Author Your Story with the Ink of Your Soul

I once read that our earliest memories aren’t really our memories at all, but rather “tokens” given to us by others. These tokens come to us through the experiences of others who remember that which we cannot. These experiences are often represented by memory-infused material culture: photos, mementos, and souvenirs of our past. These images and objects hold the memories in tangible form, and they provide us with a framework for our earliest identity.

Due to our human need and propensity for story telling, these tokens are not merely a lists of facts and objective observations. Our human psyches are wired to find patterns and meaning, even where they do not objectively exist. Think of constellations in the night sky; people point to individual stars and present them to us in a certain way to create a picture. The stars themselves are observable objectively, but a subjective story is presented to make meaning of what we see. Is the Milky Way a river of snow, wheat, milk from goddesses, or coyote mischief? Well, that depends on who is telling the stories. These different explanations came from Inuit, Egyptian, Greek/Roman, and Navajo cultures; the context and subjective reality of the story teller shapes the story.

Our tokens are handed to us in the same way as these constellation stories; others’ memories are infused with their own explanations and meaning and linked to create a picture of who we are when we are yet too young to have any say in that matter. The individual memories (metaphorically, the stars) speak of our birth story, when we said our first words (and which words they were), when we took our first steps, and how often we cried. They also usually come with an assigned gender, a personality, and a set of expectations to play our part in a greater worldview-driven story created by others. By the time we are conscious enough to comprehend these origin stories, we have internalized them as our own. 

But they are not entirely or exactly our own stories. They were given to us by others. Those who wrote our origin stories are typically older or more powerful than we are, and therefore they often hold the keys of power and control to the narrative. Think now of the word “authority” and look at what’s buried within it. The words “author” and “authority” have the same root and for good reasons. Those in power write the story.

These stories serve a purpose in the beginning of our lives; typically, the authors have good intentions, and these stories give us a sense of belonging and a frame of reference. Ideally, story-tellers hold these story-writing powers with openness and curiosity. They sense into how and when to pass the pen on to the protagonist. If we, as the initial authorities in a person’s life, remain curious about our own biases and feelings, we allow the protagonist to self express and become the author of their own story. If we remain curious about who others are, we can leave space and freedom for them to grow and evolve.

The story telling doesn’t begin and end in our homes, however. 

As we enter society, we are given scripts for our part in broader social stories about what’s appropriate behavior or who it’s appropriate to be—usually these stories and scripts come to us with categories, often in binary forms. Sometimes it’s so embedded in the social norms that we don’t overtly notice it, and sometimes it’s pretty stark. Subliminally and sometimes overtly, we are handed a sociological story and given a script for how to play our part: 

“You there, we’ll call you female role 3 billion and 1. You can be overly placating and ceaselessly apologetic for your feminine existence. You’ll see how that really jives with the story arc in act 3 where masculinity equals higher worth. Your character really peaks when she decides to be more masculine as a way to earn respect. Denying her empathic and intuitive tendencies to mask herself as cold and unfeeling—it’s great. Society will reinforce her belief that it’s progress, but really people are just becoming more masculine and thus still oppressing all that is feminine. They won’t figure this out until the planet is already on fire because they were overly aggressive and despised all that was nurturing and empathic. Similarly, male role 3 billion and 2, stop being such a sissy. You think the world cares about your feelings? Get back to being a machine. Subdue and conquer—yourself first and then everything else.”

We as a society have a lot of work to do in deconstructing our gender biases. Maybe someone wants to embrace their feminine nature, but they live in a context where that’s unacceptable. For example, maybe when they express sadness or empathy or sensitivity, they are mocked or told to toughen up. Perhaps they’re made to intellectualize away their feelings. Or perhaps the opposite is true; it could be that someone is made to diminish their strength and assertiveness and present as passive or overly agreeable. They are referred to as “mean” or “bossy” or “aloof” when they are confident, strong, and independent. 

Gender identity is becoming more complex and it is a huge category of story telling that is challenging our binary thinking. Gender fluidity, gender expansiveness, gender nonconformity—these are words that are beginning to make their way into our language as a society because humans are complex and dynamic. Sexual orientation is another topic—we are beginning to realize that as we allow people to have rights and expression without fear, there is a whole range and spectrum to sexual orientation. 

There is also the topic of worldview which has a huge bearing on one’s story. Someone may want to embrace a different worldview than they inherited, or they may want to try their hand at living apart from any particular faith or spiritual tradition. 

All of these examples of topics and issues and categories have to do with the stories that people are given versus the private stories that are innate. It is not easy to deviate from the stories we’ve been given, and it takes incredible strength and courage to endure the fire that awaits us if we step out of others’ stories and into our own.

When a person’s private stories—the mythology that bubbles up from within—do not match the public mythology they’ve been given, Joseph Campbell describes the journey as follows:

“They’ve moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of original experience. Original experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you’ve got to work out your life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can’t. You don’t have to go far off the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience—that is the hero’s deed.”

These identity-level stories we are given are the ones that are most critical to author ourselves, and yet, they are often the most difficult to re-write and express. This is because we fear losing what is at stake if we are rejected. There are many psychological needs that we juggle as humans whether we are aware of that fact or not. A sense of belonging, having nurturing relationships, seeking explanations for why things are the way they are, securing a sense of meaning and purpose for our lives—these are some of the many deep needs that exist in our psyches and feel at stake when we step out in authentic self-expression. For some of us, those of us who want to go on to complete the hero’s deed, there is often a need that supersedes or underlies all the others: authenticity. 

There it is again: that cluster of letters “auth.” Authentic comes from the Greek word “authentikos” which comes from the ancient Greek “authentes” which means “one acting on one’s own authority.”

There comes a time when every person must decide who will author their story.

Each of our souls has a story to tell. If we take heart and begin living with our souls penning the story, it’s one of the most powerful and invigorating ways to live. The stakes are higher—there is more to lose and more to gain. An authentic, soul-guided life takes courage and we won’t always receive positive or supportive feedback. But when we live authentically, we are authoring our own stories—with our soul as the ink in the pen. It’s not for everyone to live this way, I suppose. But for me, it’s the only way worth living. 

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The path of true love has never led me astray. Though I’ve felt lost at times or confused—shipwrecked even, and without clear sight of Polaris—Polaris has always been there. Sometimes she is obscured under the clouded night sky, but she is ever-blazing and constant. And for me Polaris is Love. Shakespeare agreed, 

“it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,”

A logical question one might now ask is, “What is Love?”

As Hartley Coleridge asks,

“Is love a fancy, or a feeling? No,
It is immortal as immaculate Truth.”

My infinitely knowable quest to discover “What is Love?” is built upon the premise that Love is not a fancy or a feeling; it is something more objectively true and real. There is a lot of agreement through the ages about what it means to live a good, loving life. If we comb through some of the teachings of the wisest, spiritual sages who have ever lived (i.d., Jesus, the Buddha, Vyasa etc) we can see a lot of deep, universal agreement about what love is and isn’t. Generosity, altruism, patience, humility, contentedness, wise speech, caring for others, etc., are all characteristics of love upon which they agree. Despite the distance and years that separated these spiritual leaders on the topic of virtue, kindness, or love, there is a lot of shared understanding about what it means to be kind or to love others. 

Furthermore, I think that love is an active practice. It is a spiritual path that one can follow through making choices to embody the characteristics of love. In my experience, the path of love never fails. 

In regard to the experiential method of learning, at times this never-ending pursuit of living in line with Love has caused me to make bold life choices. I enjoy throwing myself into situations that demand that I grow into a better version of myself. An interesting blend between fatalism and my intense force of will, I imagine these life situations that I seek are like a rushing river with class 5 rapids. I immerse myself in them, and my psyche (mind, soul, heart, spirit, whatever nomenclature you prefer) is like a stone getting shaped and smoothed by the force of the water and the friction of the other rocks and sediment brushing up against me. In my best moments, I love the thrill and external force of the process. In the agonizing moments, I regret ever chipping off the mountain in the first place. 
One of the biggest, raging rivers into which I threw my whole family was our move to Vermont. 

I asked myself time and again over the first year we lived here in Vermont “why exactly am I here?” I had my reasons, and I’d go back through them in my mind (we wanted somewhere socially progressive but also rural. We wanted to be immersed in nature. We wanted to experience the drastic change of seasons. We wanted water features on our land (i.e., a creek or a pond but also in general even just plenty of rain WATER and not wildfires). We wanted to be positioned well for the trajectory of climate change. We wanted the ability to have animals, live more sustainably, etc. etc.  We had this list of criteria for our hearts’ desire, but at times any specific decision felt all too arbitrary. How does one pick a place out of ALL the places and move there? We had some paralysis due to having TOO MANY OPTIONS. 

It was ironic in the Alanis Morissette way (which isn’t actually the dictionary or literary definition of irony, but still a good one that she made quite catchy). Once we had what we always strove to have (total location independence) we felt completely overwhelmed by it. 

I think there’s a temptation among some of us to strive for a life with few or no restrictions. No financial restrictions! No location restrictions! No relationship restrictions! No obligations! No commitments! No boundaries! I’m not so sure that too much of this type of freedom doesn’t diminish one’s life quality. The illusion that being limitless will bring natural happiness can cause people to become addicted to chasing the ephemeral and arbitrary means to an end (good feelings, money, fame, success) rather than living a good, albeit more simple life. I think that an overwhelming amount of freedom or a surplus of material resources can sometimes result in indecisive paralysis and a tendency toward existential crisis and/or depression. 

We had the unique opportunity to choose from almost anywhere—at least in the contiguous United States, and we chose this tiny, rural town in Vermont. How? Why?

The deeper answer (apart from checking a lot of boxes on our list of criteria) came to me recently. At each point so far in my adult life that it has been time to make the next, big decision, I’ve set my compass to Love and asked “where is it pointing?” It doesn’t always happen quickly; sometimes it’s a process. But using my values (like stars) to orient myself, (my North Star being Love), so far I’ve come to trust my sense for this type of navigation way more than actually, physically getting from point A to point B.

It doesn’t come without a lot of internal work; I have decided to move back to California on more than one occasion. There aren’t many distractions here from what is, and it has demanded that I dig deep at times to grow, learn, and constantly challenge the current version of myself. When you live immersed in a more natural than cultural world, you have to be present with reality in a different way.

Take death, for example, and killing. These woods are teeming with life; that means we also see a lot of death. There is a very real food chain, and we see it in action frequently. At first, this was a huge shock for us, and it made us uncomfortable. We would happen upon snakes eating frogs or even foxes or minks eating our chickens, and we’d feel terribly sad, angry, and defiant. But the cycles and processes of nature happen regardless of how we feel about them, and there is actually a lot of comfort in that. Eventually, when we grew beyond the initial emotional resistance to accepting death as a normal part of life, we made our peace with it. It doesn’t mean we celebrate or happily allow predators to eat our animals, but there is an acquiescence to something bigger than ourselves—in this case the natural world. Being present with the processes that keep our biosphere in balance has made me reconsider my relationship with death.

I moved here a vegetarian in my spirituality as well as in my dietary choices. That is, I believed that I wasn’t causing as much death or harm by being a vegetarian. In addition to the natural world per se, living among sustainable, small scale farmers has caused me to reexamine these beliefs. Is it really causing less death to purchase Beyond Meat in all its plastic packaging? After it has been processed in ways that presumably require a substantial amount energy and shipped all over the country using fossil fuels—is this really promoting more life? Side by side, two pieces of “meat” sat upon our grill one day—one from a grass-fed cow who lived a good life in a pasture down the street until he was quickly and kindly killed before he knew what was happening. That was not my meat. Mine was the one from a plastic container made to assuage my guilt and delude me into thinking nothing dies for me to eat. But everything dies. Death is natural. It’s part of life. And life isn’t possible without death. And deciding to be the thoughtful architect of death to build a more sustainable life for oneself, one’s community, and the world at large—this is good. So, I still haven’t eaten meat because I’m not there (yet or maybe ever will be) but I surely don’t think that being a vegetarian here in Vermont is a superior path when compared to the way my neighbors here raise and consume their meat. These are the types of forces of raging river water that I want to shape me, to force me to grow. If we all can allow ourselves to reexamine the things we assume we are right about, I think the world would be a kinder, more evolved, and more connected place. And that is one way that love never fails; we remain open to the process of letting life and love transform us.

Collin and I decided to move to these 64 acres atop a mountain in Vermont together—just outside of a tiny, rural town from 3,000 miles away, leaving a life and place that we loved and some of our closest friends. How? Why? We put our love, and love itself, at the center of the decision-making process. And when we looked at where the compass pointed, it was here. We couldn’t predict the outcomes, but we could promise each other that we’d grow stronger in our love through whatever happened. So we made that promise, and we moved here as a result.

When we drove up to the property that we now call “home” I felt it resonate with me in a deep way. I envisioned my kids’ lives unfolding here in a way that would be the stuff of their wildest, childhood dreams. And I saw that it meant that we could all share something together that would allow our magnificent love take shape, form, and place. Some of our magnificent love now has the form of 9 feathery ladies happily roaming the land (as well many other non-human family members who have joined the crew). Love taking shape here looks like wilder versions of my kids tracking coyotes, sledding for miles in the winter with their friends, building tree forts, or testing their mettle in various ways. Our love taking place, looks like hosting gatherings of friends and family who venture across the country to be here, in this space that we hold and keep for them as much as for ourselves. It looks like traipsing over, down, or across the mountain—sometimes through snow, sometimes mud, and sometime dry, rocky ground littered with the most spectacular autumn leaves—and relating to our various neighbors who all somehow, in all the great, big world, ended up here too. It looks like beautiful wooden tables, bunk beds, and bathroom vanities that Collin has made from trees he milled. And our love also looks like the gorgeous, sturdy stone bridge that Collin built from stones he found all in these woods. This bridge will outlast us all and hint at a story of a family that once lived epically with love at the center of their home.

If you are facing a big decision, or you have made a big decision recently that was based on your values (rather than chasing feelings), take courage that whatever comes next will be a result of some very deep part of your inner wisdom. If you allow the process to shape you, change you, and allow you to grow, then you’re in for one, profound adventure. You cannot predict the outcomes life gives you, but you can choose how you will respond. 

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Made of Star Stuff

The longer I live, and the more varied experiences I have, I realize that my psychological wiring is inclined toward feeling the peaks and valleys of the human experience. And while not everyone will relate to quite the level of intensity that I will describe here, I do think we all have the same, basic psychological needs that swing us across a spectrum of emotions and feelings. Here I’ll explain some of what it’s like for me to be an intense person, how that drives me to find meaning in the universe, my journey away from an established religion that used to meet these needs, and circle back to what I’m figuring out along the way. I’ll even throw in some tips for avoiding cults for free. 

In my darkest moments, I’m inescapably aware that I’ve got an aching soul that is fathoms deep. In these moments the adjectives are: insatiable, inconsolable, implosive. I feel like a black hole develops where my soul once was. No light can escape. I feel uncontainable. 

In my most illuminated moments, I am intoxicated by the very experience of being alive. I see profundity in the minutia and transcendence in the mundane. A song can enrapture me; a book can transform me. The adjectives are: passionate, electrifying, inspiring. I feel invincible.

I am pretty sure that I am missing just a teeny bit of momentum on the pendulum swing from being diagnosable as bipolar. I rely on Collin and my other closest relationships (including my therapist sister) to gauge this for me. For now, anyway, I’m comfortable understanding myself as: intense. 

Like seeks like sometimes, I guess. I’m drawn to intensity in music, art, food, coffee, wine. When I first heard Muse’s Map of the Problematique, I grieved that I wasn’t a note in that song so I could live inside of it. My soul quivered with deep relatability when I first listened to the lyrics of Frightened Rabbit’s Modern Leper. When I witness exceptional art of any kind—films, dance, song, poetry, painting, novels, sculpture, photography—I get goosebumps and could easily cry (if I let myself). I love philosophy and theory—I definitely spent more time with extraordinary, dead authors this past year than living people. They were great company. Kant is a little bit of a stuffed shirt, but definitely a stand up guy. Give me strong, dark, French Roast coffee or give me death. Okay, not really. But f*** off with your overpriced cup o’ acidic light roast dirt.

My inner life is like the death of a massive star, and I expect that I will burn out in glorious explosion at the end. I hope I don’t just slip in the shower or choke all by myself. That would be the worst. Since I hope it is many years down the road before I meet my glorious end, I am learning to accept my intensity as part of who I am rather than try to shut it down. Holding all of these vast and consuming feelings within oneself is a lot to contain, though. 

Wisdom is often found just by listening and understanding what’s happening in our natural world (after all, we are part of nature too). So, I sit with my intensity, and I wait for insight.

I’m reminded of wildfires.

In the past, the thought was that it was best to just extinguish wildfires because they threatened homes, livelihoods, wineries, and other important cultural institutions. These extreme efforts to completely extinguish the wildfires have actually made them worse and changed the natural fire regime. Many fire-prone ecosystems are optimized for fire. The Ponderosa Pine has naturally flame resistant bark. The Giant Sequoias drop resin-sealed seeds that only open in fire, and the fires keep competing plant species from taking over the ecosystem. Many ecosystems need regular, destructive fires to stay balanced. In recent years, one strategy that has been working better for both culture and nature is the active management of wildfires. That is, letting them burn but not letting them get out of control. Sometimes the fire inside just needs to rage while we stand by as witness to our intensity and protector of ourselves and all those around us as we burn.

So, I manage my inner world of wildfires by running, eating well, sleeping enough, taking herbs, watching how often and much wine I drink (experiencing myopia is my favorite, but using wine too often to cope with being me is the potential pitfall), writing, reading, hiking, listening to music, constantly seeking meaning in this universe, and infusing my life with adrenaline-surging adventure and experiences.

There has not been much happening in terms of that last line item lately, though. And by lately—I mean that we have been on this mountain not venturing farther than the grocery store for 387 days straight at this point. And during the height of the pandemic, I honestly didn’t know how or when or (at certain emotional low points) if we’d ever travel or move ever again. 

This sent me into regression (as described in my last post) and lead me to explore another strategy for coping with my intensity: finding meaning in the universe. Due to my intensity, and also the fact that I was indoctrinated from birth and then raised in a very all-consuming faith tradition that I intellectually left in my late 20s, I am constantly, often unconsciously looking for a replacement paradigm that ties everything all together. 

While I’m not shopping for a new religion, I do have to hand it over to the institution of religion: it ticks off a lot of boxes in the psychological needs department. It can often be a one-stop shop for finding meaning, purpose, explanations, nurturing relationships, and belonging. 

When one departs from the core elements of their religion and henceforth their religious community, it can be disorienting. There’s an unraveling that happens as one walks away from the faith tradition of their youth. You take one, big step, you lose your explanations. You take another few steps, and you’ve lost your meaning and purpose. You take a few more steps, and you’ve lost your nurturing relationships and sense of belonging. It is just like Weezer and the sweater song. Soon you find yourself miles from church and naked—metaphorically speaking (possibly literally too). And then you realize: wow. I have a lot to figure out. 

The thing about psychological needs is that they are real and we all have them. To be aware of our needs means that we can be informed about how we meet them. Denying that we have them or letting others dictate how we may and may not meet these needs often doesn’t make things better. And yet, sometimes it’s so tempting to meet the needs for belonging, explanations, and meaning, and purpose that we buy these needs at the expense of self expression, authenticity, and our critical thinking. 

When an ideology or institution pressures people to suppress one, basic psychological need in exchange for another (say self expression and authenticity as expressed in one’s sexual orientation or gender identity in exchange for a sense of belonging) this is not healthy. And it’s also just people making stuff up. There are few universals; the rest is culture. And when a culture becomes too rigid and imposing, it can become oppressive. Worst case scenario, it could become a cult.

As for me, I’m always trying to avoid the cults. I admit that I am attracted to all-consuming groups and ideologies—at least in the beginning. I think it’s a relic from my past combined with my intensity-driven desire to be consumed by something bigger than myself. I used to want to live on a commune, and I was willing to give up a lot of myself to do so (especially if the commune would have been some sweet destination like Europe or a small island off the coast of New Zealand). I have to remind myself not to get too swept up in any one thing too quickly because I also have an analytical mind, and fortunately that always wins in the end. So it’s just a matter of time until someone says or does something that I think is madness, and if and when the group majority just goes along like everything is fine, well, that’s when I usually am like, “Dang it. I almost accidentally joined a cult again.” 

Here are some pointers I now keep handy for avoiding cults:

  • Practice thinking analytically and try to come up with your own opinions incorporating real life (not just whatever the sacred text aka handbook is). Shop your ideas around a bit. See how people react. If they tell you that you aren’t “anointed” “enlightened” or whatever their special term is for “right” whenever your opinion is different than theirs—GTFO.
  • Listen to whatever music you want. If someone tells you can’t GTFO.
  • Wear whatever clothes you want. If someone tells you that you can’t: GTFO.
  • If someone tries to get you to burn something to prove your commitment—money, music, books, photos, etc—just GTFO.
  • If they try to control your body—including (but not limited to) your sexuality, GTFO.
  • If you are noticing that there’s social punishment for authentic self expression: you may be in a cult and you need to GTFO.

We all have basic, psychological needs that compel us to seek belonging, meaning, explanations, etc. Different cultures and ideologies seek to address these needs in specific ways, but as we become a more global and integrated world—we can observe that these cultural expressions for solutions to our needs are not the universals in themselves. 

So all of this to say—psychological needs are real and important and part of humanity. Humanity is part of nature. As Carl Sagan once said, we are all made of star stuff. The iron in our blood, the carbon in our muscles, the oxygen in our lungs: it was all made inside stars before the earth was born. 

So yes, when I say that my inner life is like the death of a massive star—it’s metaphorical and possibly literal too. And rather than try to fix myself or escape myself, I’m learning to love myself as I love the stars, the mountains, the rivers, the ocean, and all the lovable beings that live among us. I would never consider a raccoon evil. Raccoons can lash out in defensive aggression when they are afraid. It’s the same with humans. We are not evil—sometimes we lash out—unfortunately in tragic and dangerous ways at times—when our psychological and physical needs are unmet. But underpinning all this, we all have the needs to belong, to find meaning and purpose, to self-express authentically, and among other things: to be loved. 

As I continue on in my journey of being an intense person who is trying to live an authentic, integrated life, I circle back to the value that has always served as my polaris: Love. Even my concept of Love has evolved through the years. I used to think that Love meant holding onto people never letting them go. But sometimes love means releasing people and encouraging them to evolve and become who they need to be. Sometimes love means noncooperation with unkindness or injustice. Sometimes love means laying down your life for others. Sometimes love means finding your own path and flourishing so that all those around you can be better for your flourishing too. Sometimes love means sharing your truth, and sometimes love means holding back when someone can’t handle it. Sometimes love means finding common ground, and sometimes love means creating distance. 

Love is a vital and dynamic force, so it takes practice and discernment to figure out what it looks like in different scenarios. And growth mindset: making mistakes is how we learn! I do think, however, that we are all equipped with the innate wisdom to connect with finding what the Loving path is when we quiet our souls and listen. Because after all, in the words of Juvenal “Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.” If we are part of nature, then we have that innate wisdom within. 

I wish you all love and light, and may the fire of your massive stars within burn bright.

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Modern (Hu)man in Search of a Soul

I recently read, “Jung’s Map of the Soul” by Murray Stein. It’s an introduction to some basic concepts in Jungian psychology. Reading it helped me sort out some of the unconscious, underlying reasons that led me to Vermont. Understanding myself and reality per se through a Jungian lens has been very helpful for me, so I thought I’d share what I learned here for anyone else who may benefit. 

In the weeks and months following our move from Topanga, California to Pawlet, Vermont, it was common for people to ask me why we made such a drastic change. I would bumble around for words and string them together into reasons, so I could offer them a nice, neat answer. Somehow, though, I felt like any answer I could offer was insufficient. While my answers were honest, they were incomplete. A deeper truth evaded me. 

I sensed that there was an almost magnetic force that had drawn me to Vermont. In fact, the first year we lived here, I’d find myself in somewhat of a reverie feeling like a color form stuck on a random backdrop. I’d ask myself in these moments, “So, WHY are you HERE, Lindsay?”

To try to arrive at the answer, I’d think back to the weeks leading up to our move here. During the days of packing and visiting with friends, I’d think about the impending change optimistically, enthusiastically, and pragmatically. In the dark, quiet hours of the night, however, I’d feel a crushing, impending doom weighing on my soul. It was boundless dread for some unknown terror that awaited me. Looking back from here, I now know that I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of slowing down the pace of life enough to have to sit with what was actually inside of me. 

I was drawn to move here like it was my destiny. And perhaps it was. I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a beautiful life waiting for us here in Pawlet, Vermont—but only if I had the courage and the strength to come home to my own soul.

C.G. Jung describes how during the first half of our life, our ego is bound and determined to break free from the conglomerate of the whole, collective unconscious and become separate individuals. The great, psychological task of the first half of our life is to develop our ego and our persona. This is how we carve out our personality and forge our path in life. From a toddler who says “no” to their parents, to an adolescent (who also says “no” to their parents, but) with distinct style, strong feelings and opinions, and specific musical taste, to being a young adult striving for financial security and success–we are forging our conscious identity. Building a solid and well-structured ego is energy well-spent. As we rocket forward and away from the unconscious, however, important elements of ourselves remain in the depths of our identity. There is a lot of potential within us that we have never realized. There is a lot of life within us that we have never lived. Ultimately, the different elements of the soul long to be reunited. 

In the second half of life, it is common for us to realize that our conscious identity is not all there is. Sometimes we discover this under the pressure of hardships (illnesses, failures, heartbreaks, the death of someone we love), and sometimes it’s more of a midlife “Been there, done that. Now what?” experience. However we arrive at this realization, if and when we do, we discover that for our journey of individuation to continue, we need to re-integrate the parts with the whole again. In other words, to go further, we must go deeper.

And this is why it’s important that you did the work in the first half of life building your solid and sturdy ego. As Jung wrote after he suffered and survived a life threatening heart attack,

“It was only after the illness that I understood how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory.”

But sometimes, getting started on this second half of life task can be daunting (like when I would lie awake in bed in Topanga with a looming sense of terror). We don’t always want to face who we really are. There can be many reasons for this including confronting trauma in our past. It could also be because we fear losing important psychological resources in our life—our sense of belonging, our relationships, etc. If we feel that the people who matter to us rely on our persona to remain constant, we can be afraid to look deeper at what lies beneath the surface of consciousness. And if our persona is all that we’ve let people know of us, then we won’t feel very connected. To be truly loved, you need to be truly known. To be truly known by others, you need to truly know yourself. 

Persona: the part of our consciousness that is authentic as possible, but ceaselessly tries to be who we intuit we are supposed to be. It’s our social identity.

To help us in both halves of life—to 1) emerge as separate individuals with ego consciousness and also 2) to help us integrate the deep parts of ourselves—there is an innate special feature called compensation. 

Compensation: The job of compensation is to integrate our ego with our unconscious and help us to become more balanced. Compensation can manifest in slips of the tongue, accidents, great inspirations, dreams, mindless, automatic actions, etc. Compensation is when our unconscious gives us a little snippet to consider that we otherwise tried to leave behind. 

So, to use a metaphor from the novel-based film Fight Club, compensation is like when the character Tyler Durden works as a projectionist at the movie theatre, and he uses this job as an opportunity to splice subliminal scenes into family film reels. There is a little Tyler Durden type projectionist in all of us and compensation is when the cigarette burns appear in the corner of the film reel and a little something unexpected is introduced into our consciousness.This might not be the perfect metaphor (mostly due to the questionable character that was Tyler Durden—he was basically ALL shadow (aka the parts of our identity that we deem unacceptable and so push down below conscious level), and the unconscious includes a lot more than just the shadow), but the basic idea is generally true. 

Compensation creates a conversation between the conscious and unconscious parts of yourself. Your ego doesn’t have to accept these considerations from your unconscious. But it’s a sort of dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) that occurs to bring balance. It’s best to at least acknowledge that these considerations are there. Better yet if you have the courage to do so, it’s an opportunity to wonder why. 

So, this was why Vermont kept emerging in my dreams and my thoughts. I needed to be able to reconnect with my soul, and my unconscious was aware that to achieve the work I needed to do, I had to be here. Some deeper part of my being knew that this specific place—off two dirt roads, up on a mountain, half of a mile from our nearest neighbors, with all the dramatic beauty and challenge of any epic adventure—was going to help me on my journey. And this is why I was also terrified;  I intuited that a lot of deep, internal work was awaiting me here, and that part scared me deeply. To have the life I wanted to live—to make a home for ourselves here in Vermont—I had to first return home to myself and integrate some crucial parts of my identity that had been left behind long ago.

The first year and a half was just as my waking mind back in Topanga expected it to be: heating our home with wood, tapping maple trees, having loads of friends and family visit, making new friends here, traveling periodically, tending a flock of happy, free-roaming hens who gift us with their eggs, getting our fresh milk from the local farm where we know the cows by name, watching the girls come into their own as they ventured out farther and for longer stretches away from the house and into the woods. There was a steep learning curve to be sure (the sturdiest footwear I owned when we arrived from LA was a pair of Vans) but the rewards were also pervasive and tangible.

Then the pandemic hit.

There was no way that I consciously knew when we decided to move here that there was going to be a pandemic that literally shut down most of society for 11 months and counting. There was no way I consciously knew that I would go days upon days not seeing any other humans outside of our family. I wasn’t prepared for the combined effect of overcast late autumn mixed with that level of social isolation. I wasn’t prepared to not see most of my family and friends for a year and counting. I wasn’t prepared for my life to get hyper local and very small while we were still settling in here and making friends. All these factors combined long enough to send me into a very intense state of regression. 

Regression: When the psychic energy flow gets disrupted and flows downward into the unconscious. The disruptors can be pandemics, job losses, relationship conflicts, failing a test, crashing your car, etc.

Progression: When your flow of psychic energy goes toward adapting to the external world. Progression feels positive. 

While progression helps us thrive and move forward in our lives, regression paradoxically opens up new opportunities for psychological growth and development. However, it’s not always a particularly pretty state of mind. Regression can manifest in depression, questioning, loss of motivation, crippling ambivalence, etc. Basically, you want to stay in your sweat pants and stare at the wall. Maybe with a jar of Nutella within reach. Or you may be acting out in some other way (think shiny red sports car midlife crisis style). 

But the good news is, the inner world is being activated. If your unconscious is the ocean floor, then regression is like if suddenly the ocean depths were stirred by a hurricane-induced underwater current. In the best moments, sunken ships are rising to the surface. The ships might be salvageable and fascinating, there’s treasure on board, and you are discovering amazing things that have been obscured from knowledge. In your worst moments, tons of discarded plastics are bobbing around on the surface. And you’ve got to figure out what to do with all that. And it sucks because you had the utmost faith in that recyclable symbol, and you believed that for sure all your plastics went directly from your blue bin to recycling plant to be made into wonderful, useful things again. You did NOT know that your blue bin was getting dumped into the ocean for the entire first half of your life. 

So, all this to say: eleven months into a global pandemic while living up on top of this beautiful, quiet mountain, I now understand why I am here. Maybe it’s why we are all here in the big, cosmic sense—to find our way back home to the whole from whence we came. We are “modern humans in search of a soul” as Jung would say. 

Many of us got handed a special-order regression package this past year. SO many hopes and dreams were cancelled or postponed. So many relationships were strained or damaged over politics and differences of values and beliefs that emerged as we all struggled to navigate this “unprecedented time.” Many people lost their jobs or had their income reduced significantly. Many people got very ill or saw those they love get ill or die. Many people had to uproot their lives and move during the pandemic due to extenuating circumstances. And while some of these changes may not have been directly caused by the pandemic (though I’d argue many were indirectly related) everything has been harder to handle this year due to the stranglehold of resources the pandemic has had on society. The sheer intensity of the pressure this year has put on people has caused so much to surface—the metaphorical hurricane strength current has been dredging up the contents of our souls. It can be frightening—absolutely terrifying, actually, to face (this is the dread and terror that I anticipated back in Topanga late at night), but it’s a necessary part of the journey in our universal quest as modern humans in search of a soul. 

Wherever you are—psychologically as well as geographically—I wish you courage to continue on your journey back home to yourself. Because when you find that home, you will be home wherever you are. 

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” —C. G. Jung

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We Can Get Better Because We’re Not Dead Yet: Part 1

I consider myself an engaged person who strives toward consciousness, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I always embody my ideals. Fortunately, I live by the quote of one of my favorite Frank Turner songs: “We can get better because we’re not dead yet!” 

Reorienting my inner compass to my values (with Love as a Polaris) is my life’s work. Gleaning from my studies of nonviolence, mindfulness, Buddhism, and peace literacy, I have developed a three-step process for my mind and heart that has been especially helpful in the wake of interpersonal conflict: 1) I explore my feelings and my actions with curiosity and compassion 2) I take responsibility for the feelings that arose within me 3) I admit that I’ve fallen short of my ideals

To illustrate this process, I am going to narrate a true story of a recent conflict between Collin and me and how I found my way out of the quagmire of sensory overload even with an injured ego. Along the way, we will touch upon sensitivity and intensity as traits. 

**Disclaimer: I don’t consider myself an expert in any sense, but I write and share my heart in hopes that occasionally I write about “truths beyond my own” as my good friend put it. Take what I say with a glass rim of salt, though, as my mindfulness journey is equally peppered with mistakes, learning, meditation, and the occasional, mild hangover. 

The Story
Setting: Family Movie Night—Holiday Edition—featuring Jingle Jangle

“I can hear you breathing. Can you stop?” I whisper to Collin.

“Like, stop breathing?” He asks in earnest. 

“No, like stop being so loud about it.” I clarify. 

Five minutes later, I hear a slight wheeze again, and instead of vocalizing my request (which at this point has emotionally accelerated to a demand) I wave my left hand sort of like a magician in front of his face. In the moment, I truly thought this was a gentle reminder of my former request because–compared to how overwhelmed I feel inside–it is. 

Hours later, I come out of Juniper’s room from tucking her down, and Collin asks me how I’m doing. I share my concerns with him about some things Juniper said to me about how she’s processing the social limitations of our current life. I even start tearing up, my voice cracks, and my voice goes Sally Struthers-like for a minute. 

I look to Collin expecting to see and hear the trademark empathy and kindness that I love about him, and I am met with a neutral affect and a very practical response. I feel irate inside when I sense that he’s not viscerally, emotionally moved by my clearly bleeding heart. I feel angry, and we both engage in old, immature patterns of trying to get the other to care about our own feelings, understand from our own perspective first and foremost, and make the other mad just to see our effect (and by “we both” I mean just me). 

By this point, there’s no way out of the pit I’ve dug except to spend a moment by myself and engage in my process. Until I do this, I’m going to just keep trying to pull him down with me every time he extends his arm to help me out. 

So, I take a moment to myself and find a quiet place alone. I look within, and I just feel my ego reeling. *I* was the one who was struggling, how did I end up here now needing to apologize on top of everything? The creeping awareness that I have acted outside of my values feels awful. Saying sorry is not my favorite. It used to be even harder. I even once tried to evade a sincere, humble apology to Collin with the statement, “I offer my most sincere condolences for your hurt feelings.” It’s equal parts genius and jerk to say that. Fortunately, that has become a joke between us now. It’s one that serves as a reminder to embody love rather than to protect my ego. But still, when I’m emotionally activated, I can’t dive right into saying sorry. That’s got to come after the process. 

Step 1: Explore with Compassionate Curiosity 

Apologizing is vulnerable. It takes courage, trust, and hope just to admit to ourselves that we fell short of our ideals and values. That’s why my step one is to explore my feelings and actions with curiosity and compassion. If we can sit down beside ourselves as a kind, older sibling would do (fortunately, I have two of these in real life as a template) and ask ourselves “hey, pal, what happened?” we can start to untangle the problem. As we explore our human shortcomings with compassionate curiosity, we acknowledge that our behaviors are expressions of our psychological needs. As Peace Literacy author and advocate Paul Chappell explains, sometimes those needs get tangled in trauma or pain, and we express them inappropriately, harming others in our path. 

Deconstructing the moralism around our feelings and actions can help us to understand our behaviors in different terms than dualistic categories like “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, and “mean” or “nice.” These evaluative terms assign judgment and can cause shame which is seldom helpful during Step 1 when we are trying to understand with and open and compassionate mind. 

Step 2: Mindful Responsibility

Once we have a secure base of self-compassion, we can move on to taking responsibility for our own feelings while remaining mindful about them. So we take responsibility by accurately naming and identifying the feelings that arose, “I felt anger, frustration, overwhelm, powerlessness, etc” and we recognize that these feelings arose within us. They arose within us, meaning no one else caused them. Feelings happen when others do and say things in a correlational way, but to blame others for your feelings is not helpful or accurate. It’s a correlation not a causal order, in research terms. 

Feelings originate within us, and they can arise for many different reasons. The reasons can be due to our own needs, past experiences, worldviews, and personalities. When we take responsibility for our feelings, we gain access to information about ourselves that can help us toward infinite self growth. When we blame others for our feelings, we do ourselves (and the other person) a disservice. 

Pay attention to the language you use when you think and speak about your feelings. The language you use will reveal where you assign responsibility and whether you’re discussing an emotion or accusing someone of an action. As NonViolent Communication theory explains, language like “I felt provoked” reveals that you hold the other person responsible for your anger. It also indicates that you think they did something to you. A clearer way to state this would be, “I felt angry when you [insert observed behavior here] because I thought you were trying to provoke me.” “Anger” is an emotion. “Provoked” is not. Therefore, you can not feel “provoked” but you can feel anger because you believe someone provoked you. When you realize that you believe someone provoked you, you also realize that you’re judging their motives and making an accusation.

Using clear language, at least in this phase of the process, helps to clarify feelings and refrain from subconsciously blaming others and judging their motives. When we make our feelings someone else’s responsibility, we take the locus of control for transformation and assign it elsewhere, outside of ourselves. When we take responsibility for our feelings, we also empower ourselves to respond mindfully. 

Exploring your feelings with mindfulness means that you don’t over-identify with the feeling. So while you’re taking responsibility that the feeling arose within you, you create some space between yourself and the emotion you’re experiencing. As Sumi Loundon Kim explains, you acknowledge the feeling of anger the way you’d acknowledge an itch on your foot. You HAVE an itch, but you aren’t an itch. The itch doesn’t define you. With feelings, responsibility is key but so also is giving mindful space to those feelings. We are accustomed to saying “I am angry” out of convenience, but a more accurate way to explore the feelings in this step would be to use language like “I feel anger arising” or “I am experiencing a lot of anger right now.” We can choose which feelings to indulge, which to observe and acknowledge, and which to let float on by. No feelings are ethically bad to have and acknowledge, but not all feelings are healthy to embrace or make the focus of our internal world.

At this point, if we have explored our feelings with compassionate curiosity, and we have taken responsibility for those feelings with a mindfulness approach, we are now ready for step 3. 

Step 3: Admit that You’ve Fallen Short of Your Ideals

Step 3 is about repairing the damage you have done. So first, you need to admit to yourself that you have fallen short of your values and ideals. This is when you can consider using those evaluative terms about your own actions if that’s meaningful and helpful to you. This is when you prepare your heart and mind for the hard task of humbly listening to the other person and reengaging in the conflict resolution. 

This is the stage when you may want to prepare to use the CLARA method in your conflict resolution. CLARA stands for Center, Listen, Affirm, Repeat, Add. I’ll add a link at the end for more information on this.

So, back to my story about movie night and the breathing incident—I did my 3 step process during a self-imposed reflection time after our initial confrontation. Then the next morning, Collin and I went for a walk to figure it out together. 

As it turns out, I’m still learning about myself and about Collin after 24 years. Wow, I am officially feeling like I need a Life Alert after typing that.

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We Can Get Better Because We’re Not Dead Yet: Part 2

The Walk
“Why didn’t you care about my feelings?” I asked. “It’s so confusing how sometimes you’re so tuned into me that I feel like your love borders on that of a stalker but then other times you can remain unmoved when I’m crying.”

“I felt like my being was annoying you,” he said. “You said my breathing was too loud. And then you waved your hand in my face like you were trying to make me disappear.”

“I didn’t even know that hurt your feelings! You didn’t tell me!” I blurted. “I would have cared.”

“I know. I didn’t tell you because I don’t always know when to mention hurt feelings or when I need to just try to let it go. I am really sensitive, and I take things to heart. When a pot falls out of the cabinet and crashes on the floor, it’s hard for me not to take THAT personally. And I know that it’s a pot! But it still just feels like the universe is conspiring against me. So if I can feel offended by a pot, I think sometimes I need to wait and see if I should let it go before I confront you.”

Seeing as though “just letting it go” isn’t exactly part of my emotional repertoire, I asked him in the future to notice if he’s affected by it, and if so, to tell me. 

Discovery 1
It was in this moment that I realized that Collin is a highly sensitive person (HSP). This is a list of traits and a neuro-wiring detailed in Elaine Aron’s work. She’s a brilliant psychologist who has studied the Highly Sensitive personality and has a large body of research indicating that this temperament is a certain kind of wiring that about 15 to 20% of the population has. HSPs are profoundly empathic, and their environment affects them significantly. They can tend to feel others’ feelings as though they’re their own. They are typically internal processors.

So, I always knew Collin was empathic and kind, and I saw that he was sensitive. But for some reason, I never identified him as an HSP until this moment.

Discovery 2
Then I had an epiphany.

“Oh, my gosh. I think I’m intense,” I proclaimed.

Suddenly all the dots connected, and I acknowledged something very helpful about myself. I experience heightened emotions across the spectrum, constantly. There is no break. Not for my emotions or my mind. The inner world that I have is so huge that sometimes any input from the outside world is overwhelming. Sometimes emotional or intellectual intensity can be called “over-excitability.” I must have had this information lodged in the recesses of my brain because all of it was accessible in this moment. 

“So, I’m intense and you’re sensitive. Where does that leave us? How can you truly know me without being hurt constantly? What do I do with the negative feelings I have? I am not sensitive like you, but I do feel things intensely inside all the time. When I’m overwhelmed sensory input from others makes me feel crazy. Breathing, chewing, smells, unnecessary sounds—it all makes me feel enraged inside sometimes. I don’t want to feel disgusted, but I get grossed out by people a lot. I can’t help it. It’s too much for me and I spend a lot of time feeling overwhelmed and masking it around others. I don’t want to hurt you, but do I have to mask with you?

“No, you can tell me. I would prefer to know. I may feel embarrassed or sad, but I want to understand your experience. Maybe you could just be considerate in your delivery” he offered.

“Okay. Thank you. That means a lot. And I’ll be more mindful about the delivery. For the record, you gross me out less than anyone else” I complimented.

“Thanks. You hurt my feelings less often than anyone else. You’re usually really good at caring for my heart” he replied.

“Thanks. I am glad that you do breathe. And it doesn’t usually bother me. It’s just when I’m already feeling overstimulated. Then every noise feels like an assault on my senses.”

So that was our walk and talk (or an abbreviated version), and I share this with you because I think many people can relate to the complexities of being either sensitive OR intense OR both, and being in a close relationship. Sometimes it’s really challenging to know yourself and figure out who you are—especially when you’re a full-on adult and think you are already well-acquainted with your identity and your partner’s personality. And all these nuances and complexities that make us each who we are present opportunities to grow closer together (albeit sometimes clumsily along the way). 

The truth seems to be that we can always learn more about ourselves and others. And we can always choose to grow if we greet these challenges with an open heart and mind. Okay, or even if we greet these challenges initially with a “go away, I’m not interested in growing today!” but then later text them and say, ‘hey, I think you were trying to tell me something useful. What was it?” We can still grow from that too. 

In sum, my experience has shown time and again that if are willing to be curious and compassionate about our experience, take mindful responsibility for our feelings, and then admit when we act outside of our values, we can find our way back to ourselves, our ideals, and our commitment to love.

In other words, we can get better because we’re not dead yet.

Helpful links: For more information on Sumi Loundon Kim, author and Coordinator of Buddhist Life at Yale University For a helpful synopsis of Non-Violent Communication For information on Being Intense For information on Being a Highly Sensitive Person

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Up on the Mountain Top. Down in the Abyss.

Yesterday I spent a significant portion of the day crying and confronting the abyss of sadness that 2020 gifted us: isolation. Typically my life as a parent is involved enough that I don’t have the luxury of crying as a pastime. But yesterday Senya and Juniper were about a mile into the woods playing, Collin was busy working, and so I just crumpled myself on the kitchen floor and let all my sadness out. I sobbed and sobbed until I was physically tired from crying. One thing about living on a mountain in Vermont during this pandemic is that there aren’t a whole lot of distractions from what is. And sometimes the best option when facing a huge, negative experience (whether psychologically or as an external experience) is to simply be present with what is. So I was.

Being present with what I was feeling and thinking allowed me to cut straight to the chase. So, when I confronted the reality of how isolating these past 8 months have been, it didn’t take long for me to connect the dots and see that this type of suffering is part of the human condition. We, the self-aware homo-sapiens that we are, uniquely have to confront the fact that we each exist in separate bodies with separate consciousnesses. Therefore to a certain extent, our journey is our own. I used to think I was afraid of death until yesterday through a lot of tears I realized it’s actually the part about having to make that transition alone. Which is why that old Death Cab for Cutie song “I Will Follow You into the Dark” always struck such a chord with me. (Also, I’ve always feared that if there’s any navigational skill involved in getting to an afterlife, then I’m certainly doomed. So I really do hope Collin follows me into the dark at least long enough to show me which direction to go.)

Ever since the Big Bang that sent us all outward from a singularity, we’ve been somewhat alienated from each other. We live our lives fleshed out in these individual bodies and minds. And yet, we are all part of this unique human experience living on this interconnected planet Earth. There is camaraderie in that if we let it settle into our hearts. We are never alone in our experience because we ARE part of something bigger by virtue of the fact that we are here, breathing, alive, and part of this world. Sometimes that is very difficult to remember and even more difficult to feel. When it is, we can foster spiritual, emotional, and social practices that reconnect us to each other. Meditation can be helpful to this end. The simple act of connecting with one’s breath can help us touch into that pulse of existence, that breath of life. 

Additionally (and more accessibly for some of us who have difficulty staying with our breath for any number of consecutive seconds) reaching out to a friend or loved one is helpful. Being authentic in our struggles, our joys, our journeys—that is key. The more authentic we are with one another, the more real the connection can be. And when we do try to connect with others in an authentic way, it’s amazing what a difference it can make to remind us that we really are all connected. In fact, we humans are equipped with special powers to aid in that interconnectedness. Mirror Neurons. This special feature allows us to feel what others are feeling; we are wired for empathy and connection.

So, after my accelerated midlife crisis episode 12 entitled: “We All Die Alone,” I made my peace with death and the finitude of life and realized that even in that, we all are connected. And even death is connected to life. Everything is connected, and there’s a profound reassurance in that for me. After all, against the backdrop of cosmic time, the human lifespan is brief. We get such a small window to live, to find meaning, to be architects of beauty and love. It makes sense that for this reason we crave to be tied into something more than just ourselves (aka transcendence).

Some would say that if this need to be connected to more than ourselves is innate, then perhaps—in the same way that our thirst is quenched with water, our hunger satiated with food, and our exhaustion is cured by sleep—that there must be something to satiate the need for transcendence. Perhaps we aren’t just trying to “feel better” to make things appear less grim. Perhaps the deep need for meaning and transcendence indicates that there is a solution to this need.

SO, after all that crying and feeling and being present with what was, I woke up and found new inspiration in the day. So here I am, sharing with you the words of encouragement and authenticity that I have found at the bottom of my (kitchen floor) soul searching: 

We are all connected. No matter how alone you feel in your experience, you are never alone. You are never outside of the human experience. You are never outside of the reality that we all share. You are part of an “us.” We are all connected.

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Love or Obedience: My Spiritual Journey Thus Far

Challenging Times

We are in tumultuous times. And to be clear, the tumult I’m referring to is living in a pandemic crisis, during a time of reckoning for systemic racism in our country, with a president who incites more chaos than peace and more hate than love. I’m referring to the fact that we have a president who proactively tries to dehumanize transgender people and deny them their basic rights. 

I vacillate between not understanding how so many Christians can align with him and feeling all too cynical and familiar with why Christians align with him. 

My Spiritual Journey

I grew up in the Christian church, and until my twenties I devoted my life to living my values as a self-identified Christian. The value that I held most dear was and is Love. Notice that I capitalize it in most if not all my writings when I refer to it this way. It is paramount. It is the dynamic vitality that breathes life into this universe. It is my Polaris when I’m lost at sea. It is kindness. It is humility. It is patience, and it is long suffering. If you are a Christian, then you know I’m referring to the qualities outlined in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s been quite a while since I threw down some Bible verses. But there it is. 

I left the church (and here I am referring to the general institution, not a specific congregation) in my twenties because it seemed that I had to choose between my deepest value of Love and my obedience to a set of beliefs. As I matured and lived into my own experiential truth in the world, it became apparent to me that many of the beliefs held by fundamentalist Christians were detrimental to human flourishing and downright oppressive. I’ve never been a huge fan of obedience anyway— seeing as it’s only as good as whatever or whomever you’re obeying—so with a heavy but resolved heart, I relinquished the title of Christian and set out on a journey with my compass set to Love.

As I embarked, some told me “no no no, you’re going astray! you’re going to get lost.” I believe that they loved me, but they were following a map. That particular map had been written thousands of years ago, and there was still a part on it that said “THAR BE DRAGONS” and the earth had edges to its quadrilateral form. But nevertheless, they trusted it. Even though there was an asterisk there at the bottom that said, “if all else fails and this proves to be wrong, follow Love.” 

What I think Religion has Co-Opted that Is our Innate Birthright

I left primarily over the church’s stance on sexual orientation. Several of my family members are gay, and I couldn’t stomach belonging to an institution that discriminated against people who are gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual, queer, intersex, or questioning. My conscience wouldn’t allow me to remain a part of an institution that regarded some people’s identity as a sin. 

Sexuality was never meant to be governed or dictated by a religion. It’s an innate, wonderful part of being human. No institution has the right to co-opt that sacred birthright. I mean this in regard to sexual orientation but also in terms of how people discover their sexuality as a natural part of human development. There is too much shame and control around people expressing their sexuality outside of marriage in the church. I think it causes a lot of unhealthy repression, suppression, and ultimately untimely and misfit marriages.

Another sacred birthright: spirituality per se. I believe that our ability to connect with the Sacred  is innate because we have the Sacred within us. Curiosity and wonder are as biologically wired into us as thirst and hunger. To be clear again, what I mean is that I do not believe that Christianity is the one and only path to Truth. 

These are some of the reasons that I left the church and stopped considering myself a Christian. Many people would agree that this makes me ineligible. And honestly, I’ve accepted that. As soon as you use a title, people judge you according to their measure of that title. I do still believe in Love and much of my definition of Love resonates with the way that it is described in the Bible and was enacted by Jesus. However, I refuse to cooperate with the above beliefs or practices. I also don’t want to be held to the framework that identifies God the way that the Bible does. 

Following Love and Being Christian

I KNOW there are Christians whose value for Love goes deeper than their obedience to detrimental beliefs. I know that these Christians are inclusive and working to become dynamic in their love for people as they hold onto their faith. I admire this very much. I know and love Christians who are committed to evolving and relating to what the Bible refers to as the real Word of God: Jesus. They mull over the teachings and essence of their spiritual teacher and live accordingly. 

There are Christian change-makers who are widening the circle and accepting that everyone belongs to Love and Love is innate in everyone. Richard Rohr, for example, is one that I know shares many of my beliefs and still uses the framework of Judeo-Christianity. Many of my friends and family members are evolving, though I won’t name them here in case they want to disassociate from my views. I know that it doesn’t have to be that you are either justice-oriented and non-Christian or justice-oriented and Christian. There are many paths, and I chose to leave the latter. But many have stayed on that path while also being advocates for justice. I see that, and I honor that path. 

Time for the New Story

Sometimes, it seems that when people leave the faith of their upbringing, they feel ill-equipped to navigate an authentic spiritual journey. It’s like organized religion outfits people with their leased equipment, and when you leave your stint with them you have to return your gear. This is why sometimes when people get disillusioned by church they go off the rails and engage in destructive behaviors toward themselves and others. 

Losing your religion doesn’t have to equate with losing all sense of meaning and purpose or ceasing a dedicated pursuit towards understanding truth and Love. Conversely, subscribing to a specific religion shouldn’t mean that you aren’t practicing the true muscles of spirituality (curiosity, wonder, love, mindfulness, etc). 

I am not a materialist. I never will be. I do not have enough faith for that, quite simply. I can’t experience this world without sensing deeply that we live in a very meaningful, connected Universe. Too often religion dominates this story with their specifics while intellectuals (many in the liberal, progressive camp) deny that there is any meaning. It’s time for a new story to emerge—a story in which a meaningful universe and religion aren’t assumed to be coupled and intellectual rigor and spirituality aren’t assumed to be mutually exclusive. 

Back to the Fact that A lot of Christians Support Trump

So, it seems to me that I shouldn’t be surprised that many of the people who elected Donald Trump are the people who heard him say the right things about their specific beliefs. There is a way to be obedient to a set of beliefs without embodying love. Does he truly live into the story of a meaningful, Sacred Being guiding the Universe? I don’t see any evidence of that. I see evidence of him embracing (only nominally) religion as a key part of his conquest ideology.

Here’s the thing, evangelical American Christians by and large, made a choice when they chose to back up Trump. They chose someone’s false promises of national “greatness” over true goodness. They chose propping up a systemically racist system and emboldening overt white supremacy over true remorse, reconciliation, and reparation. They chose power and greed over equity and generosity. They chose oppressing and dehumanizing LGBTQ+ humans and saying that they are not worthy of the same rights as everyone else. They chose someone who serves the Almighty Dollar but calls it the Almighty God. This is not the pursuit of Truth and Love. This all part of his conquest. 

Trump Voters who Regret 

I do think there are good-hearted and misguided people who voted for this guy because they wanted more change than they thought Hilary would bring. I know that there were some people who are one-issue voters and voted against Hilary because they are anti-abortion and they confused him with being Pro-Life (which he is NOT). I don’t think that everyone who voted for Trump in the last election knew the full consequence of what they were doing. 

In fact, I think what happened is that people’s deep psychological needs for purpose and meaning, a sense of belonging, and hope got tangled up with his promises of change. I think that he scooped up a bunch of voters who felt displaced in society and didn’t know how to relate to an ever-evolving and rapidly more complex society. We all have the need to belong, and our need for purpose and meaning can drive us sometimes to swear loyalty to a certain set of beliefs. It’s of the utmost importance to be careful to whom or what we give our loyalty.

We are all Connected

Let me widen my circle here and say that I believe that we are all connected. In fact, at root, that is what I’ve always wanted: to make the circle big enough for all. This is not meant to be an Us versus Them post. Or a post against followers of any faith. This is meant to say that we ALL have to find a way forward towards actual Love and Goodness that transcends and goes deeper than our specific beliefs. Let us connect on the deeper value of Love. We must consider that obedience is only as good as whom or what we obey. 

Furthermore, if you practice and follow Love, whatever your religious or spiritual orientation, then we share a lot of alignment. One translation of the word Namaste means “the light in me meets the light in you” and this is how my spirit feels whenever I’m relating with someone who abides in Love. 

In the words of Pauli Murray, 

“When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all [hu]mankind.”

More Resources on NonViolence and Peace Literacy

Rivera Sun, novelist and Nonviolence activist

Paul K. Chappell, Peace Literacy 

Kazu Haga, Kingian Nonviolence

Rabbi Micahel Lerner, Overcoming Trump-ism

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Living Below The Line: Day 1

“LIVE BELOW THE LINE” was scrawled in Collin’s handwriting on our kitchen chalkboard when I stumbled down the steps bleary-eyed and half awake. “Today’s the day! We’re doing this. Sen and Junes were all in for starting today.” 

Cue the legendary scene from A Christmas Story when Ralphie says “OH, FUUUUUUUUUUUDGE” in slow motion.

Now, to be clear, this was actually my idea born from a homework assignment from one of the nonviolence classes I’m taking with Rivera Sun and Veronica Pelacaric. Like a lot of awesome ideas in our family, I think of them, but Collin actually commits to them. And I’m actually really glad we are doing it. It just took a couple cups of coffee (which cost $0.50 of my personal daily allowance) to remember that this was a good idea. 

Fun Fact: Becoming vegetarians is another one of my great ideas. I pronounced myself a vegan on a whim 15 years ago, Collin said “lemme finish this 2 pound bacon cheeseburger and then I’m in.” And then he was doing all the research on why environmentally, ethically, socially, etc etc etc it made sense to be vegans (I’ve managed to wiggle the “etati” back into our lifestyle) forever.

So, what is “the line?” 

“The line” is the universal measure to determine extreme poverty. According to data from the World Bank, 10% of people worldwide live on $1.90 per day or less. So, our family decided that we will commit one day a week to eating below this line. 

Now, we aren’t able to truly embody the experience of the 734 million people who are living in extreme poverty. The home we have, the clothes we wear, the toothpaste we use, the clean, safe water that comes right from our sink–all of these luxuries are the context of our life. That $1.90 per day is what a person living in extreme poverty has to work with for not only food, but also housing accommodation, medicine, transportation, clothing—everything. And it’s not just a day a week that they opt into; it’s the context of their lives caused by others’ greed and injustice.

So, I acknowledge the limitations of this small action, but it’s a step that we can take as a family to 

*develop empathy and connect with other people’s experiences—people who were born without the privileges that we’ve always had. 

*redistribute some of our resources to others who live in extreme poverty

*connect with what it means to live more simply: practicing how not to indulge every impulse and, in so doing, defy the monster of greed by exercising the muscles of self-discipline

*raise some awareness as I report about our on-going experience doing this

So, we did the math and have adjusted our monthly food budget accordingly, and Senya and Juniper will choose where and how we more justly reallocate the savings. It may be a hunger relief org, like this Or it may be another justice-oriented org of their own interest. 

Already this has sparked some great conversations about the hidden injustices that can often be part of food production and transportation worldwide. 

Some people think kids can’t handle these types of conversations, that is not the case in this home. Senya is a highly sensitive kid, and she has—not only been able to handle these conversations—but has wanted to know the truth as best as we can give it to her. Coupling the truth with activism is key, though. Informing people about injustice and then giving them tools to help create a more peaceful and equitable world actually gives people purpose, meaning, and empathy. 

Senya, after some discussion, said “Just like the FDA is required to label the food ingredients, corporations should be required to list the social ingredients that go into food.” I agree, Senya.

Anyway, that’s basically all I’ve got for now because I’m so spacey I can barely think. If you’d like more info on world hunger and poverty go here:

To watch Hugh Jackman give an inspiring little blip about living below the line, go here:

To find out more about the brands you purchase (some of the info that Senya thinks should go on the food labels), go here:

To find out more about Nonviolence and the classes being offered by Pace e Bene (an organization that Col and I love) go here:

“Live Simply So Others May Simply Live.” -Mahatma Ghandi

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“Forget your perfect offering”

I usually wait for inspiration to move me to write, and then I write in a kind of fugue state. I leave myself behind and tap into something other. It is like I enter a place made of ideas and thoughts, feelings and truths. I can describe them to others while I’m there. When I write from that place, I feel like I’m sending back letters of hope to the world. 

I haven’t been to that place in a long time. And I don’t think they offer curbside pick up. 

This pandemic caught our attention just after a trip back to Los Angeles. We reunited with family and close friends. We filled our hearts with love and sunshine, cat cafés and beach days. Our friends had a party for us just because we were there. That filled my heart to overflowing. 

I thought I was coming home to a new job working for the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. I had gone through several interviews and had been in touch with the hiring manager and the person with whom I’d be working closely. We had discussed my starting date, my salary, my schedule. The kids were about to start school at our local public school here. Their paperwork was submitted, and their start date was scheduled.

So when we got back to Vermont, our hearts were full. We had connected with our former home and returned to bright possibilities here. By the end of the week, the grocery store shelves were almost empty, and (though I didn’t know it at the time) that would be my last trip off our property for two months. The potential job was closed due to the virus. And like a Gilligan’s Island episode, we were homeschooling alone on the mountain again after thinking we had set sail toward a new, socially integrated lifestyle.

Despite the disappointments and cancellations, I felt incredibly grateful for all this land we have here, for the chickens who lay us eggs daily, for the fact that it was a mild spring and not in the 30s and sleeting. I was thrilled that we could get outside and be perfectly safe on our 64 acres. I felt full of appreciation that we could stop by farm stands and never interact with another human while obtaining fresh, locally grown produce. I thought, “Wow. We have a perfect set up for such a time as this.”

In the stay at home/lock down phase, I had a sense of camaraderie with everyone I saw online. People were posting funny memes about their apocalypse outfit being pajamas instead of superhero clothes. Ellen was doing puzzles and legos on Instagram. John Krasinki did his “Some Good News” show from his house. I found comfort in the fact that we were all in this together. Some had it way worse than others of us, to be sure. But I connected with the sense that we all were facing a crisis as best we could—which meant staying at home. 

But then, with this second phase and all the nebulous and conflicting information (things reopening while the number of new cases is still increasing), it’s been difficult. Negotiating the psychological needs for relationships, purpose, meaning, and belonging with the very real need to keep people alive and physically healthy has been like a terrible math anxiety dream. Wading through the information out there feels like wading through a mosquito infested swamp. The buzzing and biting of mosquitoes are all the fights people are having while I’m online just trying 1) to find legitimate info and 2) to feel a sense of connection to others

And that’s not even mentioning how awkward it is to navigate the social protocol of who you let into a social bubble and who you don’t and who you report your decisions to and what warrants a report (like do you tell your bubble cohort when you go to the grocery store in a mask? Or do you only tell them if you see new people—but what about if it’s outside? Does it go in the report if you definitely stayed 6 feet apart AND wore a mask?). 

Vermonters are taking the virus precautions very seriously. If we replaced the actual summer Olympics with a Covid Preparedness and Recovery Olympics (at least just among the United States) Vermont would take the gold medal. There is a different level of independence and individualism here than I’ve ever encountered in the other 4 states where I’ve lived. Being self-sufficient is kind of the Vermont vibe already. Which is great from a physical health and sustainability stand point. But DANG. It’s intense for those of us who aren’t actually Vermonters.

Partly this is also because we live on top of a mountain without any neighbors. So, when we get stay at home orders, we literally don’t see another human for months. I have to go a mile to the mailbox and when I pass neighbors in their gardens or am lucky enough to see the mail carrier, I wave like I’m signaling a plane from a deserted island. 

Sometimes it’s also easy for my psychological needs to get tangled with trauma. For example, it’s really easy for me to experience loneliness (and definitely interpersonal conflict) as a sign that “I don’t belong here.” I also find that my self worth, sense of purpose, need for nurturing relationships—they all get tangled in a great, big ball. My go-to is to always think that means I need to move. 

In a pandemic, an impulsive move across the country doesn’t seem like the wisest thing, so this is really requiring me to deal with all this stuff in place. That’s not my strong suit. I’m better “dealing with things” while I’m packing boxes and moving on to the next place I’m going to live. But I promised Collin that I wouldn’t do a panic run from this life choice. I promised him that if and/or when we move somewhere else, I’ll try my very best to wrap this life up well first. 

A panic run is a real thing people do when they get lost. Getting lost is actually one of my worst fears and incidentally also happens to me somewhat frequently because I have a terrible sense of direction. I’ve worked on both psychological lostness and also navigation skills over the past few years. 

One thing I learned from a very wonderful wilderness instructor was that the best thing to do when you’re lost is stop, sit down, and breathe. Once you are calm, empty your pockets. Look at what you DO have. Get creative about what you could use and how. He even demonstrated this and said “I could even use the edge of my credit card  to brush enough fibers off my jeans to make some tinder.”

The point is: you look at what you DO have and you empower yourself with the sense that you DO have resources. You do NOT panic. And you certainly do not want to do a panic RUN. You will end up even more lost and it will be harder for others to find you. 

So, there is my very real share. I’m not sharing it from a heightened place of marvel or awe. I’m sharing it from—where else would I be?—my house. I thought that perhaps it would bring some comfort to others who may be struggling in some way to know that I am too. It’s not easy. This is a really difficult year. I think it’s important to continue to connect with others and offer hope in whatever capacity we can. This is me turning out my pockets and not panicking. I found some words in my pocket and I’m sharing them here. It’s my way of building a shelter, a fire, and knowing that I do have what it takes to keep myself alive until I’m out of the woods, figuratively speaking (and also in reality because I literally NEVER leave the woods anymore).

This is my way of saying that this is STILL an “unprecedented time” as so many emails let us know in the beginning. 

I’m going to try to keep writing a little more frequently because it’s what I can do to help myself (and maybe offer some hope to others) during this time.

“So ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” —Leonard Cohen

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