The Plants Don’t Despair
“So, are you headed out to the monastery on retreat again?” a patient asked. “No.” I paused, ” I’m going on…pilgrimage…to Alabama.” She cocked her head for good reason. Alabama is not exactly a bastion of sacred Buddhist sites, nor basic human rights evidenced by the state’s recent legislative decision. It is home to the EJI Peace and Justice Memorial which provides an honest look at some of the darkest underbelly of our country’s history. This winter, excavating the influence of that history on where we are now, I’ve been deeply discerning what does healing really mean in 2019? And what is my personal responsibility and sphere of influence as a white woman?
I made it recently out to the mountains for the first time in months. The forest offers such profound solace and nourishment for me. It’s as if the peaks cast their craggy, ancient shadows on my shoulder, stroke my confounded brow, soothe my heavy heart. The rocks teach me about stamina. Snow and rain teach me about persistence. Green shoots and leaves beg me, by their very modeling of growth and life, don’t despair!
What does healing really mean at this moment in this country? How are the forces of racism and oppression influencing the health and well-being of my patients? How is it impacting you? What steps are you taking toward healing within and without? How can my actions be of benefit rather than harm? I’m finding questions more fruitful than answers these days. I invite you into the questions with me.
Beginning in autumn 2016, in addition to meditation and dialogue with incarcerated men out at Monroe, I spent two years in discussion with the prison staff and administration about introducing mindfulness practices to support de-escalation for the Corrections Officers. As one Lieutenant said to me, “The hardest part about my job is ‘gearing down’ after a critical incident; all that adrenaline coursing through the body.” If I wasn’t such a composed being, I would have yelled expletives from the rooftops because there are simple, accessible practices that can act like an epi-pen for the sympathetic nervous system. Were those practices engaged by staff in the Dept of Corrections, it would transform that institution into a…slightly more humane one for those incarcerated as well as those working there. Prison abolition would be better. But we’re not there yet. Despite upper level administrators agreeing on the need and benefit for the front line staff to have more tools, ultimately the project came to a confounding, quiet halt.
While scratching my head, I reminded myself one never knows how seeds will germinate. What does healing really look like?
In our November election, 60 % of this state and 70% of King County voted for Initiative-940. And with its passage, Washington is now the first state in the nation with voter initiated law mandating de-escalation training for the police, including response to those in mental health crisis, and establishing a neutral inquest process so it is not the police evaluating the police in cases of lethal force. Last autumn, as things shriveled with the Corrections’ officers project, I redirected that energy toward systemic change in this realm. I’ve been participating in Not This Time; a small group, many family members of those killed by police, dedicated to de-escalation and increased police accountability.
Mountains. Forest. Dandelions growing between concrete cracks. The red robins’ liquid gold call before dawn. For me, at this moment, all of these and activism around police accountability feels like different expressions of healing.
Another way I breathe space into my heart is by inviting gratitude and reflections on beauty. With so much evidence that from climate change to clear Constitutional crisis, we seem to be circling the drain, beauty acts as a life preserver, a floatation device. When out in the world, I engage people stocking grocery shelves, serving food or coffee, our beloved bus drivers, the angels cleaning Seattle’s streets. I ask, “Tell me something beautiful about your week.” I sometimes qualify, “it can be a small beautiful.” Occasionally, I’m met with a flat expression of disinterest or annoyance. More often though this simple question opens a gate to human intimacy, transforming what could be strictly transactional.
I hear about basking in the sun on the couch. I hear proclamations,
“I spoke to my son this week!”
“I got my driver’s license back!”
“My mom got out of the hospital and she’s doing ok.”
“I’m 90 days sober today!”
I hear about family gatherings and new jobs. I hear about reunions between estranged people and the tenderness of loss. I hear about humble evenings with a companion watching a movie and good cups of coffee while stroking one’s dog.
Beautiful, every one. And in that, as with the mountains stroking my furrowed brow, the grasshoppers egging me on, the fresh green leaves imploring me don’t despair, I find solace, courage. You see, we don’t really have a choice do we? We’re here. And it’s like this right now. So the lens of healing has gotten real wide, and that includes the upcoming trip to Alabama. I wonder what healing includes for you?
Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative,author of Just Mercy, a phenomenal book about the injustices of our ‘justice’ system, and founding father of the Memorial and Museum in Montgomery(the primary inspiration for this trip). Stevensongave an empassioned keynote at the Ebenezer Church in Atlanta on MLK Day this January, about 3 hours in. I look forward to the day when he is given a Nobel Peace Prize which will occur in my lifetime.
I highly recommend the podcast series Seeing White as a vehicle by which to consider our history and need for deep healingin this country. John Biewen, a white man from Minnesota, provides a clear, honest, highly thought-provoking series about how race has functioned in the US. When we see more clearly where we’ve come from, we can move into different relationship with ourselves, our institutions, and our country. We can listen to the news and observe the world with different ears, different eyes, and reach for each other.
Suffice to say I haven’t been painting lately. I reckon there will be time again, and perhaps the images that emerge will be more like the new year’s card for 2019 below. I’ve been imagining the Wetland of Integrated Trauma in greater detail. There has been a lot of interest in the ‘map‘.
Thank you for taking time to read this long missive. There’s a power in witnessing we can offer each other. Please reply with thoughts and reflections from your own winter inquiry, your own grappling with this moment in our world. Your own beautifuls. We need to share these with each other, weaving together an interconnected web of healing. These words offered up with deepest, abiding care for your health and well-being. I’ll be in touch after the pilgrimage to Alabama.