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Guest Blogger: My Secret Writing Walk, or How Spirituality Guides My Writing Life


Alexisdonkin2

by Alexis Donkin

LB: Writing for the blog today is Alexis Donkin, blogger, speaker, and author of what she describes as "a library of books," from fantasy and sci-fi to memoir and journal guides. I asked her to discuss how she meshes a spiritual path with her development as a fiction writer, or how the two intersect. Here's Alexis.

I think I wrote 10 different posts about this topic only to abandon them. How can I talk about spirituality and my writing? How can I not? How can I talk about my spiritual practice and not freak people out?

I grew up with two ordained ministers as parents, so religion has always been a topic discussed at dinner. Faith was linked to every aspect of our lives. Pastors are like politicians in that everyone has expectations for them, and their families. There were parts of our lives that never saw the light of day...well...until I wrote about them in my memoir.

Alexis_nonfiction

Because of my upbringing, I've had an unusual relationship with spirituality. I started out being very Christian. My faith led me to study other traditions as a path to addressing the world's needs (the product of this education is my world religion curriculum and associated interfaith devotional). In that study, I questioned my allegiance. I never identified with those publicly identifying as Christians. Somehow they managed to insert Jesus into every other sentence. They talked about prayer as if it was this transformative experience, and for me, being progressive, I couldn't decide if they were genuine – or lying. It didn't connect with my own experience.

So as I researched other traditions, I questioned my own. In the end, I discovered all faiths have parts I like and parts I hate. It just so happens, I like Christianity best. It speaks my cultural language. I like the story of Jesus.

This seems like a round-about way to talk about spirituality in writing, but it's important to know my perspective to understand why I write what I do – what drives everything in my life.

I am, by all accounts, a very spiritual person. I meditate daily. I go to church every week and even lead the worship band. I pray before meals. I express gratitude for the beauty of every moment – whatever that beauty is. When I submit a piece, I pray the outcome achieves the highest good of all. I meditate before I write my blog posts – checking in with my gut to confirm the topic is right.

Seriously.

I do that even for social media posts.

As I write this out, I wonder if this is an unusual thing. I expect it is rare for people to do these things, but for me, I have to interact in the world this way. Everything I do is centered around my personal purpose – to spread compassion and empathy through my writing and speaking.

Alexis_fiction

I tried to write commercially. I tried to write solely to entertain. Instead, I wrote about gender dynamics, equality, and climate change. I tried to write freelance articles about tourist things and the like – I can't do it. My head starts to ache and I grow restless. I have the urge to throw my computer. 

My call is too strong to ignore. When I try to avoid it, something always brings me back. So I embraced it. Once I did, things started falling into place for me. I embraced the fact that I am a deeply spiritual human, and became open about it. I found myself supported in this, even from unexpected sources (like staunch Humanists).

My spirituality is generally implicit in my blog posts. It's implicit in my fiction pieces. While I can't separate my faith and practices from my work, I'm not interested in converting people to my particular way of being. That doesn't serve anyone. I just want people to love themselves and love others. I think that makes the world a better place, and ultimately, that's the highest good.

 

AlexisdonkinAlexis Donkin lives in Southern California with her family. She is a classically trained artist, with a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies and an MA in Global and International Studies. Between writing, speaking, and chasing her kid, she paints, sings, and dances. Sometimes Alexis does it all at once.

Connect with her here:     Twitter     Facebook     Pinterest     Blog


A Moth and Mortality: Flying Back from St. Louis on the Day of the Massacre

Jun 14, 2016

It seemed to rest there, on the windowsill.

This Sunday I flew back to Seattle from St. Louis, MO. About half way into my return flight, so two hours in, a moth fluttered up out of nowhere and beat its wings against my window glass, then came to rest on the sill. I'd never seen anything like it before. It was strange, watching a moth try to get out--where there was no getting out at all. 

I was still reeling from the breaking news about Orlando. 

Just two days before, someone close to me told me he believes that homosexuality is wrong, that Jesus said it is a sin for a man to lie down with a man. When I lived in St. Louis twenty years ago, I was a progressive student activist, and a fighter by nature. My intellect had been forged by the rigors of a Jesuit education, I knew what was what, I was out to save the world, and I'd acquired a silver tongue for debate. Back then, I would have Taken. Him. Down. And I have--over the years, we've had some shut-outs, let me tell you.

But these days I'm more interested in being happy than I am in being right. In our limited time during my visit, I didn't want to spend it arguing about politics. I try to approach such differences with patience and expansiveness. I knew I wasn't likely to change his mind, so I told him I couldn't disagree more but that I respected his right to his beliefs, as long as he didn't violate any laws. I thought it was interesting that he said that if he were a baker he would gladly bake a cake for a gay wedding, as that's business, but that he believes homosexuality is a choice, and the wrong one.

It's hard when someone you love seems to judge others for their love.

I couldn't help but think of our conversation when I read the first reports about Orlando. But on my own social forums, I was speechless. My silver tongue had no words. Then a good friend posted to his Facebook page something beautiful and sad and just right:

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A few nights before that conversation about whether or not homosexuality is wrong, I'd had this strange experience while driving around St. Louis late at night. Like a panic or anxiety attack, I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and my hands went damp. These symptoms coincided with a very clear realization: That I would one day cease to exist. Now it could have been triggered by the heady experience of being back in a part of the country where I practically grew up, having lived there from junior high up through high school, college, and for six years of adulthood. I kept comparing everything to twenty years ago--the city itself, which has changed dramatically, my family members, my friends. I've changed a lot, too, and not just in my penchant for debate. But it wasn't just that. I felt the unfairness of mortality. While I have no regrets about the choices I've made, I think like most people I've spent too much of my life in anguish over being hurt, or angry at those who've done me wrong, or worrying that I'm not good enough or skinny enough or I'm not this or that. There is so much I want to do, and I don't want to waste any more time in a comparathon or with people who don't return back the energy I spend on them or in berating myself for failings, whether real or imagined. Because it could all be gone, the time I have left to do the things I need to do. Like Ernest says, in the flash of a disco ball.

Today I read through some of the bios of the Orlando victims, looked at pictures they'd posted to Facebook and elsewhere. They were all so young, so beautiful. Did they know it? Did they feel it? They stare at the camera, some of them, as if to say, Do you see me?

I assumed the moth was just resting there on the windowsill of my plane, and I looked forward to seeing it flit outside with all of us when we exited. I'd even considered ways of helping it find the front door. But then I saw that it was listing unnaturally, off to the side. Its antennae quivered, then stopped. When it died, it lost its hold on the sill--and fell.

My husband tells me that when the police stepped into the club, there was a cacophony of ring tones coming from the cell phones of the dead. All those loved ones on the other line. Are you there? Are you OK? Please tell me you're OK. Please. I love you.

I think of the yogi's words in a video I've practiced to for twenty years. "Love is what's left when you let go of everything you don't need." Let's do that now, let go of everything we don't need. That's a lot these days, but look at what we'll have left.


Things I've Experienced While Meditating, in Order of Occurrence

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  • Thoughts about how stupid meditation is.
  • Heavy processing of the day in review.
  • Hearing the sound of my husband snoring.
  • Hearing the sound of myself snoring.
  • Reaching over and touching my husband's hand and deciding it's OK because there are no rules in meditation.
  • Feeling my husband reach over and touch my hand and not feeling as if this breaks the reverie or anything but is rather part of it.
  • Some of the most blissful sleep ever.
  • Random body spasms.
  • Focused relaxation of my jaw.
  • Comparisons to getting acupuncture.
  • Comparisons to yoga.
  • Comparisons to the fugue state of sex.
  • Questioning: Why is 'fugue' always a bad thing? Isn't that in effect the perfect state of nirvana?
  • Wake feeling refreshed.
  • Deep listening, mostly to the harps/piano/sitar/chanting but sometimes to the blaring train horn outside.
  • Feelings of annoyance at the overly repetitious nature of most music labeled for meditation.
  • Random visions of flying or dancing.
  • Focused forgiveness of myself for the times I've failed at life.
  • Focused visions of myself succeeding at life.
  • Random laughter.
  • Random tears.
  • Random sighing.
  • The solution to a writing issue becoming clear.
  • Focused relaxation of various body parts.
  • Anger, which must have been suppressed and is now bubbling up.
  • Focused vision on the ties that connect me to others.
  • Character dialogue like an internal radio.
  • A perception of vibrational harmony.
  • Colors. Sparks. Dare I say glitter?
  • Feelings of expansiveness and love.
  • Fleeting moments of divine connection.

How about you?


What I'm Reading: Lost and Found: One Woman's Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life

Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and MoneyLost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money by Geneen Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never suffered from an eating disorder or been a compulsive shopper, but I can see how this book would be a godsend for those who have. And it can have wider application, if you take Geneen Roth's conscious, practical spiritual work as a model. Roth calls us all on our false narratives and coping mechanisms to get to the root of our problems around money. While it could be hard for many readers to relate to Roth's basic position of privilege, the lessons here are worth the effort. For example, Roth describes the "what-the-hell myth," which is when your budget gets derailed by one indiscretion, so you throw your hands up and decide you might as well give up the budget and go on a spending spree. Since Roth's primary work has been with one's relationship to food, the myth applies there as well.

One of Roth's most powerful moves is her debunking of New Age "affirmations." She says:

You can repeat 'I am lovable' a thousand times a day, you can put 'I am successful beyond my wildest dreams' on your mirror, your computer, your dashboard, you can sing it to your yourself when you go to sleep and think about it the minute you open your eyes, but if an earlier belief or conviction of being unlovable is installed in your psyche, you will be wasting your time because you won't believe yourself. If you don't do the actual work of deconstructing your fundamental beliefs, the affirmations have no place to land or stick; they won't work.


She also takes to task those who wish to be "saved" when it comes to money and being responsible with it, whether that's by a mythical parent or actual higher power. Rightly, she asserts:

Being saved implies staying small and willfully blind. But it also implies one more thing: Since not everyone can be saved, the saved one must be imbued with something different, something extraordinary. To be saved, you must invest in being special.


Roth might have connected her lessons in the private sphere to our collective insanity in the wider economy, and that would have given the book more heft. It can also at times feel as if the reader needs to be more familiar with Roth's previous works on food to get the lessons here about money, which seem at times overshadowed by the food discussion. Nonetheless, it's a useful hybrid between memoir and self-help that has likely already made a difference in the lives of many readers.


View all my reviews


Cat in the Flock on Audiobook

Audible screen shot CITF

I'm thrilled to announce the audiobook version of Cat in the Flock, featuring noted radio personality Angel Clark as the narrator. With 100 audiobooks under her belt, Angel's a real pro. She also hosts a talk radio show on the subject of liberty. During auditions, we thought her voice for Cat McCormick was perfect!

And doesn't she kind of look like she could play Cat on TV? 

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Photo courtesy of Angel Clark.

You can download the audiobook now from either Amazon or iTunes.

 


What I'm Reading: The Power of You

The Power of You: How to Live Your Authentic, Exciting, Joy-Filled Life Now!The Power of You: How to Live Your Authentic, Exciting, Joy-Filled Life Now! by Chris Michaels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: Dr. Chris Michaels and I have been guest writers on each other's blogs. However, we've yet to meet in person. I first heard about his work when I listened to a podcast about being gay and spiritual in America. I was deeply impressed by his honesty and passion, as well as his unapologetic attitude. After reading his blog, I felt a definite kinship with him, and I thought our audiences would appreciate hearing from each other. When I saw that he'd written this book, I immediately added it to my reading list, and I'm glad I did.

I've always craved spiritual connection but have not often found it in organized religion. And I approach all teachings with a heavy does of skepticism. Even in the most liberal of churches or from the most seemingly open-minded spiritual leader, I've struggled with teachings that seem to me to be victim-blaming or self-destructive or just plain impractical. But I had none of those problems with Chris's discussion in The Power of You.

I was highlighting so often on my Kindle, I thought I might as well highlight the whole book. Chris's teaching is grounded in day-to-day reality, and from there, he provides concrete examples and advice for getting in touch with the divine and building the happier life you want. What I love about Chris is that he doesn't use his religious teachings to judge or shame or blame someone for their own unhappiness. Rather, he meets you where you are and shows you how to get where you want to be.

"When you take God out of the sky and place it down here in your life, everything changes," he says. Let that change begin with this book. But read it with intention, and commit to doing the exercises. You are definitely worth your time!

View all my reviews


Guest Blogger: Location, location, location

AboutChris2

by Dr. Chris Michaels

LB: Today on the blog I have Dr. Chris Michaels, an inspiring author, speaker, and executive coach. I asked him to write about relocation in order to achieve one's life purpose. Some people might say you're just running away from your problems when you move to another place, but on the other hand, doing so can be an enormous step toward positive change. The question is an important one for me, as the main character in my novel Cat in the Flock relocates to Seattle from St. Louis in order to apprentice with her grandmother as a dreamslipper and private investigator, but then her first case, ironically, takes her back to St. Louis.

Here's what Chris has to say.

Who doesn’t want an adventure? 

Today a lot of millennials are turning their backs on traditional jobs and traveling the world instead of settling for a more conventional life. Shows like HGTV run non-stop marathons featuring families looking to purchase homes in far-off, magical lands. Last week I attended the World Domination Summit with author Chris Guillebeau. He wrote the book The Art of Non-Conformity, which chronicles his 10-year quest to visit every country in the world.  Chris’ book has motivated millions to pursue their dreams of adventure.

This need for mobility, freedom, and adventure isn’t really new. Historically, Americans have always been a bit restless. And we have always felt like the grass is greener on the other side… 

But sometimes, the grass really is greener somewhere else. 

I grew up in a small, rural town where conformity was the norm. There wasn’t a lot of room or acceptance for boys like me. I knew from a very young age that if I didn’t get out of that town my life might be in danger.

Time has changed some things. (Although in many parts of America we still have a long way to go.) But the truth is if I stayed in that small town I would have never met my partner Aubrey. We’ve been together for 19 years. And he has supported me and helped make me the man I am today. If I stayed in that small town, I would have never started the Center of Spiritual Living in Kansas City. I would have never met the people within that community that have given me endless inspiration to carry on and do meaningful work in the world.

Some people think who they marry or what career they choose is the most important decision in their life, but I think where you choose to live is of equal importance. If you love to surf, you’re probably not going to be very happy living in Iowa. If you want to be a famous actor, living in Montana is not going to help you achieve your dreams.

Over the years, I have done many personal and professional development programs. Location is often a topic that comes up for people as they consider how to live a life of purpose and meaning.  As people start to pursue their dreams, they sometimes realize they aren’t in an environment that supports them. 

Location is important to me, too. I live in Kansas. But during the winter months I run screaming to Florida. The bleak, grey winter does not inspire me. In fact, being trapped in a house without sun and vitamin D makes me sluggish. So I plan my escape each year.

Changing locations isn’t easy. Family, money, and career obligations often keep us in one place, even though we may long to be in another. But that doesn’t mean we can’t travel to other places.  Airbnb opens up wild new opportunities to go places that are affordable. 

Think about what feeds your soul. Where do you dream of living or traveling? What goals do you have for your life, and where are they most likely to be achieved? Create a plan and start taking actionable steps. 

How do you know when the grass really is greener? 

There is only one way to know. You can only know this if you really know yourself.

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Chris Michaels is a husband, executive coach, national speaker, entrepreneur and author. Chris’ recent book, The Power of You, published by Penguin Press in 2014 received a Silver medal in the Nautilus Awards, an organization that recognizes world-changing books.

When not building programs, writing, and speaking, Chris is traveling to Bali, Thailand, or Europe. During the winter he can be found in Florida soaking up the sun and dreaming of his next big assignment.

To learn more about Chris or to stay connected, sign up for his weekly newsletter here.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Anger in the Healing Process

Lisa Brunette_Author

Today I have a guest-post up on Chris Michaels' blog - please check it out. Michaels is the author of The Power of You. I first heard him speak on a podcast and felt an instant kinship. I'm excited to feature a post from him here on Cat in the Flock next week, so check back for that!

My subject for his blog is anger:

Many of us aim for the spiritual ideal of the calm, serene, monkish enlightened one who reacts to every situation with never-ending grace and acceptance. We imagine Jesus this way, for his “turn the other cheek” teaching, and the list goes on: Buddha, Mother Teresa, Ghandi. You could even add Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon to the list.

But this is exactly the wrong approach for many of us who’ve been marginalized and oppressed through sexism, racism, homophobia, or other negative patterns of behavior.

I appreciate how Chris teaches people the power of knowing when to say no, which dovetails nicely with my thoughts on how important anger is in the healing process. It's a subject that formed the basis for the poetry in Broom of Anger.

I invite you to join our discussion here, on social media, and on Chris' awesome blog.


Why Anger? Why Now?

BROOM OF ANGER 1890x2880

My debut poetry collection will be released on August 1. You can pre-order it right now! And please do pre-order it. That will give the book a huge boost on August 1, and if there's one thing poetry needs, it's a boost.

Perhaps you're wondering "Why anger?" Here it is straight from the horse's mouth (the horse being me, talking about myself in third person). This is the official book description:

Taking a cue from Zora Neale Hurston’s advice to “grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear,” Brunette explores the galvanizing quality of anger in this powerful debut collection. Anger can spark revolutions—both political and personal. It is the kernel of healing for anyone who’s been marginalized or silenced. But the poet wrestles with anger’s consuming nature, yearning for both spiritual and romantic release.

Anger has been a huge project for me as an adult. Knowing when to tap it and how, and when to let it go is one of my life's ongoing lessons.

The collection itself is the culmination of about twenty-five years' work. Some of the poems I wrote in my early twenties as a political activist, and others I penned as late as 2009, when going through a divorce. You can read some of them here on the blog, as they've formed my #FridayPoetry series.

A large chunk of these poems--11 of them--were previously published in literary journals. For the poem "For Father," I won a William Stafford Award. I also received a major grant from the Tacoma Artists Guild for the work when it was in progress in 2003.

So it's been a long haul, but the poems are ready now to be whisked out into the world. Some of my readers have already been swept away. (See what I did there?) Here's one endorsement:

“Every time I read Lisa Brunette’s poems (which is as often as I can), I find myself racing to read more, faster. It’s all so great, I want to binge on every word. But I force myself to slow down, savor the experience of each individual poem. Wait for my spine to stop shivering, my breathing to even out. For each poem is its own being, packed with enough emotional resonance to be a tiny, spare novel or essay on its own, full of insight—lyrical, gorgeous, political, haunting—and when combined together in this book it is the poetry of my hopes and dreams.”

Lisa Hickey, Publisher and CEO, The Good Men Project / Good Men Media Inc.

And here's another:

“Lisa Brunette’s new collection of poems are short stories-cum-lyrics—Bukowski arias about baseball, rhododendrons, and blue herons. In each, she is trying to see the world and herself with clarity and music. In one central poem, ‘Noticing,’ she writes that she is ‘trying to make peace with a nature poet / who doesn’t write about what spoils the view.’ This is, it’s not hard to see, because she finds herself attracted to things, views, people, experiences, that do. She concludes her thought in the poem this way: ‘Morning brings a blue heron / legs and beak a perfect arrow shot through the sky / If I’d been staring at the ground, I would have missed it.’ Reading these poems so full of eros and sky we can see that she likes to look elsewhere.”

—Lyall Bush, former executive director of both the Northwest Film Forum and Richard Hugo House 

I look forward to hearing what you think of them.

Oh, and it's 99 cents on ebook, which, like I said, you can pre-order now, and the print version will retail for $6.99, but there's no pre-order for that because AMAZON.

 


#FridayPoetry: The God in Me Salutes the God in Her

Namaste

 

The God in Me Salutes the God in Her

 

I’m training to be a shaman, the secretary said,

and it was the third time in three days I’d heard that word.

Shaman. Where we work, stock brokers 

have claimed the word rainmaker. 

 

She believes in fate and omens,

someone to watch over us, 

send us signs, make the pain 

mean something.

Her god tells her three times

to buy a house in Bremerton, across the Sound:

First in a dream, second through a friend, third in the paper. 

 

But she would have to take a ferry each day.

Her god doesn’t say anything

about the bankruptcy.

It is the mortgage broker

who tells her she can’t get a loan.

 

She fluffs auras for extra money, her own 

in need of polish, care from kind hands.

She gives me her bleeding pages

because she thinks I am a poet,

sent from her god to bandage wounds. 

I am to show her the path to poetry, to words

claimed in one fast breath

chewed in another.

 

No one ever watched over me, 

or I wouldn’t know her pain

so intimately. The gods inside us

were small as sesame seeds,

straining to listen 

for the word Namaste.

 

Or maybe they were big gods, after all—

an array of radio telescopes,

so large only a vast desert could host them.

 


I Suck at Self-Love

TreeHugger
I am better at loving trees.

Hey, get your mind out of the gutter! THAT is not what I'm talking about when I say "self-love." Besides, here in middle age after decades of practice, I think I've got that one down.

No, what I'm talking about is the idea that you should love love love yourself, unconditionally even, like a dog loves its master. Or at the very least, you should cut yourself some slack.

I'm not talking about self-promotion. That's different, and again, after decades of being driven by the need to survive as a writer in a world that is increasingly hostile to writers, I think I am, if not exactly good at it, at least practiced. The Facebook friends who've endured my Cat in the Flock posts for going on a year now could tell you. (Did you see what I just did there? I can't. resist. a plug.)

And I'm not talking about self-actualization, either. If there's one thing my explorations into spiritualism have given me, it's more tools to try to keep working harder at becoming better at pretty much everything, to be more optimistic and positive, more present, more spiritual, more forgiving, more gracious, more sympathetic, more more MORE.

But self-love? I don't even know where to start. I'm much better at finding faults. If I start trying to list my attributes, they quickly lead to shortcomings. Watch this: Gee, I guess I'm a decent writer. I mean, I have been mostly making a living at mostly writing, with way more editing than I care to reflect upon plus a lot of teaching and managing, for like all of my adult life. But I'm not making a living as a novelist, and I'm already past 40! I'll never, ever win one of those "under 40 and fab" awards now! It's over! Over, I tell you! I'm washed up!

My husband calls this my "disaster mentality."

But maybe that's an attribute? If the sky ever falls, I'll be the one to let you know.

I'm not trying to be falsely modest here. I know I've been a hard ass as a teacher, a manager, a wrangler of freelancers, a stepmom, a big sister, a precocious daughter, a wife, a narrative designer, a writer, a workshop member, and a friend. But what the developers whose game stories I critique on a daily basis wouldn't know is that I'm much nicer to them than I ever am to myself, especially in my own head.

And I don't think I'm the only one. You out there, the one with the blistering self-talk. You know what I mean.

So how do we stop it? How?

I'm sorry, but a lot of that Stuart Smalley, mirror affirmation stuff just makes me crack up. That's why his skit was so funny! I can't do it. But it's not like I haven't tried. It's just never taken.

 

I do have a kind of supernatural connection to a deck of cards called The Language of Letting Go in that no matter what I seem to be going through, whenever I randomly pick a card, it's the right one. For example, this week, my prayer partner (Yes, I have one, and no, it's not what you think, if you're thinking it's weird. OK, maybe it's weird. But weird is good. You should try it.) told me I should practice self-love. I got emotional, hearing that, which meant she was onto something. And then the next day I picked a card from the deck, and it was "Loving Yourself Unconditionally."

Well done, Universe, well done. I'm listening. Now teach me how to do it.

You there, with the enlightened tsk-tsking. I bet you talk with your prayer partner EVERY DAY; whereas, I'm only capable of committing to once a week.

Any ideas?


Cat in the Flock Excerpt: Training with Granny Grace

CAT-IN-THE-FLOCK

Chapter 2

Cat was sitting in full lotus, with both legs crossed, a foot resting on top of either thigh. It was a position she had never been able to do; she knew right away she was dreamslipping in her grandmother's dream. All around her on the floor were bills Granny Grace couldn't pay: the heating bill, another in an exorbitant amount for her cell phone, a medical bill, and others, along with receipts for the money she continued to give to charity. But Cat could feel that she shared her grandmother's thoughts and attitudes in the dream, as if her and her grandmother's minds were fused, so despite the bills, she felt at peace. In front of her was a Buddha statue, and in his palm were coins. He winked and said, "Bless the bills, my Grace. Bless them."

Then the paper bills on the ground around her morphed into hundreds of butterflies--orange and black monarchs and viceroys, pale yellow swallowtails, iridescent blue sulphurs, and delicate cabbage whites. They flew up and covered the Buddha statue, where they sat flexing their wings in the sun. She watched them there, a feeling of peace flooding through her. Then the butterflies rose into the air as if they were one being, circled around her for a time, and then flew off into a ray of sunlight.

Cat woke early, still on St. Louis time and worried about her grandmother's financial situation, despite the odd feeling of peace the dream gave her. Was the dream accurate? Was Granny Grace having financial trouble? She tiptoed down the hall to her grandmother's study. She knew she shouldn't snoop, but the quiet in the house told her Granny Grace was still asleep, and she would have to do a bit of detective work on this one, as her grandmother wouldn't tell her the truth even if she asked. Granny Grace had an overdeveloped sense of pride; she carried herself well and was never one to accept help but was always helping others. Cat certainly had no intention of sponging off her grandmother forever, but if she were having financial trouble, there was no way Cat was going to accept her help in getting the PI firm started, no matter what cryptic, New Agey messages Granny Grace got from the Buddha.

Cat was seated at a rolltop desk, absorbed in the saga of her grandmother's financial life and didn't hear the septuagenarian enter the room behind her.

"I thought you came here to train as a PI, not serve as my personal bookkeeper," Granny Grace said.

Cat turned with a start. "Gran, why didn't you tell me about this?" She held up the cell phone bill, which included calls all over the world, with a balance upwards of five hundred dollars, most of which were past due amounts carried over.

"My cell phone habits are none of your concern, granddaughter," said Granny Grace, ripping the phone bill out of Cat's hands. "Besides, I'm in negotiations with them right now to get that lowered. They're going to fold it under a special 'international friends and family' plan."

"Grandmother," Cat said sternly. "You're giving money away, and at the same time, your bills are piling up." Cat pulled out the statement from her financial advisor. "And judging by this, your investment accounts took a huge hit."

Granny Grace ripped that statement out of her hand, too. "This is none of your business, Cat. And you should know better than to use a dream this way. You've got a lot to learn."

Cat took a step back, realizing how far over the line she had crossed. "You're right," she said. "I'm sorry. Let me make you breakfast, and we can calm down and talk."

She toasted sourdough bread and put out preserves, butter, a bowl of fruit, and a pot of tea. Her hunger satiated and her grandmother cooled down and seated across from her, Cat had to ask, "What exactly does 'SPOETS' stand for? You gave them a couple hundred last year." 

"Specialist Pogoists of East Tacoma," Granny Grace quipped. 

"Grandmother," Cat groaned. "Be serious."

"Sound Patternists of Elementary Tea Services." 

Cat giggled, and Granny Grace smiled. "They're a group of citizens devoted to the study of the largest earthworm in North America," she said.

Cat stared at her. "Earthworm?"

"That's right," she replied. "It's the Society for the Protection of Earthworm Triticales Somas."

"Triticales somas?"

"Yeah. T. somas. That's the Latin name. I'll have you know it's several feet long and almost as wide. It lives entirely underground on the Washington Palouse."

"I didn't know you had a soft spot for earthworms."

"Only this one. It's special. Not to say the ones you use in your garden aren't special as well, but this one is unique."

"But Granny Grace, why didn't you tell me you were having trouble?"

"I'm not. Weren't you there, in the dream, Cat? I could feel your presence. So you know that bills are to be blessed."

Cat wouldn't be put off so easily. She pressed her grandmother further. "But why do you give so much away when you're not in a position to do that? You gave another small amount to a group that studies a rare type of moss that only grows on the eastern side of the Olympic Mountains. And the Dykes with Bikes? Do they really need your help? I think there's even a Bisexual Basket-Weaving Bar Mitzvah group in the mix."

"Oh, I only wish. If there's one thing a bar mitzvah could use, it's more bisexuals weaving baskets." Granny Grace crossed her arms and leaned forward on the table. "Look, Cat. I'm seventy-seven years old. This karmic approach to money has held me in good stead for many years. You get back what you put out in life. It works. You wait and see."

"Okay, but listen," Cat said. "You told me I could stay here for free and that I wouldn't have to work while I trained for the PI exam. But I don't think that's practical. I can't do that. I'm going to get a job."

"You'll be putting everything off that way," Granny Grace countered.

"There's no way I can let you support me," Cat said. "I'll keep training with you and working toward my goal, but I'm going to pay my own way." She nodded her head affirmatively, as if to seal the deal.

"Well, if you insist..." her grandmother replied.

"I insist," Cat said. 

There was a long silence while they sipped their tea before Granny Grace changed the subject in a tone that meant she was resuming Cat's training there and then.

"You broke the first rule of dreamslipping this morning," she said. "Don't ever use the information gleaned from a dream to invade the privacy of someone you love."

"But isn't dreamslipping by its very nature already an invasion of privacy?"

"Yes, it is," Granny Grace said, a shadow of sadness flickering across her face. "Why do you think I live alone? That's why you can't ever use what you learn like that again. I know you were doing it with concern in your heart, but you crossed a line."

"I'm sorry," Cat said.

Granny Grace reached over and squeezed her chin. "Don't be sorry, Cat. Just remember the rule."

"I will."

"Good. By the way, don't chide yourself for invading the privacy of your dreamers. That's a waste of time. This thing is involuntary--it's not like you can turn it off. Believe me, I've tried. That's why I call it dreamslipping. We can't help slipping into other people's dreams."

Cat sighed, feeling pressure inside her chest release. "Thank you for telling me that," she said.

"Our first appointment today is with a meditation guru," said Granny Grace, clapping her hands together. "Your training has begun."

The guru--Guru Dave was his name--held meditation classes on the top floor of a record store, so in addition to the singing bowls he employed, there were the ever-present strains of whatever music the clerks downstairs happened to be playing. For Cat's first class, it was polka music, which the hipsters must have been playing ironically. So when the guru asked her to empty her mind of everything and to cultivate nothingness, she couldn't help but picture a bunch of men in lederhosen and women dressed as Heidi hefting huge beer steins into the air.

When Guru Dave spoke, he drew out his syllables so that it took him twice as long as everyone else to say the same thing, but the effect on the listener was trancelike. "Let goooooooo of attaaaaaaaachment," he intoned. "Reeeeeleeeeease your eeeeeeegooooo."

The only thing Cat felt herself let go of was the contraction in her lower abs, the "root lock," as Guru Dave called it, which she was supposed to hold, it seemed, for an eternity.

At the end of class, which consisted of sitting cross-legged (Granny Grace was in full lotus, of course) till her lower back hurt and her brain was screaming insults at Guru Dave, he asked what insights she had to share with the rest of the class.

"The rhythm of life is in everything," Cat said. "Even beer."

Guru Dave thought this was profound, and Cat inadvertently became his star pupil. But nothing got past Granny Grace. After class, she teased Cat. "You've been to one too many Oktoberfests."

"I could use a little bit of the rhythm of life after that class," Cat said. "This tea isn't quite cutting it." They both burst out laughing.

That first couple of weeks in Seattle were a whirlwind for Cat. She accompanied Granny Grace to more meditation classes, and while nothing broke through her skepticism about them, she did find herself enjoying both the time to sit and think, as well as the strains of music from the store downstairs, which ran the gamut from classic rock to folk to R & B. They practiced yoga twice daily--an energetic round in the morning at a studio near the house and a slower style called yin that Granny Grace led in the Yoga Yolk each evening to wind down. 

Her grandmother also took her shopping, and over protests that they didn't have the money, she helped Cat create a wardrobe "more befitting a PI." Granny Grace had a knack for how to find deals at consignment shops, cobbling together a selection of well-made pieces with less expensive accessories, so that the overall look was sophisticated and fun.

There were more direct lessons in dreamslipping as well, but Granny Grace took her time. Instead of showing Cat how to do "fancy tricks," as Granny Grace called them, they were taking an inventory of Cat's dream life up till now, which for the most part meant excavating through some awkward revelations Cat had had about her various boyfriends and how the dreamslipping had interfered with her ability to have what she called "normal" relationships with them. For example, she'd dated an emotionally unavailable soccer player for far too long, mainly because he wasn't an active dreamer, and there were no issues to confront. Prior to that, she'd dated a psych student whose own dreams bordered on disturbing, and he was only too willing to spend hours analyzing them, to the point where Cat felt she should be charging him for her therapy services. 

"You can use the information in dreams to solve a mystery or catch a crook," Granny Grace said, "but healing someone like that--that's a different kind of work."

"Yeah, and I'm not cut out to be a psychotherapist," said Cat.

"It's really hard to know things about people that you can't talk about with them," said Granny Grace, as if she were thinking about her own past. But then she shook it off, changing the subject, and Cat didn't want to press her.

Cat also immediately set about looking for a job, with dismal results. She tried to find something as close to her chosen profession as possible. She sent out more than fifty résumés, interviewed with six recruiters, and heard nothing in return. She couldn't even get a part-time job at a supermarket, as the hiring manager there said she was overqualified and would be gone at the first opportunity. She sent résumés into the ether, and she imagined them evaporating into ones and zeroes in some large central database where bored clerks sat typing all day.

What finally got her a job were her grandmother's connections. 

Granny Grace took Cat to a fundraiser for one of her favorite charities, City Goats, which promoted goats as an alternative method for removing noxious weeds from vacant lots, as well as a more environmentally friendly way to trim back grass lawns. The fundraiser was at a hotel on the Seattle waterfront. Dale Chihuly glass sculptures tastefully referenced the shapes of goats everywhere you looked, from the horned chandelier above the ballroom to the bearded chin sinks in the bathroom. 

Granny Grace was busy networking for future PI clients; Cat could hear the melody of her laughter across the room. Cat took a breather from the talk to stand at the window facing the Sound. She watched as two green-and-white ferries, their lights reflected on the water, passed each other on their ways to and from Bainbridge Island. She remembered her first ferry ride in Seattle, when she and her parents came to visit when she was six. She thought Puget Sound was a river like the Mississippi, but it startled her for being so blue. The Mississippi was muddy, like coffee with lots of cream.

"We hear you're starting up Grace's PI firm again," said a voice that brought her back into the room. It was Simon Fletcher, one of her grandmother's best friends. Following close behind him as usual was his partner, Dave Bander. The two were never separated; they seemed to function in every respect as a unit. They both wore immaculate tuxedoes that looked tailor-made for them as opposed to rented, and both men's hair was close cropped and spiked slightly with gel. 

But it's not as if they were truly twins. Dave worked for a nonprofit with a creative, accepting environment, and, particularly at fancy events like these, he wore makeup--a little "manscara," as he called it, and sometimes "guyliner." Simon, an architect, had a Roman nose, stylish frames perched gallantly upon it, as if he'd personally designed the sweeping features of his own face.

"Hello, Simon!" Cat said, giving him a hug. "Word does get around. Yes, I'm hoping to take over Granny Grace's firm. But she's training me first."

"I bet she is," said Dave, who gave her a kiss on the cheek. "There's no better teacher than Amazing Grace."

"What did she ever teach you?" Cat asked.

"Didn't your grandmother ever tell you how we met?" asked Simon. 

"No, she didn't."

"Well, Dave here went to her for spiritual guidance. He was forty-two, unhappily married--to a woman, let me add--and working as a corporate lawyer for a chemical company. After a couple sessions with your grandmother, he filed for divorce and quit his job. I met him two years later at one of Grace's legendary cocktail parties."

"My grandmother, the matchmaker. And now you're helping those in need," Cat said, finishing the story. Dave was a lawyer who represented women pressing charges against abusive men.

Dave put his hand in Simon's. "But most importantly, now I'm happy." The two smiled at each other.

"I didn't know Granny Grace counseled people," she said. 

"It was part of what she did as a volunteer for a meditation center," Dave explained. 

"Yes, that was back when Dave was dabbling in New Age spiritualism, trying to find himself," said Simon, a teasing hint to his tone.

"Don't mock it," Dave said. "It led me to you, didn't it?"

"True," he admitted. Then, turning to Cat, he asked, "Has your grandmother taken you to her meditation class?" 

Cat laughed. "You mean, have I sat in the presence of Guru Dave? Yes, I have. And my spirit has transcended the physical sphere and is entirely without ego attachment."

Simon snickered. "Oh, God. It's all over once the chanting begins."

"At least I don't have to shave my head," Cat said. "Guru Dave thinks shaving hides what the divine has created."

"I once had my chakras realigned," Dave said. "My heart chakra slipped down to my butt." The two men roared with laughter.

"Now, how are you really doing?" Simon asked once the laughter died down.  

"Honestly speaking," Cat admitted, "I'm having the hardest time finding a job. I can't even get work as a barista. Of course, it would help if I'd ever made something besides my mom's drip coffee."  

"It's rough out there these days," said Simon, and Dave nodded in agreement. 

"We've halted construction on one of our condo projects," he continued. "The irony is, we have to pay to have a security guard on the premises."

"Say," Simon faced Dave, looking as if a lightbulb had popped up over his head. "Maybe she could be our booth guard."

"Yeah, yeah," agreed Dave. "The guy they've got out there now just sleeps all day. Cat would be great!"

They turned to her. "We know it's beneath you, sweetie," Dave ventured, "but think about it. We'd love to have you as our rent-a-cop!" 

As they moved to greet some friends of theirs, Dave, the bigger jokester of the two, squeezed her arm. "Hey, Cat, did you see the satyr in the bathroom? Crazy what that Chihuly can do with glass, isn't it?"

Simon pulled him away, making tsk-tsk noises. "Dave, I think that's only in the men's room." Then turning to Cat, he winked and said, "We'll call you about the guard gig."

And that was that. Cat had her first full-time job. At first she thought it wouldn't be so bad. She imagined she would be like the security guards at the hospital where she'd been a candy striper: sit in an office all day, maybe even watch a little TV, walk around the building every hour, piece of cake. 

But when she showed up for her first day--make that first night, since she'd been given the highly despised 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift--she met Tony, the security company's general manager. Tony only came up to Cat's shoulder in height, and he had a row of broken, crooked, yellowing teeth. He smelled of cigarettes and mothballs. 

"I'm here to guard the building," Cat said by way of introduction. Conscious of favoritism, she didn't mention Simon and Dave.

"You're not guarding a building," Tony barked at her.

"I'm not? Well then, what am I guarding?"

"A construction site."

"Well, yes, I know they're not done building it. Am I guarding the equipment?"

"No equipment," he replied. "The contractors cleared that out already."

"Um, I don't understand," said Cat. "What is there?"

"About three floors of an eight-story condom project," Tony said. He leered at Cat to see if she had heard his mispronunciation. 

She decided to ignore for a moment his attempt at wit, and the fact that this constituted sexual harassment. "I know that, but what am I protecting? Are they afraid the copper pipes will get stolen?" She knew copper was sometimes stolen out of abandoned buildings and sold for scrap.

"Yeah, that's part of it, smart girl. The other part is liability. Someone gets hurt there, they sue your fairy friends." He made a little flying Tinker Bell motion with his hands when he said the bit about Simon and Dave.

So Tony already knew her ties to the owners. This was not going in a good direction, and Cat hesitated to ask the next question--after all, this was Seattle, and it had been raining for the last three days. 

"Is there a roof?"

"Only in part of the building, but that don't matter none to you. You'll stay outside the condo in the hut."

Tony hadn't lied about the booth, and she thought maybe his word for it, "hut," was more accurate. Cat spent her first week sitting in a four-by-four hut with one tiny window. She had a radio that ran on batteries, her flashlight, and a clipboard of papers on which she was supposed to record her rounds. The bathroom was a port-a-john about ten feet away. 

To make the job even duller, Tony had carefully instructed her about how this security thing worked: "You make your rounds every hour on the hour. You take ten minutes to make the rounds, no more, no less. The rest of the time you stay in the hut."

"Won't that make it kind of easy for someone to avoid security?"

Tony looked at her with contempt. "Listen, smart girl, here's how it works. We contract with the client to provide security. In the contract we specify exactly what we will do, and we do exactly that. If a representative from the company comes by to check on you at five minutes after the hour, and you are in the hut, you are fired. On the other hand, if he comes by at fifteen minutes after the hour, and you are not in the hut, you are fired. Do I make myself clear?"

"So what if someone steals something at half past the hour?" 

Tony had a surprising ability to convey disdain with his expressions. "It's an empty building. And you'll spot the thieves before they ever get around to ripping out any copper, trust me."

The only bright spot for Cat was that Granny Grace let her drive Siddhartha to work, since by bus it would have meant three transfers and more than an hour-long trip to the Eastside. Granny Grace had taken Cat out in the old Mercedes for an instructional test run. The car handled beautifully; it was the smoothest ride she'd ever driven. On Cat's first day of work, Granny Grace had been on hand to bid her bon voyage. 

Cat sat in the driver's seat while her grandmother assessed her from outside. "The only thing missing is your attitude," she observed. "You look like someone borrowing a Mercedes for the day. You need to drive it like you own it."

"Now how am I supposed to look like that when I'm wearing a rent-a-cop uniform?" Cat asked.

"Put these on," Granny Grace ordered, handing her a pair of her Jackie O. shades. 

"Gran, it's dark and rainy outside."

"So what? Now stick your chin out."

"There. That's my granddaughter." Granny Grace smiled her approval. "Don't let the birds poop on Siddhartha," she added, patting the car's fender as Cat started it up. "He's used to the garage."

 

 


A So-Called 'Slacker' Talks Back

 

Mopirglisa_AV
The author in 1991, when she ran the summer canvass for Missouri Public Interest Research Group (MoPIRG).

Every time a social commentator dusts off the old generational saw and puts forth a new theory about what's happening with Generation X, I groan. After 25 years, it's tiresome to be told over and over that my entire generation is comprised of a bunch of "slackers," that my friends and I have somehow failed at the game of life. That is, when I have time to read the stories. I'm usually too busy working. 

When the movie "Slacker" came out in 1991, I didn't have time to see it in theaters. That year, I was enrolled in college full-time while simultaneously running what was then (in terms of membership) Missouri's largest environmental organization. I was also holding down several part-time jobs and putting myself through school on a mix of scholarships, loans, and my own income, as no one was paying my way.

When I finally saw the movie on VHS, I thought the "Madonna's pap smear" character had a sense of humor that was cannily similar to my high school best friend's, but other than that, the movie didn't resonate with me.

None of my friends seemed to be slacking off, either. That high school best friend went to one of the best journalism schools in the country, was politically active, and had launched her own paper devoted to animal rights issues. Most of the other people I knew were working in "the movement" in some way, knocking on doors in the evenings trying to raise money and grassroots support for bills that would, for example, bring least-cost utility planning to Missouri or raise corporate auto fuel efficiency standards. Not as sexy as a 60s protest, but these are the nuts-and-bolts of real social change.

So whenever Generation X gets unfavorably compared to the baby boomers, I feel defensive, and justifiably so. We've been living under the shadow of the baby boomers all our lives, and enough is enough. It's time to question the authority that taught us to question authority.

As a student activist for all of my undergrad days, I took part in quite a few public demonstrations: to protest the first Iraq War, to fight racist policies, to uphold Roe vs. Wade, to protest the Catholic church's stance on gays. But what I'm most proud of is the measurable change we brought about in the form of community gardens planted, food distributed to those without, and bills passed to protect our rights, our air, and our water. Some of the members of my generation did a fine job of continuing the legacy of the boomers, and the world is better off than it would have been without us. And we did it without burning down any buildings.

But Generation X has always been on the cusp of an empire in decline. And what that means is that a lot of us, despite our practical idealism, find ourselves in adulthood having to shift from savior mode into survival mode.

We've lived through a recession in the 90s followed by a short-lived boom followed by terrorism, wars, and economic collapse. Pensions, the likes of which many of our boomer parents still enjoy, have albeit disappeared for us. The very notion that a person could work for a company throughout her adulthood and then count on being taken care of by that company in her old age seems quaint and unreal to us, like Beaver Cleaver's white picket fence. We've had to do more with less than our parents. As this chart vividly illustrates, the U.S. was recently surpassed by China as the world's number one economy.

Most of us are saddled with student loan debt we might still be paying off in our old age. I don't know a single person who doesn't feel deeply depressed after clicking through her company's online retirement calculator, if she's lucky enough to have a job with a 401(k) plan. We know Social Security likely won't be there for us when we need it. The money taken out of our paychecks now funds the baby boomers' retirements, but it looks like it won't be there by the time we can no longer work. And even if by some miracle it is, it won't be enough to live on, especially since many of us won't own our own homes. Most of us figure we'll just have to keep going till we drop.

Even those Gen Xers who never tried to change the world were working hard at what they were doing: starting businesses, raising children, making art, you know, little things like trying to become writers during the collapse of the newspaper and publishing industries. That high school best friend of mine never got a chance to be a journalist despite her J-school pedigree.

By the time I hit my 30s, I had shifted from politics to non-profit fundraising to education, hoping to effect social change on an individual level with every student I taught. I turned down a university teaching post in favor of working for a community college, reasoning that I could have more of an impact with that student population than I would at an expensive, private university.

But even after earning tenure, I was still making far less than median salary for my region. Because my raise each year would be lower than the rate of inflation, I was staring down the barrel at a lifetime of personal economic struggle, in which I'd be effectively making less every year while the cost of living would continue to rise. 

And not only that - I felt like my impact on students was very limited by the broken educational system in which I tried to function. Washington state had put its funding into community colleges at the expense of four-year universities, and both students and teachers suffer as a result.

I'd expected to teach a traditional community college population of students in transition, some of them underprepared for college due to the challenges of their circumstances. Instead, community college instructors in Washington state are effectively asked to cover the first two years of a four-year education for the majority of students in the state, but for far less money than their university cohorts, with far fewer resources, and with a higher classroom student/teacher ratio. It's essentially McEducation.

On top of that was the pile of student loans I had to pay off. Then I rode the roller coaster real estate market, buying a house, selling it high, buying another, and having to sell it again, coming out on the whole deal with no gain and more debt.

So in my 30s, for the first time in my adulthood, I went to work for Corporate America, eschewing my idealistic mandate in the process. It's taken me a decade, but I'm almost out of student loan debt. Even so, I'm priced out of the housing market where I live, and my retirement calculator still makes me weep.

Perhaps in our shift to survival mode, we have failed to fight the good fight. These days, I'm an armchair activist at best. But some of my Gen X friends stayed in teaching, and they've done a lot of good, even if they haven't been able to change any of the frustrating aspects of the structure in which they must teach.

Cambodiafundraiser
The author with her husband, raising money for their spiritual center's trip to Cambodia.

Have I given up my idealism? I help my family, friends, and community whenever I can, and I donate an annual tithe to worthy causes. I've committed a portion of the sales of my book, Cat in the Flock, to Jubilee Women's Center, a fantastic org that helps women transition out of homelessness. At this point, I've donated more than I've earned on the book, and that's OK.

I'm relying on a lot of anecdotal evidence here to make the argument that my generation has never deserved its "slacker" label. You can mesh that with the statistics that have been flinging around the Internets for years about rising education costs, skyrocketing student loan debts, wage shrinkage for everyone except the topmost earners, the dissolution of the middle class, the real estate debacle, the dismal propects for Social Security, etc., etc.

While this argument is structured as a defense, I hope I don't sound overly defensive. Is it right to generalize any group of people, especially on so arbitrary a foundation as birth? Generational theory is specious at best. It's only meaningful in the event of a short-term, measurable spike in births, making the baby boomers the only true cohort we can examine. While I can look across the experiences of the men and women around my age and defend us in a general sense, I also see a great deal of variance.

 The baby boomers were the last generation that shared a common culture, focused as the nation was on a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers. There used to be more of a collective gaze, a shared set of role models and celebrities. Everyone paid attention to the Beatles, or what was on top 40 radio. But now entertainment and media are balkanized, broken up into a gazillion cable and YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, and Instagram sensations. These days we gravitate toward tribes and identifications. My stepson, who's 15, has no idea what's happening in Seattle's indie rock hipster culture. But ask him about rap stars, and you get a dissertation. The very notion of a "popular" culture is being replaced by demographic preferences.

Generation X was on the cusp of this shift, and many of us are overly nostalgic about our vanished American childhoods as a result. We go wild when listicles like "You know you were born in the 70s/80s if you recognize these" pop up on social media, and we can't help but scroll through, pining for our lost Garbage Pail Kids. Despite acrimonious divorce and/or real abuse that sent many of us into therapy, our childhoods from this vantage point can seem recklessly idyllic. We picture ourselves back then, drinking from garden hoses with abandon and riding our bikes without helmets, the breeze blowing through our Farah Fawcett wings.

We also saw a shift in the idea of role model. Our parents' generation to this day continues to idealize men like Bobby Kennedy, JFK, and Martin Luther King - men who were rubbed out in the prime of their lives. My cynical Gen X mind wonders what would have happened to these men's legacies if they'd lived to old age. It's Ted Kennedy, after all, whom we link to Chappaquiddick, and the baby of the family hasn't been lionized like his brothers have. JFK may have been involved with Marilyn Monroe, but that just deepens his appeal.

By contrast, many of Gen X's would-be heroes have lived long enough to have flamed out in big, embarrassing ways: Pee-wee Herman's public masturbation, Bill Cosby's string of 13 (and counting) rape allegations, Bill Clinton as the highest office of sexual harrassment in the land. Then there's Michael Jackson, Gary Hart, Dennis Kucinich, Whitney Houston, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Ted Nugent, the list goes on.

Some of them recover and reinvent, like Bill Clinton and Robert Downey, Jr. But still. 

A line from a Gen X-era song sums it up well: "Who'll be my role model/ now that my role model is gone, gone? He ducked back down the alley/ with some roly-poly litte bat-faced girl." Notably, the songwriter is Paul Simon, beloved baby boomer, adopted by my generation.

Perhaps the last best hope many of us had was Barack Obama. But when he reversed his campaign position on the Iraq War and government overreach in his first term, he kind of broke us. But then again, as much as that hurt, it didn't really surprise us. We've come to expect it. Some of us even voted for him a second time, because you know. Politics.

But just think for a moment about what kind of legacy he would have if god forbid he'd been assassinated during his first year in office.

Of course that couldn't have happened; we're in a different time and place than the baby boomers. Our struggles are not to change the social fabric of society the way the 60s hippies needed to do. While our parents were questioning the very authority that was the Great Empire of the United States, we're too busy trying to survive, or change what is still in our power to change, as that empire slowly but surely declines.

 

 


The Righteous Fight

Recently in my women's sangha group, I presented an alternate point of view that didn't go over well. I was challenging the position expressed in the book we are reading, Wayne Dyer's The Power of Intention. I argued for something I want to now call "righteous fight." 

I'd read through Dyer's chapter on stress, "It Is My Intention to: Live a Stress-Free, Tranquil Life" twice. It just so happened, through some divine coincidence, that my employer offered a stress management workshop that same week. My problem with Dyer and the stress management workshop are the same: They both expect the person experiencing stress to manage or cope with the stress instead of questioning and working to change the source of the stress. Dyer in fact states that the person feeling stress is the source: "But there's no actual stress or anxiety in the world; it's your thoughts that create these false beliefs."

This is a very dangerous position, one tantamount to blaming the victim. It also seems on the face of it, preposterous. My stress management workshop reminded me of what we all know from fourth-grade science class: Stress is a natural biological reaction, the "fight or flight" reaction that helps keep human beings alive in the face of very real, very present stressors, such as a cougar stalking you as prey. In today's world, there aren't as many cougars, but a human being could attack you on the street any time.

Stress manifests itself in numerous, very real ways. Dyer erroneously states, "the stress in your body is rarely the result of external forces or entities attacking you." Well, sometimes it literally is, as in the news article I linked to above, about a woman who reported being randomly attacked by a man who choked her to the point of unconsciousness. 

Now as I shared with my sangha group, I do think there is value in Dyer's overall message, which is to take control of your own thoughts so that you don't become mired in a stress-response feedback loop, unable to move in a positive direction. If the woman attacked on the street closed herself off from society after that incident, she'd move from legitimate reaction to a real stressor in the world to stress based on self-perpetuating thoughts. No longer under attack, the woman will need to work through her experience, expressing her legitimate anger, pain, sorrow, or whatever other emotions naturally arise, and then move on.

However, what gets lost in Dyer's message is the idea of "fight." There are times when action is required, perhaps even in order to heal. Take the woman in the attack example above. If what she needs to heal is to successfully fight the very real forces in the world that lead to her attack, then we should applaud her. Say she campaigns for safer streets, or for better mental health services. She's doing something in the world that helps both herself and others. It's the doing, the action, that works.

But is anger necessary? We're taught to "manage" and "cope" with our stress, not question and fight the policies, practices, and systems that produce it. Returning to the stress management workshop, the message there was for stressed-out employees to eat well, get enough sleep, and take up yoga or meditation. But nowhere was it mentioned that perhaps we should question the source of stress in the first place and work to change it.

And doing that, especially in our structured systems and societies, sometimes takes righteous anger. When Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple, he didn't do it with smiles and handshakes. 

 

 As the writer Zora Neale Hurston once said, sometimes you have to "grab the broom of anger" in order to "drive off the beast of fear."

And where would we be without these fighters? Think of the long list of human rights gains that would not have been possible without those who've fought the good fight, from women's suffrage up through the civil rights movement of the 60s and our current struggles to recognize gay rights. Because our forebears got angry and worked to change the world, our world is a better place.

What I was doing that night was fighting for an alternative viewpoint, which was actively discouraged. My fellows meant well; Dyer's words had resonated with them, and they wanted to help me feel the same. But my work is to integrate new ideas and thoughts with what I know to be true about the world, and by discouraging a dissenting voice, they weren't supporting me in that.

One woman that night spoke of not wanting to get caught up in the "negative" place of fighting to change what's happening in her neighborhood, where development policies threaten sustainability and fair housing. Her position is fully legitimate, and I support her in it. But I also hope she will support those who are taking up the cause in her name, those who are fighting to change policies she thinks are wrong. My friend doesn't have to be the one to argue, but she could donate to the cause of those who do, or send them a care package, or continue to showcase her home and lifestyle as an alternative.

And I hope she doesn't judge those who are doing the fighting. They'll need her help in order to win.

 Addendum: There are some interesting critiques of Wayne Dyer out there, such as this one that gets to the problem with victim-blaming and this one that presents an analysis of Dyer's books. I offer them as alternative ideas one could read along with Dyer, in synthesis, and read with the same critical eye I'm applying to Dyer himself and for that matter, all texts.

 


Knowing It by Heart

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I'm part of a group of women who meet every other week to discuss spiritual matters and support each other in the world. We're new and still defining what we are, but we use the word "sangha." Google that word, and you get a lot of hits about Buddhist monastic orders. We're not Buddhists (not that there's anything wrong with that), so we're using the term a lot more loosely, a bit like this guy's definition, "those people or things that are intent on a constructive goal." 

At our last meeting, the women really wanted me to talk about my recent wedding and honeymoon. I sometimes revert to extreme introversion when suddenly the focus of attention, despite functioning as an extrovert (for the most part) in my world of work. So all expectant eyes were on me, and instead of telling them glowing things about my lovely wedding at our spiritual center or my adventurous honeymoon in Barcelona, I related a gripe about a mundane wedding-planning annoyance that had created more drama than it deserved.

It's understandable that I'd do this, as griping commiseration is what women tend to do in my experience when they get together socially. This isn't entirely bad; women need an outlet, a safe space to vent and find validation. Falling back on that when put on the spot isn't surprising.

Plus, I knew they were looking for something close to the heart, and that's harder for me to do, especially with people I'm still getting to know. And even though I've been through some intense spiritual classes with these women and have been discussing big topics like death and self-actualization with them all summer, I'm not always there yet, especially with matters closest to my heart, as my marriage is.

But what I'd forgotten in that movement toward the easier, negative place is intention on that "constructive goal" inherent in the definition of sangha. We're not a gathering of gal pals meeting for happy hour. I have that in my life and value it, and the gripe in question would have made for a great story for one of those meetups.

But my sangha is and should be about a different kind of community conversation.

I got a very nicely worded prodding from a fellow sangha member after our meeting - she called me on my decision to share a gripe. I had at first a flash of irritation, reading it as an attempt to censor me. But I was undone by the sweet invitation in her email, to tell her more so that her mental image of my wedding would be replaced with something more befitting what she had heard was a lovely, momentous event.

So I wrote back to her with this: 

I thought about my vows for months. I thought about them when I ran, and when I meditated and was supposed to be emptying my mind. A week before the wedding, I wrote them down. I told [our minister] I would have them memorized for the ceremony, and he told me I shouldn't put that pressure on myself (as if patting my head). He said he'd hold a cheat sheet for us to look at "on stage."

 The morning of the wedding, I rewrote my vows in my head while showering. I didn't write them down. 

 When I stood up there, I ignored the cheat sheet, looked into my beloved's eyes, and spoke from my heart.

My sangha friend wrote back with this: "Hm, that's what it truly means, when we say we know something by heart."

And so it is.