When this piece was written, in July and August of this year, Cindy Sheehan was still encamped in front of the Bush ranch, people in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and along the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi were going about their daily chores in the hot summer sun. The hurricanes that would soon drown New Orleans and devastate the Gulf coast were just small movements in the belly of weather systems gathering in the distant south.
Whether the collective psyche of America shifted as Katrina shredded our faltering myths of benevolent multiculturalism remains to be seen. Images of the drowning and the downed people of New Orleans haunt us, along with the burning twin towers in New York, and will not go away. Although the war in Iraq continues and the killings multiply, Cindy Sheehan is joined now by thousands of supporters as she speaks across the country in the name of her soldier son, Casey and voices protesting our country’s policies have risen to a new key. Unquestionably, the immense events of the past few months have shaped and changed us, still, the editors of this publication and I feel that the premise of this article holds true . Whatever happens in our outer weathers, we are still called to the integrity of our inner response. How we do that is the focus of this piece. —Molly Scott, November 2005
TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN (Is this Texas. Auntie Em?)
by Molly Scott
There’s a change of heart
Any time there’s someone counting
All the lives that won’t be thrown away
There’s a change of heart
Anytime you join the choir, be a voice up on the mountain
Or see a fire….in the rain
… I think pro-peace Americans are grateful for something to do, finally.
Cindy Sheehan Speaks for Herself, Truth out, Aug 21, 05
I ain't threatening nobody, and I ain't pointing a gun at nobody," Mattlage said. "This is Texas.
Mom’s Protest Riles Gun-toting Neighbor, AP
…because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing
Ranier Maria Rilke,”Letters to a Young Poet”
During a speech Charles Darwin was giving on his theory of evolution, the story goes that a Little Old Lady rose from the back of the room. “Mr. Darwin” she sputtered indignantly, “your theory is just plain wrong.” “ And why is it wrong, Madame?” Darwin asked politely. “Why, because everybody knows that the world is resting on the back of a giant turtle,” she replied “Indeed, Madame” Darwin responded, with a condescending smile. ‘And upon what, may I ask, does the giant turtle rest?” “Why, Mr. Darwin” the woman shot back.” It’s turtles all the way down!”
I think of the turtle story because in this time of pervasive not-knowing, leaning into our hope for a better society sometimes seems as fantastical as “turtles all the way down”. I think of understanding as Under-Standing, as the ground beneath our action or inaction, as turtle on turtle. The question that this issue poses leads me to ponder about what is it that we do we rest, and test, our lives on now? What is our under-standing, as a community, as individuals?
The War in Iraq is omnipresent, now as it was in the Vietnam era, a pervasive drone in the underbelly of our days. Soldier and civilian blood keeps flowing, like the dark oil it is squandered for. The color fan of heightened terrorists alerts– yellow, orange, red– stain our faith with fear and highlight the rising flood of violence in our world, both man-made and natural. More suicide bombings. hurricanes, earthquakes, sickness, tsumanis…The litanies of grief mount endlessly. The wheels of political power keep grinding on.
In this grim view, another attribute of Turtle, comes to mind: how turtle, frightened, tucks his head into his house and does not choose to see, to witness or participate. Is this what we’re doing now, I wonder, we HappyValleyHillTown folks? Are we turtling, pulling into our shells? Am I?
Grateful for the opportunity to explore issues and sharpen my awareness, I took my questions on the road this summer and have been randomly asking friends and acquaintances “How are you living peace in a world at war?” The answers are various, but common threads emerge. (Please note; this is by no means a survey of local opinion; just me asking questions of the people I’ve happened to be with over these past weeks.) Here are some of the responses:
I began with four Buddhist women sitting with me in a restaurant after a meditation retreat on conscious dying. My questions drew stories from these women I would never have guessed from the vantage of the meditation pillow– chronicles of the major social justice movements over the past 40 years in this country. As we went around the table I was touched to hear how deeply involved these women had been in the events of our time. Now, lacking the focus and clarity that had fueled previous struggles, these women were turning inward to spiritual practice, and then outward from that perspective, into relationships, community, work and world. We wondered whether this was a function of our ages –all of us are in our 50’s and 60’s– or simply an appropriate response to the proliferating culture of violence throughout the world. We agreed, nonetheless, that attending to our spiritual practice is a kind of activism, cultivating a deepened community of consciousness, and a meaningful response to the energies if this time.
Through the next days and weeks, I heard repeatedly how people are investing more deeply in their personal relationships and immediate community. One friend expressed the grassroots credo of working for change from the bottom up. “ I believe the top will collapse, if we do this’ she told me, ‘but if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I just have to keep working for it anyway.”
Another friend who had been deeply invested in the Kucinich campaign gave me a thoughtful, layered response from the Buddhist perspective: “I know that we’re all born into suffering,” she said. “What confronts me as I look around my life is a world which reflexively leans towards violence.” She said that she hopes our collective consciousness is evolving away from violence but that “as an individual, I can only do my best to be as honest and impeccable in my responses as I can.” She paused, and then touched on a theme which sounded again and again in these conversations: that under our rage and indignation we carry a great grief for our world. “ I am in despair…often,” she said. “ I know that all of us feel it. And I think we have to just lean into it, into the pain, into the despair. Not turn away or pretend we’re not feeling it. And then we have to Do something; the hardest thing is not to do something.” I commented on how different that seemed from the passivity of the society around us. She responded. ‘ Well, it’s not that what we do will change the world, but that we have to act as though it will. “ Sounding another common note, she said, “We have to join together. Doing things together keeps us sane.”
“ Yes, we feel more alive in connection with each other,” I responded. ‘Acting in community makes sense from what we know about how our brains work. We’re still herd animals, after all. Our limbic brain, functions best in terms of We.” “And ‘we’ have to watch out for the pitfalls of arrogance, don’t you think?” she laughed. “We can be very righteously right… for leftists!” She paused and then became more serious. “We need to notice how we are making war when we feel hatred” she said. “The more I allow this hatred in myself, the more I put the energy of hatred out into the world.”
For me, this sense of interdependency, that what we do on an individual level makes a difference in the web of the world, goes back to my early work with systems theorist Joanna Macy. In the 1980’s, Joanna’s training, called Despair and Empowerment, was an alembic for many long-term activists in this area and around the country. Her seminal insight was that when we feel pain for the world, we are connecting in a non-local field of consciousness that transcends our personal suffering and tells us at the gut level, that we are part of one another; we an interactive system moving in a pulsing web of relationship with all beings. This concept continues to inspire and animate me as a singer and artist, and provides context for my present work as psychotherapist working with disadvantaged kids and families.
The frame of this pain which connects us rose again in conversation with an activist acquaintance whom I had known in Despair Empowerment work back when the present issue was the nuclear arms race and the deployment of armed warheads to Europe. Also a psychotherapist, she and her husband have newly moved to the area and found a congruent community here. She said that one of the ways she is meeting the challenge of this time has been to simplify, selling her city house, and moving out into the hills. She echoed my own experience when she said that being a grandmother has intensified her commitment to using the remaining time of her life in as principled a way as she can. As with many other people with whom I spoke she starts her day with centering meditation. “I move into my morning from a place of quiet” she said, ‘And then I work with what comes towards me.”
She also shared how, recently reading about Cindy Sheehan’s vigil outside Bush’s Texas ranch, she burst into tears. “I welcome these tears,” she said, “because I recognize them as different from my response to daily agitations. They move me forward, these tears; they help me focus and clarify my life.” Talking together so seamlessly after all these years, we embodied the connections we spoke about. Sharing this common grief for our world leads, paradoxically, to joy and a richer sense of community.
I found it intriguing that everyone I spoke with started their day with some kind of quiet time, though they did not all share similar backgrounds. A retired businessman told me ”I was a conservative as a younger person and don’t feel that my views have changed that much since then but the swing of country to the hard right leaves me in the middle or left of middle now.” He takes part in local vigils and actions and meditates every morning. “I let what I need to do in the day arise in me,” he says. In his view, the difference between liberals and conservatives lies is their capacity to respond flexibly to circumstance.. He sees liberals (read Progressives) as flexible and open, and the neo-conservatives as rigid and resistant to change. Another friend, a teacher and therapist, feels that the liberal community is too flexible, and that, in this climate of terrorism, we need to respond with more structure and less “wishy-washy compassion”. Yet he, too, has oriented his life around a deepened in-turning as his personal response to this climate of“escalating danger and threat of attack.”Several people said they were turning to their churches or temples for a sense of connection and support. One friend told me that her church focuses every weekend on all the places in the world where war and suffering are rampant. She tries to do her part with petitions and letters, but says
”Mostly I focus on the small corner of the world that I have charge of and try to make peace there” Another friend, fuming at how furious she is with this administration “for betraying and lying to us and for what we’ve done to the Iraq culture and their homeland.” says “I have to look at the larger, greater peace of which this war, over time is just a part. I have to take a larger view and see that this war is not the whole reality.” A Christian, she says “ I take peace in God; I rest in God. I find that inner place and hold that place in my life, knowing that I am holding it with others and am not alone.”
As for me, I, too, rely on my personal centering practice in the morning to tune me to the day. As a psychotherapist in the fragmenting chaos of managed care, I need this balance to help me work with troubled clients who are experiencing the cutback, fallout of our unhealthy health system. I find reinforcement and renewal in the collegiality of my work. As our workplace becomes more corporate and the paperwork threatens to engulf us, some of my colleagues and I share a need to orient our work more towards a spiritual frame than an economic one. We affirm for each other why are we doing this work, overstressed and underpaid, bucking on a daily basis, forces that seem to work against the kind of healing our training – and our hearts- lead us towards. There is war going on here too, in Turners, Millers, Greenfield, Shelburne – these green hills of home.
Although my clinical work can be frustrating at the system level, it is also deeply meaningful. This week, I have sung at the bedside of a dying client, talked to a discontented teenager, held the ongoing story of an adopted child struggling to accept the love of her new family, and worked in various ways with people in our community who are struggling to make meaning of their lives. I’ve wept with some of the stories that have flowed through me and sometimes think I’m not big enough to hold them. So on late evenings, bedraggled from a day in town, I draw sustenance from dinner with like-minded friends, and come home to the wind blowing through the forest that surrounds my house and the soft welcome of my animals. I read and listen to the news, ponder, share my thoughts. And all these long months, before the war, during, through it, I am writing poems, spinning poems out as though my life depended on it, and probably it does.
A few weeks ago I came upon a copy of one of my most cherished books: “In the Clearing”, Robert Frost’s last volume of poems. Reading it again, I was reminded of how, sitting at that old man’s knee when I was in college, I could not have imagined the life the I would be leading, or how his poems would follow me through my own dark woods. I remembered how he had appeared at Kennedy’s inauguration – how full of hope we were then, listening to those lines of his – as his thatch of white hair whipped about his face in the January wind and half the papers blew away making the moment even more poignant. He was writing about this country, this even then, beleaguered country. The missile crisis was yet to come, and the assassination of that Camelot we permitted ourselves to hope for in the Kennedy years. Still to come that other war, the Johnson presidency, the Nixon and Regan years, Contra scandals, Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, Bush pere’s Gulf War, the hope and brilliance, and porno buffoonery of the Clinton years, the stolen election, Bush #2, and then and then...
Standing there that day in the January wind, the old man Frost declaimed, more from memory than from the blown and reassembled papers: The land was ours before we were the land’s….. Reading this poem, written in 1962, now in the midst of yet more wars, the lines have an enhanced meaning for me. In the context of this article, and question of how do we live, I hear, Something we were withholding made us weak/ Until we found out that it was ourselves / we were withholding from our land of living, / and forthwith found salvation in surrender”
As a woman, a feminist, a product of my time and culture, I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of “surrender”. Too weak, too wimpy, too girlygirl. But there is something here that speaks to the question of this time, and it is not surrender from weakness to the political forces that seek to bend and mold us, but surrender to something that is greater than we can even vision, By whatever name, this is what the voices to whom I have been listening–– farmers, therapists, poets, businessmen, teachers– are saying. We are hunkering down for a long run, but we are not turtling in. And we are not running away. We also know that we are not running the show. We have a radical trust that tuning deeper into consciousness, we open to something moving towards us, co-creating change beyond what is immediately apparent.
In the morning, at the gift of the day, many of us are centering down, and listening in…. inviting the paradox, as Robert Frost did, as poets, artists, singers, “world lovers and world forsakers, on whom the pale moon beams” to go in silence to the place where deeper voices rise, like music from a tide beyond our individual knowing. The old poet, flawed, as we humans are, but singing ins spite of it, in the tradition of bards before him, fueled by faith that words become deeds, found a kind of salvation in defining through the paradoxes of his own nature, the wars of his own unconscious, and in so doing, lit a pathway through the dark woods that we can follow. Don’t withhold, he tells us. Don’t draw back. Salvation, meaning a purposeful life, lies in daring both to act and to let go into the mystery, as each of us are doing in our own way. When we know that, we draw from the well that waters the world. Get quiet, get simple, we tell each other. Go in and then do as the spirit says do.