Taking care of each other, one tribe at a time.

I like the balance of it.  The reciprocity of it.  For more than a year, our children and grandchildren, our young people and youth, have had the responsibility of keeping the elders of our human “tribe” safe.  They’ve separated themselves and left their jobs and schools, they’ve stayed at home and kept their distance – initially, primarily, and poignantly to protect the vulnerability of the older generations.  Now, it’s the grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ turn to protect the young.

It’s all about developing “herd immunity” – a term I suspect many of us had not heard of or used much before, but which we now understand with hard-learned wisdom.  And it represents at least three-quarters of the population.  More than seventy-five percent of us walking on the face of the earth today must have immunity or it won’t work – immunity to a disease that has been stalking us all for longer than a year.  At the latest count, there are approximately seven-and-one-half billion people in our global tribe; that means about five-and-one-half billion of us carry the responsibility to protect the others.

The fact that we have the means for obtaining immunity without having to contract the disease (and survive it) astounds me.  The vaccines that allow us to be the human delivery system of immunity into the world truly amaze me.  But when I first considered being a participant, I thought of myself as just one of seven-and-one-half billion people; and living on just one continent, in one country, in one state, in one town.  And I felt terribly insignificant.  

I knew that I was an “elder” – but, after all, I live alone, and I am freakishly healthy, I work from home, and I have no children or grandchildren of my own.  And so, I thought, I could sit quietly behind closed doors and wait out my turn.

But God and the universe had other plans.  A space for me suddenly became available and was graciously assigned to me for a vaccination.

And then I panicked.  Full-out, heart-pounding, sleep-tossing, stomach-aching, friend-annoying, panic.  But it was all in fear for my own safety and my own comfort and my own wellbeing.

And so, God and the universe made other plans again.  This time, it was in the form of a new perspective, a new perception.  And it crept quite undeniably and quietly into my heart.  

I began to count the numbers in my own, small, familial tribe:  There are three in my generation, and one from the generation before us; and there are six in the next generation, and four after them – a total of fourteen.  And I was no longer insignificant.  Doing the math I realized that my own “herd” needs about ten of us to carry the immunity for the rest.  And since there are four in our total under the age of nine (too young for the vaccines out now), it means that it is my turn to protect them – at least in theory and philosophy.  Without me, my tribe remains vulnerable.

As I am writing this column, I am about to receive my first dose of the two prescribed shots.  Perhaps I will want to update it after the experience.  But I suspect it will stand as written.  I suspect once my perspective was shifted, that it will remain so.  Because now I am no longer becoming immune for me – or even for the rest of the world; this is my turn for protecting Thomas and Greta and Lily and Genevieve.  For returning the favor they and their parents have been doing for me all year long.   

I suspect we all want to help take care of each other and the world in general.  Perhaps in the end we will do just that … one tribe at a time.

Taking care of each other, one tribe at a time.

I like the balance of it.  The reciprocity of it.  For more than a year, our children and grandchildren, our young people and youth, have had the responsibility of keeping the elders of our human “tribe” safe.  They’ve separated themselves and left their jobs and schools, they’ve stayed at home and kept their distance – initially, primarily, and poignantly to protect the vulnerability of the older generations.  Now, it’s the grandmothers’ and grandfathers’ turn to protect the young.

It’s all about developing “herd immunity” – a term I suspect many of us had not heard of or used much before, but which we now understand with hard-learned wisdom.  And it represents at least three-quarters of the population.  More than seventy-five percent of us walking on the face of the earth today must have immunity or it won’t work – immunity to a disease that has been stalking us all for longer than a year.  At the latest count, there are approximately seven-and-one-half billion people in our global tribe; that means about five-and-one-half billion of us carry the responsibility to protect the others.

The fact that we have the means for obtaining immunity without having to contract the disease (and survive it) astounds me.  The vaccines that allow us to be the human delivery system of immunity into the world truly amaze me.  But when I first considered being a participant, I thought of myself as just one of seven-and-one-half billion people; and living on just one continent, in one country, in one state, in one town.  And I felt terribly insignificant.  

I knew that I was an “elder” – but, after all, I live alone, and I am freakishly healthy, I work from home, and I have no children or grandchildren of my own.  And so, I thought, I could sit quietly behind closed doors and wait out my turn.

But God and the universe had other plans.  A space for me suddenly became available and was graciously assigned to me for a vaccination.

And then I panicked.  Full-out, heart-pounding, sleep-tossing, stomach-aching, friend-annoying, panic.  But it was all in fear for my own safety and my own comfort and my own wellbeing.

And so, God and the universe made other plans again.  This time, it was in the form of a new perspective, a new perception.  And it crept quite undeniably and quietly into my heart.  

I began to count the numbers in my own, small, familial tribe:  There are three in my generation, and one from the generation before us; and there are six in the next generation, and four after them – a total of fourteen.  And I was no longer insignificant.  Doing the math I realized that my own “herd” needs about ten of us to carry the immunity for the rest.  And since there are four in our total under the age of nine (too young for the vaccines out now), it means that it is my turn to protect them – at least in theory and philosophy.  Without me, my tribe remains vulnerable.

As I am writing this column, I am about to receive my first dose of the two prescribed shots.  Perhaps I will want to update it after the experience.  But I suspect it will stand as written.  I suspect once my perspective was shifted, that it will remain so.  Because now I am no longer becoming immune for me – or even for the rest of the world; this is my turn for protecting Thomas and Greta and Lily and Genevieve.  For returning the favor they and their parents have been doing for me all year long.   

I suspect we all want to help take care of each other and the world in general.  Perhaps in the end we will do just that … one tribe at a time.

Scraps of Love

It is a rather small scrap of simple cotton cloth.  It is faded cream in color with a pattern of soft blue leaves printed across it.  And it is fastened onto a large page of paper, along with half-a-dozen other small lengths of different bits of cloth and folds of ribbon.  The page is one of many pages, bound into a very large, very old, book.  And there are rows and rows of books just like it.  And they are shelved and preserved within the Foundling Museum in London, England.

England in the 1700s was constantly wet, slicked and grimed, bone-deep cold, with steel colored skies and frozen rivers, struggling through a mini-ice age.  

There was also little work, scarce food, extensive illness.  Parents grappled on a daily basis for the lives of their children.  Mothers were often alone.  And one of the ways they prevailed in the end was by surrendering their babies into the care of the London Foundling Hospital.  

When a child was left at their door, the mother would pin to its garments a scrap of cloth.  And she would keep a matching piece for herself.  They were called “fabric tokens.”  Then, when the mother was able, she would return and reclaim her child, and they would be reunited according to their matching pieces of fabric – their matching tokens.  It was a time of considerable illiteracy, no photography, and no fingerprinting; but uniquely woven, distinct fabrics were becoming readily available.  And that practice of matching bits of cloth was remarkably inventive, effective, and deeply poignant.  

It seems to me that those fabric tokens – those small scraps of cloth – were in reality, tokens of relationship, carefully chosen scraps of love.  

How fitting it seems for a mother and child to be bound to each other with something as tangible and homely as a piece of cloth – especially one cut or torn from the mother’s own clothing, the best she had.  Cloth has a singular ability to remind and soothe and associate us – with our own pasts and childhoods as well as to our children.  For generations, mothers have fondly packed away infant clothing – tiny booties and caps and sweaters.  While nursery blankets have been kept by many babies long into toddlerhood as comforting connections to their mothers.

As far back as Biblical times, baby clothing has been noted and recorded with great care and meaning – Hannah bringing Samuel his little linen outfits that she made for him every year; Mary wrapping Jesus in strips of swaddling cloth, carefully brought with her on that long and arduous journey leading up to his birth.  (Perhaps Hannah and Mary kept bits of those fabrics in some sort of remembrance boxes.)

And so, that one small scrap of cream-colored cloth with blue leaves, pinned inside a London Foundling Museum record book, seems to speak unmistakably to the texture and strength of the love between a mother and child.  But perhaps even more eloquent is that on the reverse side of that particular bit of cloth there is still carefully stitched a little cutout paper heart – and written on the heart is the message:  “Anne Smith was born 4 January 1764.”  And I suspect that this may have been the mother’s attempt to help her infant daughter hold fast to her identity.  To let her know that her mother had loved her and had given her a name and had held her close for as long as she could.  And then, at the age of 6 months and 20 days, her mother had let her go, because she loved her too much not to.

I want to believe that Anne Smith’s mother was able to come back for her, and that she brought with her the matching scrap of cream cloth with blue leaves on it.  And, because of those matching fabric tokens, they found each other again.  I would also hope that Anne never lost that bit of cloth that bound her to the love of her mother.  That she kept it near and precious and never lost sight of what it really was – not simply a scrap of old fabric, frayed and tattered and smudged, but an enduring remembrance of the love it represented.

In the end, I suspect it may always be those small scraps of love that mean the most – the tokens, the bits and pieces, torn from a fabric that ultimately connects us one to another. 

Mending with gold.

It is known as Kintsugi.  And its origin is based on legend, centuries old, Japanese.  It’s the technique of mending broken items – especially pottery – with gold.  And in this way, the broken thing becomes something transformed – a work of art.  

Kintsugi causes the brokenness and scars of an item, its cracks and missing bits, to become its points of focus and value, its visible vulnerability and history and eloquence.

Although I had read about and heard of and even seen Kintsugi art, I think it caught at my heart again recently as we all seem to be trying so very hard to hold the pieces together – pieces of ourselves as well as of our rather broken nation and world.  Shattered and scattered around us, I suspect we stare at the shards with a sad and mixed sense of fear and shame, anger and loss, perhaps guilt, perhaps hope, perhaps envisioning the future.  And I suspect most of us may be torn between wanting to carefully retrieve and save the pieces and just kicking it all as far away from ourselves as possible.

But then I learned more about the actual process of Kintsugi, the art of it.  And I was intrigued.  And I was encouraged.

In Kintsugi, the preparation is as important as the doing.  The balance of the epoxy resin with the gold (whether liquid or powder or leaf) must be just so.  The broken pieces must be claimed and cleaned with care, arranged with intention. And the repair must be done steadily and with mindfulness.  

Sometimes, bits from another broken item may be used to fill in where an original section has been lost or crushed beyond saving, and these often-contrasting segments also add to the unique beauty of the finished piece.

While the item is being reassembled and seamed with gold, it must be supported well – often in a tray of the earth’s sand, or in softly wrapped bands of cloth, or by the hands of a human helper.  This support must stay with the item until it is ready to stand on its own.  Gently held, without pressure.

When the repairs have been completed, the gold itself used to rejoin the piece may have slightly reshaped it in the process.  But this, too, adds to its originality, its reemergence, its beauty.

I greatly appreciate Kintsugi art and artifacts.  But I suspect now I appreciate its philosophy and symbolism as much as the finished works.  

Because of Kintsugi, we can see that broken doesn’t have to mean gone or lost or destroyed.  We can learn to be mindful of the importance of all the individual pieces – their significance to survival and restoration, renewal and possibility.  And that the diversity of the pieces are what make the whole stronger, more textured with interest and loveliness.  With Kintsugi we know to take great care of what is being used to bring everything together – that it is real and pure and balanced, understanding that it is precious and valuable.  And we can appreciate the significance of partnership, with the earth and with each other, offering support without pressure, with gentle hands and patience.  In the end, Kintsugi is a true celebration of a thing’s inherent and bestowed value, an enhancement of its very being.  

Surveying all of our crumbling bits and rubble lying around and within us today, perhaps they will become our pieces with possibility.  Perhaps our world can be an ongoing work of Kintsugi art.  Perhaps each one of us can be as well.  

Or, perhaps, we are meant to be the gold.

All the little foxes.

“Little foxes,” she said.  

My friend and I were walking with dogs.  It was early morning, late autumn.  We were discussing everything and nothing.  And we were not walking too near to each other, which somehow prohibits the natural sharing of confidences.  But we had been talking about something – I can’t remember exactly what – that concerned small worries, the kind that keep you awake at night and prevent you from truly enjoying a day of doing nothing.  And that’s when she said:  “Little foxes.”

It’s the little foxes that eat the tender grapes in the garden, she elaborated.  The little foxes that can ruin the garden.  It was a reference from the Bible, she said.

Although I didn’t remember the Biblical passage itself, I did recall the Lillian Hellman play by that name.  And her metaphorical use of “little foxes” to represent greed, and to example the harm done by those who simply look on, silently, as the garden is eaten away.  

It made me think of the wasted opportunities that are lost to little foxes of “doubt” – about stories never written, journeys never taken, loves never known, truths never told – because of the little foxes of doubt nibbling at the edges of our confidence and courage.  

I suspect little foxes can take the form of “guilt” as well – the need to perform tasky little duties we feel we must get through before we allow ourselves to reach out for something bigger, or more satisfying, or more personally rewarding.  Eat the vegetables before the dessert.  Practice the scales before playing the song.  Read the emails before reading the book.  Rake the leaves in the front yard before scrunching through the wild ones on a proper walk in the woods.

I also suspect there are little foxes of “fear” that can disrupt any number of new gardens of beginnings.  Even now, when our need for new beginnings has perhaps never been greater and more compelling and more possible.  And I suspect that the greatest of these fears is the one of letting go.  Letting go of the known, the familiar, the comfortable, the safe.

Later that day I raked the leaves from my front lawn – fully appreciating the irony of it, with the sound of the rake itself repeating the words:  “foxes, foxes, foxes,” as the tines scraped across the ground.  And I looked up from beneath the large maple tree under which I had been raking, and I noticed that only the top half of the tree had released its leaves.  The bottom half was still clinging to its red coating of familiar fall beauty.  Only the part with the most new growth, the arms outstretched for a new spring yet to come, had let go of its old leaves.  And I remembered that foxes, too, are born mostly in the spring and summer – but venture out on their own, beginning their own true lives, only in the autumn – just as the forest leaves are released from the trees.

“Little foxes,” she had said.  And I felt them nipping at my consciousness.  And so I leaned the rake against the base of the tree and gathered up the dog for a proper walk in the woods.  And we scrunched through the wild, fallen leaves, and I thought about beginning a new book and beginning a new garden, and about releasing all the little foxes.

Hidden books, surprise gifts.

“Fairies, on the whole, absolutely delight in giving gifts – especially surprise gifts – to each other as well as to outsiders.”

This is a line from one of my books, “The Secret Child.”  And it seems rather fun and significant to me right now.  Because for the past few weeks, several of my friends and I have been hiding copies of this book in various places all around Aiken – and beyond.  And I hope they are being discovered as the unexpected gifts they are intended to be. more “Hidden books, surprise gifts.”

To keep it well.

“… and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well …”

It is among the closing lines from Charles Dickens’ classic story, “A Christmas Carol.”  It may be one of the best remembered and most cherished sentences in the book.

“To keep Christmas well,” I suspect, implies different things to each of us.  But in the language of the day when this book was written, it meant to observe, or to honor, or to celebrate something.  To actively remember. more “To keep it well.”

Shifting boxes. shifting ideas.

There were more than 8,000 of them.  More than 8,000 books in nearly 500 cartons.  A total of about 11,000 pounds.  And over the course of 6 days or so, I shifted them all.

As an independent author, I warehouse all my own books at my home.  Up until last week, they were primarily on pallets under an attached covered carport.  But after some slight renovations and reinforcements to an old existing storage shed at the back of my property, I was able to shift all my “warehoused” books (all eight titles of them) into the shed, and away from the covered carport (now happily functioning as a new patio space).

And yet, as an independent woman, it never seems to occur to me when I start these projects that I’m no longer in my twenties or even my thirties – when I could lift half my own body weight without a twinge.  So it took days longer than I had anticipated to accomplish my goal – plus the eventual assistance of a very generous neighbor who pitched in at the end to help me heft the last few boxes into place onto the highest levels.

Besides providing a great deal of personal satisfaction for having done this, I found the project to be a rather profound experience in applied philosophy.

Books – all books, everyone’s books – are human experience and thoughts; they’re observations and ideas put into words and images on paper, bound by glue and opinion, folded together with expression, stitched into place with threads of cotton and perspective.  And I began to suspect that it was easier to shift all 11,000 pounds of these boxes and books of ideas and opinions, than it is to shift even one opinion or belief in one other person’s mind.

Scientists have done studies showing how our beliefs involve many parts of the mind as well as the body (not simply one part of the brain as was once thought).  They have learned that our beliefs are “fluid” – capable of changing and growing and maturing.  Beliefs are known to be highly experiential, based in childhood, and influenced by what we’re told as well as what we witness.

Our beliefs can affect every part of our being, from physical to emotional, from our outward behavior to our individual cells.  Our beliefs not only influence how we think and act, but they can affect our health and resilience; they help us love and let us break our hearts; they see beauty where others may not, and shape our dreams as we sleep.  Our beliefs and opinions influence how we make decisions and how we taste our food, how we decorate our homes and how we raise our children.

I personally felt rather reassured when I learned that apparently our opinions or beliefs cannot be bought for any amount of money, or diminished by threat of pain.  And yet, we hold the power to revoke or change any one of our own beliefs or opinions at will, at any given moment.  And we may form a new belief just as promptly, with just the beat of a heart.

I suspect that in our current global reality, we have never had so many opportunities for forming opinions and beliefs and ideas than we do right now.  But after physically shifting over ten thousand pounds of ideas by myself during this past week, I suspect that sharing the load, lifting together, aligning with another’s generosity of spirit, is a perfectly brilliant way for achieving the same goal and reaching even greater heights.  Perhaps this can be so even if the opinions belong to someone else … perhaps even when they exist as almost half a thousand boxes, all holding another’s way of thinking and believing and feeling.

A tradition of women.

There is a decades-old tradition among the people of the Hawaiian Islands – among the women specifically, and those of Polynesian descent in particular – to take to their boats and pay tribute to their ancestors in a challenging and meaningful annual event.  They race in outrigger canoes between the shores of two islands across wildly open ocean waters.  And when they do so, they honor their mothers and grandmothers and all the women who have gone before them, and become an example for all those to come.

They use only their own human strength:  The power of their arms and backs, their wrists and hands and legs, their will and mindsets, the unseen sinew and muscle of spirit and determination.

It is done in the tradition of the great accomplishments of the original people who discovered these islands and first called them home.  It was a feat that many modern day cultures have difficulty crediting or even imagining.  They crossed thousands of miles of open seas and crushing weather in paddle-driven single-hull canoes, finding land not by sight but by reading the skies and winds and the reflections and shapes of the ocean waves themselves.

Fashioned after a race once restricted to men, the women’s boats are traditionally built outriggers, carrying no more than six women in each, each woman with a single paddle.  The distance is more than 40 miles.  And the grueling conditions and pace cannot be sustained or completed by themselves alone.  And so, along the way, they pass the responsibility on to a next-generation of paddlers.  

Two at a time, crew members surrender themselves into the sea, and new team members climb aboard out of the water to assume their places – to continue and finish the race.  The retiring paddlers are picked up by the same waiting escort boats that have dropped off their relief crew; it is a relay filled with grace and elegance and, more especially, tradition.

The women paddlers are of all ages, all backgrounds, all sizes and ethnicities and lifestyles, all beliefs, all talents.  And yet they all share this spirit, this acknowledgement, this understanding:  that their own feet might not be the ones to touch the winning shore; the destination may be reached by their sisters, not themselves.  And yet, the victory will belong to them all.  Because it is a victory of accomplishment, of tradition, of honoring and remembrance.  It is a victory of a people, not of individuals.

I find it rather compelling that it was the women of this culture who fought for and won the right to create and participate in this particular race – which is competed by women only.  And I believe in the wider sisterhood of humanity.  And I believe women represent a tradition of self-sacrifice for the greater good, and possess a generational outlook that is unique.  Women have always carried the fire and buried the dead, led the young and stayed with the left-behind.  Women have also paddled the boats, and made first footprints on fresh sand.  But I suspect it is most important that they have lowered themselves into the sea, and passed the paddles forward to their sisters with encouragement when their own energy and time was spent.

We are entering into a season of both old traditions and new opportunities right now.  Perhaps we can view such traditions as solid foundations, well-built boats.  Perhaps we can re-envision the symbolism of it all, revisit the integrity of it, and reinvent ourselves accordingly – without losing hold of the idea of the original goal, the original journey.  Like taking up traditional boat paddles to compete in new races and celebrate fresh victories.

After all, the settlers of Hawaii could not see the islands themselves when they set out – they had only the idea of them, and the faith that they or their descendants would arrive and be safe and become better versions of themselves.  And, in that tradition, I suspect it may be up to the women of our world to pick up more paddles, to get into more boats, and to just example the heck out of it.

 

The curiosity of a rose.

She was clearly not where she was meant to be.  And I had the feeling she was as surprised by it all as I was at seeing her there.  

The flouncy little single rose blossom had poked her head completely through to the back side of a tall solid wooden fence, while the rest of her was out of sight, leaning against the front side of the fence as intended, as planted.  

It seemed that at some time in her youth (for nothing larger than a bud could have made it through that small crack in the fence) her curiosity must have won out over her family ties.  And so she thrust her tiny head through to the other side of the fence.  She peeked into the unknown.  She opened herself up to the unfamiliar side of the sun.  And once she was there, she bloomed into her full beauty, apparently quite happy and in good health.

Quincy the dog and I were walking past the fence that separates two neighboring yards a few blocks from my house.  We were approaching from the western (back) side of the fence.  And there she was:  a perfectly formed pale pink rose in full bloom, nodding at us in the slight breeze.  And then we saw the rose bed itself, which was obviously planted on the eastern side of the fence.

The fact that the lovely blossom appeared so isolated, so out-of-place, so singular and friendly, stopped me for a closer look.  She nodded again in greeting.  And she made my very soul smile in return.  (I suspect a flower waving at you is uniquely qualified to break through even the most pensive or solemn frame of mind.)

Q and I soon continued on our walk, but the message and meaning of the diffident single rose stayed with me, and had its way with my heart and mind for quite a long time.

Like most of us, I suspect I have been trading my own curiosity for trepidation lately; afraid to venture away from my side of the fence, fearful of looking onto the other side (or the others’ side).  Perhaps I’ve suspected that the cracks in the fences that define my life – that define me – are to be avoided rather than taken as a visionary opportunity of possibilities.

And yet, this small rose took that chance.  She reached out and through and looked around and waved at strangers.  And in her instinctive way, she bloomed quite perfectly.  She kept her roots, yet found new sun.  And she thrived. 

I suspect it’s the reassurance of the familiar that keeps us on our particular side of the fences in our lives.  I suspect it is our own fears that cause us to create such fences and barriers and separations in the first place.  But perhaps we might consider the curiosity of the rose, the rose who took that chance – that opportunity – that possibility – that vision – of the other side of the fence. 

There is a quotation from Douglas Adams (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) that says this:  “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I was intended to be.”

None of us may have ever intended to go through such global uncertainty, with all its fear and anxiety, its unknowing and unwanted, with cracks in our familiar surroundings and holes punched in places where we believed ourselves to be safe and content.  But I suspect we will end up where we are intended to be.  And I suspect we will be curiously beautiful when we get there.