All blog posts must be in this category.

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ON A BEASTLY HOT/HUMID JUNE DAY in Ervine, Kentucky, we were devouring sandwiches and iced drinks at a small air-conditioned coffee shop. Sitting across from me was my niece, Vicky; many years ago she picked this area as the perfect place to live, work, and create community, nestled in a “holler” (a small valley between two mountains). My nephew, David, sitting to my right, settled in southern California nearly 20 years ago and has never looked back. Both of them are sophisticated, savvy, and successful. Their mom, my sister Nancy, sitting to my left, recently retired from university life to a cottage just a stone’s throw from Vicky’s family.

 

Nancy and I were smiling, listening to animated descriptions of some of the more “interesting personalities” who had attended the past three days of a wedding celebration hosted on the large parcel of land where Vicky and her husband and children homestead.

 

There was lots of laughter and some fun-poking and head-shaking as first David and then Vicky and then David again added a new detail to the verbal caricatures that emerged like holograms hovering over our table.

 

Then came the moment when Vicky said it: “Ya gotta love ‘em.”

 

To which I replied, in an irreverent tone, “Or not.” Given the momentum of the conversation I had thought my comment would be picked up and run with and followed by more amusing details.

 

Instead, my comment had the effect of puncturing the hologram. It lay, deflated, on the table between us. Vicky’s brown eyes, deep and dark as the folds of the valleys in which she has chosen to live, held my blue eyes until I said, “You’re serious, aren’t you.”

 

Vicky said, “That’s the code by which we live here: you gotta love the people in front of you. You may not like them, but you have to love them.”

 

The message was: Despite your own disapproval and annoyance at the personality traits, the neediness, the political differences, the selfishness, the brokenness of those people who cross your path, no matter how you’re tempted to marginalize them, “Ya gotta love ‘em.”

 

Period.

 

Never have I heard the gospel – the good news of human relationships – preached so succinctly and so profoundly.

 

If I can believe that this is not the only place; if I can believe that there are other pockets of our culture, hidden away like Kentucky hollers, where this gospel is embedded in the community conscience and lived out daily this dynamically, I can allow myself to have hope for the people of our world.

     

Ya gotta love ‘em.

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Outside

v. t.

to place beyond the regular bounds; to oust; to reject

the Dictionary according to Cynthia

 

 

 

Yesterday I emailed a friend with my regrets that I couldn’t join her at a workshop she’s attending. I had a commitment to a continuing education day, required to maintain my professional credentials.

 

In my email I said, “I’ll bet your workshop will be funner than mine!”

 

My computer, in its computerish way, said, “ ‘Funner” isn’t an acceptable word. Please change it.”

 

I love having arguments with my computer that I know I can win. It can underscore “funner” (and “computerish”) to its motherboard’s content, and I can override its sensibilities and still use my made-up words.

 

The French, like my laptop, often take issue with the imprecise way we Americans use our English language. I once told a French hostess that I had been anxious to meet her. She immediately corrected me: “I think you mean you’ve been eager to meet me.” (In fact I was both eager and anxious, but it was best not to explain that to her.)

 

I, however, prefer to think of playing with words not as frivolous or irresponsible, but as creative, and often instructive. If a made-up word brings a reader up short, that pause is a precious moment through which a smile, some delight, or even a new thought, may enter the world.

 

My computer doesn’t like it when I use “outside” as a transitive verb.

 

My computer takes it upon itself to uphold the linguistic rules of our culture. It has a little built-in grammar conscience that says, “Sorry, but that’s incorrect. That’s not the way we speak and think.”

 

In America we’ve recently become comfortable with using “out” as a verb meaning “to expose.” We talk about “outing” a person, or the person outing themselves, regarding their hidden talents, their unexpected leadership skills, their closeted sexuality. My computer hasn’t caught up with that public acceptance yet. It still points its digital digit at me if I write, “The committee outed his great chairmanship potential.”

 

But “to outside” is a verb so new that there is as yet no public awareness of this use of the word.

 

When we outside someone, we move them away from the social center of things and place them at a margin. We outside them beyond the boundary of acceptability, and we make them an “outsider.”

 

So consider, for a while, our cultural outsiding. [My computer says “outsiding” is outside its acceptability boundaries. So once again I must override it.] Think about outsiding. Think about how often and unthinkingly we do it.

 

See if, when you hear the word “outside,” you can grasp it as a verb. See if it causes you to wonder, for just a moment, about how our social margins came to be. Who has outsided the people who live in those margins?

 

Whale breath

Whale breath

Two weeks ago my 14-year-old granddaughter and I went in search of gray whales. Jessica, a Michigander, had never been on saltwater before, had never seen a wild whale. Aboard the Mystic Sea, a 100-foot whale watch boat harbored in Langley, Washington, we set out into Saratoga Passage, the body of water that defines the eastern side of Whidbey Island, my home.

 

In less than half an hour the first whale spouts were sighted, and for the next 90 minutes the captain of the Mystic Sea followed his experienced intuition about where the gray whales would show up next as they searched the cutbanks (where underwater banks drop off sharply) for krill, the tiny shrimp that sustain the whales. We saw the huge animals spout, saw their backs rise from the water and dive in what seemed like an impossibly endless motion, saw their signature flukes wave in the air before they swam deep for a while. Then a spout would appear on the opposite side of the boat, and the thrilling sequence repeated itself.

 

Once two 40-foot grays came within 20 feet of the boat, so close that when one spouted we could smell the krill on its misty breath. I grimaced at the unpleasant odor. But that quickly turned to an awestruck grin when I realized that I had just breathed in molecules exhaled by a behemoth from a realm unknown to me.

Close Encounter

Close Encounter

The whale rose once more, and dived, its long spine looking serpentine, seeming immeasurable, until finally the fluke rose like a flag, or a salute, and the whale disappeared.

 

When we returned to the dock, I felt as if I had accepted Walt Whitman’s challenge to approach the “unknown region.” Though the region he speaks of in his poem is death, the essence of his challenge is to cross the boundary from what is known to what is unknown, what feels fearsome. I stepped back onto the land of my beloved island with a sense of connectedness to the whales, to their ways of moving and being, to their mystery.

 

Jessica and I had done what I encourage my readers to do:

to go to the margins, to the boundaries of the known, and then just a little further;

to be present there, experiencing the unfamiliar, being unafraid of what we can’t even find words for;

and welcoming any smallest sense of kinship or empathy for a fellow traveler with whom we exchange the molecules of the breath of life, be they homeless human, deep forest firs, or foraging whale.

Diving Deep

Diving Deep

Over 75 "wins" in 5 months

Over 75 “wins” in 5 months

Last night I saw the movie “Nebraska.” It’s a story about Woody Grant, an old man who is convinced that he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes contest. He doesn’t trust the mail service to handle something as important as his “winning number,” and he no longer has a driver’s license, so he adamantly heads from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, on foot, to claim his prize. It’s a starkly beautiful movie, in wide-screen black and white, and it hit me right in my heart, in the place where I hold Ed, my client who died last October.

Late in September Ed had called me from a hospital room. It was nine PM, and he’d been admitted that afternoon. He said his left arm wasn’t “working so good any more,” and I guessed he’d had another small stroke. But that wasn’t why he was calling me. He sounded nervous, whispered that he had “something important” to tell me, something he couldn’t say over the phone, and he asked me to come to the hospital first thing in the morning.

Ed was 83, a gentle, genial man, a childless widower living in an adult family home since an auto accident a few years before. Legally I was Ed’s medical and financial advocate, appointed by him in his Durable Powers of Attorney. Mostly he took care of his own decision-making; his mind was sharp and inquiring. He paid his own bills, was well-organized, made his own investment decisions. I couldn’t imagine what was so important now, and so secret, that he couldn’t tell me over the phone.

The next morning at 8:00 I closed the door to his hospital room as he asked, and then he told me he wanted me to check on something for him. He confided that he’d won “a substantial amount of money: $60,000.” He said he’d read all the official papers thoroughly, and “it looks like the real thing.” He’d sent off the forms to claim his winnings. My heart sank as I listened. “Did you have to send any money with the forms?” I asked. “Well yes, $40 for processing my claim.”

“Ed, I’m afraid you’ve just lost $40,” I said. But I agreed to go to the room where he lived, look in the drawer he described, and retrieve the file of the documents that had looked “like the real thing.” Of course the fine print, literally in 6-point type on the back of the “Award Certificate,” revealed the truth: Ed had “won” a minimum of $1, due to be awarded when the “contest” closed and the winning numbers were chosen – three years from then.

Ed was saddened but not surprised by my report; in his heart he knew it was too good to be true. But he had wanted so badly to have won that money because he wanted to leave a bequest to the woman who owned the adult family home. The will he’d written decades earlier named his nephews and nieces as heirs, but he wanted also to remember the woman who had recently been taking such good care of him. Now he felt he didn’t have the strength to rewrite his will, so wouldn’t be able to leave her anything.

Two weeks later Ed had a final, massive stroke; he refused to go to the hospital, and died quietly in his own bed two days after that, attended by the woman he’d hoped to endow with $60,000 worth of gratitude.

In “Nebraska,” Woody wants so much to leave a bequest to his sons that he’s willing to believe a fiction, willing to be humiliated by friends, willing to limp from Billings to Lincoln to cash in on the promise of the “winning number.” Woody, and Ed, had both been scammed by clever, unscrupulous – and, I’ve discovered, relentless – predators.

Since Ed’s death, all of his mail is forwarded to me while I settle his estate. In that five months I have collected over 75 scam letters some of them impressively official-looking (see photo above), all of them promising amazing wealth if the recipient just signs and returns the acceptance document – along with a small processing fee.

It made me too nauseous to read the fine print on every piece of this crap, but I’d bet that all of them, somewhere in that very fine type, tell the TRUTH behind the exclamatory come-ons and the embossed seals and the official signatures of the “judges” who “selected” Ed’s name: the truth that Ed HAS been selected to win at least $1, but only if he complies with the contest rules and sends in his processing fee to receive his prize. These scammers are not liable for prosecution because they have not lied to the victims of their schemes – it’s not their fault if an elder is confused by paragraphs of legalese printed in type too small for anyone over 30 to read and smoke-screened by extravagant flimflam.

Every time I look at that growing pile of creative junk mail my anger rises and my sadness deepens – how many Eds are out there, lonely, coping with disease, wanting to leave a legacy or wanting to pay off debts, or just wanting to “be somebody” before they die? Apparently there are enough “Eds” to make it worth the scammers’ time, effort, and creative talent to keep filling the mailboxes of our elders, telling them “You Have Won $60,000!”

 

 

 

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I write a lot about going from the middle of our culture to its edges, where our marginalized people find themselves. I encourage my readers to encounter those margins for themselves, to discover the richness and the wisdom that live there.

But when I’m unable, or unwilling, to go to the margins, there is still a personal way to approach marginalized people: I let the margins come to me.

Journalists, videographers, and legions of cellphone-wielding folks find themselves at trouble spots and disaster sites and war zones around the world. Via television, radio, online news, print media, social media they bring us images and descriptions of marginalized people wherever they are.

You can pay attention, not to the onslaught of adrenaline in the hype, but to the individuals, the real people who dwell in the margins.

Or wherever you are at the moment, notice someone there. While you’re waiting in a doctor’s office, or as you walk down the block where you live, pay attention to the people who are there, or who are hidden just inside the examining room or behind the drawn curtains of their darkened home.

Or for just a moment notice someone in the car next to you on the freeway, or the one sitting beside you in a theater. There are people everywhere who may be suffering and feeling judged and isolated. (The most difficult one of all to recognize as marginalized is the person you see in the mirror.)

Please open your eyes and your heart to see these real people.

But then what?

What can you do if you’re upset by what you notice in your ordinary day, or by the images that come through the media?

Composting my kitchen garbage has shown me one way to respond when the margins come to me.

Try this: notice every detail of whoever is before you, whatever their circumstances are. Take it all in without judging any of it as good or bad or beautiful or ugly. Assemble all of what you’ve noticed; then imagine pushing the whole collection down into the ground to be assimilated by the earth – Mother Earth, who is an expert in the field of composting and change.

Since mostly we are not wise enough to know the difference between what can be changed and what can’t, we can trust the earth to sort through everything. Everything.

Trust the earth to know what should be encouraged to grow and what should wither and rot to become something else altogether.

Trust that the Spirit within the earth can “compost” things like anger and fear and helplessness as easily as she composts orange rinds and grass clippings.

Trust that she knows how to make compassion and vulnerability and love flourish in the recycled muck along with asters and ferns and toadstools.

We don’t have to do anything except collect what we see and spiritually pass it on to her, commending everything to her care.

And then let go.

So she can do her work.

You’ve done your part.

Breathe.

Well done.

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/paurian/3552530403/”>paurian</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Recent research says that

while we sleep

our brain cells shrink,

making room to let

the sap they swim in

wash away the toxins of the day.

Tonight I crawl between the sheets,

pull the covers up and

nuzzle in my pillow

balancing my brain like laundry baskets

filled with scraps of images and urges

soiled in hours among the wakeful:

memories splotched with joy or stained with bitterness,

intentions frayed around the edges,

well-worn thoughts and barely-used ideas,

pockets linted with exhaustion.

I sigh, curl arms and legs more fetally,

sink deeper in the laundry room of sleep,

begin to separate the braincell

undies from the jeans and cleaning rags,

whites apart from smudging colors,

mental fragiles sorted by themselves

in piles along the edges of my brain.

Then, when I let go to deepest sleep,

cerebral fluids start to slosh,

enigmatic, automatic, silent.

I’d never know that anything had happened

in the Laundromat of night,

except that when I wake I find

fresh dreams hung out to dry,

or left untethered, scattering

across the dawn.

© 2014  Cynthia Trenshaw

“COASTLINE”

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In the writing of my “Marginal Eyes” manuscript I had to ride my Thesaurus pretty hard, finding a variety of synonyms for “margin.”  Nuance was called for. The “margin” I was writing about in this paragraph: was it a “fringe,” a “periphery,” a “boundary,” a “rim,” a “horizon”? And would those words accurately describe the reality of a painful social phenomenon?

 

In any case, I was getting bored with “margin,” and the word was just about worn out. If I were bored the reader certainly would be – how about using “verge” or “pale” or “curb” or “brink”? Maybe “wasteland,” but not “hem” and probably not “coastline.”

But this month I took several days away from work and phone and computer; I drove to the Pacific Coast expecting to see one of its blustery wild winter storms from the warm side of a plate glass window in a cottage on the bluff. By now I should know better than to have expectations, so I just laughed when Mother Nature gave me three days of glorious sun, cloudless blue sky, and tiny ocean rollers that would have looked at home on my native Lake Michigan on a calm day.

Yet I also saw for the first time how “coastline” might sometimes be used as a synonym for our cultural “margins.” If the Pacific were a metaphor for our culture, the driftwood tossed so easily onto the shore would be the equivalent of marginalized people. And Kalaloch Creek, flowing beside my cottage could represent the social resolve to reduce the suffering of the marginalized.

But the fresh water gently winding its way to the shore has comparatively little influence on the tumbling saltwater or what the waves are determined to leave on the shore. Sometimes the dynamic sea might reclaim a log or two, only to drop them back at land’s edge a few yards or a few miles further along. But mostly the logs stay right where they are abandoned by the sea.

I saw how little can be done to change the coastline and its detritus.

So I did what I do whenever I go to the margins – I walked the edge and paid attention.

I sat with the logs; I noticed their particular beauty, felt their strength, and appreciated my being able to be with them. I encountered the abandoned logs intently in the margin where the land meets the sea.

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Margaret has just been given a six-to-twelve-month prognosis. She’s in pain from the metastasized cancer, and a little wonky from the meds prescribed for the pain. She’s wrestling with the decision of whether or not to take another course of chemotherapy. Should she do the treatments to postpone her dying time with more months of living fully (but possibly extend her dying time with an unknown quality of life); or should she let go to the process of dying now, as a conscious choice (but maybe short-change the fullness of her life experiences)?

Tough questions.

But the question that plagues Margaret is a different one. “Is there some way I can make this less painful for my loved ones?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “It’s painful to let go of what we love. They love you, and don’t want you to leave. If they didn’t love you, they wouldn’t hurt so much. That’s the nature of love.”

“I suppose so,” she said, not satisfied, pulling back into her thoughts.

Since then I’ve been pondering her question. Not about chemotherapy, for Margaret is the only one who can make that decision. I’ve been thinking about that bigger question, about love and the pain of loving and losing. Regardless of the timing – now, or later, or both – ultimately that question will loom large as our own deaths begin to consume us.

There is another answer, I think, besides the “no” I gave Margaret. There is a yes-and-no answer. A paradox.

The more Margaret chooses to share with her loved ones the depths of her questioning, the reality of her pain and her moments of fear as well as her times of serenity, the more they will be encouraged to participate in the reality of their own experience of losing her. The more deeply they partake of the exchange, the more they will understand about – and ultimately love – each other. Yes, and the more, therefore, they will grieve the loss of each other. AND the more grateful they will be for the legacy of having so fully known the one they love.

Is that a win/win, or a lose/lose?

Yes. And no. A paradox.

I believe it’s worth the risk.

The emergency equipment I carry in my car includes four kites, four reels of kite string, and two pairs of gloves.

That’s because of what I learned as a hospital chaplain.

2013 Whidbey Island Kite Fesitval

2013 Whidbey Island Kite Fesitval

During my training for chaplaincy certification (a rigorous 1600 hours of clinical experience in eighteen months) my assigned mentor was Joe Voss, who had decades of chaplaincy under his belt. After we’d worked together for a few months, Joe offered to teach me his secret to unwinding from the accumulated tensions of serving people who are in pain, frightened, angry, dying.

He’d go fly a kite.

Joe always kept his kites at the ready in the trunk of his car. One afternoon, following a particularly difficult overnight shift at the hospital in which I’d attended several deaths, Joe drove me out to a huge field behind a shopping mall. He pulled out one of his kites, got it airborne, then let me hold the string while he got another kite aloft. I was fascinated by the connection I felt between myself and that colorful nylon shape growing ever-smaller as the string played out. In a curious, gentle way it insisted that I give it all my attention. Which meant that I had to let go of the tension I was holding in my body. The powerful, distressing encounters of the previous night seemed to flow up the string, one by one, to be flung out into the sky by the dancing kite.

After half an hour of flying Joe’s kite I had the strange thought that I wanted to set it free. I could feel a subtle vibration in the string, almost like a rapid heartbeat. The kite seemed so “happy” up there, yearning to climb higher and further into the sky, and I wanted to let it soar away, untethered, until it disappeared. When I said this to Joe, he asked, “Do you know what would happen if you cut the string? The kite would fall to the ground. It’s the tension of the connection that lets it fly.”

While I tried to make a spiritual metaphor out of that piece of information, the kite string hummed, and the fabric strained against the wind, and after a few moments I couldn’t remember what I’d wanted to say, nor why it had seemed important.

Now, years later, on a recent Saturday I went to the Whidbey Island Kite Festival. A hundred colorful shapes filled the air, dancing on the wind, swirling their tails behind them. Three-year-old kids launched their newly hand-made kites next to experienced stunt-kite fliers. I, and everyone else on that field, was caught in the spell of the enchanted relationship between a kite and a person.

The unformed metaphor of twenty years ago taunted me, but remained just out of my reach – something about difficult situations, wanting to cut and run, staying connected, and . . . surely there were wise words waiting to be spoken. But on that sunny Saturday afternoon my thoughts flew away in the breeze, and I just sat there, gaping and smiling as the kites hummed and danced and smiled back at me. “No need to philosophize,” they called down to me. “Just appreciate.”  And so I did.

The thing I love about the performing arts is the generosity of it all. The rehearsals, the talents, the risks, the giving-ness of a performance, all so that I may enjoy, be amazed, be moved, be transported. There is a reciprocity to a performance, a giving and a receiving that flow back and forth across the footlights in magical mutuality between performer and audience.

The other night I went to see Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, offered by OutCast Productions, a sweet small theatre venue housed on our county fairgrounds. Four musicians and three actor/vocalists brought to life nearly 30 pieces of Brel’s heart-felt music.

pink manhole coverWhen they sang “The Desperate Ones,” near the end of the first act, my heart ached for the marginalized people I’ve known who are so dragged down by their life on the edge of our culture that they sometimes wish to be cut off from life altogether.

They watch their dreams go down

Behind the setting sun

They walk without a sound

The desperate ones

The song speaks of the uncaring others, the ones who “know the verb to love, but never know how,” the ones who pass by the people of the margins.

 

But in my experience, we needn’t summon up “love” in order to honor the value of another’s life. We need only turn toward and truly see, be present with, and maybe even listen to – those are the required actions. Those are the gifts to offer to a person in the margins.

If love arises out of those gifts, it’s wonderful. If love doesn’t emerge, that’s fine too.

But in the meantime take the opportunity to notice how such gifts are offered back in kind: how you are truly seen, how a moment of presence is shared, how a recognition of mutual humanity – even for just a few seconds – can brighten the days of two strangers.

Perhaps this simple, ordinary exchange is the ultimate generous art.