Buy me no baubles and I’ll save you the trinkets. Here are the gifts we really need this holiday season. This gifts we give all year. This gifts for which we forget to send thank you notes. The gifts that shape the giver. My Christmas list for the world.
The gift of listening. Even when your blood is running hot, and you don’t quite recognize the person across the table any more, when you are questioning how the two of you became friends/lovers/business partners/spouses, and all you can see are the horns pushing out of the other one’s head. There is the gift of taking a deep breath, sealing your mouth, and listening. Quiet is a gift.
The gift of time. This is the gift of letting the dishes pile until they topple, your eyebrows grow bushy, your car losing oil, and your work piled on the desk, all because you gave your time elsewhere: to the care of a sick child, to the creation of a new piece of art, to the grieving friend, to walk the rambunctious and anxious dogs.
The gift of your voice. When you scrape up the money for a ticket to Washington DC, stitch your pink hat, walk through the cold and yell out in unison that Love will Trump hate. That is a gift. When you write another email to your congressman, and picture them reading it and having an ha moment, changing their otherwise hateful vote. When you blog about the inequities in Puerto Rico, or send a thank you note to the woman who outed her abusive (congressman) boss. When you simply stand up, in a crowd and say “Hey, I saw what you did.” When you refuse to be silent.
The gift of your vision. There is a way out of our current madness, a way to save ourselves, our country and our planet, but not without the vision of thousand open minds. And your vision, though it may seem foggy, obscure and even irrational to you, might be the one that changes the tide. We cannot know if it is never shared.
The gift of your story. The way your grandmother pinched your arm if you told her not to blow smoke on you, the night your house burned down but your dog found her way, the day you identified your attacker in court, the seashell you found with your dead friend that still hangs quietly by your mirror. Every story awakens some part of us, draws an invisible connection from one to another. In the points of intersection, the reader and writer can no longer be strangers. Together, sharing, reading and writing, we create a web. But we cannot find one another in the dark, if our stories are never told.
The gift of kindness. Kindness is rooted in authenticity. It takes thoughtfulness and intention. It is saying “come in,” to a neighbor who looks down, when you were ready for bed. It’s turning the car around to check on the person on the side of the road,. It’s my son’s high school teacher baking cookies on his 17th birthday. It’s reading the work of a young writer, gently. It’s walking the lost child home.
The gift of love. This is, after all, the gift that trumps all gifts. To open your sore and tired heart to another soul, to let them in, despite the very high odds that they will some-day disappoint you. To look them right in the eyes and say, in your words or in your gaze, I love you. This is the gift the world needs most.
On any given moment as I traverse our beautiful Sonoma square a dozen emotions can rise – amazement that the square is unscathed, sadness for the many children who lost their homes but still decorate the square with their art, hope for the world if one community can find a way through devastation with grace, fear at the ease with which our worlds can erupt, guilt for still having a home, impotence at not knowing how to help more.
This is real life. These feeling are appropriate in Puerto Rico, in Sudan, in Syria and Houston. The guilt and impotence could rise in a walk in Oakland, where the homeless camps have grown near the freeways, in Santa Rosa where miles have been destroyed by fire, in Iran, where the earthquake left thousands homeless.
What do we do?
Write a check? Get on a plane across the world to volunteer? Pressure congress to treat Puerto Rico like is it part of our nation (which it is). Serve lunch at a shelter? All of the above?
This year, I wrote some checks, volunteered a little, sent letters to congress occasionally and prayed. It feels meager, even miserly, in the face of my still-standing home, my full larder, my relatively healthy body.
I am ready to take on a larger burden. Except I don’t think it will be a burden. I know from the past that real service is good food for my soul, and I will feel not burdened but lightened by sense of purpose, even if it is a relatively small purpose.
There are so many among us who dedicate their lives to protecting our planet, to serving the poor, to fighting fires metaphorically in every part of the world.
There were times in my life that I counted myself among them. Serving homeless families for long days in a basement of a church. Sleeping on a sidewalk for months in protest of our state’s investments in South Africa. Taking care of twelve little girls at a time as they experienced nature for the first time, far from their homes in the city. Shepherding dozens of teens through the perils of college applications, without a parent. Perusing laundromats for low income young mothers who might need help, and offering them healthcare. Taking a group of five year old in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to get their first library card. They were the clearest, most meaningful and joyful times of my life.
This past Saturday night in the Sonoma Square, the community gathered and celebrated the lights being lit on the square. A young girl took the stage and sang to us. Amongst the scent of hot chocolate, cider and wine. Despite the noise of running children, traffic and many humans in a small space. In a pretty white dress and with a brave smile, she sang boldly, offering a beautiful, heart opening rendition of Silent Night.
She had lost her home, but dedicated the song to her neighbor, who had saved her dog.
She is my inspiration as I roll up my sleeves for the next opportunity to serve. We don’t stop singing the face of devastation. When we lose our home, we thank God for our dog. And in the chaos and jumble of life, we return to our faith, which for her is the story of a baby being born on a cold winter’s night.
I rise early on winter mornings, puzzling over my chaotic dreams, trying to make out the path through the forest of my mind.
It’s there, if I give it my attention.
Last night’s version:
A young guy asks me if I want to get high. Strangely, I agree. We keep searching for a hiding place, where we would not be apprehended. We don’t find one.
I carry an ancient turtle, the size of a large cat, in a bag over my shoulder. I explain to the young man that it is a prehistoric turtle who has broken out of his carbon casing. I periodically feed him hard biscuits.
Finally, I am, apparently, a medical student. I go to a hospital for work, only to find they had no patients scheduled that day who matched my “study protocol” – which was infertility.
“I haven’t had a day off in three weeks,” I complain, ”Why am here without patients? I should be doing my laundry and buying groceries.”
I give up and go to the grocery store, where I become despondent when I discover the store no longer had “Paleo Mondays”.
“What am I going to eat?” I moan, “without Paleo?”
I wake up, hungry.
Each of these is slightly more unrealistic than the next – I don’t smoke pot, I am not a medical student, have never been on a Paleo diet, nor carried a pet turtle.
I have woken from these dreams every morning of my life. Flooded with images and feelings about the events in my other world.
Carl Jung, a well-respected psychoanalyst and theorist, believed that we shared a collective unconscious. He posited that many symbols are universal and we all pull from a collective stream of images. This explained, he theorized, the representation of certain symbols in art from cultures across time and at great distances, long before there was active communication, or visitors.
(Let me pause to say this is my own understanding of Jung. I am a devotee of his teaching, but not an academic.)
Sometimes it feels almost as if I am having someone else’s dreams.
Could a frustrated medical student have brushed my arm in the super market, and I picked up her dilemmas?
Maybe she eats Paleo after getting “high”?
It’s more likely my muddled dream has many personal meanings.
When clients want to look at their dreams, I typically ask them to imagine everything in the dream represents different parts of themselves. That emotions show up as people and animals, even places. And our minds give us hints to what we need.
If I was my own therapist, (and I usually am) I might ask myself:
What is the heavy old, part of yourself you carry in a bag (the turtle)? Is there a part of yourself you feed reluctantly (old biscuits) and have barely acknowledged?
Which part of yourself feels tired from too much work? And why does she concentrate on infertility? She feels her time is not be used wisely – there are no patients for her. Jung would say to play with that word. Is it patients, or patience? What part of my life is not “fertile” enough, and needs more patience? (writing!)
And the young man, who wants to “get high” but does not want to get caught. Is this a part of me that wants to escape from stress? Or is it a desire to ascend, to pay attention to higher things (like Spirit)? But it faces the “apprehension” about making spirituality a larger part of my life?
And then there is my moment in the dream of sincere disappointment. “No more Paleo Mondays!”
This one stumps me. I know, in the dream, Paleo Mondays were a day I got some sort of Paleo dinner special. And now that they were discontinued, I was at a loss of what to eat.
Why Paleo? Why Mondays?
I Google Paleolithic, deciding perhaps it is not so much the diet, but the era, my unconscious was sending signals about.
And this is where it gets weird, the way dreams merge with the outside world, with topics I absolutely do not know about in my waking world.
(There is always something in dream analysis for Jung to hang his hat on.)
The picture that pops up when you Google the word Paleolithic is of two men hunting an enormous ancient turtle. It looks just like the one I carried in my bag through-out the dream.
A Glyptodon, apparently. I have never seen one before, to my knowledge.
According to Wiki, “the Glyptodon . . with its rounded, bony shell and squat limbs. . .superficially resembled a turtle, and the much earlier dinosaurianankylosaur – providing an example of the convergent evolution of unrelated lineages into similar forms.”
Hm…a convergent evolution. Where seemingly different species become alike. Patterns emerge, shapes reappear across time and geographic space. More fodder for Jung’s ideas!
I certainly find my dreams converge with life. Sometimes I get clear messages (rest, pray, write) and sometimes I don’t (eat more meat?).
Pictures, images and people come to my dreams that I do not know. in my waking life.
I can accept this strange duality-of the dream world/waking world, only when I stretch my thinking beyond the concrete.Life is more like fiction writing than we care to believe. I need to suspend my need for things to move in a linear fashion, and then writing, and dreaming, are as real as being.
As my own therapist, I would say about this dream:
Feed the part of you that is feeling hungry (creativity).
Stop hiding any part of yourself under a hard shell and carrying its heavy weight around with you (let it go),
And there’s no need to hide your plan to get “high” every day (if it means to be closer to God). Do that, instead of escaping in mindless ways.
See? Wisdom from the frenzied unconscious night’s journey. When I take the time to listen.
My therapist-y advice to the rest of you? Start listening to your dreams. They are an untapped resource, rich with meaning, and your unconscious is playful, wise and deliciously clever.
And yes, Googling is a legitimate method or dream research. In fact, Jung seems to have predicted the world wide web a long time ago. He called it the collective unconscious.
PS- On the writing front, since some of you are asking. The Vines We Planted is in the last editing stages, but that still means it will take some time to be on the shelf. We are hoping for March! (Wido Pulbishing)
In the meantime I have ¾ of my next novel drafted and the first act of a play written. Time to get those things to fruition (read:feed the turtle …and yes, writing is a lot like an ancient turtle, it moves so darn slow.)
Again – catching up on missing posts (from now on they will publish on both blogs simultaneously!) This one was November 2. Still very relevant – please consider donating!
In the aftermath of the fire, folks ask us, “How is it up there? Are people starting over? Are they finding places to live?”
Yes, our friends are returning to their homes, our home is safe, the friends that lost their homes have found temporary places to stay.
And yes, it is horrifying and devastating to see entire neighborhoods decimated. It is also encouraging and wondrous to see downtown Glen Ellen intact, acres of vineyards untouched and the spirit of camaraderie and generosity continue.
Unfortunately, those hit hardest are the poor and undocumented. Many were not insured – it is hard to buy insurance when you can barely feed your family. Most undocumented are not able to receive aid for FEMA, and even for those that could through certain exceptions are often afraid to in the current climate. We’ve heard the stories from Harvey of undocumented families waiting indefinitely for FEMA help, meanwhile fearful as ICE now has their information – with good reasons.
On top of the loss of homes, many have lost their work, for at least some period of time. Perhaps they worked at a hotel that burned down, or cleaning houses that are gone, or for many, at wineries temporarily closed.
Students at Santa Rosa junior college – hundreds lost homes- are struggling to find a place to stay and get back to class with, as one student said, “No books, no clothes, no laptop, my job interrupted and my car destroyed.”
A major theme of my novel (The Vines We Planted, March, Wido Publishing) is the acceptance and support of immigrants in our society. Sonoma is a richly layered society, including immigrants from all parts of the world – and that diversity is crucial to the “fruit” it produces. The five year old dusting the ashes off the school playgrounds, the seniors who fled the trailer park, the adults who design a perfect meal for the tourists or pick the last bucket of grapes – they all deserve a safe home to live in.
After researching where I might make the larger impact, I’ve decided my donations will go to http://undocufund.org/. The fund is set up by local, long established Sonoma Non-profits and backed by very well vetted foundations. I have written grant requests over the years to many of these foundations for programs at local non-profits. They do not give away funding without thorough research (trust me! Getting funding isn’t easy!). The fact that they trust this fund to deliver 100% to the families in need means a lot.
Please consider joining me in making a small, medium or large (yes!) donation to our neighbors. The economy of Sonoma (and California) really depends on the immigrant labor force. And decency demands we take care of the people not protected or supported adequately by our government when they are hit by such a devastating tragedy.
Donations of clothing, furniture etc. are not accepted at this time (that may change – they are full for now). What these folks need is a roof over their heads, heat, food, jobs, and vehicles to get to work and school. What they need is funding. 100% go to the victims of the fire.
Yesterday, I returned to Sonoma for the first time since the wild fires. My fear of facing the changes the wrought by the fires kept me from pressing too hard on the gas. Not long after I passed the Sonoma line, my heart clenched as I passed acres of blackened hills. Cows grazed on the infrequent patches of grass between the ashes. Further on, the topography shifted and there was the Sonoma I love – lush vineyards and manicured winery estates.
The weather was perfect, warm but with a welcome dampness in the air after a night’s rain. But my heart was full, tears threatening to erupt at the strange contrast of beauty on one side of the hill and bleak charred blackness on the other.
Ironically. I blogged a month ago about a small fire we had on our property, and my feeling of helplessness in the face of life’s chaos. I could never have imagined when I wrote that piece the true chaos that was about to erupt in our bucolic world – the intense destruction, the many deaths and enormous devastation.
The fires, the deadliest in California history, blew up two Sundays ago, and then continued to burn for over a week. The fire that threatened our home most directly, the Nunn’s fire, was actually three fires that merged together over the week. Like Chimera, it was a three-headed monster that burned mercilessly. The nearby Tubbs and Atlas fires destroyed large swaths of Santa Rosa and Napa. Thousands of homes burned, over forty died, and many other were seriously hurt.
The winds were so strong, and the land was so dry. Those two factors left us completely vulnerable. An army of fire-fighters and first responders from many states and even other countries fought with amazing heroism. But so much was lost.
I am one of the lucky ones. I was safe in another county through-out, glued to my phone and the TV, crying as the news got worse and worse, more friends evacuated, more homes lost. One night, the fire a safe distance, my husband and I came to our home and hurried through it, grabbing what we could take quickly– the photo albums, year books, a few mementos. How do you decide, as you stand in the family room, what is most important to you? To your children? I glanced at the art on the walls, made by friends, to large to take with us, at the pillows I picked with my daughter, the tea pot from my best friend…and realized the enormity of the loss so many were facing. I said goodbye to the house in my mind and we drove down the hill. The ridges on both sides of the valley glowed a deep red in the distance- one in Kenwood, one in Napa -and the world was eerily silent.
The stories are emerging from these hellish past two weeks. Couples who pulled one another from the wreckage, neighbors carrying seniors to help, pets and owners reunited. In the midst of the raging flames many bonds were forged, heroes were born, and the community came through for one another. Sonoma shone with a spirit of resolve and deep caring. It will be years for many families to recover, to find a new place to call home, to recover the financial losses, and find a new normal. But the valley will come back – they are “Sonoma strong”.
I have not yet gone to see some of the places I love most – places that are described in The Vines They Planted. I know that some of these places fared well – the square, the Mission, and a few favorite wineries. Others are gone, and I can’t quite imagine the gray ash at my feet where I am used to walking on winding trails through shady woods.
I feel a strange art/life collision, as one of the characters in my novel actually faces the burning of a home, and rising from the ashes. Every-one in the novel has lost something, and is pushed to find their resilience, and in that way the novel again reflects the realities of life.
My characters reflect the “real” people I know here. They are passionate, embracing, quick to share a glass of wine and a conversation, and willing to work hard to create something beautiful or delicious. They love the land, and are aware of the gifts bestowed on them simply by living here. They are unusually resilient, committed to one another, and grounded in the land. They are a complex mixture of multi-generational winemakers, tourists who fell in love and could not leave, immigrants motivated to create a better life, and families.
These folks will not give up. This is their home.
Many vines are still standing, many barrels were untouched. The community will gather again soon, and raise a glass to the valley where love and wine flow, and hope continues to reside.
The events of late, from hurricanes to the horrible event in Las Vegas, leave us breathless, so aware of our fragility, and lack of control.
Yesterday I listened to the interview of a man in Puerto Rico, describing how he used his body as a shield, surrounding his son “like a shell”, while their house blew away around them. When the wind stopped, their home was gone, and they were huddled by the leg of a table.
Then I heard the words of a women who had been at the concert in Las Vegas. “We just tried to create shields by covering each other.”
It hits home, again, that no-where is “safe,” and in the midst of chaos, reaching for another human is often all we can do.
My only comfort is that the people who fell on Monday night were not only people, but souls. And bullets do not stop the journey of the soul.
If we believe our life is only as long as our visit on earth, in these fragile bodies,
Life becomes a very difficult game. And eventually we are all dealt the losing hand.
Since I was a child, I’ve found my peace in prayer and meditation.
As I age, I find my hunger for time with Spirit drives my day, whether by observing the birds in the marsh or lying supine on my yoga matt.
I’m confident life here is achingly short, but that our spiritual life itself is long. We have a divine purpose deeper than our human understanding. The absolute best we can do is remain open to knowing it.
It may not be a dramatic, Ghandi-like calling.
It might be holding your child tight while the roof blows off.
I’m praying for the many devastated families today.
Wishing fiercely that we could turn back time and cancel that concert, close that hotel, divert the man who lugged so many rifles to his hotel room.
When I imagine their grief it feels like facing a cavernous black hole.
I’m praying they know, somewhere deep in their hearts, that life is a longer journey and their loved ones are still traveling.
And I hope that the horrible pain and suffering they are facing will not break them, but shape them in a way that leads them to a deeper journey.
Sometimes our hearts open widest for love when they are broken.
I imagine there are a lot of broken-hearted people in Las Vegas today.
For personal reasons, this week I sought solace in the words of others who have faced loss by addiction. I found a series of obituaries, publicly denouncing the epidemic we face. Elegies, written by the grieving, furious and anguished families.
Some are shocked, raging against fate, others speak of surrender. They can almost acknowledge a relief. The night mare is over, for themselves as well as their child, their sibling, their friend.
These unknown poets attempt to create sense in the midst of a senseless loss, to warn, to plead, to express their outrage. They describe their fallen angels and lost souls. The many souls who have crossed over, in the throes of opioid addiction.
They ask us to stop and pay attention.
I wrote my own poem for the people we’ve lost this way, stringing together the words of the aching families, who found the strength to hold up a lantern though their dark forest of grief.
You, spent your last evening talking with your parents on their front porch.
. . .loved to take the family dog on long walks.
… had dazzling blue eyes and a mischievous spirit.
…were a mother, doing the best you were able.
You are finally at peace.
You, had the light of an intelligent and inquisitive spirit.
… had the pleasure of loving a beautiful woman.
… had laughter that could be heard for miles.
You are a beautiful soul, a philosopher and poet.
You, were able to meet and hold your newborn niece.
…left behind your five year-old son.
… loved your beautiful nine month old daughter.
You were rediscovering the beauty in life.
You, grew up a happy, spirited child.
… said visiting the Salvador Dali Museum was the highlight of your life.
… rescued pit-bulls, and loved all creatures.
You had a heart as big as your beard.
You, are reunited with your brothers who awaited your arrival to heaven.
… loved your little dog, Roo.
… quoted lines from Shakespeare as soon as you could talk.
… graduated from college, proud, in 2016.
You had dreams.
Heroin, will steal your baby girl right out of your arms.
Heroin, more powerful than the words a mother could say to her dying son.
Heroin has claimed your body.
But there is no doubt that heaven claimed your soul.