I draped my purple thrift store finds, a couple of scarves and an oversized sports jersey that would fit over everything.

neal-and-beverly-at-gg-bridge-demonstration-1-20-17-small
With my friend Neal—no, I didn’t gain weight, just covered in many layers

It was inspiring to be around so many positive-minded people standing together in a message of unity, an energizing way to begin the first day of being part of the resistance.

gg-bridge-purple-brigade-1-20-17-smallReadying to join hands during a welcome break in the rain

Afterwards, recognizing the importance of building my inner strength for the long haul of the next few years, I attended Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s Inauguration Day Community Gathering in the evening. Making the transition from activity to contemplation, I got there early to savor the quiet before others arrived.

spirit-rock-community-hall-1-20-17-smallspirit-rock-buddha-statue-1-20-17-smallMore than 300 of us came together at Spirit Rock. Listening to several Buddhist teachers and singing together helped me ground in the dharma. Early in the evening, we were asked if anyone wanted to share why they came. I shocked myself as I discovered I felt none of my usual discomfort with public speaking before strangers, raised my hand, and took the microphone.

I said something along the lines of: “I am here because to be an effective activist, I need to take care of my inner life as well as my outer one. I know how important it is to keep my heart open, and I want to make sure I remember that there is no us vs. them—there is only us.” From the murmurs in response, I apparently touched a chord for others.

The teachers emphasized drawing from mindfulness and compassion while embracing being outraged or heartbroken, resolving to act in the face of injustice and environmental threats while continuing to embrace joy and beauty in the world. During our periods of meditation, I closed my eyes and settled into the silence.

The essential elements for moving forward are clear. Combining mindful action with the space for reflection. Being part of a movement, and rooting in the earth alone on a trail. Drawing on the energy and power from working with others across the spectrum of diverse humanity, and finding a quiet time to retreat and restore. Remembering, again and again, that there is no us vs. them—there is only us.

I’ve taken my first steps, and I’m committing to the unfolding journey.

spirit-rock-wall-painting-of-buddhas-1-20-17-small

From Charleston to Castro Street

Glide Description-Unconditionally

Glide, Unconditionally

Last week, I filed silently into Glide Memorial Church on an evening after work. Inside the church sanctuary and adjacent to the entrance, I walked past the memorial posters with photos and names—Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. Their faces were spread across the first pew, reserved entirely for them.

I found a spot in the middle of the many rows and took my seat. I looked around at the rainbow spectrum of people surrounding me. Eventually there were more than 350 of us. We had come to honor the nine people murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, targeted because they were African American. I guessed that others there were like me, not knowing any of the dead personally. Yet we had all come to honor them as our kin.

Waiting quietly for the vigil to begin, I felt immediately at home despite typically having no connection to churches. Fifty feet above me were timbers installed in 1929 and painted with pastel flowers. The stained glass windows featured flowing patterns in bright greens, blues, reds. Banners hung around the perimeter. “We are all precious and accepted.” “Justice.” “Liberation.”

My tears started with the first words from the man who began the ceremony. Wearing a tee shirt emblazoned “Love Heals,” he told us, “We did not come here to tear down—we came here to lift people up. Thank you for your head and your heart. We will not break up. We will put together.” He read a powerful poem about his personal experience as an African American and concluded by leading us all in a chant, “Black lives matter.”

One by one, individuals stepped up to the altar to light a candle. Nine times, a flame was lit in tall green cylinders set on a bright green tapestry with two large red hearts. After each one, a speaker picked up a poster and showed us the photo while reading about the person whose life was taken. Between the readings, we all paused in silence to the chime of a metal singing bowl, reminiscent of the Buddhist retreats I have attended.

At tables around the church were Action Stations—places to share condolences with the Emanuel African Methodist Church, write letters to the South Carolina legislature to remove the Confederate flag, create a patch for a quilt of comfort and solidarity, take signs of protest and hope to share, record a video of what needed to be said, and a brainstorming list of “pathways/future actions to challenge racist structures and systems.”

Grief was just the first step. As the evening’s printed program said, it was a time to remember and a time to act.

______

The following morning, when the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was announced early in the day West Coast time, the Bay Area community exploded in jubilation.

Just minutes after I awakened, horns were honking around town, even the boats in the harbor. At work, we cried and laughed and hugged each other. On the eve of Pride weekend, people flocked to San Francisco City Hall and Castro Street in spontaneous parties. Everywhere there was a celebration, whether it was at someone’s desk or filling the street. We smiled and greeted strangers, with a tangible flood of joy for the whole weekend.

On an ordinary weekday afterward, I found myself drawn to a personal pilgrimage alone, to express my gratitude more privately.

In the 1970s, 575 Castro Street in San Francisco was Harvey Milk’s photography shop and LGBT activist hub. It was the center for launching the campaign of the nation’s first openly gay man elected to prominent public office as well as a national movement—and the epicenter for events that ultimately led to Harvey’s assassination.

For the first time after decades living in the area, I visited the former camera store. Although it’s been nearly 37 years since Harvey’s death and Castro Camera is long gone, I needed to come here to honor his memory and the success he helped create. Today, the building is the home of the Human Rights Campaign Action Center and Store.

Harvey Milk-575 Castro Street door signSign on the front door of 575 Castro Street honoring Harvey Milk

Inside, among the clothing and mugs for sale, Harvey’s spirit was celebrated in photos and videos. On the wall was the quote that showed he knew what he was risking: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.”

It didn’t feel right to leave without buying something to further the cause. I left with a small rainbow pin for the bulletin board at my desk.

Standing on busy Castro Street outside, I said a silent thank you to Harvey. No candles, poems, or chimes this time. Just the tears.

A rainbow pin now prompts me to remember what one woman shared during the Glide vigil. “Love is more powerful than hate. We can overcome. We have practiced over decades radical acceptance. We are the hope. We must continue.”

Learn about the important work of Glide and the Human Rights Campaign.

UPDATE:  I shared this post with Glide to express my appreciation, and they added it to the Glide blog. I am deeply honored.

Broken

Broken ankle treatment summary 1-2015

Last month, lost in thought about being late and rushing to meet my Buddhism and diversity mentor for a conversation over dinner, I was not paying attention to where I was walking. I stepped on the edge of the sidewalk where it met dirt, and down I went with all my weight on my left ankle. I sat up on the sidewalk and as I steadied myself, I figured I had a bad sprain.

Throughout the evening, multiple people kindly offered to help me. Two employees at a restaurant who had seen me through the window came flying out the door, helped me up and supported me so I could get inside and sit down. I discovered I could put some weight on my foot but bending my ankle was not a good idea.

Someone brought me an icepack. I didn’t have my mentor’s phone number with me, and someone looked up the number of the restaurant where she was meeting me so I could leave her a message. While I had my leg propped up, another person introduced himself as a paramedic and checked to see if I had normal sensation and movement in my toes. My mentor came to pick me up and was ready to take me to the emergency room, the obvious and inevitable destination. She graciously accommodated me when I realized that since I wasn’t particularly in pain sitting down, we could still have our dinner first.

At the emergency room, an efficient and compassionate medical team took x-rays, weaving me into the evening’s schedule of patients and attentive to us all. I was lying face down for the technician who was holding my lower leg up at a right angle and putting a brace on, so I couldn’t see the face of the doctor when he came back in. He touched me on the shoulder and gently said: “You broke it. I’m sorry.” The brace turned out to be a temporary cast, and the doctor gave me crutches and the phone number of the orthopedist to call in the morning.

I fell asleep that night with a deep sense of gratitude for everyone who had helped me.

________

The next morning I read the news of the attack at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, stunned and horrified along with countless others across the world. I know such atrocities are not new, but there was something about the juxtaposition of strangers being kind to me after my injury along with this violent incident that broke through my daily routine. I’ve been pondering the complexities of the human species—capable of both so much kindness and so much brutality.

What creates such broken people? We all come out of the womb as inquisitive beings with a capacity to love.

A few weeks ago, I watched a talk by Angela Davis. When she said she wondered what kinds of awful things had happened to these individuals to make them evolve into the killers they had become, she verbalized what I and I’m sure many others had been thinking.

Of course anthropologists and sociologists have been studying such things for years and certainly I don’t have the magic answer for what promotes peaceful behavior. What I do know is what the answer is not—the prejudice that paints whole ethnicities, countries of origin and religions as evil and then creates a world of oppressive structures resulting in poverty and a lack of liberty, an environment where resentment and hate can thrive. What I do know is that the world has too many have-nots, and to plant seeds that will sprout as love and not hate requires making the ground fertile for justice and equality.

What had prompted me to schedule my dinner with my mentor, and made me resolve to continue with our conversation instead of going directly to the emergency room, was that I wanted her advice about how I as a white and privileged individual could best be an ally to create peaceful change and opportunities for all. The subsequent events in Paris have highlighted the importance of becoming my best self to help create a world where others may become theirs, to have the opportunities to become the people who would choose to help a stranger with a broken foot instead of reaching for a gun.

I take my cue from Angela Davis who gave a speech remembering the victims of the Paris attack. “Let us find ways of mourning them that are liberating from the impulses of revenge and retribution so that we can ask ourselves how we can begin to move toward justice as a transformation of the relations that bind us all together.”

Music as a Second Language

“I try to sing the way I sing in my kitchen, because I just can’t help myself. I want audiences to leave the theater and sing in their own kitchens the next morning. I want to invite people into the incredible feeling of joy and freedom I get when I sing.”
– Bobby McFerrin

I was blessed to grow up in a musical household where I learned to sing like I learned to talk. From my mother’s vocals and piano playing to the recordings that ranged from symphonies to jazz, music filled my childhood. I was particularly moved by the songs of George and Ira Gershwin written before I was born. I memorized Our Love is Here to Stay listening to Ella Fitzgerald, and Barbra Streisand taught me Someone to Watch Over Me. My mother carried the melodies and I sang the harmonies.

Gene Kelly brought the music to life with the 1951 film shaped around George Gershwin’s symphonic poem American in Paris. I was captivated by the snappy choreography, and I loved the extended ballet at the end. I listened to the record of the symphonic piece over and over.

And so music embedded itself into who I am.

_________

Journal Excerpt – December 31, 1992

I was joined yesterday by 1,000 others in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where Bobby McFerrin and the 18 members of Voicestra led a 24-hour continuous nondenominational event, “Singing for Your Life, a unique vocal vigil for healing, inspiration, and renewal.” The first evening I spent four hours listening to the spontaneous melodies, walking the labyrinth, meditating. During a particularly hypnotic chant, McFerrin stepped out of leading the circle of singers around him and picked up his toddler daughter, holding her and including her, giving her the physical embrace that he was giving each of us musically.

I returned tonight for the final two and a half hours on the final day of the year. Individual members of Voicestra had taken shifts leading anyone who wanted to join the improvised ongoing vocals. McFerrin himself stepped back in for the last couple hours. In the packed church, about 150 of us stood on the altar in a circle as McFerrin led us through four- and five-part textures from gospel rhythms to mesmerizing chants to jazz. A lot of us were in tears when we finished, privileged to be part of a celebration of joy, strength, creativity and empowerment.

_________

Last week after a gap of 22 years, I attended my next Bobby McFerrin performance, this time with the San Francisco Symphony. The all-Gershwin program included McFerrin conducting An American in Paris, weaving jazz vocals with the symphony for Rhapsody in Blue, and finishing with just McFerrin and his instrumental trio performing songs from Porgy and Bess.

The live notes moved me in a way that bypassed words, tapped into the stream of music that my life flows with. Tears filled my eyes hearing the strains that I’ve known for as long as I can remember.

In the final part of the evening, McFerrin led a couple thousand unknown people in song. There is an intimacy found in singing together that transcends the setting, whether it’s a living room or a concert hall. Afterward, we found ourselves in friendly, spontaneous conversations with people we had never met.

It feels awkward now to write about an experience and a feeling that are inherently nonverbal. Just as he does in person, Bobby McFerrin brings the intangible to life on his website: “Listening to Bobby McFerrin sing may include unparalleled joy, a new perspective on creativity, rejection of the predictable, and a sudden, irreversible urge to lead a more spontaneous existence.”

Tonight, after a long hiatus I reach for my dulcimer, sing a song that I wrote myself, and make plans for joining my voice with others. So it begins anew.

_____

Listen to Barbra Streisand’s 1965 recording of Someone to Watch Over Me.

Listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s 1959 recording of Our Love is Here to Stay.

Watch the extended ballet accompanied by the full score of American in Paris, from the 1951 movie.