Saturday, February 27, 2021

Secret Ingredient Soup

Those of you who’ve spent any amount of time with me know that I live my life through movie and television quotes. I connect to others through our shared experiences with entertainment, and many life-lessons are ready for harvest—particularly in cartoons. 

One of my favorite movies is the 2008 Dreamworks Animation film, Kung Fu Panda (all photos in this post copyright Dreamworks Animation. All rights reserved).  A panda named Po, voiced by comedian and musician Jack Black, is a character I, as an overweight but highly enthusiastic individual, relate to on a visceral level. He loves food as much as he loves kung fu, and when he finds himself suddenly within the world of his highest aspirations, he experiences awe and self-doubt in equal measures. 

Po was raised by a goose who owns a noodle shop, serving their famous “Secret Ingredient Soup,” and while he has been preparing the soup for decades, he does not know the secret ingredient. During his training in the Jade Palace when he finally achieves the highest honor of receiving the Dragon Scroll, he is flabbergasted to discover the scroll is nothing more than a reflective piece of paper. 

At the height of his disappointment with the entire Peaceful Valley evacuating in advance of an attack from escaped prisoner and Kung Fu Master Tai Lung, he runs into his father, the goose. His dad, seeing the sadness in his son’s face, takes the opportunity to reveal to him the secret ingredient in an attempt to lift his spirits. You can watch their interaction here

The truth is, there is no secret ingredient. He made it up! The soup is special because people believe it is special. And with that, Po realizes the mystery of the blank scroll: there is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.

This is one of those moments where I feel the doubt in myself rise to the surface—all the times I looked at those I admire and longed to know what it is they know that has allowed them to become who they are. What was their secret ingredient? I look at the selflessness of Mother Teresa, the courage of Amelia Earhart, the creativity of Frida Kahlo, the passion of Ella Fitzgerald, the strength of Indira Gandhi, the perseverance of Benazir Bhutto, and the vulnerability of Oprah Winfrey. I look to the defining traits of the women I know personally who have inspired me to be a better version of myself, and instead of feeling the weight of self-doubt, the lack of self-worth, and the overall feelings of being less-than those around me, I am gifted with these simple words: there is no secret ingredient. 

All these women I admire are special, because we believe they are special. These women have done amazing things, AND there is no secret ingredient! It’s just them, being who they are, when it mattered most. AFter all, Rosa Parks was a woman who worked long hours who was just trying to get home. When they told her to move, her exhaustion moved from being tired in her body to being tired in her mind, to being tired of giving in--and her response sparked a revolution.

And that is the lesson of Kung Fu Panda. There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you. You are what makes your life special. Because you believe you are special. And if you don’t believe you are special, there is no better time to start than now. You, as you are right now, are what makes the soup special. 


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Seeking Support in Grief

Grief is a difficult emotion for pagans, because for many of our non-pagan friends and family, the comoft they offer tends to reflect their religious beliefs and not ours. Over the past year, the need for supporting one another in our grief has grown exponentially. We've been isolated and removed from our typical support networks, and when we turn to our family and coworkers--the only folks most of us have seen in months--the mismatch between what we need and what they offer by means of support can be jarring and leave us feeling even more alone. 

Understanding grief from a non-religious standpoint is a key way we can learn to communicate our needs to those whose religious beliefs are different from ours, for this understanding is more universal. When we experience loss, the comfort we seek falls into one of the stages of grief. When we are suffering, understanding how we feel and being able to communicate this to others will guide them in how to better support us.

Let's start by talking about the grief cycle as it relates to death. There are five stages of grief, and we move through them in different ways based on the circumstances of our loss. Some losses will leave us lingering in one of the stages of grief for far longer (or far shorter) than another. 

In the first stage of grief, we are in denial. Our reality has shifted in an unacceptable and permanent way, and we don't want to believe it is true. Even for our Christian loved ones, the denial phase is not a time for focusing on the "better place" our loved one has reached. During this phase, we need help allowing the truth to wash over us. The pang reverberates through us, and we are frozen by the weight of what we have learned, like a deer trapped in headlights. As the denial begins to ease, the full gravity of the loss sinks in, and we become angry at the injustice of having to live in a word without them.

When we are angry, we are often making a list of the should've's and never's of that relationship--and some of these can be pretty big! Losing a father can leave items on this list such as should've called more often, should've made that trip to visit, never getting walked down the aisle, and any of a myriad number of words left unspoken (including I'm sorry). The loss of all the things that will never happen again is infuriating! Holding space for that anger is hard even for the best trained support person, and what most folks really need right now is not words or advice but space to make that list and be heard.

The third phase is bargaining, which is complicated. Bargaining is more common when a loss is imminent and has not yet taken place. When a loved one is in the ICU and being moved to hospice, there may be an internal dialogue between the person being left behind and whatever higher power they perceive to have control over death and dying. "If you will spare/heal my loved one, I will [makes promises]." This is also a time when guilt, angst, panic, and hopelessness may kick in. Again, the bargaining phase is a time for holding space and listening.

When the third phase has run its course and we realize there is nothing we can do to stop or reverse the circumstances of the loss, our hopelessness leads to a situational depression. It is at this stage that I think we truly begin to grieve. It is here that our sadness benefits from the balm of compassion and the strength of our friends and family. When we reach this fourth phase, we are ready to seek comfort, and for the Christians in our lives, this is a time to turn to God. It is here that the mismatch in our religious affiliations and belief systems are the most at odds. We don't want to hear about the good life the departed has lived that has given them entrance into "heaven." We don't want to hear about seeing them again when we pass into the same realm. 

For Ancestor-centric faith practices, comfort comes through the realization that the departed is not lost to us. What we need is to be reminded of the memories and how this person will live on within us and through the stories we tell. We have the framework in our everyday work at our shrines to make offerings and keep their memory alive. We may speak to them, and through our divination practices, they may speak back to us. These moments of clarity, of being able to see the way forward, will ultimately lead us to break out of our depression and move onto the final stage: acceptance.

Acceptance doesn't mean the pain of the loss magically disappears. In fact, the acceptance phase may even make the pain of the loss feel more acute as we understand the breadth and depth of this new reality, of the new world we have to live in without our loved one. And that's okay.  In the acceptance phase, we are perched at the threshold of this awful rite of passage, and the liminal space between what was and what will be is uncomfortable to say the least. We are best served by help moving out of the doorway to the past and taking the first step into our new future. 

Ways our loved ones can help us make this transition include practical things: helping us clean and sort the loved one's belongings, listening to our stories of the items we uncover, and allowing us to find laughter and tears in equal measure as we release each of the emotions we have within us tied to this person's life. We need to share the memories of happy times and find peace in them. We need to share the things that we will miss the most. We need to be met with patience as our waves of emotion stop us in our tracks and utterly distract us from the task at hand. And the only way those who are here to help us can get it right is for us to communicate with them.

I have a list of things I tell people when I need support. I tell them how I am feeling right now, even if how I feel is best described as "I don't even know." I ask for what I need and guide them in helping me. I may ask for their ear as I share stories. I may ask for their silence so we can just be together. I may ask for them to leave me alone to process on my own, adding that I'd like them to check on me later. And when the loss is new and I cannot speak to what I need, I mostly just let them hold me, because hugging makes me feel stronger and more able to handle whatever is happening that I am trying desperately to understand. It may help you to make a list of the things you typically need when you are the most upset, including whether touch is okay, so that when grief strikes, you can hand this short list to those who are there to help you through. 

In the end, our non-pagan friends and family mean well, and as in all things, grief requires us to articulate what we need in a way that they can understand. They may not get it right the first (or second) time, but those who truly love us will always be learning how to be in right relationship with us, just as we are with them.

May the losses you have experienced lead you to richer relationships with those who remain in this world with you, and may the memories of those who have passed on always be a blessing.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Book Review and Personal Reflections: White Tears/Brown Scars

White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color

by: Ruby Hamad
ISBN: 978-1-948226-74-5

In her work, Ruby Hamad takes us on a journey through the history of racism in America and the greater "white" world, providing ample evidence for how the actions and attitudes of white men accompanied by the silence of white women is the defining feature of Western settler-colonial society. 

In short, as the title suggests, this book is about the use of White Women’s tears as weapons and the price we pay for our role in maintaining the status quo of white supremacy. The idea of white women as the best supporting characters in maintaining whiteness in our society is a blind spot in our antiracism work even though the evidence is everywhere. Racism gets more subtle over time, and while White Women are not screaming rape when a black man passes us on the street, we are supporting the oppression of people of color with our inherent white innocence. And it’s all bullshit. 

Hamad's in-depth analysis of representation in media, tokenism in social circles, internalized oppression, and large-scale/global gaslighting are spot-on and important for those doing the work of antiracism:

On page 57, Hamad writes, “[Representation] matters because it is in popular media that our social world is both constructed and reflected back at us.” How many times have I felt comforted by the diversity of a cast, as though the presence of people of color was enough to comfort my whiteness into feeling “woke”? How many of these stereotypes did I miss, did I “not see,” and in my blindness perpetuate? How many times have I made excuses for the stereotypical portrayal of a character because “it saves time” for the plot to move forward? Yikes, me. 

On the white art of tokenism: Just as having a black friend doesn't make us "not racist," having a black woman as a member of our women's group does not give our group legitimacy as "progressive," "diverse," or even "woke," nor does it give our group a bye on the work of anti-racism. That, simply put, is the very heart of tokenism. If there's at least one person of color present, too many groups and organizations think they get to check the diversity box and be done with it. We need to make space for the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of women of color, not just their bodies.

"Whiteness has become so attached to the symbols of privilege, wealth, and status that it no longer even needs European-derived people themselves to perpetuate it." (Amad, p. 206). Another term for this is "internalized oppression," and if you are not familiar with the term, I definitely encourage you to do a quick google search. Basically, it is when an oppressed group self-restricts their own actions and even thoughts based on the dominant cultural norms that apply to them. I am reflecting on what the unspoken cultural norms of women's groups would be that women of color automatically adhere to, such as ensuring they hold space for white tears properly, apologizing when they anger or upset a white woman, or other similar things. In reflecting on the unspoken rules, it is my hope that I can find ways to change those rules. The real way to defeat unspoken things is to speak them. Once spoken, they can and, Gods be good, will be changed.

Finally, the idea of large-scale gaslighting must be addressed.  White society has convinced itself that all we have done was for the good of those “less-than” us—meaning less-than-white. It is othering on a global scale. As you’ve heard us say at Mountain Ancestors: we [the dominant culture] create outsiders. 

People of color have had to continually deny parts of themselves and adopt whiteness, through ideology and appearance, as a way to protect themselves from literal harm. The more they pass, the less they have to deal with the direct threat of racism, but at what personal cost? 

Our role as women has been one of softening. White Womanhood has made the edges blurry between white supremacy and the rights of people of color. White Womanhood has perpetuated the illusion of creating a better world that keeps whiteness at the top of the hierarchy of humanity. We are the rose-colored glasses through which white supremacy is filtered—and our white tears, as Hamad points out, are a result of the rosy perception we have created crashing into the unfiltered reality where people of color live. 

So what do we do? As a group, white women need to focus on what Hamad has pointed out: acknowledge the unfair advantage our race has given us in the form of white privilege AND our participation in a system where our womanhood has been both a privilege and a weapon. 

What do we do on an individual level? For me, I am starting by answering the many questions Hamad poses to us as white women on page 244. From there, I need to take off the proverbial rose-colored glasses and see what reality—and accountability for my/our parts in creating the world we live in now—actually looks like. Reconcile the truth of the now with the lies we told to fabricate our current version of the overculture. 

I do not want my tears used as a weapon to hurt others. I do not want my emotions used as justification for other people’s actions—especially when those actions are violent and hateful. I want full ownership of my own self, and the cost of that is giving up the “get out of jail free” card that allows my tears to shift the blame and rescue me from my own failings. 

I will start with a refocus on personal accountability. If we all start there, maybe we can begin to truly dismantle the broken and violent system we have held aloft on the pillow of our femininity.

Ruby Hamad is a journalist, author, and academic who spilts her time between Sydney, Australia, and New York, New York. This work was inspired by the response to her article entitled, "How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour." 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Giving Back During the Pandemic

Giving certainly looks different right now. Our groves, covens, and groups might not be meeting in person, but our need to connect is stronger than ever. If I were writing my thoughts on giving back to the community before this all began, I know my thoughts would be very different! In what seems like another life, I would have suggested gathering some friends and picking up trash in parks, nature preserves, and along highways. I would have suggested volunteering at any of your local NPOs addressing social needs such as food banks, housing insecurity agencies, or afterschool programs. The thing about these suggestions is this: these are all social events. The last thing we need is to create a super-spreader event trying to make ourselves feel better about our role as a productive member of society! 

Folks who are able have opted for making financial donations in lieu of physical work as their contribution, but with so many feeling the pinch of fewer hours and less customers, adding the financial burden of even the most worthy of causes is not an option.

So, during this time of social distancing, if you are feeling the spirit of generosity upon you, here are some ways you can still give back to your community:

  • Deliver supplies. Many of the organizations we would normally volunteer with in person have adopted a delivery service model, though their budgets do not have room to add personnel to get the once-picked-up supplies into the hands of those who need them. Contact food banks and other local charities and offer to give their packages a lift!
  • Make phone calls. Similarly, many nonprofits are now conducting much of their business via phone or email, and they do not have the capacity to answer or make the number of calls and emails required to meet the needs of their target populations. Contact your local charities and see how you can use your voice to aid in their mission.
  • Help your neighbors. Many communities have pages in the Next Door app, and you may be able to find folks in your own backyard who could use your help. If you can cut grass, shovel snow, fetch the mail, do a grocery run, or leave prepared food on someone's porch for their family, you may be just what they need to get through this.
  • Give blood. Seriously. In most places, the donation rate has gone WAY down. If you are able, consider donating blood. One donation can make a difference in as many as six lives.
  • Offer a community class. Do you have a hobby or special skill that you'd love to share? Consider hosting a community class! Online classes are a way to bring folks together, and what better way to meet new people with similar interests than to host a class on something you know well and love?
  • "Sell a Skill" as a fundraiser. Do you have a skill that others could use? Offer your skill for a donation and raise money for your favorite nonprofit!
  • Buy from small businesses. Whenever you can, opt for local, small businesses. These folks are hit the hardest and every penny helps them keep their doors open.
But what about my religious community? Here's a few ways to connect to your church while in-person services are suspended:
  • Write liturgy. There is a lot of pressure on religious groups to produce wonderful online rituals; however, the process of creating, setting up, hosting, and managing technology for online services is not as easy as you might think. If you are a prayer composer, you may be able to help your local congregation by generating written material for them.
  • Send Greeting Cards. If you think you are feeling the isolation, consider that the other members of your congregation are feeling the same. Sending letters, greeting cards, or small presents not only makes them feel remembered and loved, it also supports the local post office!
  • Host social meetings. Your church leaders are probably stretched thin and do not have time to attend to the social needs of the congregation. If you have the time and desire, hosting a social gathering for your group might be just what the community ordered!
No matter what you decide to do, finding ways to reach out, to connect, and to provide for the needs of those around you will help you keep your head and heart in a healthy place during this time of social distance and isolation. When all else fails, contact those with whom you usually serve and ask, "What do you need?"

Monday, February 1, 2021

Home and Hearth Reflections 2021

Midwinter is a time of quiet activity and contemplation. The new year may be noticeably brightening, but there is much time that must pass before the promise of Spring made by the longer days is fulfilled. To pass the time, crafters focus on their crafts, writers write, planners plan, and dreamers dream. 

We rest in the in-breath, the waiting period before the rush of preparations begin. It is a time for inward reflection on where we have been, what we want to bring with us from those places in our past, and where we want to go moving forward.

This seasonal festival is celebrated in a similar way. Those who celebrate Imbolg or Imbolc honor the Goddess Brighid whose many epithets include healing, creation, and transformation. Some celebrate Candlemas, which is a festival of lights commemorating purification and the growing of the bright half of the year. All of them center on the fire at the center of our lives—our hearth fire. 

During this time of pandemic, social distancing, working from home, and general isolation, it has been easy to take our hearths for granted. A single flame holding vigil through this liminal time between when we used to gather and when we will finally be able to gather again. 

We’ve been in this liminal between space for a full year now. A whole year has passed since we held open in person ritual here at The Prairie Home. We’ve watched from a distance (sometimes not a very far distance) as wildfires burned, as police brutally murdered yet more people of color, as the people protested such violence, as agents of hate used the chaos to pillage and destroy, as alt-right counterprotests culminated in a full coup attempt and storming of the capital, and as the acrimonious politics of our nation threatened the voting process that is the only voice we have left as We The People (flawed as access to the system may be).

And through it all, our hearth fires burned: our single lights representing each of our single lives, sitting alone in seeming darkness. Looking closely at one flame can blind us to what else is around us. If we take a step backwards and widen our perspective, we see that not only are we not alone, for there are many other flames, but we are all connected, held aloft on the arms of a strong and intricate candelabrum. Our hearths alone may feel small and lonely, like a single flame struggling to light up a room, but if we can focus on the connections we have to the other hearths around us, we can truly see the light we cast capable of lighting up the world. 


To add to your own celebration, please find Melissa Hill's beautiful prayer for the season on her blog at Patheos.com: Imbolc Prayer to the Heart of Fire.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Job Satisfaction & The Chemicals of Trust

Job satisfaction is rooted in the environment that the leader establishes. The leader can be the CEO, an executive, the manager, or a team leader--and this doesn't apply to only your money-earning job. Volunteer roles and nonprofit workspaces are just as sensitive to the workspace environment. 

A good leader isn’t concerned with title and importance, rather is focused on making a workplace environment in which the employees and volunteers feel safe and feel they belong. It’s a Circle of Safety in which we grow, learn, and become real assets to our teams. We feel secure in this circle and protected by our leader. We learn to trust and cooperate and to speak up without fear of repercussions. The building of trust within the group is essential. We learn to trust the leader because they are consistent, tell the truth, do not have their own secret agenda, and is always there to support and counsel us. In turn, we learn to trust each other and work together as a team. We emulate the qualities of the leader. However, if a member of the group, leader or peer, is caught in a lie or is exposed for self-centered actions, the trust begins to die on the vine.

Survival is not just an intellectual matter. There is a direct and involuntary physiological release of these chemicals brought on by internal as well as external stimulants. A leader with integrity and a focus on the experience of those they lead will facilitate the release of helpful chemicals:

  • Endorphins. Endorphins mask physical pain and are the “high” we feel after exercise. 
  • Dopamine. Dopamine causes the feeling of satisfaction we get with accomplishment. 
  • Serotonin. Our bodies release serotonin when we receive recognition creating feelings of pride and success. 
  • Oxytocin. Oxytocin leads to the best feeling of all: the feeling of human connection. Oxytocin creates intense feelings of safety and comfort. 

Leaders actually create safety and comfort in our workspaces through generosity and integrity. When a leader sacrifices for others, everyone—including the leader, the receiver, and the witnesses—receives a boost in oxytocin. The more oxytocin we have in our bodies, the more generous we want to be. The more generous we are, the more oxytocin we release, and the safer and more comfortable we feel. Oxytocin even increases our ability to solve problems.

When things get hard, our body also responds by releasing a stress chemical: cortisol. Cortisol is the fight or flight chemical in our body and serves to viscerally alert us to signs of danger. When we work or volunteer in a stressful environment, we end up with high levels of cortisol. When we have high levels of cortisol, we become too busy protecting ourselves to help others feel safe and secure. Worse, our bodies will continuously release cortisol even after the stress has abated, creating a long recovery and healing period for a team suffering from a lack of trust. 

Leaders can make the choice to start the cycle of healing by example and putting others’ needs before their own. Selfless leaders with integrity are paramount to job satisfaction and feelings of workspace security. Leaders who focus on their own personal safety and security (or personal gain alone) will be the downfall of a team, because the trust that is essential for success evaporates in the face of selfishness.  Leadership is not a rank or position. It is a decision. It is a choice. As leaders, all we need to do is look to the people around us and decide to place their well-being over our own. Let them go ahead of us at the potluck of life and, as a leader, decide to eat last to make sure everyone else has what they need before serving ourselves.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Focus

Turning to the dictionary for understanding “focus” leaves room for improvement to say the least. Focus as a noun is the center of interest or activity, the main focus of attention (i.e. focal point). Focus as a verb means to adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly. We’ve read about mindfulness practices that teach us to focus on what’s in front of us, to “be here now” with what we are doing, but what more does focus have to teach us as a skill?

Imagine you have awakened in the middle of the night with an urgent need to use the restroom. When you open your eyes, the dark is comfortable. It is not difficult to navigate your way. In the restroom, you turn on the light, and for a moment, everything is blurry and not easy to see. You have to wait for your eyes to adjust in order to begin moving forward again. After you’ve washed your hands, you turn out the light, and once more, your ability to see is hindered until your eyes adjust. Then, you can return to your comfy bed and sleep the rest of the night away.

Taking the time to focus is an important part of seeing the right path to take. Unless we pause for a moment and allow the details to resolve into discernable shapes—the root cause, the immediate effects, the long-term effects, the stakeholders, etc., we won’t know how best to move forward. Focus is what gives us the ability to observe a situation from a new perspective and adjust accordingly. 

Here are some behaviors that can help you hone your ability to focus, to see clearly that which is in front of you, and to make good, informed decisions:

  1. Get enough sleep and wake up early enough to plan your day. Every day is a new opportunity, and if you have armed yourself with the big picture, any last-minute adjustments you need to make to your schedule will not be emotionally draining.
  2. Schedule “focus time” into your daily routine. Focus time is a time with no email or Teams or phones or text messages, so you can manage tasks that take more of your mental capacity. The average attention span for a single task is about 14 minutes. If you want to hone this skill, you must practice it! Start with 15-minute intervals and work up from there. 
  3. Keep a list of your most important tasks (i.e. big rocks) and accomplish those first. This way, if you run short on time, you are not doing a less-than-stellar job on the important stuff.
  4. Limit your information intake. Information fatigue is real. Take quiet time, just like focus time, to allow your brain to rest and restore your focus energy.
  5. Reflect, remember, and regroup. At the end of the day, go back over your performance. Did you follow your schedule? Did you accomplish the goals you set for the day? Were you able to put forth your best efforts?

The first part of focus is clarity about how you feel, what you want to do, the pulse of those around you, and the potential obstacles in your path. The second part is letting go of other things you also want to do, whether that means putting them off until later or removing them from your to-do list altogether. As Steve Jobs said, “Deciding what NOT to do is as important as deciding what TO do.”

Focus on your inner self. Expand your focus to include those around you. Expand your focus even further to include the systems and environment around you. And let everything else fade away. From here, you will be your most successful and effective self.