I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.
Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.
Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.
Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?
So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?
Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.
Journal Note Long Ago
Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man or woman who is afraid.
I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must not ask others to go.
I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.
The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.
This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.
My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.
When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.
Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit — all these inspire me and give me courage.
My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.
And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.
A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.
Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:
I get what I deserve I deserve what I get
I have it, therefore I deserve it
I deserve it because I have it.
You have not got it therefore you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it because you have not got it
You have not got it because you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it therefore you have not got it. —R.D. Laing, Knots
This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!
So, what does it mean to deserve something?
Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?
Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?
Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!
The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?
No. I don’t believe that.
My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Resources page) teaches me life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.
There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.
I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.
We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.
We will discover — we are discovering — we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.
Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws governing the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.
As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.
The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, I’m ready to let go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.
As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”
I first began thinking about bones 25 years ago when I was given a copy of Clarissa PInkola Estes’s book, Women Who Run With the Wolves. She writes about discovering stories of bone people in the Southwest. Bone people are old ones who collect bones in a desert between the worlds and bring dead animals and humans back to life.
Reanimation is a common creative and spiritual theme. Bones are like seeds; they are the remnants of life, and thus the base material from which to build new life. Bones are the simple starting point, the hidden scaffold and substance that survives.
Several times in my life I’ve found myself walking in a trackless emotional desert, alone, lost, frightened and injured. Old stories tell us during these times we must seek and gather our discarded, stolen and lost bones in order to call ourselves home.
Bones can be hard to see under layers of clothing, flesh, distraction and scar tissue. Perhaps that’s why it was the desert dwellers who kept bone people stories alive. The desert is clean and uncluttered, and the vast sky and sweep of land hold space for stillness and inward journeying.
Bone collecting is like treasure hunting. The first time I went bone collecting, I traveled backwards and excavated memories of my child self. I compared those memories to my adult life and began to sift for my bones, those indestructible pieces of self that have always been present, come what may, sustaining and shaping me from the beginning.
I discovered I’d thrown a lot of bones away over the years. Some I rejected because I judged them as ugly or misshapen. I refused to claim them. Others I grieved to discard, but I believed they were useless, unworthy and/or unlovable, so I dropped them and walked on without marking the spot where they lay.
The desert between the worlds has become a home to me now. The sands know the scent of the naked sole of my foot and the soaring vultures recognize my figure as I wander below them, insignificant as an ant. I’ve crawled and searched, remembered and listened for my whispered name when my missing bones feel me draw near. Some are broken and stained, incomplete fragments that no longer tell their entire story about me, but I’ve learned patience and persistence, and I save every shard and splinter. I’ve traveled miles in the desert to reclaim all those bones, groping my way through old memories, feelings and bits of conversation, sifting my bones from the garbage dump of words that did not belong to me, expectations, rules, beliefs and storm debris from storms that swept me up, though they were not mine.
Over and over, I’ve felt I’ve come to the end of everything, only to find a whole new horizon just a few steps away, at the top of a hill I didn’t know I was climbing. Each time that happens, I pause and inventory my bones. Bone collection has become an external practice as well as an internal one. I’m less and less interested in obscuring the essentials in my life with distraction, objects and complications.
This summer I have a new dimension of perception in discerning the bones of each day, each week and each season. Living simply as we do, having time to stretch out mentally, spiritually and creatively, I’m experiencing for the first time the joy of casting myself into a day with no list, no agenda, no expectations and lively curiosity.
This is, for me, a summer of wood. We’re clearing a knoll of land in order to build a cabin, thinning a grove of spindly alders and cutting an occasional small tree growing in the field which is our building site. As each tree falls, I haul it into the wall of forest surrounding the clearing. In the sunny field, the growth is waist-high, and as I drag trees through it, the sweet scent of milkweed mingles with the smell of fresh-cut wood. Wild cucumber catches at my feet, invisible in the thick growth, and I fall, and fall again, getting up hastily because, although my clothing is doused in bug repellent, rolling on the ground is a foolish exposure to ticks, not to mention rampant poison ivy.
In Maine in the summer, this kind of work is done in light-colored pants and long sleeves to protect from black flies, mosquitoes, poison ivy, nettles and the inevitable ticks. Five minutes of exertion leaves me sweating heavily under the necessary layer of clothing, breathless in the heavy, humid air.
Stepping from the field into the forest, the air cools and I’m shaded from the sun. Here, the undergrowth diminishes and mainly consists of huge ferns, but I still slip and fall, as the forest floor is littered with rotting tree debris and liberally scattered with moss-covered boulders and stones. I drag the cut trees in under the canopy so they can gradually rot and feed their living brethren and the rest of the forest system.
In the driveway, we are processing enormous piles of tree debris from trimming two live trees and from a fallen maple. The maples we trimmed provide us with welcome shade as we work. I fork wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load of twigs, small branches and dead leaves off the driveway and tip them over a steep hill out of sight below the house. My partner works with a chainsaw, and its snarl, along with the smell of cut wood, becomes one of this summer’s bones.
A generous neighbor loaned us his splitter, and once the maple (rock maple, which dulls chainsaws at an alarming rate) is cut into wood stove lengths, we heave the rounds onto the purring splitter, and the smell of the gas engine and sound of the relentless maul cleaving the wood becomes another of summer’s bones.
The healthy wood parts smoothly, revealing ivory, cream, and pinkish-red grain. The diseased wood breaks open, showing honeycombed defects, or crumbling, blackened rot that smells, oddly, like vomit. Heavy, thick bark peels from the wood like scabs as we work. Here in the driveway, I risk working in shorts with bare arms, but the wood is heavy and unwieldy and my legs and arms are bruised and scratched. The way I hold the rake invariably rubs a blister on my left thumb. We sweat through our clothes and I have to keep wiping my forehead and upper lip with my bare forearm and gloved wrist. Hard wood is heavy, especially when still wet, and the inside of my wrist is bruised from supporting two or three pieces as I carry firewood to the wheelbarrow, into the barn or into the cellar for stacking.
Some of this wood has been piled in the driveway for a year. As we work, we uncover an insultingly large woodchuck hole. We find a red salamander, about two inches long. My partner rescues a grass snake from a brush pile and relocates it away from the pitchfork tines. We accidentally lift away a shrew’s roof, and my partner catches the grey velvet covered creature in his gloved hand and releases it over the hill in a safe place. We brush away crickets, earwigs and worms. We split one huge round and little red ants swarm over it, hysterically collecting a broad swathe of exposed white eggs. My gloves are covered with them, and the ones who run fast crawl onto my arms and bite before I can brush them off. We set those pieces of wood aside before splitting them further to give the ants a chance to find a new nursery.
We have birdfeeders along the driveway, and the birds are the backbone of the summer days, stretching from dawn to dusk. As soon as we take a break from work, the woodpeckers gleefully swoop in for uncovered insect tidbits, and the nuthatches scurry up and down the trunks of the standing trees with their fluffy, uncoordinated offspring. The finches and sparrows return to the seed feeders from their observation posts high in the surrounding canopy.
Our resident chipmunk is so curious he can’t stay away, but as we disassemble all his best hidey holes he scolds endlessly, like a shrill and irritated metronome, glaring from under the hostas or the gap in the porch floor.
Nesting Phoebe birdsandbloomsblog.com
Strangely, the shy phoebes like best to nest in the barn, in spite of my partner frequently playing music and our wood stacking and other noisy activities. They arrow in and out of several broken windows when the barn is shut, but on days when we’re working, they use the same door we do. Because of them, the cool barn is not only a haven of shade, but free of flies and mosquitoes. We know where the nest is, but we’re careful to ignore it and whichever motionless parent is sitting on the eggs when we happen to be present. Even the nestlings are still and silent as stone when we enter. The phoebes are currently raising their second brood, and their first set of offspring darts all over the place, hunting insects and filling the days with their distinctive cry, which gives them their name.
The bones of summer in this place mingle with my own bones. We are a bruise, a scratch, a sticky film of sweat on the skin, a sly mosquito bite. We are birds strung on the lace of trees; the private life of snake, shrew, salamander and woodchuck; the determined persistence of insects. We are tree and water and moss-covered stone. We are the smell of rotten wood, of sweat, of blossom. We are the breeze in the tree, the sound of the phoebe questing for insects, the tapping woodpecker, the hunting hawk’s cry as it circles, and the clamor of the tools we use to work on our land.
The days saunter through the season, leading me forward by the hand, and I follow, stopping every now and then to collect and record the ravishing experience we call life in words, and each word is a miniscule bone, too, each page a scatter of tiny bony seeds that wait for warmth and light, water and the soil of life and death in order to take root, grow, blossom, fruit and die, again … and again … and again.
I read a post on resistance lately from one of my favorite writers, Sharon Blackie, and was deeply comforted. She reminded me we all have something to offer the world. Ever since reading it, I’ve been thinking about what resistance means to me, and the different forms it takes in my life.
Then, last week, Elizabeth Warren was silenced on the Senate floor (but not elsewhere!), and Mitch McConnell made history with his justification. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
A violated rule. Heaven help us. Disobedience. Failure to comply.
Resistance and persistence. What an unholy pair.
This morning I sat down to write this post, as is my habit on Wednesday morning before I go swimming, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it. All I could think about was this quote, and how it makes me feel, and how absolutely persistent resistance is! After a few minutes the words stopped making any sense at all.
Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash
So, I went swimming. In the pool, I began the rhythm of stroke and breath, felt myself held by the water as though it loved me, and entered into the ebb and flow of my thoughts and feelings, not struggling for wisdom, focus or creativity, not trying to problem solve, just being.
“She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
I thought about how hard I’ve tried to earn love all my life with my silence, and how it hasn’t worked, and how now, in my fifties, I feel overwhelmed with grief because I wanted my family to be proud of me. I wanted to be allowed to love them and feel loved and supported in return. I wanted to get held and reassured. I never wanted to be the boat-rocker, the problem child, the difficult one, the dramatic one, the disappointment. I never wanted to drain any resource, need anything, be any kind of burden or cause any harm. I wanted to be a joyful thing, not an embarrassment and a failure.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.“
I thought of the persistence of things. Life, women, children, longing, desire, dreams, cycles and seasons, death, black flies, weeds. The persistence of grief. The persistence of loss. The persistence of love, in spite of everything, even if never returned or expressed.
I cried in the pool, as I swam one lap after another. For all you non swimmers out there, having a good cry while wearing swim goggles makes the goggles fog up, in addition to filling with salt water. On the plus side, you can make as much noise as you like underwater, and no one will ever hear you. Also, having a wet face and red eyes at the swimming pool isn’t remarkable.
I needed to cry. I needed to swim. I paused every two laps and cleaned out my goggles.
It came to me then that this is my resistance.
Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash
This. My tearful swim and fogged-up goggles. My blog. This messy, painful, not-pulled-together, nonheroic experience I call my life is my resistance, and I persist in it. I cannot beat, starve or mutilate myself into someone else, not even to get loved. Believe me, I’ve tried. In the end, though, the half-wild thing I am still looks out of my eyes and lurks in my heart. Perhaps not attractive or worthy of love, but there. Wanting. Alive. Persistent.
Some people think power is the ability to shut someone up, but power and force aren’t the same thing at all. The ability to throw acid on someone, to fire someone from his/her job, to rape, to behead, to kill someone’s family, to detain someone, to torture, to murder — that’s not strength. That’s not real power. Silencing others doesn’t mean we’ve won, or that anything has changed. All it means is, for the moment, we’re not forced to hear something we’re afraid of, but the words and resistance are still there. They’ll be spoken again, in music, in writing, in action, on YouTube. Someone else will pick them up and say them, and someone after that, and someone after that.
“Nevertheless, she persisted.”
At the end of the day, the only power we have in life is to do what we can with what we have, and the one thing we all have is ourselves. The self is a persistent thing.
So much is needed in the world. So much love, so much healing, so much courage and forgiveness. We need heroes and leaders, activists and rebels. We need organizers and people to march, hold placards, make phone calls and show up in front of the cameras with hard questions.
My gifts and abilities are not these.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
But we also need people who nourish roots. We need people who whisper to trees. We need people who gather bones and seeds. We need storytellers and lovers, dancers and shamans, intuitives and creatives. We need people who can collaborate, share power and shape self-sustaining community that’s not based on capitalism. We need people who can include, connect, learn and grow. We need people who can hold another human being in their arms while they weep.
We need persistent people who know how to resist a diseased overculture and endure tribal shaming, abuse, tyranny, injustice, poverty and loss. We need people who think for themselves, who are persistently curious, who aren’t afraid to break someone else’s rules. We need passionate people who know how to feel deeply.
These are things I do.
These are things I am.
So, today, my resistance consists of tears and laps, this week’s post, and being persistently present in my quiet, unimportant, ordinary life. My resistance is my persistent longings and desires, my refusal to give up and be silent. I don’t resist because anybody cares or notices, or because I think I can make a damn bit of difference.
I do it because that’s what I do and this is how it looks.